This spring and the coming autumn will see a three fold increase in Victorian fuel reduction burns, which has a huge impact on Australia’s carbon emissions.

Nearly 400,000 hectares will be torched this year, and at emissions of 30 to 300 tonnes of CO2 (or more) per hectare, the CO2 emissions from these alone may be from 12 to 120 million tonnes a year. That’s more than 10% of Australia’s total emissions. This burning includes so-called ecological burns in Victoria which are planned for many National Parks and are supported by botanists.

The forest industry, however, does not include these emissions when tallying its contribution to sequestering carbon, which it claims amounts to 23 million tonnes of CO2 pa! 

In the view of the International Panel for Climate Change and the Australian Greenhouse Office, the CO2 from fires is simply “reabsorbed” when the bush regrows. But common sense dictates that the interruption to carbon storage by fire leaves a sequestration deficit even if the bush recovers its storage capacity after each fire. The CO2 that would have been absorbed annually if the fire had not been lit is effectively an ongoing emission.

There are concerns in Victoria regarding the amount of burning and the disregard for the CO2 it produces. An email distributed by conservationists from Gippsland sought comment from botanists, environmentalists and others on the position of the Federal Department of Climate Change. In part, the email stated:

Carbon dioxide emissions from fires

Carbon dioxide emissions are not reported for the burning of forests or savannas under the UNFCCC or Kyoto Protocol accounting frameworks. Currently, by international agreement, we assume that, for the entire Australian forest and savanna estates, the carbon dioxide emissions released from fires are offset by the carbon sink effects from the regeneration of forests and savannas from previous fires over the long term. In other words, while the emissions from any one bushfire event may be substantial, the net effect of fire events across the entire forest area after regrowth factored into the equation is likely to be neutral in the long term.

Many replies to the statement expressed surprise that CO2 emissions were not accounted for, but one stood out. It was carefully written and supported the policy, despite the author’s determination to remain anonymous. However, their statement may reveal a “green insider” or a botanist’s knowledge of the issue:

The accounting rules are not necessarily closely related to what actually happens — they are more like convenient assumptions at this stage of developing comprehensive accounts. However, they do influence what happens on the ground — what counts is what people pay attention to.

There is very little information about fire and CO2 emissions.

From my perspective, if we think of forests primarily as permanent carbon stores, the impact of fire is usually relatively transient (over periods of decades to centuries). The main objective should be to maintain the ecological integrity of the forest, which in turn maintains the carbon stores in perpetuity (not necessarily at their maximum possible level, but at a level which can be sustained ecologically through variation in climatic and other conditions). If we start managing for carbon alone, all kinds of perverse outcomes will result.

The author apparently knows that ecological and fuel reduction burns are a significant source of CO2 emissions, like burning coal, but is determined that they are not seen that way.

The most likely “perverse outcome” in the context of this statement would be the end of ecological burning which some argue fosters of biodiversity and helps to combat climate change.

There is a school of thought widespread among botanists and foresters that fire is an essential tool in managing the Australian landscape. This view holds that it helps to maintain plant biodiversity. Aboriginal use of fire is frequently quoted, though the evidence cited is often thin and circumstantial at best, especially for forests. But the impact of fire on animals, stream flow and on diminishing rainfall in Australia has been the subject of little research.

A perverse outcome of current landscape management has been the recent rapid increase of the use of fire while its impact on CO2 emissions is being actively denied. The views of botanists and foresters have clearly held sway on other academics, the Greens, the CSIRO, the International Panel for Climate Change and the Australian Greenhouse Office.

It is illogical that fires in the forests of Southeast Asia are “of concern” to the Australian Government while we impose carbon taxes on the burning of fossil plants (coal), and then deliberately burn the crap out of living plants actively storing carbon in Australian forests.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey