Carbon criminals, forests and climate change

August 16, 2008

It's easy to get confused about forests and climate change. Deforestation and forest degradation contribute to around 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, second only to the burning of fossil fuels to produce energy. Climate scientists say that preserving our forests is a quick, easy and cheap way to prevent further global warming.

Sir Nicholas Stern, in 2006, said, "Action to preserve the remaining areas of natural forest is needed urgently". Professor Ross Garnaut, in his interim report on climate change, advocated re-forestation and forest conservation to provide breathing space for new technologies to "de-carbonise" the economy over the next decade.

Yet federal and state Labor governments are allowing Tasmania's old growth forests to feed a profitable wood-chip export industry and the soon-to-be-built pulp mill. What's more, they say that the industry is "carbon positive" and "sustainable".

But is the industry "greenhouse positive" or are the forest industry players really major climate criminals, tearing down and trashing important carbon sinks? In the first of a two-part series, Green Left Weekly's Susan Austin examines what is really going on.

Perusing the climate change section of Forestry Tasmania's web site, you would be forgiven for believing that, thanks to it, the state's forests are doing a great job sucking carbon from the atmosphere. Thanks to Forestry Tasmania's management strategies, the carbon is sucked up at a rate of "around 700 thousand tonnes per year … each year, Tasmania's forests are absorbing 24% of the entire state's carbon emissions".

However, a trip to the Weld or Florentine Valleys in southern Tasmania, or the Blue Tier on the east coast, where the scarring of massive clear-fell operations is very visible, dispels Forestry Tasmania's spin that, "Our forest management practices are helping the planet".

Its website emphasises: "Tasmanian forests [are] a massive contributor to the fight against climate change". Environmentalists would add: "Only if you leave them standing".

Forestry Tasmania makes much of the fact that it is the only industrial sector that absorbs carbon. At an April 23 forum 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".

But what does this inventory actually show?

In 2005, Tasmania's total emissions from "land use" and "land use change and forestry" (which excludes agriculture) added the equivalent of 2.99 megatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) to 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 state's overall emissions. 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 discussing ways to deal with this problem, the draft document praised the forestry sector, stating that, "Responsible stewardship of land and sustainable management of our forest resources, particularly reforestation and reduced deforestation, has provided a 'sink' reducing greenhouse gas emissions".

The draft document claimed that, in Tasmania in 2005, reforestation and other practices 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 sub-section of deforestation (defined as the conversion of forest to non-forest).

Carbon emitters

Peter Boyer, an Al Gore-trained climate project presenter, wrote in the April 29 Mercury, "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."

In its 2007 report for Forestry Tasmania, MBAC Consulting found that while these forests stored 57 million tonnes of carbon in 2007, logging will reduce this amount to 41 million tones in 2030, followed by a growth back to 64 million tonnes in 2050.

To beef up the total carbon storage figures, it also included statistics of how much carbon is stored in non-commercial native forests. Forestry Tasmania's conclusion from the study is to boast 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 what will happen over the next 10-15 years that climate scientists say is critical to preventing a climate catastrophe? 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 (TWS), said in the April 25 Tasmanian Times that, "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."

Forestry Tasmania's Dr Hans Drielsma has argued that carbon in productive forests is balanced between that removed by harvesting and that restored through regeneration. In Forestry Tasmania's June 2007 Branchlines magazine, he said that they ensure that the volume of forest at the end of a calculation period is the same as at the start. However, this argument seems to imply that forests of all types, and all ages, store similar amounts of carbon. Strong evidence is emerging that nothing can beat undisturbed mature native forests when it comes to storing carbon.

Carbon storage and land clearing

It is no exaggeration to describe tropical rainforests as the lungs of the planet: they cover 17% of the Earth's land mass, but account for more than a third of the world's plant growth. They 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", Alan Townsend, an ecologist at the University of Colorado, told the April 27 Seed.

Tropical forests grow faster and absorb more carbon, but they also emit more carbon because the heat speeds up the rate of decay. Cool temperate forests, like those in Tasmania and Victoria, store more carbon compared to tropical forests. Research 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.

Tasmania accounts for half of Australia's greenhouse gas emissions — from native forest logging. According to TWS, an average of 20,000 hectares of native forest is clear felled and burnt each year in Tasmania, around 5000 hectares of which are high conservation value old-growth forests. Tasmania has one of the highest rates of land clearing in the developed world, with more than 100,000 hectares of Tasmania's native forest having been converted into plantations in the last 10 years.

On June 1, 2007, Forestry Tasmania and Gunns Ltd announced that they would end the conversion of native forests to plantations. But they continue to log native forests, sowing seeds to convert the area into an even-aged monoculture that they plan to log again in the future. The only difference was that instead of "plantations", this practice is called "re-growth native forest".

Sustainable forestry?

The Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification has certified forestry operations in Australia, including those in Tasmania, as sustainable. Both levels of government and both major parties claim that Tasmanian forestry practices are sustainable.

However, almost all current harvesting in Tasmania's mature mixed native forest is done by clear felling an area with chainsaws and skidders, taking away the logs, piling up all the left-over wood and debris and using helicopters to drop incendiary napalm-like petroleum jelly onto it to create a high intensity fire, described by the industry as 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 — including common and endangered species — that dare feast on the young plants.

Forestry Tasmania claims to be reducing its reliance on clear-felling by phasing in a practice called "variable or aggregated retention". Many regard this as clearfelling by another name. The practice leaves 20-30% of the trees in small clumps, or islands, in a sea of destruction. According to Timber Workers for Forests, these clumps are frequently scorched, burnt or wind thrown and fail to achieve their stated purpose of ecological preservation.

Massive "regeneration" burns conducted throughout the state by Forestry Tasmania this autumn have again ignited the debate about Tasmania's forestry industry and its impact on our environment, health and society.

Letters to the editor complaining of the smoke and ash came pouring in from people living in the burn-off areas. According to Dr Fay Johnston, a respiratory health researcher from the Menzies Institute, "There is preliminary evidence that wood smoke could be worse for people's health than car exhaust pollution".

Biomass power plants

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

An article in the April 27 Sunday Tasmanian 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. It quoted from the forest industry's 2001 figures, which estimated that the amount of carbon in the smoke of a wet eucalypt regeneration burn averaged 196 tonnes per hectare (likely to be a conservative estimate).

Under pressure about forestry burns, the timber industry has again suggested a plan to establish biomass power plants by burning some of the larger forest residue to generate electricity. It says this would reduce smoke from burn-offs and generate renewable electricity.

On April 24, Forestry Tasmania announced that in response to burn-off concerns and because carbon trading is making renewable energy more economical, it was talking to "interested parties" about building a biomass plant, called Southwood, in the Huon region in southern Tasmania.

Gunns also plans to attach a biomass plant to the pulp mill in the Tamar Valley that would consume 500,000 tonnes of wood per year. Forestry Tasmania says that while large pieces of wood will be fed into these plants, they will still need to burn "some fine fuels on the forest floor" as "ash beds are necessary for regeneration".

While many environmentalists advocate burning forestry and agricultural residue for fuel, they insist that broader sustainability criteria would need to be met.

Bayley told Green Left Weekly that there would be little market for power from plants that rely on destroying forests. "Forestry Tasmania roll out the biomass plant idea every year when they are under public pressure about burning in the forests", he said.

There are well-founded concerns that such power plants would lead to an expansion of logging solely to create power instead of serving as a useful way to deal with genuine logging waste. 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.

Climate change is already leading to more frequent and bigger bush fires. These release large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere (although nowhere near the amount released through regeneration burns), and preservation-based back-burning helps to decrease their spread. But regeneration burns are purposely lit carbon-emitting bonfires that add to global warming for the sole purpose of increasing company profits.

Scientific studies in 2003 found that 85% of carbon is released into the atmosphere when forests are logged and burnt, compared to just 2.4% of forest carbon when a natural fire passes through. It is also worth noting that mature forests are wetter and are therefore less prone to bush fires.

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