Tasmania, Australia — The bushfire smoke that blanketed the sky above Hobart late last month graphically marked an abrupt turn in the public debate about forest management.
Environmentalists were quick to make the link between forest regeneration burns and carbon emissions, and to argue that old growth should be saved to serve as carbon stores.
Indeed, this debate was anticipated in February at a conference in Hobart on management of the world’s old forests; by co-incidence that week Government adviser Ross Garnaut released his interim report on Australia’s possible response to global change.
Like it or not, carbon and the forestry debate are now firmly linked. Peppered throughout Garnaut’s report are references to how land cover change, and especially de-forestation, is connected to worsening climate change.
Garnaut advocates re-forestation and forest conservation to providing breathing space for new technologies to “de-carbonise” our economy in the next decade before we trigger dangerous climate change. He says Australia should be working with Indonesia (the globe’s fourth-largest carbon emitter in absolute terms) and with Papua New Guinea (a potential big emitter) to reduce their carbon footprint by conserving forests.
Garnaut also has made specific reference to “structural economic adjustment” to help domestic industries, including forestry, adapt.
Clearly, if we don’t practise what we preach in our forests, the charge of double standards is hard to dodge, and Garnaut’s quest for “head room” to allow new clean technologies to become operational will collapse.
This would be a brave new world for forest managers and forest conservationists, both battle-scarred following decade-long debates about biodiversity conservation, aesthetics and wood production. While hard-won agreements for greater reservation and changed forest practices have been achieved, simmering tensions remain over old-growth forests and the development of pulp mills.
Suddenly the game has changed. The catch is that rules of the new carbon game for forests are far from settled.
Factoring forests into national and international carbon trades will be devilishly complicated, as complicated as the global carbon cycle itself, the full understanding of which remains on the frontiers of ecological science.
To make matters worse for Australia, the life cycles of eucalypt forests have peculiar attributes, especially the need for wildfires to initiate regeneration. This compounds the problem of neatly quantifying the carbon biomass in forests. The fact that our giant eucalypt forests arise from occasional intense fires is often forgotten.
Similarly, the fact that climate change will increase the likelihood of more frequent and bigger bushfires profoundly challenges our management. The plain truth is that eucalypt forests are periodic emitters of carbon and excluding fire from our forested landscape is neither realistic nor ecologically justifiable. Factoring eucalypt forests into the carbon economy is not for the faint-hearted.
Quantifying the current and potential carbon stocks is a research challenge. We are not yet in a position to undertake routine carbon auditing exercises that will be a prerequisite for a carbon economy. We don’t have a good enough handle on the carbon dynamics of our forests, on the relative contribution made by regrowth and old-growth forests, or the life cycle of the carbon products derived from the harvest of native forests and plantations.
We need a coherent and comprehensive national monitoring framework which properly values carbon in wood products, and establishes a sensible baseline for forests and the forestry sector. The omission of the agriculture and forestry sectors from reporting frameworks shows how important this work is, and reinforces Garnaut’s emphasis on research and development to enable adaptation to climate change.
Universities have a unique opportunity to create the knowledge required to help resolve many of these vexed issues surrounding carbon and forest management. Hard evidence from independent researchers will be crucial in resolving many of the claims and counter-claims about the relative carbon costs and benefits of different forest management practices. Because forest science is at the centre of the emerging carbon economy, degree courses for “landscape carbon accounting” are not out of the question.
Viewing forests through a climate-change and carbon lens changes all the old orthodoxies about forest conservation and management. With foresight, imagination and serious investment in research and training, the carbon economy presents a remarkable opportunity to create new forest-based industries and jobs.
We need to end the “forest wars” and focus on future challenges. Garnaut may be the trigger for this renaissance in forest management.