Realising the value of standing forests

The prospect offered by the Wilderness Society of getting a return on standing trees deserves serious consideration by government and industry.

Forest near Blue Tier in NE Tasmania,  part of Tasmania’s “future potential production forest” (FPPF) which could benefit from carbon credits. PHOTO Otway Ranges Environmental Group.

Forest near Blue Tier in NE Tasmania, part of the area dubbed “future potential production forest” (FPPF), which could benefit from carbon credits. PHOTO Otway Ranges Environmental Group.

We’re failing the ultimate test of success in cutting carbon emissions: the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. Tasmanian carbon dioxide levels are now above 400 parts per million and rising.

That’s one reason the Hodgman government should take a good hard look at a new proposal from the Wilderness Society. Another is the continued depressed state of forest industries.

Trees have many assets, but their most valuable one right now is helping to stop the planet’s greenhouse gas budget getting completely out of hand by taking up carbon dioxide from the air. The more growing trees we have in the ground, the better.

Doubt about human-induced climate change, deeply-embedded in conservative politics across the country, has severely limited the scope of Coalition abatement policy and prevented any effective move on smokestack or tailpipe emissions.

Hence the federal government’s uncharacteristic interest in trees. Environment minister Greg Hunt has made them his key strategic tool, reflected in the fact that well over half of abatement funding from the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) so far has gone to planting and tending trees.

In 2012, a study commissioned by Tasmania’s Labor-Green government used state-of-the-art methodology to determine that the carbon sequestered by our island’s forests could deliver as much as $352 million to the state under then-current carbon prices.

Back then there was hope that the Tasmanian Forest Agreement could lead to at least some of this abatement value being realised, but this never happened before the agreement was abandoned by the present Liberal government in 2014.

But a new report by the author of the original 2012 study offers a persuasive argument that it remains very much a live option for Tasmania to pursue ERF funding for its massive forest resource – so long as suitable assessment methodologies can be developed.

Last year the Wilderness Society commissioned Barrie May of TreeMod, a Melbourne environmental consultancy, to investigate how Tasmania could get a cash return, and what this might be, if it kept various forest areas intact.

The TreeMod study looked at the abatement potential of not harvesting the area flagged as “future potential production forest” (FPPF), while allowing for current harvesting plans to be realised. It estimates that by 2050 this could realise at least $68 million and probably much more.

These lands are under a harvesting moratorium till 2020, but the Hodgman government opened up the option of harvesting after then. This assumes that harvesting would add value to the lands, an assumption that looks shakier as each passing year ramps up the pressure to lower net emissions.

TreeMod spells out how we can secure long-term, reliable income from the 357,000 hectares of FPPF land. But for that to happen, forestry interests and governments in both Canberra and Hobart need to be on board.

That task looks impossible when you consider the mutual mistrust bedevilling the industry. Environmentalists fear the loss of natural values, timber harvesters fear income loss from land reservation, and farmers fear plantations swallowing their farms.

The standoff between key players has resulted in native forests and most plantations being ruled inadmissible for ERF support, despite their great potential to contribute to carbon abatement. That unfortunate exclusion can’t have been lost on Hunt.

Facing difficult times, many in the industry would surely be tempted by the security of diversified revenue streams: credit for sequestered forest carbon as well as income from harvesting. The TreeMod report offers a methodology that allows land owners and managers, including state governments, to maintain a harvesting industry while also getting carbon credits from varying harvesting rates, excluding areas from harvest and planting trees on existing cleared land.

Barrie May’s reports show how we can measure the complexities of carbon abatement resulting from these activities, and the Wilderness Society aims to use that to engage with government and other forestry players to find a viable future for our forests.

This cries out for a positive response.

Posted in agricultural science, agriculture and farming, Australian politics, biodiversity, biological resources, business interests, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, carbon pricing scheme, carbon sequestration, climate politics, economic activity, environmental degradation, forest science, forests and forestry, land use, local economy, modelling, science, Tasmanian politics, trees | Leave a comment

Move to sack leading scientist will shock scientific world

Malcolm Turnbull’s failure to intervene in the CSIRO crisis will cost Australia dearly.

John Church speaks to media in Melbourne during a February protest against CSIRO climate science cuts. PHOTO Penny Stephens, Fairfax Media

John Church speaks to media in Melbourne during a protest on February 7 against CSIRO climate science cuts. PHOTO Penny Stephens, The Age, Melbourne

The demand by CSIRO management that its leading sea-level scientist, John Church, explain why he shouldn’t be sacked is as unbelievable as it is outrageous.

On an individual level, it is an appalling way to treat the person who has done more than anyone to put CSIRO at the forefront of sea-level studies and whose name, on research paper after research paper, has become virtually synonymous with world-leading climate research.

Church was at sea, aboard the new marine research ship Investigator on a transect from Antarctica to New Zealand, when told over the satellite phone that he was on a redundancy hit-list. He has until mid-June to put a case against his termination.

More than 300 staff are losing their jobs at CSIRO. Church’s oceans and atmosphere unit is losing 74 positions, with hundreds more positions going from the land and water, agriculture, minerals, food and nutrition and finance units.

The climate science losses are happening mainly in Melbourne, Canberra and Church’s home city of Hobart, with positions also going in Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

CSIRO has long led the world in modelling Southern Hemisphere climate. The current threat to that capacity has been met with dismay from leading institutions and thousands of scientists around the world, expressed in multiple letters to prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

It’s been a matter of Australian pride that our CSIRO is recognised globally as a great scientific institution. Now, thanks to a cavalier chief executive and a hapless, clearly dysfunctional board, we’re seeing that good name trashed. The impact will be felt for many years to come.

Disclosure: I have known John Church for many years. Our children shared a school and our paths have crossed many times over the years.

But I know that many share my high opinion of him. His scientific intelligence and unmatched grasp of his chosen field brought global acclaim, but all who know him put highest value on his open, equitable demeanour and his decency, honesty and modesty. He’s surely everyone’s model scientist.

Ever the loyal employee, he remained mute over recent years as his organisation suffered repeated funding cuts. But chief executive Larry Marshall’s declaration in early February that CSIRO no longer needed to observe, measure or model climate was a bridge too far.

The day after Marshall announced his proposed restructuring, Church publicly stated that the job cuts would severely diminish Australia’s ability to fulfil its commitments under the Paris climate agreement.

“I’m very saddened for the younger scientists who really are important for Australia’s future, and for the message that this sends to the world about doing environmental science in Australia,” he told the ABC’s Gregg Borschmann the day after Marshall’s announcement.

He said that as the leading Southern Hemisphere developed nation, Australia’s science investment attracted Northern Hemisphere resources “to help address issues important to Australia and its neighbours”. Those resources and the capacity to use them effectively have been put at risk.

Church has previously said he expected to lose his job. He now says that while he will point out “errors of reasoning” in the case for the redundancies, he does not intend to argue for his retention. “I am not sure I can work with the current management,” he told me yesterday.

The news will be a shock to scientists around the globe who assumed his professional stature would protect him. The CSIRO redundancies are doing irreparable damage to Australia’s scientific reputation – a reputation earned not over a decade or two but generations.

The most disturbing aspect of the sackings is the silence of CSIRO’s putative master, the federal government. Turnbull, science minister Christopher Pyne and environment minister Greg Hunt have all declined to comment.

Appointed under former PM Tony Abbott, Marshall was smart enough to link his plan to “use innovation to help Australia navigate climate change” to Turnbull’s own “innovation nation” ideas.

But Turnbull could have stopped the job losses with a phone call. Although much damage has already been done, that is still an option. His failure to intervene may cost him political capital in the election, but more to the point, it will cost the country.

From the prime minister down, this is a disgraceful performance that brings shame to Australia.

Posted in Antarctic, atmospheric science, Australian politics, bureaucracy, climate politics, climate system, CSIRO, future climate, leadership, marine sciences, meteorology, modelling, oceanography, science, sea level | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Acidifying oceans highlight Australia’s climate policy barren

While the world’s climate scientists wrestle with the mammoth issue of ocean acidification, the Turnbull government cuts research and fiddles in the margins.

CAPTION: Coral bleaching off Heron Island, near the southernmost point of the Great Barrier Reef, in February this year. PHOTO XL Catlin Seaview Survey

Coral bleaching off Heron Island, near the southernmost point of the Great Barrier Reef, in February 2016. PHOTO XL Catlin Seaview Survey

In the week of Scott Morrison’s first budget, 330 scientists holed up in Hobart were focusing on something much bigger: an astonishingly rapid shift in global ocean chemistry.

The fourth international conference on “the ocean in a high-CO2 world” looked at how high carbon dioxide levels are affecting oceans and their inhabitants, and revealed some grim findings.

Carbon dioxide’s warming effect has been known for 150 years, but we knew virtually nothing about a second outcome of human emissions – rising acidity of ocean waters – until the early years of this century.

The extent and impact of ocean acidification is revealed in the scope of the Hobart conference: 218 presentations and 109 posters looking at the myriad ways seawater acidity is happening, affecting all marine life down to microscopic organisms, around all continents and in the deep ocean.

The most telling statistic about today’s ocean acidification is the rate at which it’s unfolding. Acidity has increased by 30 per cent in less than 100 years. That’s at least 10 times and more likely well over 20 times the rate of acidification in the last big event previously, 56 million years ago.

The Hobart meeting heard that today’s change may be the most rapid in 300 million years. Time, and plenty of it, is all-important if living things are to adapt. Quickly-changing ocean chemistry is exacerbating coral bleaching, depressing immune responses and making it harder for some organisms to form shells and other structures needing calcium.

The impact is especially severe when warming ocean water and marine pollution are added, affecting coastal shellfish farming and causing the Great Barrier Reef’s worst bleaching on record.

One of the world’s best-known climate scientists, Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, California – a co-author of the paper that first described ocean acidification in 2003 – told the Hobart meeting of the enormous challenge posed to science by a high-CO2 ocean.

He pointed out the exponential increase in research demands it had created, taking in multiple drivers, whole ecosystems and evolutionary adaptation over time, in an environment often hard to access and covering 70 per cent of Earth’s surface.

Both the conference as a whole and Caldeira’s closing address revealed the colossal absurdity of February’s statement by the chief executive of CSIRO, Larry Marshall, that the task of modelling, monitoring and measuring climate change was essentially finished. It’s barely begun.

Marshall’s “job done” line was the basis of his scheme to restructure parts of CSIRO, with climate research giving way to studying adaptive technologies. Between 10 and 50 marine science positions are to go; the actual number hasn’t yet been announced.

CSIRO is a world leader in modelling southern hemisphere climate. The threat to its climate science capacity was a dark cloud over the four days of the Hobart conference.

Treasurer Scott Morrison’s budget speech made no mention of climate or the environment, immediately compromising the Turnbull government’s much touted election manifesto, its 10-year “national economic plan for jobs and growth”. If our natural systems fail, the whole economy goes down too.

The budget does include money to protect the Great Barrier Reef, but the over-arching cause of our oceans’ sickness is too much carbon dioxide in the air. If we’re not pulling our weight to cut our own emissions – and we’re not – all the rest is fiddling in the margins.

There’s always hope. The centrepiece of Labor’s relatively ambitious climate plan – twin “baseline and credit” emissions trading schemes – offers a chance for much-needed bipartisan climate policy.

Such a scheme could be adapted by the Turnbull government as the “safeguard mechanism” to give bite to its toothless Direct Action policy. But that will now have to wait until after the election.

To its shame, the Coalition refuses to engage in meaningful discussion on climate. It’s a policy space that could be called a “barren” – the name given to desolate areas in coastal seas which have been swept clean of all life, mainly as a result of pollution.

As a US delegate to the ocean conference quipped in a discussion on winning over public opinion, “You can wake someone who’s asleep, but you can’t wake someone who’s pretending to be asleep.”

Posted in atmospheric science, Australian politics, biodiversity, biological resources, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, carbon pricing scheme, carbon sequestration, changes to climate, climate politics, climate system, CSIRO, economic activity, economic threat from climate, emissions trading, future climate, leadership, marine organisms, marine sciences, ocean acidification, oceanography, science, Southern Ocean, waste | 1 Comment