Mark Poynter, Victorian media spokesperson for the Institute of Foresters of Australia.
December 18, 2007, The Age
Many people can't see the wood for the trees in the greenhouse debate.
An uparalleled dermination to conserve tropical rainforests has been a welcome development from the UN climate change summit in Bali. But the recent call by Greens senator Christine Milne for Australia to "tackle our forestry emissions by stopping logging in Tasmania and Victoria" highlights the need to clearly differentiate between the damaging climate change implications of tropical deforestation and the benefits of sustainable Australian native forest wood production.
Deforestation in developing countries involves permanently removing forest cover in favour of some other agricultural land use. While it can produce wood, it is mostly conducted illegally and so represents an unregulated and unsustainable supply. The release of carbon from clearing and subsequent burning of vegetation, coupled with the loss of future carbon sequestration, led the 2006 Stern review to conclude that tropical deforestation is responsible for 18% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions.
Conversely, Australian wood production is best described as managed harvesting and regeneration, with the aim of maintaining native forest cover and wood supply in perpetuity. It is a legal, highly regulated and sustainable arm of forest management or forestry. Sustainable wood production makes a positive contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by transferring carbon from forests into storage in the community in an array of wood products while creating space in the forest for replacement trees to sequester more carbon.
It also reduces demand for rainforest timber imports that contribute to tropical deforestation.
Milne is certainly not the first to try to equate concerns about tropical deforestation and climate change with Australian wood production. Indeed, the mainstream environmental movement's fixation on closing Australia's native hardwood industry causes it to routinely misrepresent our wood production as a significant contributor to global warming. Just one example is the Wilderness Society's oft-repeated assertion that native forest timber harvesting in Victoria annually releases as much carbon as 2.4 million cars — an unsubstantiated claim that seemingly regards carbon removal in wood products as an emission and ignores the reality that logged areas are regenerated.
The environmental movement's promoted alternative is to "preserve" all forests in parks and reserves that will store carbon forever. But this is flawed by the reality that Australian forests rely on disturbance for their long-term renewal and so will always wax and wane as carbon stores subject to the influence of severe fire.
The striking contradiction of Australian anti-logging campaigns is that if ultimately successful, they would significantly diminish our capability to combat climate change.
Wood is the world's only naturally renewable building material. The carbon emissions associated with its production are hundreds of times less than alternatives such as steel and aluminium, and six to eight times less than concrete. Sustainably producing wood to displace the use of these alternatives is one of the best means of reducing net carbon emissions.
Timber harvesting transfers carbon from the forest into storage in the community in a range of products. Where harvesting is conducted within designated wood production forests at sustainable rates, there should be no net loss of carbon from the system due to simultaneous sequestration by regrowth from past logging and in yet-to-be harvested sections.
Consequently, sustainable wood production adds to net carbon stores and helps counter the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
And using part of our forests for wood production maintains them at a younger average age. The trees grow more vigorously, with enhanced rates of carbon sequestration compared with older forests.
The popularly promoted view that "old growth" forests must be preserved because of their carbon storage capability is somewhat compromised given that ageing trees are no longer growing and eventually become net carbon emitters as they decay and slowly die. In any case, they will inevitably be burnt and so will release much of their stored carbon.
Mark Poynter is the Victorian media spokesperson for the Institute of Foresters of Australia.