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Seeing wood, trees and forests

By Mark Poynter - posted Friday, 21 December 2007


Now the Bali climate change summit has closed there is a welcome realisation that curbing deforestation in tropical countries is perhaps one of the more achievable actions that could substantially and quickly reduce global carbon emissions. However, unfortunately and rather incredibly, this is being viewed by elements of the environmental movement as an opportunity to further their campaigns against Australia’s native hardwood industry despite the reality that it uses a renewable resource obtained mostly from sustainably managed public forests.

Greens climate change spokeswoman, Senator Christine Milne, set the ball rolling when she greeted news of Australia’s signing of the Kyoto Protocol by stating that “Mr Rudd’s first challenge will be to tackle our forestry emissions by stopping logging in Tasmania and Victoria”.

She followed this up on her Bali Blog, on December12, by articulating her concern that representatives from Australia’s timber industry were in Bali attempting to water down definitions of deforestation and degradation “which would destroy their propaganda that the management of Australia’s forests is carbon positive”.

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If true, the need for such action reflects poorly on the state of knowledge about sustainable forestry among the international community particularly given the very obvious differences between it and deforestation. Arguably, it also highlights the effectiveness of the environmental movement in deliberating blurring the distinction between Australian forestry and tropical deforestation.

For the record, deforestation in developing countries such as Indonesia involves logging and/or clearing with the aim of permanently removing forest cover in favour of some other agricultural land use. While it can produce wood, it is mostly conducted illegally and so represents an unregulated and unsustainable supply. The release of carbon from clearing and subsequent burning of vegetation coupled with the loss of future carbon sequestration capability led the 2006 Stern Review to conclude that tropical deforestation was responsible for 18 per cent of the world’s CO2 emissions.

In stark contrast to this, sustainable wood production as practiced in Australia’s native forests is best described as managed harvesting and regeneration with the aim of maintaining forest cover and wood supply in perpetuity. On all available public land it is a legal, highly regulated aspect of forestry, which the Collins Australian Dictionary defines as “the science or skill of growing and maintaining trees in a forest”.

With respect to combating climate change, sustainable wood production makes a positive contribution to reducing carbon emissions by:

  • transferring carbon from forests into storage in the community in an array of wood products while creating space in the forest for replacement trees to sequester more carbon, thereby providing a net increase in stored carbon;
  • producing the only renewable building material which not only stores carbon, but is produced with embodied carbon emissions which are hundreds of times less than the alternative materials steel and aluminium, and six to eight times less than concrete;
  • maintaining designated portions of forest at a younger average age which grows more vigorously with enhanced rates of carbon sequestration compared to older forests which grow progressively slower and so sequester less carbon; and
  • reducing demand for illegally obtained rainforest timbers which is a contributing factor to tropical deforestation.

In Australia, the environmental movement’s denial of the carbon positive benefits of sustainable wood production is mostly centred around an entrenched presumption that all mature forests - if not logged - will eventually grow into “old growth” that can store massive amounts of carbon forever. A significant additional factor is a poor understanding of what sustainable wood production is, largely stemming from an unwillingness to consider forestry in its proper context as a landscape scale activity.

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The notion that all forests can be “preserved” in parks and reserves that securely store carbon forever is nonsense given that Australian forests rely on disturbance for their long term renewal. Our forests will always wax and wane as carbon stores, particularly subject to the influence of severe fire. For example, it was estimated that 130 million tonnes of greenhouse gases were emitted during the 2003 bushfires in southeast Australia. Regardless of whether forests are “preserved” or used for wood production, they can never be protected carbon sinks.

Further to this, the popular view of “old growth” forests as massive carbon stores is somewhat compromised given that senescent trees are no longer growing and eventually become net carbon emitters as they decay and slowly die. Many people fail to appreciate that “old growth” forests will inevitably release their carbon stores by dying or being burnt.

Arguably, the focus of environmental activism on tree felling at a coupe scale is a deliberate tactic to avoid scrutiny of landscape context and proportionality that could weaken campaign messages designed to create a false impression that logging has no limits. This focus has also enhanced their argument that wood production causes substantial carbon emissions because post-logging regrowth on any particular logged area will obviously take as long as a century to regain its pre-harvest carbon store.

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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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