Political circumstances have delivered the Australian Greens a key role in determining Australia’s response to climate change. This includes powerful positions for both Bob Brown and Christine Milne on the PM’s select Climate Change Committee which was announced last week.
Despite this coup for the Greens a media image accompanying the announcement, showing a beaming Dr Brown alongside down-cast Climate Change Minister Greg Combet, spoke volumes for the likely difficulties of this political marriage.
The Greens and their ENGO (environmental non-government organisations) support base have a long-standing reputation as idealists. Founded on concern for the environment, they are strong on what they oppose but care little for the flow-on implications or consequences associated with pursuing narrow aims. If allowed free rein, such an approach can lead to perverse outcomes - both socio-economically and environmentally. It appears that the government are all-too-aware of the problems this could present in formulating an agreed approach to effective climate change action.
The Greens’ position on Australia’s forests provides a striking example. The forests issue underpins the very existence of the Greens. Their ENGO constituents have waged uncompromising campaigns against Australian native timber production for more than 30 years. During the last 15 years, their objective has hardened from significantly reducing timber production to ending it completely.
Climate change has become central to the ENGO’s forest campaigns during the past five years in which the community has been repetitively assailed with the mantra that closing Australia’s native forest timber industry is the ultimate climate change “fix”: forests, they say, are worth more as standing carbon stores than as wood products.
During the recent Federal Election, the Australian Greens assumed hitherto unprecedented political power on a campaign platform which included a promise to end Australia's production of native forest timber, ostensibly as a climate change measure. Since then, internal Tasmanian negotiations on the future of its forest industry saw the major ENGOs release a set of principles calling for the total cessation of native forest timber harvesting in Tasmania by the end of 2010, with an expectation that this will lead to an Australia-wide cessation - an outcome that was to be promoted by a $million advertising campaign.
The ENGOs have subsequently been forced to concede that an immediate exit of the timber industry from native forests is not feasible due to existing commercial contracts which must be honoured. Nevertheless, their intent remains clear and it is certain that pushing for a phased-out end to native timber production across the nation will be central to Brown and Milne’s contribution to the PM’s Climate Change Committee.
The end of Australian native forest wood production would have a devastating socio-economic impact, particularly in Tasmania where the timber industry makes a very significant economic contribution. While it is often assumed that this would be restricted to rural and regional areas where jobs in timber harvest and haulage, forest management, and primary timber processing are located; the impact in urban Australia would also be substantial. There are many urban jobs related to forest planning, economics and marketing, research and development, secondary wood processing and timber retail. The latter two sectors reportedly involve 10,000 small and medium businesses which employ 80,000 Australians.
The community has been conditioned to expect that combating climate change will have significant socio-economic ramifications. However, it is entitled to expect that such pain would be a justifiable cost from actually reducing greenhouse emissions. However, ending native forest wood production will not reduce greenhouse emissions. Instead, it will increase emissions by fostering greater use of alternative materials and encouraging more timber imports from developing countries where deforestation is reportedly already responsible for an estimated 15 to 17 per cent of global greenhouse emissions.
Wood, unlike other building materials, is renewable and stores carbon. It also embodies comparatively very small greenhouse emissions in its harvesting, processing and manufacture compared to alternative materials such as steel, aluminium, and concrete. In Australia, the production of wood products is a renewable activity because forests are regenerated after harvesting. Accordingly, a recent Australian government study of 115 key industries found that only the forestry sector was net carbon-positive.
This flies in the face of the Greens’ insistence that ending Australian native forest timber production is a climate change “fix”. Elsewhere around the world, wood is regarded as the ultimate greenhouse-friendly material, with its renewable production considered to be integral to combating climate change.
This was articulated by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change when, in 2007, it stated that:
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