Forests and climate change: Issues in a Tasmanian context

Climate change and the need to cut emissions presents us with a real problem in the context of forestry. Evidence about carbon storage by forests suggests a way out of the current forest harvesting impasse. [23 April 2008 | Peter Boyer]

Address to Environment Tasmania forum at Dechaineaux Theatre, School of Art, University of Tasmania, 23 April 2008. Other speakers were Professor David Bowman, UTAS School of Plant Science; Barry Chipman, Timber Communities Australia; Dr Hans Drielsma, Forestry Tasmania; and Alistair Graham, Tasmanian Conservation Trust.

I’m assuming that everyone here tonight believes that humans have caused our climate to change and that we can and must stop this trend. If you want to know more about this, I or one of my Climate Project colleagues would be pleased to give a lavishly illustrated talk about Tasmania and climate to a group that you’re part of. This is a voluntary program and there’s no charge.

Tonight I want to focus on paradigms: how we think about forests, climate, other people, our future.

A disclaimer: I’m not qualified in any technical or scientific field being looked at tonight. My field is communicating information. For this I bring separate strands together, get specialist help to sift through hard bits, and try to make the data understandable to ordinary people. I have to say that the science of carbon in forests is as perplexing as anything I’ve come across.

Half a century ago in rural Tasmania, where I grew up, forests were things that had to be tamed. My father taught me and my brothers how to handle an axe, and we used it with pleasure and a sense of achievement on numerous young eucalypts that begged to be sent crashing to the ground, and then spectacularly burnt in great Empire Day bonfires.

After doing things as remote from tree-felling as you could get – like journalism, uni studies and history – for a year I found myself working for the Forestry Commission. Observing forest operations, I felt the pull of childhood pleasures and the appeal of forest work, remote from urban cares.

At this time many were starting to question accepted forest harvesting regimes. My greener friends and acquaintances protested about what they saw as the barbarism of laying waste to wildlife habitat and then poisoning the surviving animals as they attempted to eat the regrowth. I didn’t. While I found this practice distasteful, I put my distaste aside. Clear-felling forests to replace old trees with new, vigorous youngsters, while bringing an economic return, made sense to me.

There was one other factor. In a time when people were deserting the country for better-paid, better-serviced lives in the city, logging allowed people to continue to live in viable rural communities. This remains an important consideration – one that Mr Chipman’s organisation recognises in its title.

In my next job, communicating the intricacies of Antarctic and Southern Ocean science for Australia’s Antarctic program, I found my vocation. It was here, in the late 1980s, that I first learned of greenhouse theory and global warming. I learned that climate wasn’t just something ‘out there’, an act of God or Nature, but a dynamic system which our human activities seemed to be influencing, as if we ourselves were playing God. Observing big changes in polar conditions, Antarctic scientists joined the push to make climate change an international issue.

When I left the Australian Antarctic Division in 2002 – with some reluctance, I might add – I might have felt that climate science would play a diminishing part in my life, but as a free-lancer I continued to earn money writing about it. In 2006 I found myself committed to raising this increasingly urgent matter in a public arena, as one among eighty Australian presenters for the Climate Project, an initiative of Al Gore, who came to Australia to start our training. First there were two Tasmanians in this brigade; now there are five in a total of over two hundred and fifty. This is truly a growth industry.

I said Al Gore started our training. Our audiences are continuing it. In climate change, we’re all perpetual students. A further source of wisdom and support for me has been the people of Sustainable Living Tasmania, whom I have joined in many rewarding workshops with concerned public groups.

One thing we’ve learned is that the old paradigms just won’t wash – all those protected boxes of knowledge in which we had special definitions of things like permanence, productivity, the environment, economic growth, and so on, are having to be opened up. We’re forced to look afresh at societies, economies, governance – and collective and individual responsibilities. Authorities are having to deal with people they once might have avoided, because we must be receptive to good ideas from every possible source. We’re all having to adjust, because old mindsets just won’t cope with the uncertainties of global warming.

With our failure to act after Kyoto in 1997, climate change is now a desperately urgent matter needing the immediate and full attention of people in charge – the politicians and bureaucrats who make up our governments. To try to convey this sense of urgency, last year I met with leading political figures from both major parties, state and federal, including the Premier and the Tasmanian Leader of the Opposition.

We seemed to be making headway when the Premier said last October he wanted his government to lead Australia in tackling climate change. Last month he said that the public service, beginning immediately, would act with all necessary speed to reduce its carbon footprint, and that the government would make laws to mandate its 2050 emissions reduction target. He also announced that he had asked Professor Ross Garnaut to provide ‘transparent, independent advice’ on the role of the forestry sector in addressing climate change.

These were very welcome developments. I for one applauded the Premier for bringing some much-needed authority and decision to the Tasmanian climate debate.

For all that, it still remains to act on these directives, and to bring the wider Tasmanian community into the picture. To advance the latter, the Climate Change Office is to release a Tasmanian strategy in stages over coming months. We all –citizens and government alike – have a responsibility to take up the challenge, and quickly, overcoming the natural intertia in our systems and communities.

In trying to work out what Tasmanian things we need to talk about in our presentations, I and my Climate Project colleagues have discerned two natural resources whose management looms largest. They are water, and trees.

We need water badly, not just to maintain our ecosystems and ourselves (that is, to stay alive), but also for export agriculture and to power our hydro-electric system. If we manage water badly and have less of it in our systems, we’ll not only risk the well-being of ecosystems (which include us), but also lose both export revenue and precious green electricity, which will make meeting emissions reduction targets much, much tougher. We obviously have to be very careful in allocating this resource.

One of the things we need water for is trees. So long as droughts are not too prolonged, old forests can manage through hard times. But fast-growing plantation species popping up in increasing numbers around our island need a lot of water to grow at the rates expected of them. So trees are a significant factor in the management of water.

If we’re going to plan our water future, we need to be across rainfall and evaporation trends. A CSIRO high-resolution model of our climate projected to 2040, produced for Hydro Tasmania, reveals a drying – both lower rainfall and higher evaporation – in most inhabited parts of the state.

Hardest hit by drying, the model shows, will be the central north, north-east, central east coast and midlands, a region dominated by the South Esk river and its tributary systems, Macquarie and Meander. Current sluggish downstream flows through Trevallyn are evidence that this system is already under stress, raising questions about its ability to cope with extra demand, whether from growing plants upstream or thirsty people and industries downriver. We’d better think hard about how we allocate Trevallyn water.

Which brings me, finally, to the role of forests and forestry in these times of rising carbon dioxide levels.

In trying to unravel the mysteries of how forests deal with carbon, I began from the premise that given the strength of feeling in defence of current forestry practices, some seriously cogent arguments would be needed to justify changing them.

The first thing that struck me was that it’s very hard to find an objective overview. The ranks of the Wilderness Society and the Greens include some good thinkers, but how can you ignore the fact that they’ve been locked in battle with authorities for over two decades? Hostility breeds polemic, which leaves its mark wherever you turn.

Forestry Tasmania and the CRC for Sustainable Production Forestry are also affected by the conflict. And a second bias – the commercial imperative – is something to watch out for here. Australian tertiary forestry education, as the eminent ecologist Alec Costin pointed out, is inclined to focus on commercial aspects at the expense of nature study.

So as primary sources, both sides of the debate in Tasmania have this credibility problem.

Which leaves a rather diminished field of serious analysis of carbon sequestration in Australian forests. Australian sources include CSIRO, greenhouse accounting and bushfire CRCs, the Australian National University’s Ecosystem Dynamics Group, and the University of New South Wales School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, as well as plant science departments in other universities, including Tasmania. North American, European and United Nations sources provide a global perspective.

I’ve learned that in assessing carbon in forests we need to look at two things: acquisition and storage. There’s no doubt that young, quickly growing trees are better at acquisition – capturing and holding atmospheric carbon – than older trees. So – we replace the old trees with young ones… right?

No – not a good idea, it seems. The key is carbon storage, at which mature native forests, in all their biodiversity, are vastly better than man-made alternatives. Perfectly adapted by evolution to their particular environments, the world’s forests have been accumulating carbon for centuries in their canopy species; their understorey plants from trees down to mosses; their debris, peat and soils, to a level that fast-growing plantation trees (much less dense than naturally-growing forest trees) cannot achieve, and which regrowth forest takes at least 200 years to reach. One Australian National University study put the carbon recovery time for Eucalyptus regnans forests at 375 years. There’s at least ten times as much carbon in such forests, these estimates suggest, than in a harvest-ready plantation covering the same area.

This assessment is disputed, it has to be said. The MBAC report, for instance, put the Tasmanian native forest storage capacity at less than half the estimates of academic studies. But I’m inclined to put my faith in less commercial sources.

The dominant harvesting regime in Australian native forests is clear-fell logging – taking wood for timber or pulp then removing remaining plant material through high-intensity burning before establishing new forest or plantations. The evidence I’ve seen says that adopting such a practice in any mature native forest is to forfeit stores of carbon that we have no capacity to recover for hundreds of years – much too late to stop dangerous climate change. That’s assuming that regrowth isn’t harvested within that period – not a safe assumption based on harvesting cycles measured in decades. If Garnaut concludes, as I did, that we’re losing very big, irreplaceable carbon stores by clear-felling mature native forests, then he will determine that this is a dangerous practice which must stop.

Time is critical. We must reduce emissions now if we’re to get anywhere near acceptable 2050 targets. Savings in twenty years’ time are worthless if in the meantime we have maintained high-polluting regimes. Every delay, every year without action, makes future action that much tougher.

The first thing we have to do is get real. Carbon accounting under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol takes no account of logging, because it suited some countries including Australia to have this ignored. This is self-defeating. Australia needs to incorporate all polluting in its internal accounting systems. And we need to start this now, not after Kyoto ends in 2012.

But there’s reason for optimism. With no clear-felling, Tasmanian carbon emissions would be sufficiently below historical levels to meet most of what will otherwise be a near-impossible 2050 emissions reduction target. Under a comprehensive Emissions Trading Scheme, the value of such a significant reduction in emissions would far exceed the economic return from harvesting wood fibre, enough to sustain comfortably the rural communities charged with managing and conserving these great carbon stores in perpetuity. Conversely, under a comprehensive ETS the financial cost of emissions from clear-fell regimes would almost certainly make them uneconomical.

Planet Earth doesn’t hear human bickering. It responds only to real action. We can’t afford to quarantine forestry from such action, nor put any commercial or political interests ahead of the truth, nor refuse to deal with people because they disagree with us. Both sides of this divide must change their thinking. The timber industry will have to abandon some cherished positions, but the conservation fraternity will also have to change. It will need to accept that humanity lives within nature as part of the natural order, not apart from it, and that a halt to native forest clear-felling wouldn’t preclude other logging regimes.

This is an opportunity for some fence-mending. The great divides (city-country, logging-conservation) will have to be bridged. Rural communities must be given the support they need to continue to derive nourishment and wealth from the land. This is in everyone’s interest. These same communities, as food-producers, may well turn out to be our lifeline.

We must put politics and squabbling aside, heed what science tells us, and change how we manage our forests. Together.

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