Talking Point: Burn the desire to fire up forestry
WHO knew that intentions to rev up logging of native forests in Tasmania are to be underpinned by building forest furnaces?
Or that taxpayer-funded largesse is soon to be showered on likely proponents of such developments?
Plans of the Tasmanian Government to entrench and expand native forest logging by encouraging burning large volumes of freshly logged forests for electricity production and industrial heat have been flying under the radar, despite the certainty of conflict and dubious claims of environmental benefit.
The innocuously named Wood and Fibre Innovation Program is strongly focused on the use of forest biomass to produce energy.
It is likely to be primarily burning for heat and/or power. Production of biofuels is also there, but technology is not sufficiently developed to make this an immediate goer.
Impacts on natural values including biodiversity, water, soils and landscapes would be massive under what is essentially an effort to replace the collapsed woodchip export trade with another that will underpin the economics of logging.
Significant volumes are to come from public native forests, likely to include many hectares of high conservation value forests previously agreed to become reserves under the abandoned Tasmanian Forest Agreement as these Future Potential Production Forests are brought back into logging cycles, starting in April, 2020.
Private land logging is also envisaged to be a major element. We could see a return of neighbourhood conflict in rural areas such as occurred 15 to 20 years ago over woodchipping of private land.
Yet carbon emissions to the atmosphere from combustion of freshly cut forests are large and immediate. The assertion that burning native forest biomass for energy production is carbon-neutral is the modern equivalent of the flat Earth argument.
Time taken for forest restoration to naturally replace the carbon lost from the standing forest carbon stock when cut and burnt is measured in many decades at least, and in centuries for the carbon-dense natural forests of Tasmania.
Greenhouse gas emissions will be exacerbated and we would not break even on the carbon balance within relevant time frames to tackle climate change, let alone actually reduce emissions.
So here in a state blessed by genuinely clean renewable energy in hydro and wind power, the State Government has perversely put up $1.25 million for a program that could fund feasibility studies for a minimum of 12 forest burning projects — $100,000 each is earmarked for Huon and Dorset municipalities, where earlier studies for Private Forests Tasmania indicate that overwhelmingly large volumes are to be from native forest, and direct from the bush to the facility.
This is not simply post-sawmill waste as misleadingly portrayed by some advocates. That is a comparatively minor component.
The assertion that burning native forest biomass for energy production is carbon-neutral is the modern equivalent of the flat Earth argument.
Other agricultural sources are possible and less controversial, but volumes are small except for some localities like Deloraine, where it could be co-located with agricultural processing facilities.
Why is this happening, and what could be done instead?
The forest industry has changed substantially in Tasmania, with plantation forestry instrumental in the recent upturn and now dominant. This is where the jobs and wealth creation are, without the conflict over environmental impacts or a need to be interminably propped up by government.
Yet the Government is clinging to the basket case of native forest logging.
Forico, a company based exclusively in plantations, says that native forestry will always have an issue because of our many unique endemic flora and flora.
Forestry Tasmania has been unable to attain Forest Stewardship Council accreditation due to its poor performance on threatened species including the swift parrot and masked owl, destruction of old-growth forest, and unacceptable impacts on natural values at the landscape scale.
With an ugly bottom line dictating the impending sale of Forestry Tasmania’s publicly owned plantations, transition into a sustainable plantation base is lost.
It is either shrink to a boutique-size native forests operation, or try to get industrial-scale production going. The latter requires that something use the volumes previously taken by export woodchipping since markets for native forest woodchips will never recover from their poor environmental reputation, and nor should they.
A domestic use more able to be shoved down the throats of the people seems to be the answer, hence the importance of forest furnaces.
The alternative is clear, demonstrated in Tasmania’s official greenhouse inventory figures, which show a huge reduction in emissions after woodchip exports from Tasmania collapsed and logging volumes reduced substantially. Together with a consequent increase in biomass carbon sequestration from the growth of trees and understorey vegetation, this has led to a dramatic reduction in the state’s emissions.
The opportunity is there for Tasmania to make a substantial ongoing contribution to restraining global warming by backing off logging native forests and collecting payments for avoided emissions and carbon sequestration.
Around the world forest-burning power projects are seeing increasing opposition, and supportive policies are being retracted.
The last thing we should do is sacrifice our native forests to this destructive delusion.
Former Tasmanian Greens MP Peg Putt is chief executive of Markets For Change and has been acting as expert adviser on forests and climate to a consortium of international environmental groups.
This article was published in the Mercury newspaper on September 10