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Forests and climate change – examining the spin

By Susan Austin

Tasmania, Australia -- It’s easy to get confused about the issue of forests and climate change. Climate scientists say that preserving our forests is a quick, easy and cheap way to prevent further global warming, and Australia’s previous federal government allocated A$200 million towards preserving forests in South-East Asia. Yet both the federal government and the Tasmanian state government are overseeing the continuing destruction of Tasmania’s old-growth forests to feed a profitable wood-chip export industry and a soon-to-be-built pulp mill. And what’s more, they say that the industry is carbon-positive and sustainable. What’s really going on?

``Action to preserve the remaining areas of natural forest is needed urgently”, wrote Sir Nicholas Stern, in his October 2006 Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change, produced for the British government. And the Australian government’s consultant, Professor Ross Garnaut, in his interim report to the government on climate change, advocates re-forestation and forest conservation to provide breathing space for new technologies to “de-carbonise” our economy in the next decade before we trigger dangerous climate change.

Deforestation and forest degradation contribute to around 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, second only to the burning of fossil fuels to produce energy. The federal government’s Department of Climate Change website states: ``There is the potential to reduce these emissions by encouraging more sustainable forest management practices.”

Government double standards?

In March 2008, the Australian federal government, led by the Labor Party’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, announced the Papua New Guinea-Australia Forest Carbon Partnership, which is designed to reimburse PNG if it protects its forests from the axe by taking advantage of international carbon markets under the Kyoto Protocol.

This follows similar initiatives by the previous Liberal/National Coalition federal government, such as the “Global Initiative on Forests and Climate”, which was launched in March 2007 by the then-federal environment minister Malcolm Turnbull. That $200 million dollar scheme aimed to stop deforestation, particularly illegal logging in the South-East Asia and Pacific regions. In a speech to federal parliament on March 29, 2007, Turnbull praised the forests of the world for being “the lungs of the Earth” and gave us a little lesson in science: “The world’s forests play a vital role in addressing climate change because they store vast amounts of carbon for long periods of time. The carbon currently stored in forests around the world exceeds the levels of carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere. Dense tropical forest areas contain particularly high levels of carbon. As forests are unsustainably logged and as they are burned, they release large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.”

It is no exaggeration to say that tropical rainforests are the lungs of the planet. Tropical forests cover 17% of the Earth's land mass, but account for more than a third of the world's plant growth and store roughly 40% of all the carbon in terrestrial life, plus a third or more of all the carbon stored in soils. "Tropical forests move more carbon in and out of the atmosphere than any other ecosystem", says Alan Townsend, an ecologist at the University of Colorado in the April 27 edition of Seed magazine. Tropical forests grow faster and take in more carbon, but they emit more carbon because the heat speeds up the rate of decay. Cool temperate forests like those in Tasmania and Victoria actually store more carbon that tropical ones, for example new science shows that mountain ash forests in central Victoria are among the most carbon dense in the world, storing up to 2500 tonnes of carbon per hectare.

Of course environmentalists support government initiatives to curb logging overseas, but they question governments’ unwillingness to practice what it preaches in their own backyards. Does it matter that a large percentage of logging in countries like Indonesia and PNG is illegal (i.e. it violates the country’s laws and regulations) while native forest logging in Tasmania is government sanctioned?

Australian Greens Senator Bob Brown responded to the 2007 announcement by saying: “Our Prime Minister is a forest fool. He believes the Australian people will be satisfied with him putting $200 million into South-East Asia while he licenses massive damage to the atmosphere through his own forest burning regime, authorised in southern Australia. It just doesn't make sense.”

Tasmania, the small island state at the southern end of the country, accounts for half Australia’s emissions from native forest logging, and is the focus of this article. According to the Wilderness Society, an average of 20,000 hectares of native forest are clear-felled and burnt each year in Tasmania (around 5000 hectares of which are high conservation-value old-growth forests). We have one of the highest rates of land clearing in the developed world, with well over 100,000 hectares of Tasmania’s native forest across public and private land having been converted to plantations in the last 10 years. On June 1, 2007, Forestry Tasmania (the state government-owned business responsible for “managing” Tasmania’s forests) and Gunns Ltd announced that they would end the conversion of native forests to plantations. But there were no champagne celebrations among greenies – everyone could see that they were still logging native forests, sowing seeds to convert the area into an even-aged monoculture that they planned to log again in the future, only they were calling this “re-growth native forest” rather than “plantations”.

The Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification has certified forestry operations in Australia, including those in Tasmania, as being sustainable. Both levels of government (federal and state) and both major political parties (Liberal and Labor) claim that Tasmanian forestry practices are sustainable.

However almost all current harvesting in Tasmania’s mature mixed native forest is done by completely clearfelling an area with chainsaws and skidders, taking away the logs, piling all the left-over wood and debris up and using helicopters to drop incendiary napalm-like petroleum jelly onto it to create a high intensity fire (called a “regeneration burn”). The ash is then spread over the ground and new seedlings are sown to create a short rotation eucalypt monoculture. On private plantations the area is laced with 1080 poison that kills any wildlife (common and endangered species) who dare to feast on the tasty young plants.

Forestry Tasmania claims to be reducing its reliance on clear-felling by phasing in a practice called “variable or aggregated retention” which many regard as clear-felling by another name – the practice simply leaves 20 to 30 per cent of the trees left to stand in small clumps or islands in the sea of destruction. According to Timber Workers for Forests, these clumps are frequently scorched, burnt, wind thrown and fail to achieve their purpose of ecological preservation.

Forests on fire

Massive regeneration burns conducted throughout the state by Forestry Tasmania in autumn this year have once again ignited the debate about Tasmania’s forestry industry and its impact on our environment, health and society. Letters to the editor came pouring in from people living in the Huon Valley, Derwent Valley, Tasman Peninsula, Stanley and Maydena, including comments such as: “My wife has increasing levels of eye, nose and throat discomfort”; “When will we be able to breathe again?” and “My partner has a chronic lung condition and spent most of the recent lovely autumn weekend in bed, debilitated by the smoke”. Dr Fay Johnston, a respiratory health researcher from the Menzies Institute, said in a media release on April 24, “There is preliminary evidence that wood smoke could be worse for people’s health than car exhaust pollution.”

Greens member of the Tasmanian parliament Tim Morris said on April 24: “Year after year people with asthma and other respiratory problems are forced indoors to get away from this state-endorsed smoke pollution …This is completely unacceptable for both public health considerations as well as meeting our climate change commitments.”

The complaints haven’t just been about harmful effects to health and quality of life, but about the release of carbon into the atmosphere. With growing awareness of the seriousness of global warming, people aren’t prepared to sit back and watch their forests being turned into giant columns of smoke and ashes.

A Sunday Tasmanian report on April 27, 2008, noted that the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere from forestry burns could reach an estimated 1.54 million tonnes during this burn-off season, according to the forest industry’s own figures, which estimated in 2001 that the amount of carbon in the smoke of a wet eucalypt regeneration burn averaged 196 tonnes per hectare (which is likely to be a very conservative estimate).

Forest furnaces for power?

Under pressure from the public’s opposition to forestry burns, the timber industry has again raised a plan to establish biomass power plants to burn some of the larger pieces of forest residue to generate electricity, saying that this would reduce smoke from burn-offs and generate renewable electricity. In a media release on April 24, 2008, Forestry Tasmania said that “in light of the concerns highlighted during this year’s burning season” and because carbon trading is making renewable energy more economical, it was stepping up discussions with “a number of interested parties” about building a biomass plant, called Southwood, in the Huon region in southern Tasmania. Gunns Ltd also plans to attach a biomass plant to the planned pulp mill in the Tamar Valley, which would consume 500,000 tonnes of wood per year. Forestry Tasmania says that while large pieces of wood will be fed into these plants, it will still need to burn “some fine fuels on the forest floor” as “ash beds are necessary for regeneration”.

While many environmentalists, such as Mark Diesendorf, author of Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy advocate burning forestry and agricultural residue for fuel, they also insist that broader sustainability criteria would need to be met. Vica Bayley from the Wilderness Society told Green Left Weekly on May 30, 2008, that power generated from such plants would be recognised as a manifestation of forest destruction and there would be little market for power from logging. “Forestry Tasmania roll out the biomass plant idea every year when they are under public pressure about burning in the forests”, he told the April 24 Hobart Mercury. GreenPower, an Australian renewable energy endorser, has ruled out accepting power from burning native forests.

There are well-founded concerns that such power plants would lead to an expansion of logging practices solely to create power instead of serving as a useful way to deal with genuine logging waste, just as the woodchip industry was originally set up to make use of "waste" left over from the production of saw logs and now about 90% of all old-growth forests logged in Tasmania are done so solely to produce woodchips.

But what about bushfires?

Global warming causes drier, hotter conditions which increases the risk of bushfires. Dr David Bowman, a scientist from the University of Tasmania, pointed out at an April 23 public forum in Hobart sponsored by Environment Tasmania that in March 2008 Tasmania experienced the second-most extreme fire weather since 1940.

Forestry groups pretend not to understand why people complain about the smoke from post-logging regeneration burns but don’t speak up about pollution from natural bushfires or forest preservation practices like back-burning. It is obvious that climate change is already leading to more frequent and bigger bushfires which result in large amounts of carbon being released into the atmosphere (although nowhere near the amount released through regeneration burns), and back-burning helps to decrease their spread. On the other hand, regeneration burns are purposely lit carbon-emitting bonfires that add to global warming for the noble purpose of increasing company profits.

A study by Dean and others[1] in 2003 found that while 85% of carbon is lost when forests are logged and burnt, whereas an astonishingly small amount, only 2.4%, of forest carbon is lost when a natural fire passes through. It is also worth noting that mature forests are wetter, and are therefore less prone to bushfires.

Forestry practices – good or bad for the climate?

The debate about the climate change impacts of current forestry practices has been raging in Tasmania of late. Is the industry greenhouse positive, as it claims, or are the forest industry players really climate criminals, tearing down and trashing important carbon sinks? How much carbon is stored in old-growth forests versus managed plantations?

If you sat at home and perused the climate change section of Forestry Tasmania’s website you would be forgiven for believing that “Tasmania’s state forests are sucking carbon from the atmosphere at the rate of around 700 thousand tonnes per year, thanks to Forestry Tasmania’s management strategies…Each year, Tasmania’s forests are absorbing 24% of the entire state’s carbon emissions.” However, if you took a trip to the Weld or Florentine valleys in southern Tasmania, or to the Blue Tier on the east coast, you would see the ugly scarring of massive clear-fell operations and instantly question their assertion that “Our forest management practices are helping the planet.”

Forestry Tasmania’s website emphasises that “Tasmanian forests [are] a massive contributor to the fight against climate change”. Do we need to add “if you leave them standing”?

Carbon accounting

Forestry Tasmania makes much of the fact that, according to greenhouse accounting, it is the only industry sector that absorbs carbon. At an April 23, 2008, public forum on the issue in Hobart, Barry Chipman from Timber Communities Australia referred to the 2005 inventory of state emissions from the Australian Greenhouse Office when he claimed that “forestry is the only sector that is climate positive”. What does this inventory actually show?

In 2005 Tasmania’s total emissions from ``land use, land use change and forestry’’ (a category that excludes agriculture) added up to 2.99 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) into the atmosphere. According to the same data, emissions produced by this sector have dropped by 55.7% compared to 1990 levels. Even so, the 2005 emissions from this sector make up 27% of the overall emissions produced by the state. This is confirmed by the Tasmanian government in its 2006 Draft Climate Change Strategy for Tasmania, which includes a graph showing that ``land use change and forestry’’ emissions are the single biggest cause of greenhouse gases in Tasmania. However, instead of talking about ways to deal with this problem, the strategy praises the forestry sector and states: “Responsible stewardship of land and sustainable management of our forest resources, particularly reforestation and reduced deforestation, has provided a ‘sink’ reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Where do these forest industry claims of being “greenhouse positive” come from? If you look closer at the 2005 inventory you will see that the sector is broken down into two areas – “forestry” - which includes afforestation and reforestation - and “deforestation”. Afforestation is the artificial establishment of forests by planting or seeding in an area of bare or non-forested land. Reforestation is artificial or natural re-establishment of forest in an area that was previously under forest cover, or the restocking of existing forests and woodlands which have been depleted or chopped down. Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the Australian Greenhouse Office inventories, both areas are grouped together to measure carbon dioxide uptake from plantations established from 1990 onwards on agricultural or cleared land. In Tasmania in 2005 this accounted for minus 2.13 megatonnes of emissions (i.e. a carbon sink, or greenhouse positive measurement). The data that the forestry industry studiously fails to mention is the +5.12 megatonnes of emissions found under the subsection of deforestation (defined quite simply as the conversion of forest to non-forest).

Peter Boyer, a Climate Project Presenter, wrote in the Mercury on April 29, 2008: “Under the Kyoto Protocol, clear-felling mature native forests to grow new trees doesn’t count as land-clearing, so carbon emitted from that activity is left out of the ledger. The result is that forestry gets a dream run in official emissions statistics.”

MBAC consulting, in its 2007 report for Forestry Tasmania, found that over 23 years to 2030, logging will release at least 28% of the carbon stored in the commercial forests Forest Tasmania manages. That is, while these forests stored 57 million tonnes in 2007, logging will reduce this to 41 million tones in 2030, followed by growth back to 64 million tonnes in 2050. MBAC also includes statistics of how much carbon is stored in non-commercial native forests to beef up its total carbon figures. Forestry Tasmania’s conclusion from the study is to look at the overall figures leading up to 2050 to boast on its website that Tasmania’s state forests will absorb 31 million tonnes more atmospheric carbon than it will release, making them a net sink of carbon over the next 43 years”.

But talking in terms of 2050 figures obscures the picture of what is happening in the next 20 years, which many climate scientists say is the crucial window of opportunity when it comes to reducing our emissions. In fact forest operations in Tasmania will be net emitters of carbon each year until 2026, when growing forests will start taking up more than is given off.

Vica Bayley from the Wilderness Society said in an article in the Tasmanian Times on April 25, 2008: “Given the undeniable urgency in confronting climate change, for the forestry industry to continue to emit massive amounts of greenhouse gasses and deplete nature’s stores of carbon is a climate crime. For Tasmania to have to wait 22 years for positive carbon benefits from our forests is a major failure of our responsibility to future generations and a very poor example to set for the rest of the world.”

Dr Hans Drielsma from Forestry Tasmania says that carbon in production forests is balanced between that removed by harvesting and restored through regeneration. In Forestry Tasmania’s June 2007 Branchlines magazine he said this balance is maintained in Tasmania’s state forests. “Forestry Tasmania’s estimate of the carbon we release, through harvesting and regeneration burning as well as fuel and electricity usage, is balanced against the annual growth of the forest. We harvest around 15,000 hectares of State forest annually, but we have 1.5 million hectares that are growing.” He said that Forestry Tasmania ensures that the volume of forest at the end of a calculation period is the same as at the start.

However this seems to imply that forests of all types and all ages store similar amounts of carbon. In fact strong evidence is emerging that nothing can beat undisturbed mature native forests when it comes to storing carbon.

Carbon storage

No one is denying that young trees are faster growing and absorb carbon at a faster rate than mature trees. But mature forests are much better at storing it in wood, branches,

leaves, undergrowth, litter, roots, peat and soil. A United States Wilderness Society report, authored by Ann Ingerson and Dr. Wendy Loya[2] and released in April this year, shows that in general, the amount of carbon stored above ground in trees is less than half the forest carbon total.

When Barry Chipman from Timber Communities Australia spoke at the April 23 forum, he didn’t deny that clear-felling and carrying out regeneration burns releases carbon into the atmosphere, but he argued that the equivalent amount of CO2 is absorbed back when the forests grow again.

Dr Jerry F. Franklin, a professor with the University of Washington's College of Forest Resources, explained the problems with this approach well when he said: "Mature and old-growth forests can store or sequester extraordinary amounts of carbon …An analogy would be that older forests can be viewed as having very large capital reserves, whereas younger forests have high cash flow, or carbon uptake, but contain very little capital, such as sequestered carbon. There's also a high 'transaction cost' when you 'liquidate' this stored carbon by harvesting the forest. The harvested sites are significant carbon sources leaking carbon dioxide to the atmosphere for many years to decades following the harvest."[3]

Research clearly shows that native forests which have not been logged store up to three times more carbon than forests that have been logged. And up to 60% of the carbon in a Tasmanian wet eucalypt forest is stored in the soil.

Christopher Dean, Stephen Roxburgh and Brendan Mackay researched carbon levels in Eucalptus Regnans (a commonly logged species also known as mountain ash, swamp gum or stringy gum) in Victoria and Tasmania in 2003. They found that carbon storage increases in Eucalyptus Regnans up to 400 years old can approach 1500 tonnes of carbon per hectare. In contrast, after five cycles of logging every 80 years, forests tended to store an average of only 387 tonnes of carbon per hectare.[4]

A study by Roxburgh and others published in 2006 in the Journal of Applied Ecology predicted that it would take 53 years for a previously logged forest in temperate regions of Australia to reach 75% carbon carrying capacity, and 152 years to reach 90% of its original carbon storage capacity.[5]

The Wilderness Society says that detailed studies have shown that the whole of Australia’s intact eucalypt forests store on average around 650 tonnes of carbon per hectare – far more that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) default values for temperate forests of 60 tonnes of carbon.

According to the National Carbon Accounting System Technical Report 17 from the Australian Greenhouse Office in 2000, plantations store much less carbon at around 122 tonnes per hectare.

So it is not enough to know that under the Australian government forest industry initiative, Vision 2020, the area of plantation forests in Australia is projected to increase by about 2 million hectares by 2020 over that present in 1996. The problem isn’t that most new plantations will be on agricultural land, although this raises questions about food security and priority of land use, but that plantations are not as effective at combating global warming as old-growth forests, which we urgently need to protect.

Not only do older forests store more carbon, but when forests or plantations are harvested regularly, other factors contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, such as increased drying and decomposition of the carbon stored in the soil, burning or acceleration of decay of biomass left on the site, the burning of fossil fuels to run the logging machinery and the log trucks which transport them long distances, and the short life of most of the end products.

Storage in timber products

At the April 23 public forum, Chipman displayed a nice slide with this quote from the Stern report: “If the timber is used in long-lived wood products it actually conserves carbon during the product’s lifetime.” Hans Drielsman from Forestry Tasmania (in the June 2007 Branchlines and at the public forum) stated that wood is a greenhouse-friendly product as it stores carbon, whereas every other type of building material including steel, aluminium, plastic and concrete takes a lot of energy to produce and are therefore responsible for high carbon emissions.

This is probably true but how much of the timber that is logged really goes into long-lived wood products? With 90% of our forests going into woodchips, pulp and eventually paper, there’s a cause for concern.

In a Green Institute paper written in September 2007 by Margaret Blakers, we discover that when you log native forests, 60% of the carbon is lost due to burning or decay, 23 per cent of the carbon is in exported woodchips (with a maximum life of three years), 11 per cent adds to landfill, and only 4 per cent adds to the store in longer lived wood products. In other words, the argument that wood products store significant amounts of CO2 relative to native forests has no validity. Almost all CO2 from wood processing is released within a few years, and the absolute maximum residence time of carbon in wood products is estimated at 90 years. Old-growth forests contain trees aged 200-300 years plus.[6]

In a speech to parliament on March 29, 2007, Malcolm Turnbull gloated: “Australia has a strong record in sustainable management of our forests.” He went on to detail that “some 13 per cent of Australia’s native forests – more than 22 million hectares – are protected in conservation reserves, including World Heritage sites and forested land under Indigenous ownership. Almost half of Australia’s tropical and temperate rainforests are protected. This includes more than 2.9 million hectares of forest (including 90 per cent of our high quality wilderness and 68 per cent of old-growth forest) added to conservation reserves since 1996 through our Regional Forest Agreement system.”

Even if we generously assume that his figures are correct, in this era of increased understanding about the alarming rate of global warming and the role of old-growth forests in storing carbon, the questions we need to be asking are: Why are only half of our rainforests being protected? Why are 32 per cent of our remaining old-growth forests still at risk of being turned into woodchips or burnt? Why are 87 per cent of our native forests not being protected for their climate-saving values? Why are corporate logging interests allowed to threaten our very future?

With the election of Kevin Rudd’s Labor Party government and the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in November 2007, many Australians were hopeful about finally seeing leadership on climate change. However as Tasmanian Weld Valley forest campaigner Warrick Jordon said in an April 24 press release, “Instead of protection of ancient forests, however, all we get is a lot of hot air about climate change. If the ALP (Australian Labor Party) was serious about climate change, they would be ending forest degradation in carbon rich old-growth forests."

Former Tasmanian Labor Premier Paul Lennon asked Professor Ross Garnaut, who is investigating economic aspects of climate change, to review the impact of logging. However there’s enough evidence around already without us having to wait for Garnaut’s final report – it’s plain to see that we need to protect our forests from those whose primary concerns relate to company profits and shareholder dividends. Instead we need to recognise our communal carbon bank and invest in the future.

The Gunns pulp mill – climate destroyer

Gunns Ltd, Australia’s largest woodchipping company, is forging ahead with its plans to build a $2 billion pulp mill in the Tamar Valley in the north of Tasmania, despite massive community opposition, which has taken the form of 10-15,000 people marching in repeated demonstrations at both ends of the state and over 6000 people signing pledges saying they will peacefully blockade the mill should its construction go ahead, even if it means going to jail.

Tasmanians Against the Pulp Mill is a thriving community-based protest movement that has been attracting over 100 people to its fortnightly campaign meetings for years now, and big environment groups like the Wilderness Society have been consistently voicing opposition to the mill in the media. Students Against the Pulp Mill has mobilised large numbers of high school students to walk out of school in protest, and a variety of other tourism, agriculture and fishing industry bodies have spoken out against the damage that the mill will cause to their industries.

The proposed pulp mill, one of the largest in the world, will use harmful chemicals, suck large amounts of water from local supplies, pump wastes directly into the ocean, cause major air pollution and further escalate old-growth logging. The government has been accused of corrupt practices by allowing the company to pull out of the independent environmental assessment process and introducing a special law to fast-track the mill’s approval. The issue has clearly radicalised people all over the state and awareness is growing across Australia.

The strength of the campaign has led to a number of victories, such as the May 26, 2008, resignation of the Premier Paul Lennon, who was a fanatical pulp mill supporter, and the recent news that ANZ bank was no longer prepared to finance the project.

On May 5, 2008, the Tasmanian Labor government admitted that it had signed a secret deal with Gunns and Forestry Tasmania that committed it to supplying wood to the proposed pulp mill for 20 years. The agreement even promised $15 million in taxpayer-funded compensation if any future government’s legislation interfered with the wood supply deal.

Accountant Naomi Edwards, in her submission to the Resource Planning and Development Commission in September 2006, said that “the pulp mill contract locks in over two million tonnes of state forest resource annually to the pulp mill, for a twenty year period, which locks in Gunns as a 70% plus monopsonist. Even if Forestry Tasmania is able to find a second customer producing a higher value product, it will not be possible to divert the wood resource away from the pulp mill. Further, Forestry Tasmania has existing contracts of supply in regard to woodchips, and Gunns has stated that it will need to continue with these woodchip exports in order to finance the pulp mill.”

Online campaigning group Climate Ark argues that Tasmania's logging industry already exports 5 million tones of pulp annually, and if built, the pulp mill will need another 4 million tonnes yearly, nearly doubling Gunns' current rate of clearfelling. Climate Ark claims the pulp mill will increase Australia's annual greenhouse gas contributions by more than 2 per cent.

Gunns says it will use between 3.2-4 million metric tonnes of pulpwood per year, compared to the current average of 4.7 million tonnes of pulpwood being exported. It says that it won’t lead to an intensification of logging but will divert resource that would otherwise have been exported in chip form to the pulp mill for value-added processing. However Gunns’ impact statement shows that the rate of woodchip production to feed all of its mills, including its woodchip export mills at Triabunna and Hampshire, will increase to 6.8 million tonnes per annum. It’s hard to find exact figures as information on native forest logging, wood-supply deals and woodchip contracts is often made exempt from freedom of information provisions and public Australian Bureau of Statistics reporting.

Gunns’ impact statement shows that at start-up the pulp mill will be 80% based on Tasmania’s native forests, with only 20% coming from plantations. Its graph shows that it will take 10 years for the plantation component to increase to 80%. The Wilderness Society says that in 25 years of operation, the pulp mill will consume more than 32 million tonnes of native forest, which will require the logging of more than 200,000 hectares of Tasmania’s native forests.

In the Wilderness Society’s submission to the pulp mill assessment panel, it claims that logging of native forests for the pulp mill will result in about 110 million tonnes of greenhouse pollution over the ten-year lifespan of the project (equivalent to 80 years of emissions from all the cars, buses and trucks currently on the road in Tasmania). The state government continues to support and subsidise this mill even though it has dramatic climate change implications.

More than 30,000 people have signed a Get Up petition calling on Professor Garnaut to examine the full impact of the logging that will feed the pulp mill before finalising his climate change report: “We ask that you provide a full carbon assessment of the impact of logging our forests, in particular Tasmania's forests destined for the pulp mill, including the serious carbon loss in converting native forests to plantations, the economic value in leaving them intact as sources of sequestration, and the role they can play in an emissions trading scheme."

Carbon trading and CDM

Will carbon trading be the savior of our old-growth forests? Many environmentalists in Tasmania are saying “yes”. Even before the Rudd government releases its plans for a national carbon trading system, Alistair Graham from the Tasmanian Conservation Trust said in a forum in Hobart on April 23, 2008, “we need to create a market for carbon so that we can say that it’s worth more to preserve our forests than to chop them down”. Peg Putt, state MP and leader of the Tasmanian Greens said on May 6, 2008, “Tasmania is in the box seat to gain a big financial windfall when carbon trading gets underway to counter climate change, as there is a very real prospect that we will make a lot more money from keeping forests growing as carbon stores than logging them for pulp.”[7]

Timber Workers for Forests, in its submission to Forestry Tasmania’s Draft Forest Management Plan 2008-2017, criticised the plan for not mentioning carbon trading, nor detailing the amounts of carbon stored in old-growth forest, mature mixed native forest, re-growth forest and plantations or developing strategies to maximise carbon storage.

Any carbon trading scheme involving forests requires a good understanding of carbon storage and carbon accounting in different types of forests and soils. The federal government’s Department of Climate Change is busy working with other partners on developing an internationally recognised system of monitoring forests and their carbon content so that forests can become part of the carbon market. It aims to extend Australia’s National Carbon Accounting System (NCAS) to do this.

A global carbon trading scheme was set up under the Kyoto Protocol and includes the Clean Development Mechanism, which allows Western companies that expect to exceed their emissions cap to carry on polluting, provided they invest in projects that result in corresponding emissions cuts in the developing world. The total value of such trades reached US$60 billion last year. As the world is already negotiating the next Kyoto protocol, to take effect in 2013, many groups and governments are pushing for the CDM to be expanded so that projects such as the protection of tropical forests and even soil conservation will be eligible for carbon credits (at the moment only the planting of trees on previously cleared land is eligible for credits).

Making forestry projects eligible for carbon credits brings up the problem of permanence, because many forestry projects are temporary in nature, since carbon dioxide captured during forest growth can be disturbed by fire or drought or released upon harvest.

Using carbon trading as a method of protecting native forests may bring up some problems. For example, for projects to gain CDM status, they may have to show that they are additional, and not part of normal planning, i.e. to apply for carbon credits from a forest preservation project you would need to prove that you were protecting forests that would otherwise be condemned to destruction. Where is the incentive for government’s to place these forests under protection now, before a carbon trading scheme commences, if in doing so, lose the potential to gain an income from protecting them later on? And should Gunns get paid to protect our native forests? Whose forests are they?

Carbon trading may be too slow and bureaucratic when compared to the possibilities offered by quick, effective regulation of forest protection, delivered by a government prepared to fund a transition plan for forestry workers into sustainable alternative employment.

There is also the broader problem of companies using the CDM scheme to “offset” their own pollution, thereby not reducing overall levels of CO2 emissions. Australian of the Year (2007) and environmentalist Professor Tim Flannery presented a submission to Professor Garnaut’s climate change review in January 2008 proposing an internet-based carbon market with a pilot scheme to be run in Papua New Guinea. First raised in a presentation in Port Moresby in August 2007, Flannery’s scheme envisages that households and businesses would be able to secure the protection of forests and the replanting of trees through an auction scheme. Buyers would identify vulnerable forest land online, using internet technology like Google Earth, and then make bids to secure its protection through a site like eBay. If the bid is accepted by the village, the funds would be held in trust by a non-government organisation until the agreed protection of biodiversity or carbon sequestration has been delivered. Buyers would get credits to offset industrial emissions, villagers would get paid for preserving their forests and biodiversity would be protected.

Even though Flannery’s submission acknowledges that the industrialised world has “inflict[ed] a historic debt of 200 gigatonnes of carbon on humanity’s common atmosphere”, he still seems to support the idea that carbon-emitting businesses in industrialised countries like Australia should be able to receive credits for protecting forests in other countries, while continuing to emit carbon themselves.

Socialist approaches to forestry

The forestry workers’ union in Tasmania has joined with Gunns and the government in arguing against any changes to the practices of old-growth logging. It also strongly supports the pulp mill. The union’s arguments all centre around jobs. But socialists know that workers do not have to choose between jobs or the environment – with proper planning we can have both. In fact, jobs have been falling in the logging industry for some years, and private contractors are at the mercy of Gunns, a giant company that has no commitment to ensuring timber workers have a secure livelihood. Many more long-lasting jobs could be sourced by supporting a sustainable timber industry that employs workers to manage preserved forests, to run popular eco-tourism ventures like the already existing Tahune Airwalk and to selectively harvest logs for real value-added processing.

Our native forests should be under public control and managed in the public interest, not sold to Gunns for a pittance. As preserving mature forests has been recognised as a cheap strategy for dealing with climate change, the government needs to step in, nationalise Gunns and protect our forests for the kinds of environmental benefits that won’t show up in a private company’s accounting systems. (See the Socialist Alliance’s ``Open Letter to Timber Workers about the Pulp Mill’’ at http://www.socialist-alliance.org/tasmania/ for more detail on jobs, the pulp mill and forestry practices.)

How climate change impacts on forests

Will we always be able to rely on our forests being carbon sinks?

Some of the research coming out in the last few years has scary implications. Even if we do stop logging and burning our forests, unless we work hard to reduce other sources of emissions, global warming may catch up with us and change the very nature of our forests and their ability to store carbon.

The amount of carbon that a forest stores depends on the balance between the rate at which it draws carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and the rate at which it gives carbon dioxide back through respiration.

Scientists such as David and Deborah Clark from the La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica are finding that tree growth rates in tropical rainforests start to slow down when temperatures increase. Slow growth rates mean that they take in less carbon dioxide but the trees continue to respirate, or breathe, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. As global temperatures continue to rise, there will come a point where forests will start to emit more CO2 than they soak up. This will further increase the effects of global warming, a cycle known as a “positive feedback loop”.[8]

A study by Ken Feeley of Harvard University in Boston which was reported in the August 11, 2007, Malaysia Sun in showed that rising average temperatures have reduced growth rates by up to 50 per cent in the two rainforests in Panama and Malaysia, which have both experienced climate warming above the world average over the past few decades.[9]

In a paper in the March 11, 2004, issue of Nature, William Laurance and colleagues reported that tall, relatively fast-growing canopy trees in Amazonia were growing faster than they were in the 1980s and slower-growing trees that live their whole lives below the canopy were becoming rarer. After investigating other possible causes, they speculate that rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere may to be blame. It is a worrying trend, because under storey trees grow slowly and produce denser wood, which in turn means that the carbon content of each tree is greater. If the forest composition shifts away from these trees toward faster-growing genera with lighter wood, the forest will be less able to take up CO2.
Research released in October 2007 by the Global Carbon Project, reported in Climate Code Red, confirmed that there is more CO2 in the atmosphere, partly because of a slow-down of natural sinks. “Fifty years ago, for every tonne of CO2 emitted, 600kg were removed by land and ocean sinks. However, in 2006, only 550kg were removed per tonne and that amount is falling”, concluded project leader Dr Pep Canadell.[10]

A summary of some of the Hadley Centre’s modeling work published in 2005 and referred to in Climate Code Red included two startling graphs. In one, the amount of total carbon stored in the Amazonian vegetation and soils shows a drop from around 70 billion tonnes of carbon in 2000 to just 20 billion tonnes of carbon by 2100. The second, using the same technique, compares vegetation and soil carbon levels in 2100 to 1850: while vegetation carbon had increased by about 60 billion tonnes of carbon by 2100, the amount of soil carbon had decreased by 130 billion tonnes of carbon.

So the ability of our forests to store carbon and assist in the fight against global warming is actually decreasing as the planet warms. And this is without taking into account the negative effects of increasing numbers of droughts and wildfires on forests. So it is clear that while it is vitally important to preserve the Earth’s remaining native forests in their natural state, we must also act quickly to reduce our overall emissions, by doing things like phasing out fossil fuel use, if we are to protect nature’s precious equilibrium and avert climate catastrophe.

[Susan Austin is an environmental activist in Tasmania and a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, a Marxist tendency within the Socialist Alliance of Australia.]

Notes

1. Dean, C., Mackey, B.G., and Roxburgh, S.H. (2003), ``Growth Modelling of Eucalyptus regnans for carbon accounting at the landscape scale’’, in Amaro, A., Reed, D., Soares, P. (eds.), Modelling Forest systems, CABI Publishing, Walliford, UK.

2. Ann Ingerson and Dr. Wendy Loya, Measuring Forest Carbon: Strengths and Weaknesses of Available Tools, United States Wilderness Society, April 2008. Report summary available at http://wilderness.org/Library/Documents/Measuring-Forest-Carbon.cfm or full pdf at http://wilderness.org/Library/Documents/upload/FR7-28carbonbrief.pdf.

3. US Wilderness Society media release, April 9, 2008, http://www.wilderness.org/NewsRoom/Release/Analysis-Shows-American-Forests-Contain-Enormous-Carbon-Reserves.cfm

4. See Note 2.

5. Roxburgh, S.H., Wood, S.W., Mackey, B.G., Woldendorp, G. and Gibbons, P., ``Assessing the carbon sequestration potential of managed forests: a case study from temperate Australia’’, Journal of Applied Ecology, Volume 43, Number 6, December 2006, pp. 1149-1159.

6. Green Institute Working Paper 2 “Forests: vital for climate protection”, http://www.greeninstitute.com.au/images/uploads/Forests_-_vital_for_climate_protection.pdf.

7. Media release, http://tas.greens.org.au/News/view_MR.php?ActionID=2976.

8. Hillary Rosner, ``Rainforests – Carbon sink or carbon source?’’ by Hillary Rosner, posted April 27, 2006, http://seedmagazine.com/news/2006/04/the_truth_about_rainforests_1.php?page=all

9. http://story.malaysiasun.com/index.php/ct/9/cid/48cba686fe041718/id/272618/cs/1/

10. http://www.climatecodered.net/

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