Skip to main content

  MyEnvironment Inc / News / A burning question  

A burning question

Gregg Borschmann for RN ABC, Sunday 19th July 2015

Burning native timber for renewable energy could prop up an ailing native forest industry, but the forests could earn millions in carbon credits if they’re not logged. Both options are hotly disputed and the argument opens a new front in the long running and politically-charged ‘forest wars’.

Read more 

Gregg Borschmann for RN ABC, Sunday 19th July 2015

Burning native timber for renewable energy could prop up an ailing native forest industry, but the forests could earn millions in carbon credits if they’re not logged. Both options are hotly disputed and the argument opens a new front in the long running and politically-charged ‘forest wars’.

Climate change is recalibrating the debate about Australia's native forests.

After being banned for four years, the burning of native forest waste is again eligible to earn credits under Australia's renewable energy target (RET).

There's dispute both in Australia and internationally about whether burning native forest biomass is 'carbon neutral'—especially over the next two or three decades, before forests sufficiently regrow.

But behind the scenes there's another debate which may have a far bigger impact on deciding the future of Australia's native forests.

It began four years ago when forest carbon research was published by the Centre for Climate Law and Policy at the Australian National University.

ANU researcher Andrew Macintosh's paper, Potential carbon credits from reducing native forest harvesting, asked a simple but politically charged question: What happens to carbon emissions if Australia reduces, or shuts down, the logging of native forests?

The paper pointed to the Coalition's direct action policy for cutting carbon pollution.

'The success of this policy will hinge on the ability to identify the cheapest and most politically palatable sources of abatement,' the paper says. 'One of these is potentially reducing native forest harvesting.'

The research documented a large amount of carbon that could be saved—an estimated 38 million tonnes a year.

That's close to the entire amount of carbon abatement the federal government bought in April this year at the first auction under the emissions reduction fund—47 million tonnes of carbon abatement for $660 million, at an average price of $14 for an Australian carbon credit unit (ACCU).

Professor David Lindenmayer from the Fenner School at the ANU says potentially 190 million tonnes of low cost forest carbon is available over the next five years, if native forest logging is shut down. Based on the price the government paid in April, Professor Lindenmayer says it would be worth several billion dollars.

Disputes over estimates of forest carbon volumes

But the ANU's estimates of the forest carbon volumes have been disputed.

The federal parliamentary secretary responsible for forestry, Senator Richard Colbeck, says forest carbon credits are being used as 'political constructs' by groups wanting to close down native forest logging.

'I don't, quite frankly, believe the numbers that are being put forward because I've looked at the science from CSIRO, I've looked at the science from very eminent Australian forest carbon scientists and they quite clearly show that a well-managed forest can provide—harvested and managed over time—can provide a better carbon outcome than one that's just left fallow,' he says. 

'I know that particular interests were pushing that line (about large numbers of carbon credits) but the genuine forest science doesn't support it.'

Background Briefing has a copy of a brief prepared in 2014 for environment minister Greg Hunt, which attempted to quantify the carbon credits that could be earned by stopping native forest harvesting in the mountain ash forests of Victoria's Central Highlands. The confidential brief has never been formally released.

Written by Mr Macintosh and Professor Lindenmayer, it quantified the 'net' additional carbon abatement from closing down logging in the Victorian ash forests as three million tonnes a year.

That would be worth more than $40 million, based on the current Australian carbon price.

Victoria's forestry corporation, VicForests, says the real carbon saving—and its dollar value—is less than a quarter of that.

'We've done the sums based on the methodology that that number was arrived at. We arrived at a much, much lower number ... somewhere in the order of six, maybe seven million dollars per annum,' says Nathan Trushell, general manager of stakeholders and planning for VicForests.

David Walsh, Manager, Corporate Communications at VicForests, said the lower estimates came from an internal report which has not been peer reviewed, but which VicForests intends to have published later this year.

Mr Trushell says it is important forestry understands the net carbon impact it has on the climate.

'We're collaborating with other agencies and Forest and Wood Products Australia to understand not only the above ground biomass in our forests, but the amount of carbon that's stored in wood products that are manufactured and stay in service life often for decades or even a hundred years,' he says.

Professor Lindenmayer says the argument is a 'major furphy' that's been foisted on the Australian public.

'We have done the detailed analysis of what takes place on log sites and then the life histories of the wood products that are produced,' he says.

'We can see there are very, very few products—only 2 per cent of the total biomass—that goes into long-term wood products. The rest is very short term or it's forest waste that produces significant emissions.'

Mr Trushell says it's important that, before anyone tries to put a money value on carbon credits that may be available, 'we need to get the estimates and the science right in this space'.

Carbon accounts rely on FullCAM carbon model

Significant work has already been done by the Australian government. The data is to be found in its carbon model called FullCAM, an acronym for Full Carbon Accounting Model. 

Over the past 15 years, the government has invested tens of millions of dollars developing FullCAM. It's critical for Australia's carbon accounts.

That's because it's used to officially report Australia's greenhouse emissions from the agriculture, forestry and land use sectors to the United Nations under various climate treaties and arrangements, including the Kyoto Protocol.

What hasn't been known until now is that the 2011 ANU paper by Mr Macintosh, along with the leaked 2014 briefing for environment minister Greg Hunt, were produced using FullCAM and official government data.

'There's been lots of dialogue and discussion between people at ANU and people within government, sharing of information, discussion of results, off the record discussions about what people are finding,' Professor Lindenmayer says.

'So we know that there's a very strong similarity between what the ANU results show and what the results of government modelling show.'

The revelation that the ANU researchers have been using the government data and model gives new credibility to the carbon abatement numbers that they've produced—both in Victoria and nationally.

Professor Lindenmayer says the government can't have it both ways.

'If these numbers are right that means there's a huge amount of carbon stored in native forest,' he says.

'If the numbers are wrong, then we're in real trouble, because that suggests that Australia's carbon accounting methodology is deeply flawed and we cannot faithfully and accurately report to the United Nations on emissions from native forest management. 

'You can't have it both ways. Either the forests are a very significant store of carbon or the entire carbon methodology is flawed.'

David Walsh, from VicForests, told Background Briefing the emphasis on which model had been used overlooked 'the fundamental issue with the ANU work. The inputs into their model are wrong—plain and simple ... everything else unravels from there, plain and simple'.

Asked if that meant the government method and results were also wrong, David Walsh said, 'Possibly ... that may well be true'.

Read more