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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.

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18 Comments sorted by

  1. Tim Scanlon

    Author and Scientist

    I agree completely. If there was ever a white elephant of "renewable" energy production, it is biomass energy.

    I could cite the carbon cycle time frames or efficiency or diversity loss or any number of other arguments, but biomass energy just isn't what it is claiming to be. Native forests really should be left alone and plantation timber should be our sources of timber for products (paper, lumber, building materials, furniture, etc). Neither should be harvested for spurious reasons.

  2. Mark Poynter


    Ms Ajani is a 20-year advocate of closing Australia's native hardwood industry, so this article is hardly surprising.

    Contrary to the article, no-one is advocating logging native forests solely for bioenergy. What is being advocated is producing bioenergy from the waste wood generated from sawlog harvesting both in the forest and at the sawmill. This includes bendy or defective logs, and mill off-cuts, and perhaps even sawdust. At present some of this material is used for woodchips, and some is…

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    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      An alternative use for the waste wood is paper.

      At present, Australia is a net exporter of waste (recycled) paper, and an importer of finished paper.

      Instead of shipping waste paper overseas for reprocessing, what's wrong with combining it with pulp from all this waste wood? The economic benefits for regional Australia is obvious. Noting that fuel oil-powered shiploads of paper waste are no longer conveyed overseas, and fuel-oil powered shiploads of paper is no longer imported to Australia, the foregone CO2 emissions would also be beneficial.

  3. Troy Barry

    Mechanical Engineer

    "Logging native forests for energy is climate negative for virtually the entire logging cycle." Surely this depends on where one arbitrarily selects the start point of the cycle? If we set the start point at 69 years before harvesting, the exact opposite statement is true, i.e. Logging native forests for energy is climate positive (storing carbon) for virtually the entire logging cycle.

    1. Derek Bolton

      Retired s/w engineer

      In reply to Troy Barry

      If you consider the cycle to be logging what's there now, then regrowing it, and repeating that, then on average the carbon locked up is much less than is locked up now. The solution is to require new 'native' forest to be regrown starting now, with extraction of carbon from these and existing forests never to exceed the new growth. I.e., the carbon locked up must never be less than now.
      How that would be policed I've no idea.

  4. David Poynter

    Medical Scientist

    Ms Ajani said 'Fewer and fewer people buy native forest products'

    Well, why would they when we, as one of the most forested nations on earth, can forego our ethical obligations to be self sufficient in timber and use cheap third world tropical rainforest imports instead, often illegally logged. Much better to lay to waste their forests through deforestation, and drive their indigenous fauna toward extinction. But of course that just opens up another front for the green fund raising juggernaut with the predictably sensational and emotional (but fact-lite) appeals to save (here fill in nominated mammal, bird, insect or crustacean) and thereby keep the eco-warriors on a nice little earner for years to come.

  5. Matthew Thredgold

    Software Engineer/Secondary Teacher

    Don't forget particulate pollution from burning wood.

    Using wood pellets or wood to heat either homes or "outdoor wood burners" is hugely, hugely damaging to human health. Wood smoke is toxic, and both mutagenic and carcinogenic. Wood has no business being burnt in any place where people actually live. Governments struggle with the issue (or even understanding the issue because of widespread scientific illiteracy), and their responses to woodsmoke particulate pollution have so far been woefully…

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    1. Matthew Thredgold

      Software Engineer/Secondary Teacher

      In reply to Norma-Jean Nielsen

      Well I'm essentially an environmental refugee trying to escape wood smoke. My closest neighbour is now 200 metres away and I wish he wouldn't use wood to heat his home. It has greatly reduced but not eliminated the nuisance. The real problem I face now is rural burning off. Depending on winds I've been inconvenienced (having to abandon a day gardening for instance) by burn offs up to 3km away. It happens way too often.

      A special shout out for the Tea Tee Gully Council in South Australia and the…

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  6. Timothy Cleary

    logged in via LinkedIn

    My first comment is that native forests timbers and plantation timbers are not competing, but complementary. Given that softwoods (which overwhelmingly make up the plantation sawlog resource) and native forest hardwoods have very different cellular structures, hardness, strength, stiffness, durability etc. they lend themselves to very different engineering applications. One does not automatically substitute for the other for building or pulp/paper production. Architects & builders therefore use…

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  7. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    It's important to differentiate between forestry/logging practices in different parts of Australia. My understanding is that much logging in Victoria and NSW is primarily to produce woodchips. Conversely, in WA, the industry is driven by sawlog production, with most (but not all) woodchips a secondary product. In this situation, it is not unreasonable for the sawmillers to seek to obtain the highest income possible from their low value products. If this includes using it to produce energy/electricity…

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  8. Ketan C

    logged in via Facebook

    To acheive a carbon-neutral state of affairs in the lumber industry, it will require the government to put a strong foot down. It will also require ecological scientists to be given a greater voice amongst the public. It seems that at the moment the louder voices are those of the lumber companies, who are probably better at adhering to the public's more immediate concerns - jobs, money etc. This is understandable, but ecological and economic well-being are both equally important and can be addressed in harmony with some good insight. Ms. Ajani's article seems to push for that.

    Personally I wasn't aware of the distinction between "forest" and "plantation". It's a small thing that not everyone really considers until it's brought to their attention. However, the implications are significant and such small bits of information can really compound to give businesses the tools to make more informed economic/ecological decisions.

  9. Gideon Polya

    Sessional Lecturer in Biochemistry for Agricultural Science at La Trobe University

    Australia is a world leader in annual per capita greenhouse gas pollution (in 2010: 578 (Domestic) + 803 (coal exports) + 34 (LNG exports) = 1,415 Mt CO2-e for 22 million people = 64.3 tonnes CO2-e per person per year, this being 64.3/0.9 = 71 times greater than that of Bangladesh). Yet under the disastrous Carbon Tax-ETS plan of Australia's pro-coal, pro-gas, pro-logging Labor Government Australia's Domestic plus Exported GHG pollution will roughly double by 2020 and quadruple by 2050 relative…

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    1. Derek Bolton

      Retired s/w engineer

      In reply to Gideon Polya


      The abstract of that PNAS paper only says old growth forests have been undervalued as stores. That doesn't make them sinks, and conventional wisdom is that a mature forest is in steady state. The body of the paper does quote research showing that may be wrong, but of the three references provided one is for the Amazon and one for Africa; the third (Luyssaert) is behind a paywall, but from the abstract appears based largely on northern boreal forests.

      My personal impression of mainlaind Australian forests is that they do not lay down much in the way of carbon rich soils, so it is unlikely that they act as sinks. Tasmania is more like northern boreal forest, so may do better. I suggest that the best way to create carbon sinks in Oz is to revert marginal cropland to forest.

      Are you aware of any data on mature Australian native forests as sinks?

    2. Gideon Polya

      Sessional Lecturer in Biochemistry for Agricultural Science at La Trobe University

      In reply to Derek Bolton


      You are probably correct that residual mature old growth forest are carbon stores that have reached a steady state and that accordingly new net forest sinks (albeit of limited while vital capacity) would require re-afforestation of marginal land (and ideally of previously de-forested land with the potential to achieve its previous capacity).

      Top climate scientists and biologists urge a return of atmospheric CO2 to about 300 ppm (see:

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    1. Derek Bolton

      Retired s/w engineer

      In reply to David Low

      Yes, it certainly has to be taken into account, but the paper you link to is a North American study. There are several reasons why the equation may be very different in Australia:
      - They mention that "Even under the most extreme fuel-moisture conditions, the water content of live wood frequently prohibits combustion beyond surface char". Is that the case here?
      - Aus forests are to an extent not merely fire-adapted but fire-dependent. If that is a result of millennia of regular deliberate burning then varying the regime could reduce the long-term average standing carbon storage.
      - I suspect that mature mainland Australian forests are not such good carbon sinks as northern boreal; biochar may even be the chief mechanism by which they are sinks.

  10. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    Derek makes an interesting point, namely, our forests are probably fire-dependent, in part as a result of millennia of regular deliberate burning. This returns us to the critically important issue of Aboriginal fire regimes. The fire regimes that nature applied to Australia for the 250 million years prior to humans arriving in the continent are, it can be argued, almost irrelevant when you consider that the past 50,000 years (250 times as long the period of European settlement) of Aboriginal fire…

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