Warrick Jordan December 29, 2011
THE Australian native forest logging industry is in dire straits. The international crash in demand for native forest woodchips has the industry desperately scrambling for replacement markets.
While the native-forest sawlog sector will continue, the industrial logging model that has driven environmental destruction and public conflict is in rapid decline. The industry’s Plan B is the economically suspect and public relations nightmare of ”dead koala power” – large-scale power stations run on native forest woodchips. This is a clear sign of desperation.
Promoters of native forest biomass energy argue that logging produces ”waste residue”, conjuring images of a few leftover branches being picked up from the forest floor. The reality is fundamentally different.
With existing industrial logging methods such as clear-felling, vast quantities of standing forests unsuitable for sawlog production are woodchipped. In the majestic tall eucalypt forests this often amounts to 85 per cent of the timber cut being for woodchips.
In the 1960s and ’70s, ports were established to allow these ”waste residues” to be exported as value-adding. Export woodchipping then became the main driver of industrial logging, destroying ancient giants, wild valleys and wildlife habitat.
Markets and society have rejected this environmentally damaging business model. The industrial native forest industry is on life support. Woodchip exports have collapsed in Tasmania, while jobs are being shed in Victoria and logging intensified in New South Wales.
While biomass energy production from other feedstocks may have a bright future in Australia, native forests should not be a part of the picture. While some sources of biomass can provide cost-effective renewable energy, native forest proposals are underpinned by subsidised public forest woodchipping, unsustainable wood supplies, and the destruction of highly valued forests.
Advocates also paint a misleadingly simplistic picture that native forest biomass reduces carbon emissions. This is based on the flawed assumption that replanted trees take up all the carbon released when a forest is logged.
Australia has the most carbon-dense forests in the world. When these forests are logged and burnt, that carbon is released into the atmosphere and only a portion is reabsorbed over several decades when trees regrow. This results in large carbon pollution emissions.
Recent research on biomass-specific native-forest harvesting in North America in the journal Nature Climate Change showed that, after assessing all harvest and energy generation emissions, bioenergy was worse for the climate than fossil fuel generation in 80 per cent of the regions studied.
In addition to climate pollution, logging for biomass will be an environmental disaster for forest ecosystems that are already heavily impacted by logging, climate change, increased fires and feral pests.
The native forest industry relies on government regulation, such as regional forest agreements and forest practices codes, to claim environmental sustainability. There is also an increasing marketplace reliance on the heavily flawed Australian Forestry Standard certification system.
These mechanisms have proven grossly inadequate in protecting the environment.
Despite these systems being in place, forest giants are clear-felled every day in the wilderness valleys of Tasmania, native forest logging is pushing the Leadbeater’s possum to extinction in Victoria, and koala habitat continues to be destroyed in NSW.
When conflicts emerge between forestry contracts and environmental regulation, laws are changed or bent to allow logging to continue. For example, after several successful court cases by conservationists, the Victorian government has proposed changes that will allow loggers to ignore legislation to protect threatened species legislation, virtually signing the death warrant of the remaining 500 or so Leadbeater’s possums, the state’s animal emblem.
Past experience does not augur well for native forest biomass. Despite the existence of soon-to-be-repealed Howard-era renewable energy incentives, failed projects are found across Australia. Over the past two decades, energy retailer rejection, community and conservationist opposition, poor economics and environmental regulation have ensured projects have not left the drawing board.
The push for a native forest biomass industry that relies on failed regulation and drives the destruction of precious remaining ancient forests will be vigorously opposed by conservation groups such as the Wilderness Society and, judging from experience, by broad sections of the community.
Warrick Jordan is national forest campaigner for the Wilderness Society.