Sydney is ranked among the most livable cities in world. At the moment, however, it is surrounded by flames and blanketed by toxic smoke, as Australia contends with giant fires, dry conditions, and record-breaking temperatures.
In September, the Economist Intelligence Unit put Australia’s largest city at third place in its annual livability rankings, behind only Melbourne and Vienna, noting:
“Sydney has risen from fifth to third, thanks to an improvement in its culture and environment score, reflecting an increased focus on combating and mitigating the impacts of climate change, as outlined by the city’s Sustainable Sydney 2030 strategy.”
That environment score might need to be revisited. Today (Dec. 21) the city faced “catastrophic” fire conditions, with over a hundred blazes in New South Wales (the state Sydney is capital of) exacerbated by a record heatwave. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed in the fires, and at least eight people in the state have been killed.
Doctors have warned of a public health emergency due to the toxic smoke blanketing Sydney. One, Kim Loo, told AFP: “It is pretty much the whole New South Wales population being exposed to prolonged smoke and because we have never experienced this before, we don’t know what the eventual outcome will be…It probably won’t be obvious for months, or even years.”
Australia’s fire season started unusually early this year. This week the record for the nation’s average maximum temperature was broken three days in a row, reaching 41°C (106°F) Thursday. Some areas have contended with melting roads and temperatures just shy of 50°C (122°F).
Australia’s heavy reliance on coal-fired power plants, meanwhile, makes it one of the world’s largest carbon emitters per capita. The nation is also the world’s largest exporter of coal and liquefied natural gas.
Prime minister Scott Morrison, no friend to environmental activists, was widely criticized this week for vacationing in Hawaii during the crisis. After apologizing, he cut short the holiday and returned to Australia.