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Environment Minister Greg Hunt wants us to get back to our roots, literally, when it comes to tackling climate change. But is his crusade against deforestation just a smokescreen for Australia’s rising emissions?

In June 2013, at the Powershift summit in Melbourne, Hunt, then opposition spokesman on the environment, faced down a hall of young environmentalists calling for climate action with a seemingly simple plan: “We need to protect the great forests of the world,” he said.

Last week, he laid out that same vision at the COP 21 climate talks in Paris, launching a renewed push for a Global Rainforest Recovery Plan.

Why trees?

Today, deforestation is the second-largest contributor to global warming, producing anywhere between 6 and 8 billion tonnes of carbon annually. Cutting down or burning forests — which rank among the best carbon-capture technology the planet has to offer — can release centuries of stored CO2 into the atmosphere.

Australia learnt this lesson nearly a decade ago when tighter legislation reduced land-clearing dramatically in Queensland, bringing down national deforestation emissions by 60% in just six years.

That also gave our government a sudden haul of carbon credits to play with on the world stage, unlike countries such the US, which had already phased out most large-scale deforestation years before such arrangements were in place.

According to Australian Conservation Foundation campaigner Jess Abrahams, it saved Australia a lot of embarrassment during the early phases of the Kyoto Protocol.

“The whole reason Australia reached our target under Kyoto was because we stopped land-clearing,” Abrahams told Crikey. “Our emissions from other sources stayed the same, even grew.”

What does deforestation mean for our carbon credits?

This time around, at COP 21, the Australian government is eager for its deforestation savings to be included in the final agreement once again. Without them, it’s estimated that Australia will have brought a 6% carbon increase to Paris, rather than its planned 5% reduction on year 2000 levels by 2020.

Abrahams agrees that including deforestation credits in the final Paris draft could be crucial internationally.

“But it just happens that it lets Australia off the hook in the short term,” he said.

How are Australian forests doing today?

Australia is taking action abroad to protect the rainforests of the Asia Pacific, but at home trees are still being logged.

A 2011 paper by climate scientist Professor Corey Bradshaw found Australia had already lost 40% of its total forest and, last month, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) revealed Queensland land-clearing rates had tripled in just five years.

WWF Protected Areas scientist Dr Martin Taylor says the developing world is not the only place where deforestation is grinding on.

“We have a terrible record in Australia, and deforestation is now accelerating again,” he told Crikey. “It’s a case of cleaning up our own mess.”

Between 2013 and 2014, land-clearing in Australia’s north produced more carbon than 8 million cars can “spew out” in a year, making up to 80% of the government’s emissions abatements.

Down south, the burning of waste trees during “clearfell” logging is also taking its toll. According to a 2011 study by ANU, 38 million tonnes of C02 is released into the atmosphere every year from forest degradation practices.

Jess Abrahams has seen the ash clouds for himself. “It looks like an A-bomb, a white mushroom cloud coming out of the trees.”

In Australia’s south-east, where forests are among the most carbon-rich in the world, this practice is especially dangerous. The mountain ash trees of Victoria’s central highlands can store more carbon than any on the planet. And yet clearfell logging continues to eat into the forest — and the population of its iconic Leadbeater’s possum.

“We have protected some high conservation value forests but we haven’t done enough,” Abraham said. “Their decline proves we aren’t protecting our forests properly.”

Where does the government really stand on forests?

In Tasmania, the problem has been more than mere neglect. Under Tony Abbott, the Liberal government tried unsuccessfully to “unwind forest protection” by challenging much of the region’s World Heritage status.

While Abrahams is hopeful that the “mood has shifted” with the federal leadership, Bradshaw says Australian forests are in increasingly worse shape.

“We continue to lose forests,” he said. “It’s a shocking state of hypocrisy from [Greg] Hunt on this.”

Government figures, meanwhile, chart a modest gain in protected forest areas — from 11% in 1998 to 17% in 2013. More than 73% of all known old-growth forest is said to fall within conservation areas.

That number could soon rise, with talk of creating a Great Forest National Park in Victoria’s highlands.

“Minister Hunt is certainly interested in the idea,” Abrahams said. “But he’s given away a lot of his jurisdiction on forests to the states.”

Is deforestation really the best way to tackle climate change?

While healthy forests — and healthy biodiversity — will form an essential part of any climate change strategy, two-thirds of emissions are still caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Australia’s coal-intensive economy is only growing, with plans for monster new coal mines underway in Queensland’s Galilee Basin.

The International Energy Agency and other organisations have long been calling for a rapid shift to renewable energy as the biggest step forward post-Paris.

And Greg Hunt’s grand plans on forests, even if fully realised, may never match up.

Peter Fray

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