February 4 - 10, 2024: Issue 612


Black Summer Bushfires In Australia Wiped $2.8 Billion From Tourism Supply Chain - Coupled With Billions In Agricultural Losses, Billions Of Wildlife Lost, Growing Death Toll From Extreme Air Pollution Events, Australia Needs A Whole Picture Approach To Future Fire Events

A first of its kind study of the 2019-2020 'Black Summer' bushfires in Australia has revealed that the tourism industry nationwide took an immediate hit of $2.8 billion in total output to its broader supply chains and almost 7300 jobs disappeared nationwide.

The fires four years ago triggered widespread tourism shutdowns in many parts of the country in the lead up to the peak Christmas and New Year season, resulting in $1.7 billion direct losses to the tourism industry, which triggered the larger drop in supply chain output.

"These results are an illustration of what can be expected in the future not only in Australia, but in other nations that are vulnerable to climate-change driven disasters," said Vivienne Reiner, a PhD student with the University of Sydney's Centre for Integrated Sustainability Analysis in the Faculty of Science and lead author of the study, published in Economics of Disasters and Climate Change.

"It's important to note that our study, which measured tourism's losses through Australian supply chains, did not quantify other economic costs, such as the supply-chain impacts of losses from agriculture or forestry, which were also substantially impacted by the fires," she said.

While the fires had the biggest impact on Australia's east coast, the impact from tourism losses was national and felt across the economy, the researchers found.

"Tourism is a vital Australian industry. Before the fires that started in 2019, statistics showed that in rural areas 8 percent, or almost one in 12 people, were employed in jobs connected to the tourism industry," Ms Reiner said.

"As well, tourism is a top export, with travel services responsible for more export income than natural gas in 2018-19."

Associate Professor Arunima Malik, a co-author who heads the Centre for Integrated Sustainability Analysis and is also affiliated with the Business School, said: "With bushfires increasing compared to other natural disasters and expected to intensify due to climate change, it is important for countries such as Australia to quantify their economic impact as part of routine practice, including supply-chain spillovers."

Co-author Professor Manfred Lenzen, also with ISA in the School of Physics, said: "Although the losses we calculated only represented a small fraction of the nation's economic output, Australia's reputation as a pristine destination could become permanently damaged under global warming, with fewer people travelling within and to Australia in our peak holiday season."

The research showed varied impact nationwide across the supply chain, including in job losses:

  • New South Wales: 3171 jobs
  • Victoria: 1430 jobs
  • Queensland: 1499 jobs
  • South Australia: 516 jobs
  • Western Australia: 479 jobs
  • Tasmania: 13 jobs
  • Australian Capital Territory: 110 jobs
  • Northern Territory: 75 jobs.

The researchers warn that the Australian economy could face further losses as the effects from climate change increase.

Ms Reiner said: "As part of the Asia Pacific -- the world's most disaster-prone region -- Australian tourism has a lot to gain from climate-change mitigation. In terms of responses, studies such as ours also help indicate hotspots in supply chains where rebuilding may be required in communities and industries.

"By including the entire supply chain in our research, using input-output analysis, we calculated total output losses of $2.8 billion, which is a 61 percent increase on direct damages identified."

Materials provided by University of Sydney, January 30, 2024

Vivienne Reiner, Navoda Liyana Pathirana, Ya-Yen Sun, Manfred Lenzen, Arunima Malik. Wish You Were Here? The Economic Impact of the Tourism Shutdown from Australia’s 2019-20 ‘Black Summer’ Bushfires. Economics of Disasters and Climate Change, 2024; DOI: 10.1007/s41885-024-00142-8   

December 2021 report by the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia and researchers at the University of Sydney estimates the 2019-20 bushfires cost Australian agriculture between $4 billion and $5 billion, with most of that figure representing direct losses to crops and livestock.

Costs included were damage to farm buildings and equipment, and a reduction in farmland values (estimated at $2 billion to $3 billion); loss of crops and more than 100,000 livestock deaths (about $2 billion); and health impacts from smoke inhalation by farmers and other food workers (at least $279 million).

Co-author Associate Professor Tina Bell said: “Australia relies on agriculture for both domestic food supply and international trade. We need to protect this industry by doing everything in our power to reduce the devastating impact bushfires can have on production, landscapes and livelihoods.”

Associate Professor Bell is a fire ecologist in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences.

The Fire On The Farm report also updated WWF-Australia’s initial estimates of the economic cost of the 2019-20 bushfires’ greenhouse gas emissions. Based on the government’s most recent emissions report, that cost has dramatically increased to between $3 billion and $7 billion in damages, depending on the rate of forest regeneration.

Forests regrow but do not store the same amount of carbon because recovery is never 100 percent. Offsetting this gap in lost carbon stocks would cost about $1.5 billion.

The Fire On The Farm report praises the strength and resilience of farmers and the food system for continuing to supply quality products despite the 2017-2019 drought, the 2019-2020 bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, it warned increasing challenges are predicted. 

Among the report’s recommendations is a call for governments and the food industry to assist Australia’s food producers to become more resilient to bushfires and other natural disasters, which are becoming increasingly frequent, widespread and severe due to climate change. 

Potential solutions include nature-based responses, such as reviving Indigenous cultural burning to reduce fuel loads, fire-resistant plantings and improved soil and vegetation management to increase soil moisture and carbon stores.

New Curtin University-led research released on January 31 2024 has estimated that 1454 avoidable deaths (one person every five days) occurred in Australian capital cities in the past 20 years because of fine particle air pollution from extreme events such as bushfires and dust storms, wood-heater smoke or industrial accidents.

The study also found that nearly one-third of deaths from extreme air pollution exposure days could be prevented if pollution events were reduced by as little as 5 per cent.

Lead researcher Dr Lucas Hertzog from Curtin’s World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Climate Change and Health Impact Assessment said the findings highlighted the urgent need for effective strategies to manage air quality, particularly during extreme weather events like bushfires and dust storms, which are becoming more common due to climate change.

“Using data from 2001 to 2020 from air pollution monitoring sites, combined with a range of satellite and land use-related data, we modelled the exposure to exceptional levels of particulate matter air pollution (PM2.5) for each extreme pollution exposure day,” Dr Hertzog said.

“Despite relatively low daily PM2.5 levels generally (compared to global averages), Australian cities experience days with extreme pollution levels where PM2.5 concentrations exceed the WHO Air Quality Guideline standard.

Sydney and Melbourne reported the highest number of deaths attributable to extreme air pollution events, with 541 and 438 deaths respectively, followed by Brisbane and Perth with 171 and 132 deaths.”

“Adelaide and Hobart were the cities that showed, across the 20-year period, fewer days exceeding WHO air quality exposure recommendations, with Adelaide recording only five days and Hobart 11 days above the threshold.

“Darwin, despite its relatively low number of deaths due to PM2.5 exposure events, experienced a high number of days exceeding WHO recommendations, ten times more than cities like Melbourne.”

Dr Hertzog said the findings show how extreme air pollution events could seriously affect health in urban areas, and understanding this link was crucial, as climate change may increase the frequency and intensity of such pollution events.

“Diseases associated with particulate matter air pollution include asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) as well as cardiovascular disorders,” Dr Hertzog said.

“Our study’s insights can aid in protecting public health by helping to inform policy development and actions to reduce impacts from extreme air pollution events.

“While responding to bushfires and dust storms is an increasingly challenging task, authorities have a crucial role in land use management. They also regulate energy policy and control wood heater regulations. Additional strategies to reduce emissions from industrial accidents or road transport-related smog events could enhance the control of sources of air pollution and improve well-being.

“It is also possible to reduce the burden of mortality by improving public health warnings and increasing community awareness of smoke avoidance behaviours.”

Smoke from the 2019-2020 fires darkened the skies in New Zealand, and continued to circle the globe for more than three months. According to an article in stuff.co.nz, “Niwa (National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research) atmospheric scientist Dr Richard Querel said it was remarkable to be able to track a smoke plume for more than 100 days.”

The Curtin University research was supported by funding from the Healthy Environments and Lives Network – National Health and Medical Research Council Special Initiative in Human Health and Environmental Change, the Centre for Safe Air and the Australian Research Data Commons Air Health Data Bridges project.

Lucas Hertzog, Geoffrey G. Morgan, Cassandra Yuen, Karthik Gopi, Gavin F. Pereira, Fay H. Johnston, Martin Cope, Timothy B. Chaston, Aditya Vyas, Sotiris Vardoulakis, Ivan C. Hanigan. Mortality burden attributable to exceptional PM2.5 air pollution events in Australian cities: A health impact assessment. Heliyon, 2024; 10 (2): e24532 DOI: 10.1016/j.heliyon.2024.e24532

The bushfires burned more than 1.8 million hectares (or  44 million acres - 72,000 square miles). At least 3,500 homes and thousands of other buildings were lost and 34 people died in the thousands of fires between September 2019 and March 2020. The majority of deaths and destruction were in New South Wales (NSW), while the Northern Territory accounted for approximately 1/3 of the burned area. At least 80% of the Blue Mountains World Heritage area in NSW and 53% of the Gondwana world heritage rainforests in Queensland (QLD) were burned.

University of Sydney ecologist Chris Dickman estimated more than three billion animals koalas, kangaroos and other animals are estimated to have been killed or displaced in Australia's 'Black Summer' bushfires – including 800,000 in NSW – perished from the bushfires. 

Professor Dickman said the revised figures were still conservative ones, with animals including turtles and fish not included in the estimate, due to a lack of baseline data on their densities. In addition, whenever there was a choice to make in the study, the scientists say they used conservative estimates of the animals included in the study.

"These are the lower bound estimates," Professor Dickman said. "We'll never know exactly what the number might have been."

More than 60 billion invertebrates in the soil and leaf litter died too.

''The sheer scale of the area burned in the 2019-20 fire season exceeded not only historical records for forested ecosystems of southern Australia, but also outstripped projections for the late 21st century under strong scenarios of climate change.'' University of Wollongong, La Trobe University, Western Sydney University and University of Melbourne found in 'The 2019/2020 mega-fires exposed Australian ecosystems to an unprecedented extent of high-severity fire'.

''As bushfires become larger in the future, the area exposed to intense and severe fires is likely to increase commensurately. As a result, the future of our wetter forest types, which have not evolved to cope with frequent and severe fires, is in jeopardy.

So, as the area exposed to intense fires is likely to increase in the future, we’ll see major challenges to the long-term viability of our forested ecosystems, the services they provide and the people who reside in and around them.''

The first two Profiles of the Week for 2020 were Mark Trollope: New South Wales Rural Fire Service Volunteer - January 2020 Local NSW RFS Volunteers Tribute and the Sydney Wildlife Mobile Clinic's Inaugural Run Into The New South Wales Firegrounds Has Been Supported By The World's Leading Wildlife Organisations and Carers: January 2020  

Photo: November 8, 2019 - The Ingleside NSWRFS Tanker is up in the Port Macquarie area, they left at 5am to get there.  An additional 5 tankers were also responded to Taree just after lunch. Ingleside had 4 RFS volunteers involved in this bushfire effort. Then a 2nd Strike Team left just after lunch from the Northern Beaches RFS District (Friday November 8th) and ended up at the Rainbow Flat bushfire, just South of Taree - another terrible fire. By December NSW RFS Volunteer Strike Teams from our area were heading to the South Coast to meet the infernos there. Photo courtesy Ingleside NSW RFB.

Hazard Reduction of August 29, 2020 - smoke over Pittwater - photos by Miranda Korzy