As world-leaders prepare to negotiate a new post-Kyoto agreement on greenhouse gases, the issues of forest preservation and carbon storage are emerging as key points of debate. But, whilst forest-rich developing nations have shown a willingness to consider enhanced forest preservation as a means to offset global carbon emissions, are developed nations taking up their share of the bargain?
In the lead up to key negotiations scheduled for this December in the Indonesian island of Bali, a group of forest-rich nations have agreed to plans to receive payments to protect areas of rain-forest. Indonesia and South American nations have led the push to secure funding from industrialised nations, and their emerging carbon markets, to protect forest from deforestation and logging. This enhanced preservation will help to offset emissions generated by massive fossil fuel consumption generated by western nations.
Guyana's President Bharrat Jagdeo has described plans for forest preservation by developing nations as "morally right". However, Jagdeo explains such countries deserve to be rewarded for their efforts. Current plans to reward countries for forest preservation include direct cash payments, transfers of money, clean energy technology and credits provided for maintaining deforestation below set levels. Developing nations have made it clear that western nations must share the burden and financial costs of removing forested land from industrial development if they want the schemes to work.
But are financial payoffs enough to seal a real, meaningful pact on forest carbon sequestration? Why aren't industrialised countries committing to stand with developing nations and preserve more of their own forest?
Australia is a case in point. As a wealthy, industrialised country Australia can afford to commit $200 million to protect forest in other countries, yet, with Labor and Liberal forest policy, it appears unwilling to make any moves to enhance carbon storage and preserve our own carbon-rich forests. Developing countries, which will forgo their own development opportunities by preserving pristine forest, will surely see the hypocrisy on such a stance.
Australia's forests are certainly nowhere near as extensive as those of tropical developing nations. However, the country does possess considerable areas of carbon-rich old growth forests, particularly in Tasmania, Victoria and NSW, which are under threat from intensive logging activities.
Australian and international research has outlined the outstanding carbon storage capabilities of these forests. The equivalent of 5,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare are sequestered in a diverse network of trees, soil and vegetation. This is the equivalent of the annual carbon dioxide emissions of 1,300 cars. Logging and conversion to managed re-growth or plantation, however, leads to a massive loss of carbon storage capacity. Forests managed on 80-year rotations store as little as one third of the carbon stored in old growth ecosystems. Pulpwood plantations managed on a 15-year cycle accumulate very little carbon dioxide before they are logged again. The time taken to regrow a forest or plantation is also important – until the carbon dioxide released by logging or clearing is recaptured decades or centuries later, it stays in the atmosphere acting as a greenhouse gas, just as if it came from coal or oil.
Experts, such as the ANU's Professor Brendan Mackey, are now recognising the carbon storage values of natural forests and arguing for their protection as a means to help Australia meet its commitment to reduce greenhouse emissions. Enhanced preservation of Australia's carbon-rich forests would also help the world in its fight against climate change. The Wilderness Society estimates that annual emissions from logging Australia's native forests are equivalent to the emissions generated by 8.2 million cars.
Protection of pristine native forests, which have evolved for millennia without industrial disruption, is a vital insurance against the causes and impacts of climate change. Not only is carbon storage enhanced, but the additional benefits of ecosystems services, such as water conservation, are also secured.
Protecting Australia's forests might not avoid as many emissions as protecting the vast tropical forests of Asia and Africa, but it will make an impact. It would also be a vital act of good faith. If Australia is to convince the developing world that it is serious about securing the carbon benefits of pristine forests, it must act to stop the ongoing degradation of its own carbon-rich ecosystems.
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