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Is using native forests for energy really carbon-neutral?

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…

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

In the early 1990s, the forestry industry lobbied for a new wave of subsidised planting, this time for hardwood chip exports. The Australian Government responded with tax minimisation plantation-managed investment schemes. These schemes were a predictable economic disaster but the trees keep growing despite the wave of company collapses (Timbercorp, Great Southern Plantations, Willmott and so on).

And so the story repeats. Today, plantations have already displaced slightly more than half of Australia’s hardwood chip exports. We can expect a near-complete cessation of native forest chip exports in the near future.

Demand is the other side of this industry story. Japan’s demand for hardwood chips has been flat since the mid-1990s and China is implementing a sophisticated forest policy to avoid liquidating global forests.

Should bio-energy be on the forest agenda?

Australia’s plantation industry success is a pragmatic opportunity to resolve our native forest conflict. The forestry industry, however, wants to burn native forest wood for energy in Australia or export as pellets to feed overseas power stations. This would retain some native forest logging businesses, state forestry agencies and associated employment.

Environmentalists want native forests protected. Ecological scientists advise that we have the opportunity to avoid large greenhouse gas emissions and achieve substantial removals of atmospheric greenhouse gases by ceasing native forest logging and letting previously logged native forests regrow and not log them again.

Fewer and fewer people buy native timber products. Energy is the only immediate and substantial market if native forest logging is to effectively continue. The contemporary question is: what is the climate implication of using native forests for energy?

Time is of the essence. In Australia, we log native forests on roughly 60-year cycles. If we log a 60-year-old stand of native forest for energy production today, the carbon emissions from logging will occur soon after. The forest will not regrow enough to return to today’s carbon stock level until 2070. It took this long to grow: it takes this long to replace.

Is burning wood pellets for energy the best use of stored carbon? shehal

Logging native forests for energy is climate negative for virtually the entire logging cycle. Furthermore, the emissions from enacting this scenario today would max out over the next ten to 20 years: a critical time in our climate challenge.

Native forest bio-energy is all pain and no climate gain

The Australian Government remains spooked by decades of politically challenging forest conflict. But more recently it has made some good policy decisions.

In particular, it said that domestic electricity made using native forest wood would be ineligible for renewable energy certificates. This stopped a (government-engineered) revenue stream enhancing its commercial viability.

But the government ignores the essence of time and maintains its contradictory position that logging native forests is carbon neutral. This means that selling native forest wood pellets to Europe, China, Japan or any other country is carbon price free.

If this becomes the future for Australia’s native forests, the climate will be negatively impacted and Australia’s forest conflict will keep raging. All pain for no gain.

Ending Australian’s native forest conflict takes a government that can make that wise and strategic stitch in time - now - and rule out native forest wood from the energy market.