Getting real about forestry emissions

Until our government heeds the science on emissions from clear-felling mature native forest, Tasmania’s official emissions statistics will not tell it as it is. [21 April 2009 | Peter Boyer]

Every now and again, a sharply-focused image of a gum seedling or a finely-crafted piece of furniture appears on my television screen. A beguiling reminder of how good it is to live in this place, at this time.

A cable-logged hillside in the upper South Esk catchment. (Photo Lesley Nicklason)

A cable-logged hillside in the upper South Esk catchment. (Photo Lesley Nicklason)

No-one pays good advertising money just to show us nice images of life in Australia. In this case, the message is how lucky we are to have a timber industry, because when it comes to greenhouse emissions, wood is so much better than other materials, like steel or aluminium.

That message was underscored on local TV news last week when Forestry Tasmania’s corporate relations manager, Ken Jeffreys, responding to complaints about smoke haze from forest operations, pointed to the industry’s re-seeding program as evidence of its climate-friendly status.

It’s true, as the forest industry says, that steel and aluminium are anything but climate-friendly products. A steel furnace consumes copious amounts of coal, and aluminium smelting uses so much electricity (usually coal-fired) it’s sometimes been called “congealed electricity”. And it’s true that the 1997 Kyoto accords allowed special dispensation for forestry as practised here.

But it’s disingenuous to claim that today’s forest industry presents a sharp contrast to these alternative products – to suggest that because trees absorb carbon dioxide, the industry actually reduces our carbon footprint. That may accord with diplomatic definitions, but we have to get real here.

Human carbon pollution is a physical phenomenon, independent of any political or commercial agenda, and Tasmanian forestry emissions must never be quarantined from a comprehensive carbon accounting process. I would happily accept the assurances of Mr Jeffreys or anyone in the industry if I could find the scientific evidence behind such assurances, but try as I might, I can’t.

I was well into my climate change work when I entered the debate about forest and climate in this column about a year ago. I drew attention then to what forest science seemed to be telling us about how forests store carbon and what happens to this carbon when the forest is harvested.

I have consulted a wide range of forest science research work, including work done by Forestry Tasmania itself about a decade ago. The science has consistently said that under today’s “slash and burn” clearfelling regimes, harvesting native forest in Australia is an emissions-intensive activity.

It says that each hectare of Australian native forest stores hundreds of tonnes of carbon, and that no matter how vigorous the regrowth after mature forest has been clearfelled, net carbon loss from the operation is so large that recovery would take many times the length of any subsequent harvesting cycle. Full recovery can take centuries.

Scientific studies of forest carbon in Australia and North America have consistently indicated that, of the carbon removed from a forest as a result of clearfell operations (either taken away in logs or lost to the atmosphere in burning or decay), only a tiny proportion is preserved long-term (over 75 years) in a product such as furniture or housing.

Statistics from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) tell us that in 2008 only 13.4 per cent of harvested “roundwood” (itself only part of the forest carbon that’s removed during harvesting) ended up as sawn timber, of which only part is retained in long-term product.

My reading of the science and the ABARE statistics says that for every tonne of forest carbon that is saved in long-term product, over 40 tonnes are lost to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. At this rate, Australian forestry as it’s practised today is anything but a greenhouse-friendly activity.

Yet despite all the contrary scientific evidence – including evidence from within Tasmanian forestry circles – the industry here continues to cite Australian government figures based on the Kyoto agreement to “prove” that it’s carbon-neutral, leading the way to a greener future.

If the forestry industry sincerely believed this, you’d think it wouldn’t hesitate to secure solid evidence by means of rigorous, peer-reviewed science. Surely it would put aside the politically convenient but illogical accounting framework of the Kyoto accord and seek a more rational, transparent method of determining our real forestry footprint. Wouldn’t you think so?

It won’t serve anyone if we continue this politically-driven charade. We urgently need to review our greenhouse gas accounting in the AFOLU sector (diplomatic-speak for “agriculture, forestry and land use”), incorporating existing carbon storage (stocks) as well as annual flows.

When our forest carbon accounting is based on science and physical reality instead of politics, we can confidently include forestry in a comprehensive national or international carbon regime. Then, and only then, will we know the real cost of a piece of timber.

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