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Our national parks are full of forests - we could be claiming carbon credits for managing them better. Tatiana Gerus

Which of our forests should be managed for carbon?

The Australian Government has recently committed to a second round of the Kyoto Protocol to run from 2013-2020. In doing so, Australia is required to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 5% compared to 2000 levels by 2020.

This target can be achieved two ways: by reducing emissions from sectors like energy, transport and manufacturing, or through increasing the storage of carbon in forests and soils. Carbon credits can be generated by parties that increase carbon in trees and soils, in essence offsetting the equivalent amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by other activities.

Previously, Australia could only count emissions reductions from planting new forests on cleared land. However the second round of the Kyoto protocol has a new rule allowing credits to be earned for managing carbon in Australia’s existing forests. Australian forest agencies could now attract further carbon market investment in forest management that maintains or improves carbon stocks.

Which types of forest land will be eligible for carbon credits and debits? Traditionally, national parks are excluded from these kinds of activities. But is it time we took a “tenure blind” approach - ignoring the “type” of forest - to managing Australia’s forest carbon?

Why cut ourselves off from carbon savings?

In a recent submission to the Kyoto Protocol, the Federal Government defined the area of forests in Australia that will be eligible for carbon credits and debits through forest management.

This definition is limited to forest lands managed for the purpose of wood production only. For many of Australia’s states, this means state forests (those that are managed for multiple uses and available for harvesting at December 2009), private native forests and plantations.

Such a specific definition means that only 10% of Australia’s total forest area would be considered for accounting, with the rest of forests excluded.

In Victoria for example, the current definition would include only approximately 1.3 million ha of the 7.5 million ha of publicly managed land. Using data the Department of Sustainability and Environment developed in its landcarbon project, this covers only approximately 35% of the carbon stocks in Victoria’s publicly managed forests.

However, it is possible for lands to enter the forest management accounting system once a direct human induced activity occurs. What constitutes “direct human induced activity” is not clearly defined, but it is likely to include thinning activities, or enrichment plantings.

This has particular implications if thinning or replanting goes ahead. Many government and national parks agencies are considering these new management activities in national parks in the future.

Carbon credits from forest management open the door for potential new sources of funding for enhancing degraded landscapes such as in the mallee woodlands of north west Victoria. Similarly, such finance could help address the reduced carbon carrying capacity of forests that have been repeatedly burned.

It will be important to follow how the Australian Government defines direct human induced actions, and the rules it uses to determine how and when new forest lands enter the accounts.

A chance to do more with our national parks

Ultimately, the current definition highlights the tension between forest management ideologies across different forest agencies. Is there more to managing carbon than reducing the impacts of harvesting?

Managing for carbon as a forest value is an active process. It requires both management actions to promote carbon uptake, and actions that suppress the loss of that carbon. This is common in forests across all tenures.

Instead, conservation reserves are currently excluded based upon the concept of “additionality”. The rationale is that forest carbon within reserves should already be managed optimally. Thus, it is considered carbon uptake in these forests is not additional and would occur regardless of carbon market finance.

There is an argument that degraded areas within conservation reserves should be restored as part of the responsibility of the managing agency. But the reality is that limited government funding often leads to benign neglect.

The implications of the current accounting framework have been recently demonstrated through the Tasmanian Forest Agreement process. Andrew Macintosh points out the Tasmanian government is likely to have unwittingly handed over the rights to a potential 6 billion dollars worth of carbon credits to the Federal Government.

In accepting Federal Government funding to move harvested forests into new conservation reserves, the Tasmanian government can no longer demonstrate additionality and generate carbon credits from these forests. The Federal Government however, can count the credits from the reduction of harvesting towards its national target.

The opportunities for new finance from forest management are large and would be a missed opportunity for conservation reserves if only some types of forest are eligible. It is thus critical that forest agencies and managers remain engaged in the policy debate around carbon accounting in Australia’s forests to ensure opportunities are realised and prevent perverse outcomes.

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