22 April, 2009

Politics of forestry

Peter Boyer
The Mercury (article), April 21, 2009 12:45pm

After mature forest has been clearfelled, net carbon loss from the operation is large.

Every now and then, a sharply focused image of a gum seedling or a finely crafted piece of furniture appears on my television screen, a reminder of how good it is to live in this place, at this time.

No one pays good advertising money just to show us nice images of life in Australia. In this case, the message is how lucky we are to have a timber industry, because when it comes to greenhouse emissions, wood is so much better than other materials, such as steel or aluminium.

That message was underscored on local TV news recently when Forestry Tasmania corporate relations manager Ken Jeffries, responding to complaints about smoke haze from forest operations, pointed to the industry's re-seeding program as evidence of its climate-friendly status.

It is true, as the forest industry says, that steel and aluminium are anything but climate-friendly products. A steel furnace consumes copious amounts of coal, and aluminium smelting uses so much electricity (usually coal-fired) it has sometimes been called "congealed electricity". And it is true that the 1997 Kyoto accord allowed special dispensation for forestry as practised here.

But it is disingenuous to claim that today's forest industry presents a sharp contrast to these alternative products; to suggest that because trees absorb carbon dioxide, the industry actually reduces our carbon footprint. That may accord with diplomatic definitions, but we have to get real here.

Human carbon pollution is a physical phenomenon, independent of any political or commercial agenda, and Tasmanian forestry emissions must never be quarantined from a comprehensive carbon accounting process.

I would happily accept the assurances of Mr Jeffries or anyone in the industry, if I could find the scientific evidence behind them, but try as I might, I can't.

I was well into my climate change work when I entered the debate about forest and climate in this column about a year ago.

I drew attention then to what forest science seemed to be telling us about how forests store carbon and what happens to this carbon when the forest is harvested.

I have consulted a wide range of forest science research work, including work done by Forestry Tasmania itself about a decade ago. The science has consistently said that under today's "slash and burn" clearfelling regimes, harvesting native forest in Australia is an emissions-intensive activity.

It says that each hectare of Australian native forest stores hundreds of tonnes of carbon and no matter how vigorous the regrowth after mature forest has been clearfelled, net carbon loss from the operation is so large that recovery would take many times the length of any subsequent
harvesting cycle. Full recovery could take centuries.

SCIENTIFIC studies of forest carbon in Australia and North America have consistently indicated that, of the carbon removed from a forest as a result of clearfell operations (either taken away in logs or lost to the atmosphere in burning or decay), only a tiny proportion is preserved long-term (over 75 years) in a product such as furniture or housing.

Statistics from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics tell us that in 2008 only 13.4 per cent of harvested "roundwood" (itself only part of the forest carbon that is removed during harvesting) ended up as sawn timber, of which only part is retained in long-term product.

My reading of the science and the ABARE statistics indicates that for every tonne of forest carbon that is saved in long-term product, there is a loss of more than 40 tonnes to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

At this rate, Australian forestry as it is practised today is anything, but a greenhouse-friendly activity.

Yet, despite all the contrary scientific evidence -- including evidence from within Tasmanian forestry circles -- the industry continues to cite Australian government figures based on the Kyoto agreement to "prove" that it is carbon-neutral, leading the way to a greener future.

If the forestry industry sincerely believed this, wouldn't it secure solid evidence by means of rigorous, peer-reviewed science?

Surely it would put aside the politically convenient, but illogical, accounting framework of the Kyoto accord and seek a more rational, transparent method of determining our real forestry footprint.

It won't serve anyone if we continue this politically-driven charade. We urgently need to review our greenhouse gas accounting in the AFOLU sector (diplomatic-speak for agriculture, forestry and land use), incorporating existing carbon storage as well as annual flows.

When our forest carbon accounting is based on science and physical reality instead of politics, we can confidently include forestry in a comprehensive national or international carbon regime.

Then, and only then, will we know the real cost of a piece of timber.

Peter Boyer is a Hobart-based science writer and a presenter for Al Gore's Climate Project.

Source: The Mercury

See also

17 April, 2009

LETTER: We cannot drink woodchips

Sarah Rees, MyEnvironment Inc, Healesville
Letter to the editor, The Age, 17/4/09

THE Thomson dam drops lower (The Age, 15/4), catchments have been burnt and still the logging machinery rolls into Victoria's last remaining healthy water catchment to woodchip them for as little as $8.50 a tonne. Roads for logging machinery are being cut into Cement Creek Catchment, one of the Yarra tributaries and part of Melbourne's water supply.

In the Thomson catchment, about 70 per cent of the area of highest rainfall is being logged, and the dam has reached epic lows: could there be a link? In 2004 the Government commissioned a four-year investigation and found that the best option for improving catchment water yields was to end all logging by 2009. But this option was omitted from the range of choices presented to the Government because it compromised woodchip arrangements with the now Japanese-owned paper giant Australian Paper.

What will it take to end such barbaric management of our water resources? Perhaps only when the last load of logs enters the pulp mill. Then we will know we cannot drink woodchips.

Source: theage.com.au

13 April, 2009

LETTER: Unwarranted fears

Mark Poynter, Institute of Foresters of Australia, Doncaster East
Letter to the editor, The Age, 13//4/09

PREDICTABLY, the Victorian Government's consideration of wood-based bioenergy production (The Age, 9/4) generated howls of protest based on inaccurate or ill-informed claims (Letters, 10-11/4).

Fears of "massive deforestation" and "ecological wastelands" are baseless given that regenerating harvested areas is a central tenet of forest management. Less than 10 per cent of Victoria's forests are legally available for timber harvesting. Salvaging of burnt timber is also restricted to these areas.

Aside from periodically available fire salvage material, the vast majority of waste wood that could be used for domestic bio-energy production is material that would otherwise be exported to offshore paper manufacturers.

Around the world, sustainable timber supplies are widely used as a source of carbon-neutral "green" power. Ironically, in Australia, the most passionate advocates of combating climate change tend to be the most strident opponents of one of the more achievable forms of renewable energy.

12 April, 2009

LETTER: Beyond belief

Jill Redwood, Orbost
Letter to the editor, The Age, 12 April 2009

Recently, the radio carbon dating of a 10-metre diameter, freshly cut tree stump in East Gippsland showed it to be almost 600 years old.

Last week's story of the Brumby Government selling off these ancient forests for as little as $2.50 a tonne compounds the crime into enormous proportions.

In 2009, we are still watching while the Government destroys ancient forests that were young in the days of Joan of Ark. These are immense carbon stores that we need right now, not in another 600 years. Economically and environmentally, this is an appalling act. So much for the claim of sustainability.

The rain follows the trees Mr Brumby, as sure as public revolt follows the clearfelling of our public forests.

10 April, 2009

Homes for critters

Dr Anna Boin, Castlemaine
The Age (letter), April 10, 2009

"LOWER-quality" logs: they are the ones with the notches and holes, the ones that wildlife call "high-quality" housing. The bushfires have already left lots of critters homeless. And now we are going to burn their last few homes for electricity? Fire is naturally occurring, logging is not. Native forests are not a renewable resource if we interfere by salvaging what's left. They are ecosystems that can take hundreds of years to regenerate. There is nothing clean, green or smart about burning them.

Stand by promise

Scott Bilby, Kensington
The Age (letter), April 10, 2009

MR DALIDAKIS' statement that the native timber industry is "focused on producing sawlogs" is wrong. When woodchipping began in the 1960s, it was justified on the basis that only "waste wood" from saw-logging would be used. However, woodchipping soon became the main focus.

As demand for woodchips falls, the "waste wood" argument is being used to justify burning native forests for electricity. Perversely, due to concern about greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, the native timber sector could get to emit even more greenhouse emissions and receive a renewable energy subsidy funded by the taxpayer.

Because of community opposition to burning native forest for electricity, the governments of Victoria, NSW and Queensland prohibited it. It is hoped that lobbying by the native timber industry won't weaken the Victorian Government's resolve to stand by a promise it made to the people who elected them.

In the dark ages

Glenn Osboldstone, East Malvern, Lawyers for Forests
The Age (letter), April 10, 2009

JOE HELPER'S plan (The Age, 9/4) to burn native forest for electricity shows how out of touch he is. The vast majority of Australians want to keep our remaining ancient forests standing. This dark-ages technology, raised as a means of propping up our unsustainable logging industry, fails to acknowledge the downsides — massive deforestation and habitat destruction, loss of vital carbon storehouses, degradation of our water purifiers and transformation of beautiful forests into ecological wastelands.

The claims that only the "byproducts of sawlog harvesting" will be used are misleading because, as shown by Vicforests' own figures, barely 2 per cent of what is clear-felled ends up as a high-value product. Most, including sawlog-quality wood, is trucked to woodchip mills to end up either as paper or shipped off to Japan.

A far better approach would be to move logging workers into our extensive plantation estate and support real renewable energy projects such as huge solar thermal facilities and geothermal and wind plants.

Plantantion sector place for jobs

Bruce McGregor, Brunswick
The Age (letter), April 10, 2009

IN JUSTIFYING the proposal to log native forests to save the forestry industry (The Age, 9/4), Philip Dalidakis continues to promote discredited myths.

For years the Victorian Association of Forest Industries has been in denial about the softwood plantation industry and the decline in real value of commodity woodchips of about 2 per cent a year.

Further, they claim they focus on native forest sawlog production for high-value timber products but these are only a tiny fraction of total timber harvested from softwood and hardwood plantations combined with native forest harvesting.

The real opportunity for employment is in the plantation sector, a sector undermined constantly by policies that price native forests so low to try to compete in the commodity export woodchip market.

The real value in native forests is in the water yield, which is reduced for decades following native forest clear-felling. Low water yields severely affect water supplies and Victoria's rivers.