The staggering natural price tag of the Black Summer bushfires

Researchers and conservationists have estimated the total cost of restoring Australia’s native environment after the Black Summer bushfires would be a staggering $73 billion a year for 30 years.

The enormous figure is about the same as the COVID-19 response over one year. But with $16 billion, a sizeable proportion could be rescued.

Research funded by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Australian Research Council, published in Environmental Research Letters, has suggested a price tag for saving the 114 animal species most at risk after the fires.

“Our research shows an annual investment of $16 billion could restore 65 per cent of fire-impacted species habitat,” says lead author Dr Michelle Ward, a researcher at the University of Queensland’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and WWF .

“Restoring 95 per cent would cost $73 billion per year.”

Both of these would need to be paid every year for the next 30 years. In their paper, the researchers acknowledge the massive costs, but point out “potential for enormous co-benefits such as abating the impacts of extreme events, preventing zoonotic disease outbreaks, reducing salinity, [and] increased agricultural production”.

Part of this restoration effort would involve restoring over 6 million hectares of habitat, at a price of $8.8 billion per year.

“Restoring fire-damaged land could see up to 291 megatonnes of carbon dioxide sequestered,” says senior author Professor James Watson, also from UQ. (For context, Australia emits roughly 500 megatonnes of carbon dioxide, or equivalent, each year).

If all of that sequestration made it onto the carbon market, it could earn a small amount back.

“That could make around $253 million per year in carbon market revenue,” says Watson.

“These estimates were based off the current $26 per tonne figure,” points out Ward. This is the current spot price for an Australian Carbon Credit Unit.

“Carbon is increasingly becoming more expensive with estimates that it could be $60 per tonne in the next few years, as the world commits to stronger climate change targets,” says Ward.

“Other funds could potentially come from a combination of government, non-for-profits, and the private sector.”

The researchers identified 114 species of birds, fish, frogs, mammals, reptiles, and crayfish that were placed under the highest threat following the bushfires.

Read more: These are Australia’s newest threatened species

Then, using previous research the team had done to assess costs, they counted up the funds involved in restoring each of these species – a long list including pest control, land restoration, fire management and more.

“These spatially variable cost layers consisted of four cost components: labour, travel, consumables, and equipment for all actions,” says Ward.

She adds that the project took two years to develop.

“Priority should be given to areas most likely to provide cost-effective benefits to species,” says Watson.

“And invasive species such as weeds, deer and pigs also need urgent removal, along with replanting and stopping native forest logging.”

“The fire season hit native plants and animals already under threat of extinction from habitat loss,” says Ward.

“We urgently need a restoration program to give these priority species a chance to recover, because more destructive fires are now a mainstay in Australia, but I am hopeful.”

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