10 reasons not to include burning native forests in the RET

Abbott wants to allow burning native forest waste to qualify for subsidies under the RET. Photo: Crustmania (Flickr CC)

The federal government wants to allow burning native forest waste to qualify for renewable energy subsidies under the Renewable Energy Target (RET).

They reached a compromise with Labor early this month for a renewable energy target of 33 gigawatt hours (GWh).

However, negotiations have since broken down due to the federal government’s fine print inclusion of burning native forest biomass in furnaces and the retention of two-yearly reviews of the RET.

The government’s plan is to declare that burning native forest biomass is a “renewable” form of energy and thus capable of attracting the same subsidies as wind or solar through tradeable renewable energy certificates (RECs. That would mean burnt forest power would compete directly with genuinely renewable forms of energy generation, such as wind and solar, and reduce by up to 15% the RECs available for genuine low or no emission technologies.

Environmentalists also fear that burning forests could become a low-value replacement for wood chipping, which has suffered a collapse in world markets.

The Wilderness Society’s national campaign director Lyndon Schneiders said: “This 11th hour inclusion of so-called wood waste in the RET scheme has nothing to do with promoting a transition to renewable energy and everything to do with propping up a native forest logging industry whose economic model is broken.

“The industry is looking for a replacement for the collapsed native forest woodchip industry and is once again putting its hand out for a new subsidy through the Renewable Energy Scheme,” he said.

Friends of the Earth’s Cam Walker said that including biomass in the RET will undermine the uptake of true renewables like wind and solar, and further entrench destructive forestry operations.

“The renewables industry has been brought to the brink of collapse because of the extreme opinions of key players in the Coalition government and this reduced target will mean fewer jobs and investment in regional Australia, and less action on climate change than the original target,” he said.

The so-called native forest ‘waste’ is not sawdust, tree stumps or branches. If the industry gets its way it will be thousands of living, breathing trees in state forests, homes to many already threatened species, which can be burnt to provide subsidised electricity.

If the government’s plan succeeds it will secure long-term corporate access to native forests. They will be exploited, to an even greater degree than they already are, as industrial commodities. Re-subsidising the failing native forest logging sector to supply furnaces with fuel will accelerate the rate of native species loss across the continent.

The Australian Conservation Foundation has listed 10 reasons that biomass fuel should not be included as renewable.

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1. If the Senate allows the inclusion of “waste” from native forest logging as a biomass fuel for electricity generation in the RET, whole trees will be burnt for electricity in furnaces.

The native forest logging industry will be using whole trees as biomass fuel for power generation, rather than just offcuts and residues from the forest floor. The mechanised infrastructure allowing residues from the forest floor to be extracted economically is not available, and the cost of manual extraction would be prohibitive. This definition of “waste” already used in the woodchip industry is any tree that is not suitable for saw-logging. In many places that applies to 90% of all logs taken from forests.

2. Logging will inevitably increase.

Using native forest wood as a biomass fuel is extremely inefficient. A lot of wood is needed to make a very small amount of electricity. Biomass power plants require large on-going amounts of wood for fuel. This will place increasing pressure on native forests to provide the biomass fuel regardless of any other environmental outcomes. Once our public forests become a resource for the electricity industry, and expensive wood-fired power, it could become unstoppable, similar to the woodchip industry.

3. This is not renewable energy: the logging and burning of native forests results in enormous CO2 emissions.
The purpose of the RET is to encourage the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, yet burning native forest biomass for electricity generation involves major depletion of forest carbon stocks. Most estimates consider it releases at least 1.5 times more carbon emissions than burning coal. Protecting Australia’s native forests would reduce emissions by tens of millions of tonnes of carbon per year. The Climate Commission’s 2011 report The Critical Decade recognises the need to protect native forests immediately as a key climate change mitigation strategy.
4. Burning biomass for energy will mean increased subsidies for an industry that is already heavily subsidised by taxpayers.
The Australian native forest logging industry has historically required large taxpayer subsidies and there is no indication that a native forest biomass industry would be able to stand on its own without government support. The logging industry in every state is propped up by millions of taxpayer dollars every year.

5. Burning native forests for energy produces toxins injurious to human health and is more polluting than coal per unit of energy.

Burning native forest wood releases toxins harmful to the health of nearby communities. Wood dust is a known carcinogen and exposure is associated with skin disease, increased asthma, chronic bronchitis and nasal problems. The available data, now established and documented, may leave federal and state governments open to legal challenges by individuals affected by these toxins.

6. The example of European forests does not apply in Australia.
The Australian Forest Products Association argues that Australia should follow Europe’s example in burning more forest biomass. Most European forests are plantations, not natural forest. There are different geographies, climates, water supplies and industry economics involved. There is also a large and growing US backlash against European imports of logs and pellets leading to forest destruction across large swathes of the US.

7. Australia does not need this form of energy and it will provide disincentives for real renewables.

Energy requirements have been reducing as the uptake of solar grows. Renewable energy targets can be more than met by wind, solar and other genuinely renewable energy sources. If burning what some see as the “lungs of our land” can be termed renewable, it would take credits and assistance from the genuine renewables industry. If all the native forest log production in 2009 in Australia had been burned for electricity it would have displaced only 2.8% of total black and brown coal-based power generation.

8. Our public native forests can sustain no further assault, either for biomass burning or for continued unsustainable logging regimes.

Australian forests have been overcut for decades to meet unrealistic supply contracts. Australia now faces a wildlife crisis in many regions, and loss of habitat from logging is a major cause. Throughout the country logging is contributing to general environmental degradation of vast tracts for native forest, water yields from catchments and rain-making capacity. Now is the time to switch to 100% plantations for all of Australia’s timber needs and let our native forests rest and regenerate.

9. It would not create jobs.
The native forest biomass power industry would be a very small employer. Australia has the capacity to power the whole energy sector with real renewables like solar and wind, and the jobs of the future are in the renewables sector.

10. Most Australians don’t want it.
The majority of Australians have historically opposed native forest biomass energy. A 2001 Morgan Poll found that 88% of people opposed the use of native forest for wood-fired power. A follow up Galaxy poll in 2010 revealed that 77% of Australians want an end to the logging of Australia’s native forests in order to conserve their carbon stores.