Australia’s greenhouse targets cannot be met without the conservation of native forest

May 20, 2024
Sap Bleeding From a Tree

When Labour Governments moved to protect native forest in the past – Hawke, Wran, Gallop, Kirner, Beattie, Carr – they knew that they were protecting irreplaceable natural values and resources. Even as late as the early 2000s however, the role of forests in climate change mitigation was little known. It was certainly not a matter of any significance in public debate.

More lately it has become clear that the continued logging of Australia’s native forest is also a flat out disaster for climate change policy. A kind of vandalism, it uproots and smashes intact ecosystems, destroys habitat, kills wildlife on the spot and leaves half the logged biomass on the forest floor. It releases very large amounts of the carbon that the forest had been storing above and below the ground into the atmosphere.

Moreover, a forest logged in this way will take centuries to regrow. It cannot replenish the carbon it had stored in time to make a contribution to carbon net zero “by 2050”.

The economics of native forestry is senseless. The overwhelming proportion of sawn wood in Australia already comes from more efficient timber plantations. There are examples and studies to show that forest ecosystem services – intact wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, clean air and water and recreational opportunities – have a higher value than logging. Yet State Forestry agencies in New South Wales and Tasmania are still heavily subsidised to support the production of low value wood chips, paper pulp and firewood. Already 90% of higher value wood is derived from plantations and with a bit of investment in innovative processing and recycling, the tiny proportion of high value appearance grade native timber could also be produced without the need to log native forests.

Modelling of possible pathways for Australia to meet the 2050 emissions reduction targets of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change carried out by the authoritative organisation Climateworks, shows that Australia needs to reduce emissions from buildings, transport, industry, energy and agriculture by 56-68 percent by 2035 compared with 2005 levels. With determined action this could be done.

But the abatement of future emissions will not be enough.

If Australia is to achieve its existing greenhouse reduction targets it will also need to remove unprecedented amounts of carbon from the atmosphere “to counterbalance hard to abate emissions from sources such as cement production, long-haul trucking, aeroplanes and some agriculture”. Ending native forest logging could make a significant contribution to achieving this imperative.

On the one hand the Climateworks modellers are clear that necessary targets cannot be reached without carbon removals.On the other hand they acknowledge that there is no effective technology for carbon removal from the atmosphere: there will be none for decades yet, if ever.

So we need to be clear about a common sense proposition. Carbon can only be removed from the atmosphere and stored by natural systems: there is no present alternative. The conservation and restoration of nature across the landscape is an integral part of effective climate change abatement. And carbon is removed and kept out of the atmosphere best by mature natural forests with large numbers of big old trees. Older forests store carbon at far lower risk than younger forests. Australia’s tall forests are among the most carbon rich in the world.

New methods of environmental accounting are available which better reflect the economic value of forest ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration and retention, on State and Commonwealth balance sheets. As logging stops, greenhouse gas benefits show up in the national accounts as a matter of course under this system. Abatement is cheap and efficient.

But forests have not lost their essential role in the conservation of species – far from it. In the early 2000s it was well understood that forest protection would benefit the populations of the many native species then known to be in decline. Today we live in the aftermath of the climate change-induced mega bushfires of 2019/20 – an epochal event that incinerated billions of animals and accelerated the risk of the actual extinction of a range of species, koalas and gliders among them.

The main thing holding back a collapse of biodiversity and ecological processes that sustain the forest environment are the relatively small, intact and still resilient forested areas that remain unlogged or lightly logged, unburned or lightly burnt. These refuges are keeping the forest landscape alive. If they are logged a wave of extinctions will likely follow.

The Commonwealth and New South Wales Governments have adopted “zero extinction” environmental policies. On the other hand, the native forest industry depends for its existence upon regulatory exceptions and evasions. It is exempted from the threatened species protection provisions of the Federal environment legislation. As a practical matter, everyday native forestry operations can rarely survive the rigorous application of existing harvesting rules.

The continuing exemptions and the policy of “zero extinctions” are incompatible and it is not altogether easy to understand why Labor Governments allow this contradictory situation to persist in most of the eastern States. When the industry was formally ended last year in Western Australia and Victoria there was no significant public reaction at all.

In the past, the industry, its unions and State Forestry agencies have been especially powerful advocates, splitting allegiances and subverting policy under both Labor and Coalition governments. Professor David Lindenmayer has powerfully analysed the vast extent of their misrepresentations and misunderstandings about the effects of logging in his just published book The Forest Wars (Allen and Unwin 2024).

But the number of people directly employed is now very small – not much more than 1000 jobs in either New South Wales or Tasmania. Fair arrangements for a just transition out of the industry – some workers and businesses moving into the timber plantation sector – are by past standards not difficult to arrange at all.

It was in reality far harder for Neville Wran to overcome vested interests and establish the famous rainforest national parks of northern New South Wales in the 1980s than it would be for Chris Minns to end all remaining logging in State Forests now.

It seems that present day industry advocates are still able to peddle snake oil to Governments confident in the persistence of a forestry and fossil fuel culture in the right wing of the Labor Party ( and of course in the National Party) which defies both everyday reality and the manifest interest of the nation.

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