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Blurring the lines between science and political activism

By Mark Poynter - posted Thursday, 30 October 2008

A recent paper by economist Dr Judith Ajani of the Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society, states that:

Deforestation and the degradation of native forests account for an estimated 20 per cent of Australia’s annual net greenhouse gas emissions. Most of the degradation occurs via (wood) chip exports …

Pardon? This is completely at odds with the Department of Climate Change (formerly the Australian Greenhouse Office) whose website quotes figures based upon the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) showing that emissions from the “land use, land use change and forestry” sector comprise just 2.5 per cent of Australia’s annual greenhouse emissions.


Dr Ajani’s paper (ANU E-press, Agenda, Volume 15 No. 3) goes on to explain that her estimation of annual emissions from forest “deforestation and degradation” is compromised of 11-13 per cent from land clearing for agriculture, with 7 per cent (or 38 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent) from logging native forests. However, this latter figure studiously excludes carbon capture by regenerated forests and, while said to be based on AGO figures, has actually been calculated by prominent “green” activist Margaret Blakers using a briefing paper from the Wilderness Society.

In reality, according to the Australian Emissions Information System reporting for 2006 against UNFCCC categories, harvested wood products and forest land are the only Australian sub-categories where carbon sequestration and storage outweigh emissions.

In view of this, Dr Ajani’s claims are quite extraordinary. Particularly given that logging largely involves transference of stored carbon from trees into the community via usable products; and that the forests from which these products are derived are being sustainably managed as a renewable resource that continually sequesters and then stores atmospheric carbon.

However, it appears that the major aim of Dr Ajani’s paper was to build-on an earlier paper, also published by ANU E-press, entitled Green Carbon - the Role of Native Forests in Carbon Storage - Part 1 (August 2008). This was authored by four ANU scientists, also from the Fenner School of Environment and Society, led by Professor Brendan Mackey.

Both the Mackey et al and Ajani papers advocate supposedly superior carbon accounting outcomes if native forest timber production is ended to enable forests “to regrow their carbon stocks towards their natural carrying capacity”. This mirrors a message that Australia’s mainstream environmental movement have adopted since climate change has gained political prominence.

In recent years, the environmental movement has sought to gain scientific credibility through developing close links with academia. This is evident in the Wilderness Society’s partial funding of the Mackey et al Green Carbon paper and the joint development and funding of an ANU Wild Country Research and Policy Hub based on the Wilderness Society’s Wild Country Vision. Professor Mackey is the current Director of the Hub, while Emeritus Professor Henry Nix chair’s the Hub’s Advisory Committee.


In return, the university supports the Wilderness Society through the provision of academic input to its Wild Country Science Council. ANU Emeritus Professor Henry Nix is Council Co-Chair, while Professor Mackey is a Council member.

The existence of these linkages raises questions about the influence of the Wilderness Society in the preparation of the Green Carbon paper, particularly given its uncompromising opposition to native forest logging. This is emphatically articulated in its Forests and Woodlands Policy (revised September 2005) which states that:

The Wilderness Society “does not support the use of native forests to supply woodchips for pulp, wood for power generation, charcoal production, commercial firewood, or timber commodities”.

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This article was written on behalf of the Institute of Foresters of Australia.

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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 Going Green: Forests, fire, and a flawed conservation culture, was published by Connor Court in July 2018.

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