When the Government recently announced the switch from carbon tax to carbon trading, it also quietly deferred $200 million which was supposed to help industry develop ‘carbon capture and storage’ technology. There has been little outcry because, by all accounts, innovations in this area are coming at a slow pace. Coincidentally $200 million is exactly the figure which the forest industry has put before government for an alternate ‘carbon capture and storage’ scheme which is not only a sure bet but, ‘shovel ready’.
I am talking about trees. Consider this. Trees ‘capture’ carbon as they grow. When they are harvested for products, like furniture and house frames, they continue to ‘store’ the carbon for many decades. Following harvest, the forest regenerates (or plantations are replanted), with the new trees ‘capturing’ even more carbon from the atmosphere for storage in yet more products. It is the most perfectly virtuous of carbon cycles.
The scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who set the international carbon accounting rules, have long been unequivocally in favour of the ‘harvest and regrow’ scenario. In 2007 they pronounced, “In the long term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustainable yield of timber, fibre, or energy from the forest will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefits.”
At home, our scientists have replicated international studies. They have proven that a well-managed, production forest is up to 240 per cent better at storing carbon over the long term than if the same area is locked away.
So why haven’t state and federal government programs turbo-charged best practice forestry as a given for a carbon constrained economy?The answer is as simple as it is challenging – trees take time. Trees are a long term investment with long term benefits. However, in Australia, much about climate change programs has been geared to the short term as we have focused on quick wins.
The big winners have been the ‘off the shelf’ solutions, which, courtesy taxpayer subsidies, deliver a compelling and fast ‘return on investment’ for company accountants. The most striking example is the exponential growth of wind turbines. Thousands now dot our landscapes and, according to energy forecasts, they will soon be joined by tens of thousands more as we relentlessly track towards our bipartisan ‘20 per cent renewable energy by 2020’ target. Expect to hear and see many more protests as that happens. Industrial scale wind farms have some strident critics who point to their impact on the landscape, health and communities.
But there is a very large irony here if you stop to think about it.By attempting to address an uncoated ‘externality’ in carbon emissions we are, with wind installations, arguably creating a raft of other negative externalities.
If we turned to trees to help solve our carbon conundrum, the externalities would all be positive. They include erosion and salinity prevention, biodiversity, picnic areas, walking tracks, not to mention jobs and growth for our regions. In Europe these ‘value adds’ are often captured under the umbrella of ‘eco-system services’. Governments are now turning attention to developing the methodologies to appropriately ‘price’ them. It is a belated recognition that trees really do deliver the ‘resource par excellence’ for a more enlightened twenty first century of development.
Back home, trees also give Australian policy makers the opportunity to turn the policy dial to these longer term, and net positive, settings. All it takes is an agreement to bring forward payment to the time of planting for the carbon stocks which will accumulate in the trees. In effect the Government would be hedging a future, and growing, market. This is a vital change to counteract the main disincentive to investment in new tree planting - the long wait for a return on high establishment costs. It would be a win-win for government and forest communities.
The government would ‘bank’ the carbon credits to sell in carbon markets. The trees, harvested and re-planted in rotation, would sustain the forest industry into the future.
Based on modest carbon price estimates, an initial investment of $200 million per year, over the first three years, would eventually become cost neutral, even paying back the ‘seeding’ funds. And that result doesn’t even start to calculate the additional carbon which we would be putting in the bank in terms of the timber products made from trees. Or the massive energy benefits available if we were to use the forest process residues (smaller branches and mill off-cuts) to fire up generators replacing other less environmentally friendly power.
At present Australia’s plantations provide a carbon emissions offset of 4 per cent against our national carbon emissions target. This policy would allow this to surge to 10 per cent by 2050. Great for our carbon constrained future economy and great for our forestry communities.