Forests used and abused in the name of climate action

Governments claiming to be “meeting and beating” emissions targets are getting away with daylight robbery.

Land-clearing has been proceeding at a record pace in Queensland since restrictions were relaxed in 2013. PHOTO Kerry Trapnell/The Wilderness Society

Land-clearing has been proceeding at a record pace in Queensland since restrictions were relaxed in 2013. PHOTO Kerry Trapnell/The Wilderness Society

For decades, statistics around forests, forestry and land-clearing have been the blunt instrument of choice to support all sides of the climate debate in Australia.

In 1997 the Howard government successfully argued that the carbon emissions “saved” from a reduced rate of land-clearing during the 1990s should be counted when assessing Australia’s progress towards its Kyoto target.

The “Australia clause” in the Kyoto agreement relied on government land-clearing data and relatively limited scientific knowledge about the capacity of different natural and cultivated plant communities to take up carbon.

While the science has improved, land use remains a fuzzy area in carbon accounting. Most political claims about emissions employ land-use data. They must be treated with caution, if not suspicion.

Hailed at the time as a political and diplomatic triumph, the Australia clause has enabled successive national and state governments to conceal a continuing chronic failure to even address, let alone reduce, fossil fuel emissions.

Since abolishing Australia’s carbon price scheme – the only enacted measure so far that has demonstrably cut such emissions – the federal government has repeatedly employed land-use data to support its claim that it is on track to “meet and beat” its 2020 and 2030 targets.

Tasmanian emissions reductions are almost entirely dependent on native forests not being harvested. That is the basis of the Hodgman government’s claim that Tasmania leads the world in reducing emissions, and its recent election promise commit to zero net emissions by 2050.

The government’s “Climate Action 21” strategy doesn’t explain how this will be done unless the native forest logging sector remains moribund. Yet it has also promised to double income from forest production by 2036. It doesn’t seem to bother the government that the two cannot possibly co-exist.

A similar scenario is in play in Queensland, except that the end goal there is not to harvest wood but to clear land. And Queensland is pretty good at clearing land; that state alone accounts for more than half the nation’s total native forest clearance.

The implication behind the federal government’s argument at the 1997 Kyoto climate summit was that land clearing rates would continue to be suppressed. For a while it looked as if that might put a permanent brake on clearing natural landscapes in this country.

But for many Australians tree clearing is synonymous with life on the land. A large cohort of conservative politicians in Brisbane and Canberra, most or all of them disbelieving the science behind the Kyoto agreement, lobbied long and hard to have restrictions lifted.

They finally got their wish when a Liberal-National government watered down the rules early in 2013. In that year Queensland’s land-clearing rate was 261,000 hectares. By 2015-16, when the figure was 395,000 hectares, the state had seen over a million hectares cleared within four years.

A newly re-elected Labor government is now seeking parliamentary approval for new laws restricting clearing. Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch justified the action in terms of conserving natural values and helping Australia meet its climate commitments.

The proposed new laws are getting a predictable response from defenders of the status quo, who demand to know why “scrubby” forest should be protected when it could be replaced with “lush productive farm land”.

That reflects a general attitude among some farmers and their political representatives that clearing land is, by definition, improving it. Many have claimed that this extends to carbon storage – that replacing native bush with crops and pastures improves the land’s carbon-carrying capacity.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The Turnbull government’s Office of the Chief Scientist advises that dry natural forests provide better long-term storage than grasslands, and that per hectare, “forests are typically more than ten times as effective [at storing carbon] as grasslands”.

The lesson should be clear to governments and landowners alike. Removal of established native forest, whether for pasture or for crops (including trees), reduces the land’s capacity to hold carbon while also making it less able to retain moisture.

Economics is already starting to sort this out. As dry-land farmers are learning the downside of land-clearing, Tasmania’s plantation timber industry has worked out many ways to make money from wood fibre without intruding into native forests.

Any government intent on effective climate action, while working hard to cut fossil fuel emissions, would severely limit land clearing and would not even contemplate old-growth logging. There are huge credibility gaps here, and no sign they are about to be closed.

Posted in agriculture and farming, Australian politics, bureaucracy, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, carbon pricing scheme, climate politics, forests and forestry, fossil fuels, land use, Tasmanian politics, trees | Leave a comment

On marriage, children and the future

Maybe we’re not completely screwed, after all.

Last week, among close family and friends, I saw two young people married in a ferny glade on our wonderful mountain.

It was a happy event as every wedding should be. Weddings are the most social of occasions, about the ties that bind us all and the generations to come. At times like this you can’t help but think ahead to lives beyond ours and the world they will live in.

Many things that beset our lives today – struggling leaders, crumbling institutions, war, famine, erratic weather and a badly ailing biosphere – lead us to expect the worst.

There is an alternative. US environmental thinker Paul Hawken told two engaged audiences in Hobart a fortnight ago that we should not see today’s many environmental distress signals as the triumph of industrial pollution, but as an invitation to take up a challenge.

In his new book, Drawdown, Hawken urges us to stop seeing ourselves as victims of global warming, a mindset that tends to impotence. Instead, we should see climate change as a transformation “that inspires us to change and reimagine everything we make and do.”

In thinking this way, says Hawken, we begin to live in a different world: “We see global warming not as an inevitability but as an invitation to build, innovate, and effect change, a pathway that awakens creativity, compassion, and genius.”

For anyone who has spent time looking at evidence of change around us, these can seem like brave words. Science’s pictures of doom, those countless graphs with trends all heading in the one direction, tell us that we’re losing the war. Some scientists say we’ve already lost it.

That is the dispassionate position, supported by the objective evidence. But it assumes that certain things will remain constant, that “business as usual” will remain in place and that we will simply continue to do what we’ve been doing until everything falls in a heap.

It does not account for what Hawken calls “the human agenda”. That implies action, a response to the situation we face, with the view to changing how we’ve done things to adjust to an entirely new reality.

Drawdown lists and describes one version of that agenda, which I looked at briefly last month – 100 actions put together by multiple experts in each relevant field, aimed at bringing atmospheric carbon down to safe levels by the middle of this century.

Many scientists are sceptical. A leading figure on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told me at one of Hawken’s Hobart events that the notion of drawing down current atmospheric greenhouse gas levels was orders of magnitude more ambitious than simple mitigation.

Being sceptical is a scientist’s job. But there are dimensions to the human experience that cannot be factored into scientific projections, and therein lies the tantalising idea that we may not be completely screwed, after all.

Back to marriage, now back in the spotlight after the same-sex debate. What can this veteran of an ancient and august institution say to young people just entering into it?

Life’s pressures, external and internal, ended my first marriage. The fact that I’m still in my second after 37 years I put down to three things: having a patient partner, having children, and good luck.

This may be my generation in play here, but I can’t help thinking that couples who stay together, especially if they are rearing children, contribute to a greater good. I believe lasting one-to-one adult relationships are the centrepiece of cohesive communities.

Most people entering marriage aren’t preoccupied with such things; they just love a person with whom they want to share their life. But the passage of time adds layers to that simple beginning.

The arrival of children is the big one: it changes marriage and the people in it, fundamentally and forever. Most of us manage that change but some don’t. Children can cement relationships, but for all its rewards family life is also very hard work.

That makes marriage seem a bold step in these uncertain times. But fortunately for the species’ future not everyone sees it that way. We’re programmed to be optimistic. Young newlyweds who decide to bring up children are making a statement of faith in the future.

They’re right to think like this. It’s the only way to deal with the odds that are stacking up against us. We need, with some urgency, to share that positive attitude with the school-age people in our lives and help them see why they need not fear the future.

Many of these young people, heedless of what their parents say, are raising their own strong, clear voices for climate action on the basis that joining with others is the best way to counter isolation and fear.

They need to be encouraged, and we all need to listen.

Posted in changes to climate, community action, future climate, human behaviour, leadership, social and personal issues, social mindsets, youth activism | Leave a comment

Electors deserve better on pokies and climate

Why do politicians continue to ignore issues that have voters’ support?

Poker machine venues openly supported the incumbent Liberal government. PHOTO ABC

Poker machine venues openly supported the incumbent Liberal government. PHOTO ABC

In Washington, guns is the big issue in question. In Canberra it was gay marriage until the battle was won last year. In Hobart, pokies. And in all three, climate.

I refer to matters of public debate which politicians persist in ignoring, despite years of opinion polls consistently showing a clear majority of people favouring just one side.

Most Americans believe there are far too many firearms in general circulation in their country. Yet not even the mass killing of infants at Sandy Hook school in 2012 could persuade politicians to defy the National Rifle Association and pass laws to restrict gun sales.

The NRA, focused and well-resourced, controls state and federal legislators by undermining opponents in party primaries so that they lose the party’s endorsement. Angry, fearless high school students are a current challenge, but the odds still favour this formidable organisation.

Tasmanians may once have found poker machines alluring, but that faded long ago. A comfortable majority of us now believes the economic and psychological harm they inflict on people and communities far outweighs any benefit.

In 2015-16 Tasmanian gamblers lost $191 million in pubs and clubs. A 2017 study of new spending patterns if pokies were removed found that while some of that money would go into other forms of gambling, there would be enough left over to boost the economy and employment.

Historian James Boyce has shown nearly all the poker machine venues outside the two casinos are owned by big companies including Woolworths. Economists Fabrizio Carmignani and Saul Eslake have found that supporting their machines occupies just 370 full-time-equivalent positions.

Yet the massive “love your local” campaign by Federal Hotels and other poker machine companies characterised those venues as family businesses supporting local needs. It also claimed that their pokies support around 5000 jobs – over 13 times the Carmignani-Eslake estimate.

The aim was to make us think that removing poker machines would be a disaster. It was focused, well-resourced, supported by compliant legislators, and very careless with the truth. It could have come straight from an NRA campaign handbook. And it worked.

Limiting the availability of guns in the US and poker machines in Tasmania has long had broad public support. So too does action on climate change.

The last Lowy Institute annual climate change poll found that the proportion of Australians who see global warming as a serious and pressing problem justifying urgent action has steadily risen for five consecutive years. At the time of the poll, in mid-2017, it stood at 54 per cent.

The same poll found that 81 per cent of Australians believe the government’s energy focus should be on investment in renewables and infrastructure to make the system more reliable.

That’s no surprise to me, but it may be to prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and his environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, who for the past couple of years have pilloried South Australia’s effort to boost renewable generation by supporting wind, solar and battery storage.

Like other states, Tasmania has always struggled with the climate issue, but the Hodgman government has brought disengagement to a new low. Contrary to initial promises and despite some commendable bureaucratic effort, it has barely lifted a finger to mitigate emissions.

The Liberals’ “Building your future” plan which they took to the election lists 100-odd policies for managing all manner of things, but climate does not rate a single mention. Now they have been re-elected, which might lead them to believe that voters don’t rate climate as all that important.

Never mind that scientific institutions everywhere, including our own Academy of Sciences, CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology, continue to warn about an increasingly destabilised climate.

Never mind that in the last week of the election campaign, in the depths of a northern winter, ice at the North Pole was melting. Never mind rising seas or heatwaves or irregular rainfall. This is Tasmania, where nothing bad will happen so long as you keep us in government.

For the record, Labor’s climate stance was markedly stronger, while the Greens’ was the most comprehensive and considered. That alone justifies their continued existence as a third force in Tasmanian politics.

Tasmanians must make the most of what they’ve got. The world’s troubles aside, they have practical issues around housing, health, education and employment to worry about. I don’t blame them for letting government shortcomings on pokies and climate go through to the keeper.

But we have put these people into office to do more than just keep things moving as they are. We expect them to keep vested interests out of government, to ensure that money doesn’t buy favoured treatment, and to keep a lookout for hazards ahead. This is not good enough.

Posted in Australian politics, climate politics, Tasmanian politics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment