Is using native forests for energy really carbon-neutral?

There’s a lot of carbon in there. John Tann

Australia’s forest conflict gets easier to solve as every day passes. In reality, the conflict will solve itself if the government can just resist reviving the environmentally and economically inferior native forest part of Australia’s “forest” industry. The government must not open native forest wood to the energy market.

Some are proposing that Australia’s forest future lies in burning native timber to produce electricity. Proponents argue this “bio-energy” is a sustainable energy source. But just as Australia’s forest wars seem to be coming to an end, conflict over bio-energy could restart the fight.

Why are we fighting over forests?

We cannot understand Australia’s forest conflict and its solution without unpacking the word “forest”. To environmentalists, “forest” means native forests – self-regenerating ecosystems. To the forestry industry, forests are both native forests and plantations (agricultural crops).

Understanding the solution to Australia’s native forest conflict lies in seeing the industry’s two competing parts: native logging and plantation logging.

Between 85 and 90% of Australia’s production of sawn timber and wood panels is now plantation based. Native forests represent a small and declining market share. The future of native logging was set in the 1960s when the Australian Government, skilfully lobbied by the forestry industry and foresters, embarked on a nationwide softwood planting program geared for sawn timber.

A couple of decades later the maturing plantations drove unrelenting structural change in sawmilling: a benefit for the economy and for workers. But rather than coming up with a new non-extractive use for native forests (enjoyment, biodiversity conservation, carbon and water sinks), governments opened native forests to woodchip exports.

Australia’s forest conflict erupted. It has never subsided.

The rise of plantations

Environmentalists and business have different definitions of “forest”. Atsushi Kase