Wandering among the majestic, centuries-old trees still standing on Brown Mountain in East Gippsland, there is little to evidence to suggest that this is one of the most embattled parts of Victoria. This region has long been at the centre of bitter disputes between government, logging companies and those who wish to protect its grandeur and unparalleled biodiversity.
But there is another, often overlooked, reason for preserving these native forests: they play a critical role in securing a safe climate future. Logging in Victoria’s forests continues today, despite the increased acknowledgement in scientific and international spheres that dangerous climate change cannot be avoided without protecting our native forests.
The debate on climate change in Australia has largely focused on our need to reduce emissions from fossil fuels burnt for transport, heating and electricity generation. Often forgotten is the fact that logging and deforestation are also major causes of climate change. More than one third of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere and causing climate change are due to loss (deforestation) and logging (degradation) of the Earth’s forests.
Although logging contributes significantly to carbon emissions, logging operations are not accurately counted in greenhouse gas accounts. This means that every time a forest is logged, climate change is worsened, and nobody is held accountable.
Logging of native forests also contributes to the problem by diminishing the planet’s capacity to safely sequester carbon from the atmosphere.
A simple mathematics equation demonstrates that reduction in emissions from the burning of fossil fuels alone will not be enough to prevent dangerous climate change. Preventing more greenhouse gas build up in the atmosphere is crucial, but this alone will not bring the already dangerous levels of carbon back into the biosphere. In other words, if we want to keep greenhouse gas emissions at “safe” levels, we need to do something about the huge quantities of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.
The good news is we already have a safe, proven, reliable and cost-effective technology available for this critical job - trees. To avoid catastrophic climate change, we have no alternative but to preserve the world’s natural forests.
Although deforestation is usually characterised as a problem belonging to developing nations, all countries, including Australia, can no longer afford to shirk responsibility for the logging sector’s contribution to climate change. Not only does Australia import tropical timbers and palm oil from previously forested areas, it also contributes to the problem by allowing vast areas of our own carbon-dense forests to be logged.
Victoria is no exception, with about 9,000 hectares of the state’s native forests logged every year. This is particularly troubling given recent research showing that the temperate old-growth forests found in southeastern Australia are among the most carbon-rich in the world.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that temperate forests store about 217 tonnes of carbon per hectare. In August 2008, however, groundbreaking research by scientists at the Australian National University found that the average amount of carbon stored in unlogged natural forests in southeastern Australia was between three and ten times more than the IPCC estimates. This means that currently these carbon banks are being undervalued. This is important because it means even if logging was to be included in an emission trading or carbon reduction scheme, its impact would be underestimated.
The Australian National University’s Green Carbon Report also shows there is a huge difference between the quality and quantity of carbon stored in native (or natural) forests as compared to plantations (or tree-farms or industrialised forests). According to the ANU’s research, a 40 per cent reduction in stocks of biomass carbon occurs when native forests are converted to plantations. Furthermore, native forests are more resilient than plantations and the carbon they store is less likely to be released back into the atmosphere. The findings of the ANU report show that biodiversity in natural forests makes them better equipped to withstand pests, diseases, and even fires.
Given the overwhelming destruction and devastating human cost of the recent Victorian bushfires, it would not be surprising for many to question the effectiveness of forests in safely storing carbon - intuitively it would seem that if a fire burnt through a densely forested area, it would simply release all the carbon stored in the trees back into the atmosphere.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.
18 posts so far.