A letter from Christian bushfire evacuees

To: The Hon. Sussan Ley MP, Minister for the Environment (dated 11 January, 2020)

Dear Minister 

We are writing to you to express our opposition to the Adani Coal Mine and to urge the Federal Government to take action to halt its development, pursuant to the 1992 Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment. 

The current bushfires are, unquestionably, a tipping point for environmental policy in Australia.  We speak as bushfire evacuees, having driven first from Eden to Canberra, and then on to Frankston South in Victoria.  The impact on our immediate family is also extensive – between us we have homes in Eden, Boydtown, Wonboyn, Nowra, Cobungra and Canberra, all of which have been affected or are still threatened by the bushfires.

Further, in the Bega Valley alone, we are personally aware of people who have lost their homes, who will be unemployed or whose businesses may no longer be viable and whose very futures are uncertain.  Much effort is needed to assist them and businesses to recover and rebuild, and we acknowledge and value initiatives Federal, State and local Governments are taking in this regard.  Urgent attention, however, also needs to be given to the factors that have contributed to these devastating bushfires. 

For instance, we are evaluating how we should respond to the new “normal” of more frequent severe weather resulting from a one degree centigrade rise in temperature.  We expect that this is just the beginning of changing weather patterns.  One option for us is to reduce carbon emissions we cause, through lifestyle choices we make regarding diet, transport and personal consumption.

It is against this backdrop that we oppose the development of the Adani Coal Mine. 

Some relevant statistics: 

  • If all the Galilee Basin was burned it has been estimated that 705 million tonnes of carbon dioxide could be released each year – that’s more than 1.3 times Australia’s current annual emissions (Climate Council, 29/11/18).
  • Australia is responsible for 1.3% of global emissions (Scott Morrison address to UN General Assembly, September 2019).
  • In 2018 Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions was 532 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (Ecowatch, Jordan Davidson, 17/12/19).
  • The roughly 1.2 billion tonnes of emissions from coal and petroleum exports by Australia were almost 3 times greater than the total discharged at home (Bloomberg, David Fickling, 7/01/20).
  • As at 9/01/20 Australia’s fires have released an estimated 350 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, equivalent to about 1% of total global carbon emissions in 2019; this will increase further as the summer progresses https://www.insider.com/australia-fires-burned-twice-land-area-as-2019-amazon-fires-2020-1.
  • Until now, Australia’s annual bushfires were pretty much net-zero in terms of greenhouse gas emissions – the carbon they emitted was balanced out by the carbon dioxide Australia’s forests sequestered. Between 2013 and 2017 bushfires emitted 350 million tonnes of carbon dioxide on average per year.  It has been estimated that Australia’s forests will need 100 years to return to the point where they can act as carbon sinks for fires of this size and scale (see above Insider article).
  • Laura Tingle has highlighted the economic impact of the bushfires – melting of roads and closure of highways, contamination of water supplies, human trauma, animals deaths, and loss of Eden Chip Mill, Mt Selwyn resort, dairy in Bega, Tumut softwood plantations, and Batlow apple orchards https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-11/australia-bushfire-crisis-just-dont-mention-climate-change/11857590. 

This data suggests that Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions for 2020 could be at least 882 (532 + 350) million tonnes and its contribution to sequestration could reduce by at least 350 million tonnes because of the bushfires; this is a 130% increase in Australia’s net carbon emissions and, if the Adani coal mine is developed, there could be a further 130% increase in carbon emissions (another 705 million tonnes) attributable to Australia. 

Further, whilst the Adani coal mine may increase export earnings, generate employment, and contribute to economic development, the reality of the bushfires is that export earnings from tourism will be very badly affected, many jobs have been lost, new health and stress related problems will emerge and the economy has been severely damaged. 

It is also an alarming scenario that carbon emissions attributable to Australia (from direct use, bushfires, and coal and petroleum exports) could exceed 2,787 (1,200 + 532 + 350 + 705) million tonnes per annum.  This is about 6.8% of global emissions and sets Australia as a leading contributor to carbon emissions.  Australia thus needs to structure its response to the bushfires within an international context, putting aside parochial political considerations.  

Relevant here is the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment signed by the Heads of Government of the Commonwealth, States and Territories of Australia and by the Local Government Association.  This is a non-political document, agreed by all parties, that can guide Australia’s response. 

Section 3 specifies four principles of environmental policy that should inform policy making and program implementation.  One is the Precautionary principle, to the effect that where there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation. 

This principle is of fundamental importance in determining a response to the devastating bushfires.  First, increasing temperatures threaten irreversible environmental damage, a primary trigger for applying the Precautionary principle.  Second, while there are some who claim there is not full scientific certainty that carbon emissions cause these temperature increases, there is very substantive and credible scientific evidence to this effect. 

Given the catastrophic impact of the bushfires, and the strength of this evidence, it would be irresponsible, foolhardy, and a blatant disregard of the Precautionary principle, to insist on scientific certainty as a prerequisite for a decision to be made to stop the development of the Adani coal mine. 

Finally Australia, as a leading contributor to global carbon emissions, has an accountability to the international community for its actions.  In addition, it is indefensible to support a mining project that could result in a 1% increase in global carbon emissions at a time when the international community has responded very generously to a national crisis caused by carbon emissions. 

The bushfire catastrophe is a tipping point for environmental policy, so we urge you as Federal Environment Minister to take action pursuant to the 1992 Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment to stop development of the Adani mine. 

We have copied this letter to the Leader of the Opposition, our local Members of Parliament, the Leader of the Greens and the Premier of Queensland. 

Yours sincerely 

Dr Chris Dalton, PhD                                        Dr Janice Nelson, M.B.B.S