Have more than 1 billion animals died this bushfire season?
More than 1 billion animals are said to have died in Australia’s bushfires so far this fire season.
Chris Dickman, an ecology expert from the University of Sydney, initially suggested on January 3 that as many as 480 million animals were likely to have died in the NSW fires.
Less than a week later, he updated that number to 800 million and projected “nationally” that more than 1 billion had died.
“The 480 million estimate was made a couple of weeks ago, and the fires have now burnt over a large area of further country. That means over 800 million mammals, birds and reptiles have been affected by the fires. Australia-wide, it’s probably over a billion,” Dickman told US radio station KOSU.
Is this correct? RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.
Dickman’s claim is a conservative estimate.
In making the calculations, he has consciously understated animal density rates for areas that previously were bountiful habitats for diverse Australian wildlife species.
Using figures drawn from a 2007 research paper on the number of animals per hectare, and multiplying them by the extent of land affected by fire, he has concluded that more than 1 billion animals, birds and reptiles have been lost in NSW alone.
However, he has intentionally understated the animal density figures of the traditionally wetter, richer eastern ranges habitat by using lower density rates that apply in sparser, drier regions.
The calculation does not include estimates for the number of platypuses or bats lost.
As well, his estimate is based on the extent of fire-affected areas in NSW and Victoria only; it does not include areas affected by fire in other states.
How do the numbers stack up?
Dickman’s calculation is based on native animal density estimates in certain habitats in NSW.
The 2007 paper was commissioned in response to concerns about how government-approved destruction of native vegetation, and consequent disruptions to habitats, were affecting wildlife.
The researchers drew on a variety of detailed field surveys and specific species studies to assess the impact of land clearing on mammals, birds and reptiles in NSW.
At that time, they concluded that “104 million native animals, birds and reptiles have died or will die as a result of the clearing of native vegetation approved by the NSW government between 1998 and 2005”.
The researchers categorised the state of NSW into two broadly distinct geographical and climatic regions:
- Coastal and eastern ranges
- Tablelands, western slopes and plains.
Table 3 of the 2007 paper shows density rates (the number of animals per hectare) for each of those areas across classes of animals: echidnas; koalas; the common wombat; possums and gliders; kangaroos, wallabies and rat-kangaroos; bandicoots; antechinuses, dunnarts and other carnivorous marsupials; native mice and rats.
For example, the researchers arrived at a density of 0.05 koalas per hectare in eastern ranges and coastal areas (compared with 0.08 koalas per hectare in the tablelands, western slopes and plains).
The 0.05 figure is what the researchers agreed is conservative considering the range of less than 0.01 to 4.4 koalas per hectare from various survey sources.
For possums and gliders, they decided to use a density rate of 15.5 per hectare in eastern ranges and coastal areas, being below the mid-point of the sources’ range of 0.5 to 34.0 possums and gliders per hectare.
Underpinning Table 3 are 19 sources (peer-reviewed papers or chapters from edited books) that draw on surveys of specific species in NSW forests, woodlands and scrub. Separate tables and density estimates are included for birds and reptiles in the 2007 paper.
The researchers also drew on animal-density estimates compiled by Cogger, Johnson and Ford for a 2003 paper (also commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund) which examined land-clearing impacts in Queensland.
The 2007 calculation of 104 million animals lost through land-clearing in NSW was achieved by multiplying the animal densities for each of the two general regional areas by the land area (in hectares) the government had approved for clearing in the seven-year period to 2005.
The methodology applied today
Dickman told Fact Check his estimate of 1 billion-plus animals was derived by utilising the density rates from the 2007 paper and multiplying them by the number of hectares of land that has been lost to fires this summer.
He says that while the extent of land-clearing may change from year to year, the animal density rates in each of the broad geographical classes would have remained fairly constant.
However, rather than using the animal density rates for the wetter — and therefore more populous — eastern ranges and coastal region, Dickman used rates applicable in the sparser land areas (tablelands, slopes and plains).
“At every point, where there was a conservative option to take, we took it,” he told Fact Check.
“The estimates are for terrestrial mammals — that is, everything except bats and the platypus, as shown in Table 3 of the 2007 report — birds and reptiles. So frogs, fish and invertebrates were all excluded.”
Taking that into account, Dickman’s figures are based on 17.5 mammals, 20.7 birds and 129.5 reptiles per hectare (about 167.7 animals per hectare).
Since September 2019, the official start of the Australian fire season, bushfires have affected mostly one type of land area, namely the coastal and eastern ranges of the continent, including Victoria’s east.
It should be noted, though, that fires have also devastated parts of South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland and Tasmania.
Dickman told Fact Check, his estimate of 1 billion animals is based on projected losses only in NSW and Victoria; his figures do not take into account losses of wildlife in areas such as Kangaroo Island in South Australia, or in the other states.
The overall national losses are likely to be much higher than 1 billion animals.
Dickman says his calculations are confined to NSW and Victoria because the original density estimates (2007) were based on surveys pertinent to NSW conditions.
His justification for applying the NSW density rates to habitats lost by fire in eastern Victoria is that the Gippsland forests and woodlands are very similar to those in the NSW eastern ranges and coastal region.
Dickman says that methodology also is conservative because rainfall rates in Victoria’s eastern forests and woodlands tend to be higher than in NSW: higher rainfall rates tend to support more wildlife, so animal-density rates are likely to be even higher in east Gippsland than in NSW.
How much has been burnt?
The NSW Rural Fire Service told Fact Check that 5.22 million hectares of land had been burnt in that state since the start of the fire season through to January 16, 2020.
The RFS said the calculation was based on a range of sources, including on-ground reports from individual incidents, aerial surveys and satellite views.
It said the information was available internally to the RFS and issued on request, but was not published on a public website.
In Victoria, the State Control Centre (Emergency Management Victoria) estimates 1.487 million hectares had been burnt between July 2019 and January 18, the overwhelming majority of which was the result of fires that flared on and after the first ‘code red’ day of November 21, and the major fires of December and January.
This estimate, which is not published publicly, is the sum of land area lost by fire in state and national parks plus fires that affected both public and private landholdings.
The centre said the area burnt is sometimes overestimated initially; more accurate analysis is obtained through on-ground situation reports and aerial observation, including infrared scanning by helicopters and high-level linescanning by aircraft.
A rough calculation of fires outlined on the Victorian government’s emergency website on the morning of January 20 included: the Orbost complex, which had burnt 601,704 hectares; the Bairnsdale complex (310,263 hectares); Walwa (216,786); Abbeyard (101,503); Beloka region (68,283); south of Hotham Heights (38,250); and Shannonvale (42,163).
That does not give a complete picture of land area affected because the site registers only those fires that are still ‘going’, not those that have been largely extinguished.
The total area burnt in eastern ranges and coastal areas in NSW and Victoria by January 20 was approximately 6.7 million hectares.
Using Dickman’s estimate of 167.7 animals per hectare, more than 1.1 billion mammals, birds and reptiles would have died in NSW and Victoria alone.
What other ecologists say
Michael McCarthy, a professor at the University of Melbourne’s School of BioSciences, noted that Dickman’s calculation rested largely on the density of reptiles and seemed to assume that all affected animals in the fire zones would die.
He said the level of mortality would depend on the species and whether they tend to burrow underground or hide under leaves (which would burn), or whether there were rocks and other potential forms of shelter, as well as the intensity of the fire.
“But many of the impacted individuals will die,” he said.
So in conclusion, the figure of 1 billion animals (mostly reptiles, but also including birds and mammals other than bats) being impacted by the fires seems reasonable to me as a rough order-of-magnitude number.
“And a large fraction of those affected individuals would either die during the fires or in the days after the fires, given the size and intensity of the fires.”
He said the number of invertebrates killed would “greatly exceed” the 1 billion estimate, and the figure also excludes fish and amphibians. McCarthy said the impact on fish and amphibians is “likely to be large, and will extend into areas downstream of the fires”.
He suggested Dickman’s calculation “might be better described as an educated guess rather than an estimate”.
But as a rough measure of the scale of the impact on reptiles, mammals and birds, the figure of 1 billion seems reasonable because it conveys the message that the impact of the fires on animals has been large. And I don’t think anyone would argue that the impact has been anything less than large.
Mark Eldridge, principal research scientist at Australian Museum in Sydney, said Dickman’s estimate is probably an underestimate, especially considering it does not include losses of bats, frogs or, notably, invertebrates which are foundation elements of the food chain.
“The approach is an entirely appropriate way to estimate the numbers of a limited range of vertebrate animals that would have been present in the areas burnt,” Eldridge said.
Given the habitat differences, it is likely to be a cautious underestimate of the actual numbers of these groups of vertebrate animals present in the wetter and more diverse forests that actually mostly burnt. If invertebrate animals … were also included, then the estimate of animals present would increase by orders of magnitude.
But Eldridge noted that there is “no good data” on what to expect in terms of proportion of animals that might have perished outright in the fires or that could have survived. Nor is there any data on what proportion of animals might have succumbed to injuries, starvation or predators in the aftermath.
He suggested that, considering the intensity and extensive nature of the fires, the number killed “is nevertheless likely to be a significant proportion of the animals present”. And he noted that there would have been “significant” additional mortality in fires, especially in the Canberra region, South Australia and Western Australia.
So taking into account these sources of over-and-under-estimation, I think that [more than 1 billion] is an entirely defensible and reasonable number that probably errs on the side of caution. If you wanted to include all animals (vertebrate and invertebrate) across all impacted states and territories, then it would be a gross underestimate.
Chris Johnson of the University of Tasmania, was a joint author of the 2007 paper. He told Fact Check that, for the 2007 paper, he compiled all the animal density figures he could find for Australia and supplied the research team with his own work relating to density figures in Queensland, which he originally published in a paper in 2003. Those figures were then adjusted to account for NSW conditions.
Johnson said the work he did at the time enabled him to create a database for species densities in states other than NSW.
That database is freely available for fellow ecologists and scientists to use, though it is not publicly available online.
He said the method of calculation used by Dickman was valid.
“But I think everyone would accept that it is a very limited calculation and we could not estimate with confidence just now because the density varies over place to place,” he said.
“It’s looking at it in the most general statistical measure we can use, so it gives a very approximate estimate.”
Johnson said the animals killed by fires were inevitably dominated by common species — those that are widespread and which occur at high densities, so have lots of individuals in the path of the fires.
“For many of those species, the large numbers killed in fires represents a great deal of animal suffering. But it does not necessarily amount to a serious threat of extinction, because there are still lots of live animals in the wild in unburnt habitats [that are] able to keep the species going and ensure re-occupation of habitat when it recovers.
Another co-author of the 2007 paper, the University of New England’s Professor Hugh Ford, said he had discussed Dickman’s latest estimates with colleagues and checked other research papers.
He noted that while there were many more reptiles than birds in forests, and “somewhat fewer” mammals than birds, “Chris’ estimate of 800 million animals killed by the bushfires in NSW and 1 billion in Australia are reasonable estimates and definitely in the right ballpark”.
“I can only comment on birds,” Ford told Fact Check.
“On average, there are about 20 birds per hectare in woodland and forest. I’ve seen figures of 6 million hectares burnt, though it is probably more now. This would give 120 million birds.
Of course, there are many qualifiers: birds can escape fire by flying; also, inevitably small and occasionally large patches of vegetation escape being damaged by fire and act as refuges.
He added: “We will not be able to obtain a good estimate of the number of animals killed by fire until we undertake broad surveys of the burnt areas — probably not for many months. More importantly, [at that time] we shall be able to find which species have survived the fire in reasonable numbers and which have not.”
The latter will include some threatened species such as rufous scrub-birds, which are weak fliers, and glossy black-cockatoos, whose food (seeds from sheoaks) will take many years to recover.
Ford also pointed out that the effects of the extreme drought that preceded the fires — and which continues in many regions — would already have put some animal populations under pressure.
“Food — nectar, seeds, fruit, insects, etc — would have been scarce, and animals would have been stressed even before the fires,” he said.
Dr Rosie Hohnen, of the University of Tasmania, has previously conducted biodiversity surveys of the western areas of Kangaroo Island. She told Fact Check that she had surveyed 42 sites in the Flinders Chase National Park, Ravine des Casoars wildlife protection area and Kelly Hill conservation area in 2017 and 2018.
Her focus was mostly on determining sample sizes of small mammals, reptiles and amphibians.
“The traps we had weren’t built to capture kangaroos, large possums, wallabies or koalas, or any birds,” Hohnen said.
“So the data I have is probably a significant underestimate of the number of animals per site.”
The data indicated that, on average, 11.7 individual animals were captured on the sites, which each measured about 3,600 square metres.
Extrapolating these numbers suggests a density rate of 32.5 animals per hectare, which Hohnen says “is a significant underestimate”.
Hohnen estimated that about half of the approximately 210,000 hectares burnt on Kangaroo Island appears to be bushland, indicating as many as 3.4 million animals are likely to have died there.
She noted, however, that even if animals had survived the fire, their survival would be threatened by post-fire shortages of food and shelter.
Principal researcher: Leonie Wood
- Emma Elsworthy, ‘NSW bushfires lead to deaths of over a billion animals and ‘hundreds of billions of insects, experts say’, ABC, January 9 2020
- University of Sydney, ‘A Statement about the 480 million animals killed in NSW bushfires since September’, Media Release, January 3 2020.
- University of Sydney. ‘More than one billion animals killed in Australian bushfires’, Media Release, January 8 2020.
- Johnson, C., Hal Cogger, Christopher R. Dickman, Hugh Ford, ‘Impacts of Landclearing: the impacts of approved landclearing of native vegetation on Australian wildlife in New South Wales’, World Wide Fund for Nature, February 2007.
- Taylor, Martin F. J., Christopher R. Dickman, ‘NSW Native Vegetation Act saves Australian wildlife’, WWF-Australia, February 2014.
- Taylor, Martin, F. J., Christopher R. Dickman, ‘Native animals lost to tree-clearing in NSW, 1998-2015’, WWF-Australia, November 2018.
- Dr Hal Cogger, Professor Hugh Ford, Dr Christopher Johnson, James Holman and Don Butler, ‘Impact of Land Clearing on Australian Wildlife in Queensland’, WWF-Australia, January 2003.
- Victorian emergency response site
Reserve Bank peers through the smoke haze to see nothing but blue sky
The Reserve Bank has begun the year on a strongly optimistic note, and, in doing so, is risking real damage to its reputation if its positive view of the economy fails to materialise.
The central bank has managed to reach its inflation target just twice since 2014. It has routinely overestimated wage growth. It began 2019 with wildly optimistic economic growth forecasts before being belatedly forced to cut interest rates three times — as some commentators had long been predicting.
Now, after yesterday’s decision to leave rates on hold, there are already grumblings that it needs to remove the rose-tinted glasses.
Even if RBA Governor Philip Lowe’s “gentle turning point” phrase has now been abandoned in the wake of a deterioration in the economy in the second half of 2019, the bank appears determined to go into 2020 with the same forced smile with which it entered 2019 — bushfires, wage stagnation, global pandemics and political instability not withstanding.
It’s worth recalling just how wrong the RBA got the economy this time last year.
Back then, Lowe forecast the economy to “grow by around 3% this year and a little less in 2020”. There were “downside risks” and the Sydney and Melbourne housing markets were undergoing a correction but unemployment was around 5% and forecast to ease to around 4.75% “over the next couple of years”. This would “see some further lift in wages growth over time,” Lowe believed.
The property markets came to life in the second half of the year but otherwise none of that turned out to be correct.
Economic growth was 1.7% in the year to September, or “around” half of the forecast. Wages growth fell rather than rose to an annual 2.2% for the wage price index (WPI) in the year to September.
It’s true that inflation remained steady rather than falling further, but the jobs market continued to weaken from the strong growth it enjoyed under Malcolm Turnbull and is now nearly back at long-term average growth.
Despite all that and the events of summer — not just the fires and coronavirus but an apparent worsening in retail conditions that is driving shopping chain after chain into administration — Lowe maintained a sunny smile in his post-meeting statement yesterday.
The central scenario is for the Australian economy to grow by around 2¾ per cent this year and 3 per cent next year, which would be a step up from the growth rates over the past two years. In the short term, the bushfires and the coronavirus outbreak will temporarily weigh on domestic growth…
The household sector has been adjusting to a protracted period of slow wages growth and, last year, to a decline in housing prices, with the result that consumption has been quite weak.
Following this period of balance-sheet adjustment, consumption growth is expected to pick up gradually. The overall outlook is also being supported by the low level of interest rates, recent tax refunds, ongoing spending on infrastructure, a brighter outlook for the resources sector and, later this year, an expected recovery in residential construction.
Again with the tax refunds!
Outside the government, only the RBA is still arguing that the government’s tax offset payments had any noteworthy stimulatory impact, rather than being banked by worried consumers. In fact, even the government itself has now abandoned claiming they’ll be the panacea Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg were insisting eight months ago
Lowe thinks unemployment is now set to gradually decline “to a little below 5 per cent in 2021.”
Doubtless burnt by the dozen wildly wrong forecasts the bank has previously made about wages growth, Lowe now says “wages growth is subdued and is expected to remain at around its current rate for some time yet. A further gradual lift in wages growth would be a welcome development and is needed for inflation to be sustainably within the 2–3 per cent target range.”
Nothing about when it would happen.
So where do we go from here?
Lowe has a speech this afternoon on the year ahead, and it will give us an indication of what kind of forecasts we’ll see in the first Statement of Monetary Policy for the year, which comes out Friday.
The November statement was a belated recognition by the bank that the government’s wage stagnation strategy had severely crimped economic growth. It had wages and unemployment steady or barely improving until the end of 2021.
Friday’s statement extends the forecast period out to mid-2022. It will be interesting to see whether the bank sticks to its November gloom or displays the same spring in its step that animated Lowe yesterday.
Is Australia’s climate denialism a turnoff for tourists? We asked an expert
Who would want a job at Tourism Australia, the organisation charged with persuading international travellers to head our way?
The organisation’s 2020 plans didn’t include a catastrophic bushfire season or a global virus scare. Either one would have been like a massive stroke, paralysing part of the tourism industry; together they leave it in an extremely perilous state.
The current tourist season is already a bust for many regions, and potential 2020 visitors who don’t live in a cave are likely having second thoughts about a trip Down Under.
The media isn’t helping. Adrian Bridge, travel editor of the UK’s Telegraph, says he has a vague recollection of news reports on previous Australian bushfires, but nothing even close to the breathless reporting the current fire season has generated in the UK.
Bridge says the flow-on effect was immediate: “Our travel coverage follows news coverage, so naturally enough we’re going easy on Australia as a destination right now, and probably for a little while into the future.”
At the same time Bridge was shifting his coverage to other destinations, elsewhere in the Telegraph Australian-born author and columnist Kathy Lette did her best to rally the troops.
Besides offering some novel reasons for heading Down Under immediately (it’s summer, after all, and there are those lifeguards…), Lette did not hold back on her thoughts about PM Scott Morrison and his reluctance to admit a link between climate change and the bushfire crisis.
Some will worry about Lette raising that issue, as they’re concerned our government’s climate policies might be another reason for travellers to bypass Australia until further notice.
I’m not convinced.
Many in the US tourism industry had similar concerns after the 2016 election, but the forecast Trump-slump didn’t happen. In 2018 the US hosted almost 80 million visitors — a record high.
The current scope of damage to tourism, property and infrastructure can’t be downplayed, but I’m bullish about mid- to long-term visitor numbers once the fires are out and coronavirus is in check.
The experience of 9/11, SARS, the 2004 tsunami, the Bali bombings and numerous other natural disasters and terrorist events is pretty clear: tourists do come back, and generally sooner than expected.
I’ve watched travellers make surprising decisions for 25 years — either rationalising, forgetting or just plain hoping that everything will be OK when they land at a destination that has so recently been in the news for all the wrong reasons.
I’m more worried about flight times.
The journey to Australia from the US and Europe has always been a major reason for saying no to a trip, and that’s now exacerbated by the Greta-inspired flight-shame movement.
Although that is in its infancy, it has solid momentum and is unlikely to stall through lack of interest. If northern hemisphere travellers get into the habit of looking for alternatives to flying, they’ll find themselves hard-pressed to justify the 20-plus hours of carbon emissions required to reach our shores. Did someone mention the tyranny of distance?
I’ve always thought you’d need to be a masochist to run an airline, but on reflection I suspect running Australia’s peak tourism body is an even more thankless task.
No matter how much money the government throws at them or how good a job they do, the fact is there’s no solution in sight for their biggest challenge: for many international travellers, we’re just too far away.
Rod Cuthbert is the founder and former CEO of Viator (now a part of the TripAdvisor Group). He is now a director of Tokyo-based Veltra Corporation, and a former CEO and chairman of Melbourne-based Rome2rio.
Australian tourism can bounce back from the bushfire disaster
With bushfires still raging, there has never been a more crucial time to acknowledge the importance of our natural environment to the Australian economy.
Tourism has been an enormous growth area for Australia in an era where a lot of our other industries have been standing still. Visitor numbers have doubled in the last decade alone as China’s growth rubs off on us. We will soon be regularly seeing 1 million visitors per month.
But the devastation wrought by the infernos has raised fears our tourism industry could disappear in a blink.
What is tourism, you might ask, other than the attraction of the impression of a country? And what impression does Australia create when the images circulating the globe are of towering blazes and koala carcasses?
Have the fires permanently destroyed Australia’s international reputation as a tourism destination? And is an economy that depends so heavily on tourism an unstable and unhealthy one?
It’s instructive to look to other countries: let’s take Japan after its nuclear meltdown, and Greece after its financial/political crisis.
As data from the Japan National Tourism Organisation shows, even a huge tsunami and nuclear meltdown couldn’t keep tourists away. After 2011’s enormous disaster that killed 18,500 people and made 371 square kilometres around Fukushima uninhabitable, it took only a couple of years for tourist numbers to resume their former growth trajectory.
The story from Greece is similar.
For a few grim years, the world’s attention was focused on the country’s corruption, instability and malaise caused by a debt crisis. But then Greece bounced back beautifully.
It seems that crises (physical or political) are not always lasting impediments to people’s desire to visit.
The value of the invisible
There is a great deal of muddy thinking about the service industries; partly because they are full of ephemeral perceptions, invisible outputs, and small-scale infrastructure. These factors, people conclude, might somehow make weak foundations for a national economy.
I utterly disagree. The worst problems come out in discussion of manufacturing and agriculture — many supposedly serious people have strongly felt ideas about how those jobs are “real” in a way waiting on tables or being a tour guide is not.
They are making a simple mental elision: interpreting the concrete nature of the output with the durability of the industry itself. Manufacturing looks so solid, with its grand factories and its truckloads of outputs. But as we discovered in the case of car manufacturing, and clothing before it, these can disappear in an instant.
In fact, the cruel economics of global supply chains say if making something in Australia costs a few per cent more than making it overseas, the whole industry in Australia can get wrapped up. What looks solid is in fact ephemeral.
People say disparaging things about the service sector. They refer to becoming “a nation of burger flippers” or “an economy where we all hold doors open for each other”. In fact, economies like Singapore with huge service industries are some of the strongest in the world, and the economists who lionise concrete industries are like generals fighting the last war.
Of course, services industries are not without risks. Tourism faces an enormous challenge to find a way to go zero net carbon. Australia — a country with no land borders — cannot depend on substituting high-speed rail for aviation to prop up its tourist sector. And, as we’ve seen in recent days, a viral pandemic can affect human flows, too.
But the history of tourism is deep. People have been travelling for pleasure for as long as people have had some income to spare. We should feel no shame about being a nation that has an enormous service sector, and we should insist on supporting the tourist industry at least as much as mining or manufacturing.
Australia’s natural environment — from the Great Barrier Reef to the forests of Tasmania — is unique and beautiful, and people the world over will want to visit it for as long as we can preserve it.
Racing cars in a catastrophe: it’s time to ditch the Grand Prix
As the bushfire catastrophe reached new levels of severity at the end of 2019, there was much discussion of the possible cancellation of New Year’s Eve fireworks displays.
Some displays were called off, but in most cases it was argued that the fireworks had already been paid for, and that there was no real risk in going ahead.
A more serious version of the issue will arise in March, when the Australian Grand Prix is due to be held in Melbourne.
With luck the worst of the bushfires will be over by then, but this cannot be guaranteed. Previously confined to summer, the bushfire season this year started as early as August in some parts of Australia, and it may well extend beyond February.
The Grand Prix operates on the basis of a subsidy of $60 million a year from the Victorian government. Much of this is justified by arguments about direct benefits to tourism, but even the most extravagant claims of economic benefit amount to no more than $40 million.
The rest of the subsidy is claimed to be offset by benefits from the international exposure associated with broadcasting of the event. The publicity consists of “an estimated global audience of 80 million” (a similarly extravagant number) watching a racetrack event lasting a couple of hours, with incidental coverage of the setting in Melbourne.
This raises a couple of questions. First: if this exposure is worth $20 million in international tourism, what is the cost of months of front-page reporting of a massive fire and smoke catastrophe, seen by just about everyone in the world with access to any kind of media? Looking at the figures, even a 10% reduction in international tourism could potentially reduce Australian exports by a couple of billion dollars a year.
The second, more immediate question, is that of the international effect of staging a celebration of the internal combustion engine against a backdrop of the smoking wreck of a fire-ravaged country. Such an event would justly reinforce the worldwide perception that we Australians are reaping what we have collectively sown.
Of course, the direct impact of the event on carbon emissions will be trivial. But the symbolism will be appalling.
What, if anything can be done about this? As in the case of the fireworks, the contracts have already been signed. In fact, the Grand Prix owners, US firm Liberty Media last year exercised an option to extend the contract to 2025.
Cancelling the event could expose the government to liability amounting to the whole of the $60 million subsidy over the remaining six years — a total of $360 million.
But even this would be a bargain. The minimal economic benefits of the Grand Prix are fully offset by the negative externalities of the event. The $60 million subsidy has been a complete waste, and cancelling the event will not change this.
But perhaps something better can be negotiated.
Liberty Media might be willing to accept part payment of the subsidy in return for cancelling the event. They would get money for nothing and a slot in their schedule to pitch to some other city. The Victorian public would still come out ahead.
The race itself could be replaced by an event in the Formula E electric car series, hopefully without such a large subsidy.
Such a change would signal to the world that Australia is really serious about getting off carbon.