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September 13, 2023

A good start to urgent climate change abatement: end native forest logging now

This article was written by Wilderness Australia Chair, Bob Debus and first published in Pearls and Irritations on 7th September 2023.

The native forest logging industry is a fundamental danger to Australia's natural environment and an utter disaster for climate change policy.

It is reported that the downward trend of Australia's greenhouse emissions has ended. Instead, they have begun to slightly increase. Western Australia and Victoria have announced an end to native logging by the end of this year (New Zealand did so long ago) but the failure of any other Australian Government to do so is ever more perverse.

Our leading forest scientists show that if Australia ceased all logging of native forests, the avoided emissions alone would be close to what is needed annually (15.5 Mt CO2) to achieve our national target of 43% reduction on 2005 levels of emission by 2030.

Only native forests can remove carbon from the atmosphere at the rapid rate required. There is no technical device or mechanism that can do it.

Moreover, intact “old growth” forest ecosystems have the highest capacity for long-term carbon storage – that is their most important climate mitigation value.

Logging reduces opportunities for substantial increases in long term carbon storage. Forests that are being logged now cannot recover their existing carbon stocks until long after the 2050 goal for net zero. Their loss cannot be ”offset” by planting new trees.

Logging substantially increases bushfire risk and damage, bizarre claims to the contrary by the forest industry notwithstanding.

The protection of the vast amount of carbon stored in native forest is made more difficult by the interaction of logging and climate change to increase fire severity. The logged forest dries out more easily, making it more vulnerable to loss from drought and fire; young regrowth trees in turn burn more easily and more severely than old forests.

We simply can't afford to lose the approximately 25.5 billion tonnes of carbon in Eastern Australian forests to the atmosphere.

If we do not deal with the crisis of climate change and the crisis of species extinction together, we fail at both. The forests that are least disturbed retain the most carbon (and provide the cleanest water). Continued logging of native forest means that there are more direct emissions and also less habitat for native species, especially devastating for the many species that rely for their existence on the hollows that form only in quite old eucalypts. It is distressing that iconic species as well loved as the koala and the greater glider are now vulnerable to extinction, their circumstances made much more precarious by the last great bushfire event, let alone the next one.

Supporters of continued logging speak of the maintenance of a “sustainable industry” but it's too late for that. The damage caused to our forests, not least in those terrible bushfires of 2019/20, is too serious, too far advanced.

Dr Ken Henry has made the point clearly in his introduction to the recently published review of the (NSW) Biodiversity Conservation Act. The concept of ‘sustainable development” has been exceptionally influential since it was famously promulgated at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.  The idea then was that we must balance out economic and environmental needs to allow prosperity for future generations.

However, the continuing deterioration of the environment in Australia and elsewhere is so damaging that we must commit to the concept of “nature positive” – as Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has in principle done.

The idea of “balance” is no longer effective. We must accept that the repair and improvement of the environment needs to have primacy over all other social and economic considerations. And we must make that investment, says Henry, “if we are to have any confidence that future generations will have the opportunity to be as well off as we are”.

Nowhere is the need more evident than in our “managed” native forests – the opposite of “nature positive “. It's not only that the timber industry is doing so much damage. The State Forest Agencies that manage the industry are subsidised heavily by taxpayers to do so.

Governments in Australia can end native forest logging through the implementation of familiar policies. They can rapidly complete the transition of the timber industry, begun long ago, to plantation forests. Already more than 80% of our timber is plantation-sourced and the number of workers directly employed in the native timber industry is low. The administrative arrangements necessary for a just transition and retraining of the workforce are well established and they have been used often in the past.

It is true that there is a spectrum of opinion within both major political parties – and especially prevalent since the Abbott Government tore the heart out of the federal environment budget in 2013 – which accepts the expedient idea that Government can no longer “afford” to pay for the conservation of nature. There is no coherent explanation however, for the reduction of expenditures upon programs that were funded in the past to deal with issues that have grown demonstrably worse in the meantime.

If we are to achieve "nature positive” policies, government environmental expenditures must be substantially increased.

It is argued by some in the carbon industry that the restructuring of the forest industry can be financed wholly or in part by monetising the carbon benefits gained from the cessation or reduction of logging to create Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCUs), able to be traded in the carbon offsets market. But the controversial technical problems of design and the well publicised susceptibility of these market mechanisms to fraudulence in all but closely restricted circumstances, seem to be just about insurmountable difficulties.

How can a pulse of CO2, which will remain in the atmosphere for centuries, truly be ‘offset’ by a scheme that lasts a few years? How can it sensibly be said that a molecule of fossil fuel carbon, released immediately into the atmosphere by combustion, is equivalent to a molecule of carbon sequestered in living nature and released slowly over decades and centuries? Schemes making that assumption gravely underestimate the value of the forests.

In any event the likely purchasers of ACCUs would be the fossil fuel producers. In a world facing environmental catastrophe and economic disruption from already present climate change, what really is the benefit of an offset scheme like our Safeguard Mechanism that is deliberately designed to permit a fossil fuel producer to avoid emission reduction?

An offset scheme that offered benefits for merely reducing logging would be counterproductive twice over – extending the life and increasing the emissions of both the fossil fuel industry and the native forest logging industry.

What we need, as a matter of utmost urgency, is old fashioned regulation and government expenditure designed for the purpose of protecting ecosystems and reducing fossil fuel consumption.

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