In September this year, Sydney was engulfed by a giant red sand storm. The dust blown in from the outback arguably made Australia’s biggest city appear more akin to Mars than Earth.
Only a month later, fires ravaged the town of Mont Archer in Queensland. Authorities immediately declared a state of emergency to avoid a repeat of the disastrous fires which killed more than 170 people in February. Wild forest fires are a continual threat after seven years of drought. Commonly known as ‘The Big Dry’ it is estimated to have cost the Australian economy a massive 12 billion euros, forced some 10,000 farmers to leave their land and resulted in a 60 per cent cut in wheat production. Australia’s fresh water supplies have also taken a hammering because of the extreme weather – arguably the most severe dry spell to have hit Australia since Europeans arrived in the country in 1788. Following his election in November 2007, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has made tackling climate change one of his government’s top priorities. One of his first acts as leader was to sign the Kyoto protocol. In 2008, figures show Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions were more than 550 million tonnes — that is about 1.5 per cent of total global output. But, with around 29 tonnes per person, a whopping five times more than China, Australia tops the global league per capita. One reason is the dependence on coal. Australia remains the biggest global coal exporter and uses the fossil fuel to produce around 85 per cent of its energy needs. In an effort to turn things around, the government has pledged a 25 per cent cut in carbon output by 2020 – a figure based on levels measured in 2000. On Wednesday, however, those plans were thrown into disarray after Australia’s conservative opposition threw out the government’s bill to set up a CO2 trading system. The defeat has left environmentalists angry and raised serious question marks over Austrialia’s position ahead of the Copenhagen summit.