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Living Lightly column

Stop the Burning

By David Macilwain, Wodonga Albury Towards Climate Health (WATCH)

While people may have different motivations for “living lightly”, most like to think that their little efforts and sacrifices will “make a difference”. We can all avoid wasting power, or re-use and recycle, and perhaps encourage others to do the same. That difference we hope to make often comes down to one simple thing – reducing carbon dioxide emissions. To illustrate – imagine that coal and oil and gas did NOT produce carbon dioxide when burnt – there would be no real reason to stop using these incredibly valuable fuels, other than from fear they might run out.

So if our efforts to live more sustainably and more responsibly do not actually reduce our emissions, it could be said not only that we have failed, but that we have made unnecessary sacrifices. We couldn’t even feel smug and disdainful of all those others who don’t even seem to be trying!

But of course, the burning of fossil fuels – or any type of fuel containing carbon – does result in carbon emissions, and the consequent accumulation of heat in the oceans and atmosphere around the world that is changing the climate. With news this week of unprecedented temperatures of 35 degrees above normal in the north of Greenland, at the height of the Arctic winter, we can hardly doubt it. It looks as though Australia’s internationally agreed emissions reductions targets will be “too late and too little”, even if we were to meet them. And there’s the rub – we simply won’t.

A recent investigation, “Red Alert”, revealed that a significant part of Australia’s emissions reductions are planned to come from “Savannah Carbon Farming” – a scheme whereby landowners in Northern Australia are paid for “carbon abatement” with public money from the “Emissions Reduction Fund”. The problem – and it’s a really BIG problem – is that “carbon farming” actually means burning! The rationale for savannah burning – in the cool season – is that the emissions will be less than that from uncontrolled fires that could happen later on. Or not.

There’s another problem too – less burning of grassland doesn’t actually reduce emissions, because plants only capture carbon dioxide after the fossil fuel that produced it has been burnt. So if we are ALL going to live lightly, or just live, we have to stop ALL the burning!