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Push to close Australia's native timber industry to 'save' forest carbon based on flawed science

By Mark Poynter - posted Monday, 17 November 2014


In a media release last week, the Australian National University (ANU) announced that "in partnership with information and communication technologists at Fujitsu Laboratories in Japan", its researchers had found that "protecting native forests by ending logging could double the amount of carbon stored in trees", and that "avoiding emissions from logging native forests is important to help fight climate change".

The ANU media release went on to explain that the findings were drawn from research undertaken in the mountain ash forests of Victoria's Central Highlands in which a new national park – the Great Forests National Park – has been proposed by 'the community'. Furthermore, it announced that two research papers proposing new strategies to manage native forests would be presented at the IUCN's World Parks Congress due to start the following day in Sydney.

On the same day, a media release from Fujitsu Laboratories about this new research explained how the Japanese company applied its Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) technology "to quantitively assess changes in the forest's carbon stock". According to Fujitsu, "the new research has found innovative new methods of sustainably managing native forests ...... that keeps volumes of atmospheric CO2 in check and that work for the protection of endangered species"

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Fujitsu went on to explain that it had simulated and analysed changes to the forest carbon stock caused by natural wildfires compared to human use for wood production. Their media release included two diagrams - one purporting to show carbon flow associated with wood production; and the other comparing carbon stock volume under natural wildfire and wood production scenarios.

These two diagrams exhibit critical errors that stem from an earlier research paper by ANU conservation scientists – Keith et al, published in June 2014: Managing temperate forests for carbon storage: impacts of logging versus forest protection on carbon stocks, by Keith, Lindenmayer, Mackey, Blair, Carter, MacBurney, Okada, Konishi-Nagano, published by Ecosphere, ESA Online Journals Vol 5 Issue 6 Article 75.

That paper's lead author, Dr Heather Keith, is also named on the ANU media release as the contact for media interviews on this new joint ANU/Fujitsu research. This confirms that the errors contained in her paper, Keith et al (2014), are being repeated in this new joint research. They include:

A misconception that only 40% of the merchantable biomass of a clear-felled mountain ash forest in Victoria's Central Highlands is removed off-site (as usable logs).

This is an avoidable error which has arisen from the misquoting of a cited source reference. It is serious because it creates a false contention which becomes the basis for further errors.

Keith et al citedRaison and Squire (2007) as the source of this misconception. However, Table 4 (p.23) of Raison and Squire shows that in "Moist, high quality forests" clearfell harvested for sawlog and pulpwood, 40% of the 'harvested above-ground tree biomass' remains on-site as slash residue. Therefore 60% (not 40%) is being removed off-site as usable logs.

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Further to this, the Raison and Squire (2007) figure is an Australia-wide figure for a range of wet forest types and ages. However, in the Victorian Central Highlands ash forests studied by Keith et al, timber harvesting occurs almost exclusively in 75-year old advanced regrowth forests. According to the state's commercial forestry agency, VicForests, this harvesting produces substantially higher log recovery than that cited by Raison and Squire (2007), with off-site log removals often comprising 80 – 85% of the above-ground tree biomass.

Keith et al's substantial understating of the proportion of merchantable biomass removed off-site as logs has significantly adverse ramifications for its carbon accounting calculations. They have been based on significantly under-stated carbon storage in wood products, and substantially over-stated carbon emissions during slash residue burns.

A flawed determination that just 27% of the harvested log volume produced from these forests is sawlog used to produce sawn timber.

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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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