21 Feb 2020


A new report from the World Wide Fund for Nature has estimated the cost of carbon dioxide emissions caused by the bushfire crisis – and it could run to billions.

While economic assessments so far have focused on buildings, infrastructure, farm output, retail sales and tourism bookings, “Burnt Assets: The 2019-2020 Australian Bushfires” is the first to estimate the impacts on natural wealth.

WWF acknowledges that the bushfire season is not yet over. This assessment is from September 2019 to January 2020, when over 12 million hectares burned across Australia.

It’s estimated the bushfires released between 400 and 700 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

That’s comparable to Australia’s total emissions of 530 million tonnes in the 12 months to June 2019.

How much of that carbon gets soaked up again as forests regrow will depend on the recovery of trees and other vegetation over the next decade.

Many ecologists fear that, due to the severity of the fires and climate change, as well as ongoing forest conversion, large areas may be permanently altered with different species and fewer trees.

Recovery will not be 100% and affected areas won’t store the same amount of carbon as previously.

“Nature is incredibly resilient. Given a chance, burnt forests will grow back and absorb most of carbon released by bushfires. But there is likely to be a gap which represents a significant loss of Australia’s natural capital,” said report author, WWF-Australia economist Dr Josh Bishop, who calculated costs based on two scenarios. 

“In the first scenario, assuming total emissions of 700 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and only 90% natural regrowth by 2030, there would be a net loss of 70 million tonnes."

“Replacing these natural carbon stocks would cost between A$1.05 and $2.8 billion, depending on the price paid for carbon offsets,” he said.

Dr Bishop said the lost carbon stocks could be replaced through the purchase of offsets overseas, which are generally more expensive, or by funding Australian projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or store carbon in biomass.

Examples are early dry season burning of savannahs (which prevent large-scale late-season fires which release more carbon dioxide), revegetation of forests and farmland, or methane capture from landfill.

In the other scenario, assuming lower emissions of 400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and 95% regrowth of burnt forest by 2030, it would still cost between A$300 and $800 million to replace the final 5% of carbon stocks lost to bushfires.

In either situation, Dr Bishop said it would be a wise investment because the benefits of avoiding climate change damages would comfortably exceed the cost of restoring or replacing the forest carbon lost to bushfires.

Assuming 95% forest regrowth, the global benefit of restoring or replacing lost carbon stocks would be A$1.54 billion while in the 90% regrowth scenario it would be up to A$5.39 billion, an excellent return on investment.

Carbon dioxide emissions from bushfires are considered a natural disturbance event under the rules of the UN Climate Convention, so technically Australia is not obliged to account or make up for these emissions.

“However, climate change does not care about technicalities and the impacts are felt no matter where the carbon emissions come from,” Dr Bishop said.

To-date the combined total of Federal and State funding commitments for bushfire recovery, plus private charitable donations, amounts to around A$3.2 billion, of which only 3%, or about A$100 million, has been allocated to protect and restore wildlife and habitat.

“Based on our analysis, WWF believes that governments at all levels should increase their budgets for emissions reduction by at least A$300 million – simply based on carbon losses from bushfires,” Dr Bishop said.

“Efforts to assist species recovery and habitat restoration are another story and will require additional significant outlays.”

He said the government could achieve emissions reductions by funding programs to assist the natural regeneration of forests. This includes removing weeds that smother tree seedlings and keeping livestock out of burned areas so they don’t trample or graze on young trees.

Dr Bishop added that forests provide many ecosystem services and his report only examined the loss of carbon storage.

Other environmental impacts are more difficult to value but are no less important socially and economically.

These include streams, lakes and reservoirs polluted by runoff from burned areas, the diminished appeal of affected areas for tourism and recreational uses, loss or damage to sites of historical and cultural significance, reduced amenity value of rural residential properties, loss of natural pollination and pest control services, loss of non-wood forest products (e.g. honey), human health impacts from smoke, and numbers of wildlife killed or injured.

Dr Bishop acknowledged that no economic assessment can fully capture the cost of the bushfires, in terms of lives and livelihoods lost, physical and emotional injury, and the pain and suffering of millions of animals.

But he said factoring in the loss of natural wealth provided by forests was a crucial part of assessing bushfire damages, and essential for identifying investment priorities for restoration. This important environmental economic accounting is still to be done. 

“An important and beloved part of Australia has suffered significant damage from the fires. A strong commitment to protecting our remaining forests and helping burned areas regenerate will restore our natural capital and do so much more,” Dr Bishop said.