Research released today in an article published in Science has shown that natural forests are far more significant carbon sinks that previously thought.

From 1990 to 2007, 8.8 billion tones of CO2 were released in the world through the use of fossil fuels, but around one third of them were absorbed by forests, according to the study. The woods are responsible for the entire terrestrial storage of CO2 while agricultural land, grassland and tundra played no role at the global level as CO2 are absorbed as much as they emit, said one of the authors, Anatoly Shvidenko, from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg near Vienna.

The study also confirmed that, currently, there are now nearly 4 billion hectares of forest absorbing more than 860 million tons of carbon, mainly in forest soils and plants. However, deforestation releases 2.9 billion tons of carbon every year. It is therefore necessary to prevent the deforestation of rain forests so that the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere can be limited, said Yude Pans, the lead author of the study.

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This research has major implications for future carbon trading and policy — generated from past international negotiations, including the Kyoto protocols — that have shaped Australian climate change policy for all sides of politics.

To date one of the problems with selling climate change policy, especially the carbon tax, has been its punitive nature — all stick and no carrot.  Government and opposition policy responses can benefit from this new research.

For the Coalition and Tony Abbott, the direct intervention option, as opposed to the carbon tax, could include a complete restructure of the forest industry and provide the offsets needed to soften the impact of restructuring coal-fired electricity production. Electricity consumers could invest directly in forest management to offset their emissions while the remaining coal-fired electricity generators are refitted or replaced — reducing of the economic impact of a more rapid transition.

For the government and the opposition, the imminent closure of the huge Triabunna woodchip plant in north-east Tasmania could mark a significant market-based shift away from the use of chipped green timber from forests for paper production.  In terms of CO2 emissions, making paper from timber has always been problematic environmentally, while state governments typically heavily subsidise it.

Forests are commonly clear-felled for pulp-wood paper production and then burnt for regeneration to grow again “from scratch”. Clear falling also kills middle- and upper-storey trees not suitable for paper production.  All understorey species, leaves and leaf litter that is killed and not burnt, breaks down and often emits methane — a short-lived but far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. While most forests can withstand little logging, presently the skills of forest workers are needed in securing forests for carbon storage, roads, erosion control and the protection of forests from fires.

Plantations of non-indigenous species that need fertilising, pest control, thinning, etc, may prove far more difficult to maintain economically,  whereas natural bush stores more carbon more efficiently per hectare with few inputs beside protection from fire — needed also for plantations. The logging and replacement with native forests will sustain a timber industry.

The transition of paper production from forests to crops such as wheat straw, rice stalks and bagasse waste from sugar production, would utilise resources, now often burnt, and maintain employment in the paper-making industry when it eventually moves from using timber.

For Labor, the carbon tax of $23 per tonne will give forests significant economic value when  included in the carbon sequestration equation, especially when their increasing growth rates as they age are taken into account. These growth rates per hectare and carbon storage rates start very slowly from seeds and the seedlings increase over time. Clear-fall logging these forests, especially plantations, ends storage that has to start all over again, storing way less per hectare than could be stored if forest were left to grow on the same site.

Only forest and vegetation that “is under threat of being cleared” is included as a “legitimate carbon sequestration offsets”, excluding most native forests and bushland.  The increasing threat of bushfires and use of fuel reduction burning to “mitigate” their impact is clearly an ongoing threat to the carbon storage capacity of these forests.  National parks,  also now targeted for fuel reduction burning in Victoria, could be carbon sinks and better generators of tourism, clean water, etc, if they were protected from fire.

Investment in fire prevention and containment with the shift to aerial-based fight-fighting capacity for enhanced protection of  people, towns and other assets could generate profit out of carbon sequestration from fire suppression — and jobs.

This may just be a way to achieve to be the “carbon capture and storage” that Resources Minister Martin Ferguson and the fossil fuel industry has been seeking.

Wise investment of income generated from a carbon tax under Labor policy, or taxpayer funds under the Coalition’s, and the creation of regional employment would go a long way towards bringing a sceptical public around to support action on climate change.

This research when broadened to include all vegetation in an Australian context has further policy implications. Vast areas of the Australian landscape are nominally bushland under Aboriginal ownership and management — management that is chronically underfunded.  The current and future potential of these vast landscapes to store carbon could be secured and enhanced through feral animal control and eradication. For remote Aboriginal communities, it could provide the significant income and employment  and secure their economic viability.

As the science develops around the role of the natural environment in sequestering CO2, governments, political parties and communities that can “join the dots” may well prosper.  Where natural vegetation can attract investment to be maintained, there are also benefits for streamflow, water quality and fish production. The addition of selling farm waste for paper production, investment in revegetation of streamsides will reduce the demand for water from rivers and increase the security of environmental flows into an uncertain political and climatic future.

Indeed the creation and restoration of swamps and wetlands, over 90% of which have been lost in the Murray-Darling Basin alone,  would actually sequester carbon in peat that would lead to the recreation of coal.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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