Australia

How a climate change study from 12 years ago warned of this horror bushfire season

The Green Wattle Creek Fire in December. Source: AAP

In 2008, the Garnaut Climate Change Review said Australia would face a more dangerous fire season by 2020.

As the nation's horror bushfire season shows no sign of abating, a landmark 2008 report that warned of these looming conditions is once again in the spotlight.

Twelve years ago, economist Ross Garnaut led an independent study of the impacts of climate change on the Australian economy.

The Garnaut Climate Change Review's final report said projections of fire weather "suggest that fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense".

"This effect increases over time, but should be directly observable by 2020."

NSW Rural Fire Service crews fight the Gospers Mountain fire.
NSW Rural Fire Service crews fight the Gospers Mountain fire.
AAP

Broadly, the report stated, "the weight of scientific evidence tells us that Australians are facing risks of damaging climate change".

"The risk can be substantially reduced by strong, effective and early action by all major economies. Australia will need to play its full proportionate part in global action. As one of the developed countries, its full part will be relatively large, and involve major early changes to established economic structure."

One of the report's key recommendations was the implementation of an emissions trading scheme.

Conditions 'will keep on getting worse'

On Monday, SBS News asked Mr Garnaut his reaction to the current conditions, in light of the 2008 report. 

"It's one of sadness, that I was ineffective. Having been given the opportunity to talk to Australians on this issue, that I was ineffective in persuading Australians that it was in our national interest to play a positive role in a global effort to mitigate the effects of climate change," he said.

Sarsfield resident Wayne Johnston inspects damage to his property on 3 January.
Sarsfield resident Wayne Johnston inspects damage to his property on 3 January.
Getty

However, Mr Garnaut said, "although things are bad, they will keep on getting worse if the concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere keep increasing".

The report said there could be a 300 per cent increase in the number of days with extreme fire weather by 2067.

"It's in the interest of the whole of humanity that we move promptly towards zero net emissions," he said.

"Australia has a stronger interest in that than any other developed country because we are the most vulnerable of all developed countries.

"Australia will also be the biggest economic beneficiary of effective global mitigation because we have the best renewable energy resources and the best opportunities for capturing carbon in our geological and biological landscapes."

'What will our government do?'

Over the weekend, a number of social media users in Australia started sharing the bushfire passage of the 2008 report, as fires raged across the country. 

The study was initiated in 2007 by the then-leader of the opposition Kevin Rudd and by the premiers of the six states and the chief ministers of the two territories.

Mr Garnaut was tasked with examining "the impacts of climate change on the Australian economy, and to recommend medium to long-term policies and policy frameworks to improve the prospects of sustainable prosperity".

The federal government joined the review in 2008 after Mr Rudd became prime minister.

Ross Garnaut speaks to Kevin Rudd in 2009.
Ross Garnaut speaks to Kevin Rudd in 2009.
AAP

The Rudd government accepted a number of key findings of the report including, "that a fair and effective global agreement delivering deep cuts in emissions consistent with stabilising concentrations of greenhouse gases at around 450 parts per million or lower would be in Australia's interests".

But climate change policy went on to become both a divisive and defining issue in Australian politics in the years ahead.

Mr Rudd tried but failed to pass an emissions trading scheme. A carbon tax was passed under his successor Julia Gillard but it was later overturned by then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Australia committed to the Paris Agreement under Mr Abbott but the Coalition has seen sustained criticism that it is not doing enough to curb climate change.

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