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Climate Commission needs to re-think forest carbon

By Mark Poynter - posted Monday, 27 June 2011


It should really be a no-brainer that sustainably producing wood from a portion of Australia’s forests is integral to an overall carbon abatement strategy. Wood is one of few renewable resources: it stores carbon; it embodies much lower carbon emissions in its life cycle compared to alternative materials; and these emissions are recouped as forests are successively harvested and regrown.

These benefits are widely recognised by the international forest science community and were articulated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 4th Assessment Report in 2007 which stated that: “In the long term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fibre or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained (carbon) mitigation benefit.”

The forests and timber sector is Australia’s only carbon-positive industry sector and could expect to be supported by a Climate Commission with the stated purpose of helping the nation “...move to a competitive, low pollution Australian economy”. In view of this, it is not only surprising that the Commission’s recently released report, The Critical Decade, says nothing about the benefits of wood production, but alarming that it implies that native forest wood production should cease to allow all forests to grow old and store carbon.

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Even more troubling is that the Commission’s stance on forests mirrors that of Australia’s major ENGO’s who have aggressively adopted ‘forest carbon’ as a weapon in their enduring campaigns to end Australian native forest wood production ostensibly to conserve biodiversity. These campaigns are based on erroneous presumptions including:

  • Timber harvesting is far more extensive than it actually is;
  • Forests, if not logged, will inevitably reach ‘old growth’ status that will maximise carbon storage in perpetuity;
  • Timber production is a total carbon emission; and
  • Carbon retained in standing forests is more valuable than wood products.

In recent years, these misconceptions have been given unwarranted credence by several academic papers published by a small cadre of authors from the Australian National University (ANU). By far the most influential of these papers was the first one published in August 2008, entitled ‘Green Carbon: The Role of Native Forests in Carbon Storage - Part 1’.

The ‘Green Carbon’ paper focuses on southern Australia’s wet eucalypt ‘old growth’ forests, which are amongst the largest in the world and store a lot of carbon. It advocates ending ‘industrial logging’ to both preserve the existing ‘old growth’, and allow regrowth stands to eventually reach ‘old growth’ thereby maximising their carbon storage potential.    

In reality, wet eucalypt forest types comprise less than one per cent of Australian forests and so are highly atypical of the greater forest landscape. Nevertheless, ENGO’s, particularly the Wilderness Society, have deceptively extrapolated their presence to make them central to campaigns advocating an end to all Australian native timber production, citing the ‘Green Carbon’ paper as the scientific support for this position.

The 'Green Carbon' paper itself has been mired in controversy since even before it was published. Apart from a questionable methodology, its integrity has been challenged because:

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  • The paper received financial-backing from the Wilderness Society through a formal partnership with the ANU;
  • The lead author was a member of the Wilderness Society’s Wild Country Science Council;
  • The paper’s key findings were publicly launched by its lead author at a Wilderness Society function held at the U.N. Climate Conference in Bali in November 2007, some nine months before the paper was published;
  • The findings were being widely spruiked in the media by both its authors and the Wilderness Society before peer review had been completed;
  • The paper contained no technical detail to support its findings and yet was able to satisfy peer review standards; and
  • Prior to its publication, the paper’s findings were made available to both the Australian Greens and the Wilderness Society to assist its members in making submissions to the Garnaut Climate Change Review.

Amongst Australian forest scientists, the ‘Green Carbon’ paper is widely regarded as having been prepared at the behest of the Wilderness Society to support its political agenda, with the paper’s authors having acted as ENGO forest campaigners rather than objective scientists.

It is therefore highly significant that the ‘Green Carbon’ paper’s lead author, an ANU ecologist, sits on the Climate Commission’s Science Advisory Panel and is listed on the Commission’s website as its only advisor with ‘expertise in forests and carbon’. The Commission’s lack of wider expertise in forest and timber management is evident in The Critical Decade and raises concerns about the quality of advice the Commission receives and the apparent lack of rigor exercised in seeking to guard against potential biases amongst its selected advisors.

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Article edited by Jo Coghlan.
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About the Author

Mark Poynter is a professional forester with 40 years experience. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia and his book, Saving Australia's Forests and its Implications, was published in 2007.

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