Seeing forest for the trees on climate change

Seeing forest for the trees on climate change

11 December 2009

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Australia — Using forests to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was a big part of the international climate negotiations during and after Kyoto. Forests remain high on the agenda in Copenhagen.

As a result of the efforts of the Coalition of Rainforest Nations (including PNG, Costa Rica and Brazil), the inclusion of reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) in tropical forests is now the focus of most attention. Economists such as Nicholas Stern and Ross Garnaut saw significant capacity for developed countries to make payments for reducing emissions from this cause that would provide low-cost options to meet more ambitious emissions reductions targets. This is also reflected in the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

REDD emissions mostly come from conversion of forests to large-scale agriculture or subsistence farming in Brazil, Indonesia and a range of African countries. Previously, it was estimated that these emissions amounted to 18-20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. However, recently published data (le Quere et al. 2009, Nature Geoscience December 2009, p. 831-839) indicate that this proportion has declined to about 12 per cent of the total, due to higher fossil fuel emissions and reduced forest conversion in Brazil and Indonesia.

Negotiators are trying to construct a REDD mechanism that is effective, efficient and equitable. Determining the baseline is a key issue. Options include a base year (such as 1990 for Kyoto) a recent baseline period (say 2000-2005) or a projected “business-as-usual” a future period. The appropriate payment mechanism is also under debate. Some are suggesting that credits generated from REDD be fully “fungible” (convertible) within an international trading scheme, while others argue for establishment of an international fund based on contributions from governments or industry that would act as an intermediary in REDD transactions.

In many ways REDD is not a forest management issue. Other factors, such agricultural, land or social and economic development policies and investment decisions determine forest loss in developing countries. The international forest management community is therefore regarding REDD proposals with some uncertainty. On the one hand they represent the potential for large investments to maintain forests but there is concern that these funds will get siphoned off to other parts of government or to affected agricultural industries or intermediaries, with few new resources coming available to maintain these areas of newly “protected” forests or support forest-dependent communities.

Establishment of new plantations or expansion of forests on abandoned agricultural land is a less complicated way to increase forest carbon stocks. China is proposing to maintain its large-scale planting program and establish 40-50 million hectares of new forest in the next 10 years or so. This will make a significant contribution to its emission reduction commitment. Australia has seen nearly 1 million hectares added to the forest plantation estate in the past 15 years and these new plantings now offset about 5 per cent of total national emissions. However, maintaining this forest area in the wake of the collapse of two large timber managed investment scheme operators is a significant policy challenge. The extended dry period in south-east Australia has resulted in plantations in some areas being uneconomic and they may not be replanted. However, we have a national need to increase the area of longer-rotation plantations to provide timber to house a growing population. A combination of carbon and timber investment could provide the right mix to make investment in long-rotation plantations attractive.

Globally, existing native forests actually take up about half the combined greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and land clearing, although this uptake varies considerably from year to year with changing climate and the varying impacts of disturbances such as wildfire. Inclusion of “forest management” as part of emissions reduction measures was a big issue after Kyoto as negotiators fought to craft a solution that would provide for US ratification. US forests take up a considerable amount of carbon and the US wanted to claim part of this to meet its proposed Kyoto target. However, the evidence indicated that forest uptake would actually be lower in 2010 than it was in 1990. The negotiated solution provided for those developed countries that wanted to include forest management for their 2008-2012 target (this also included Japan) to do so up to an agreed cap, provided they could measure the uptake effectively. This was seen as a cop-out by some observers and the debate is continuing. NGOs such as The Wilderness Society are also arguing that timber harvesting in native forests in Australia results in significant greenhouse gas emissions. However, national data show that these emissions are currently more than offset by carbon sequestration in native regrowth forests established after harvesting.

Changing some forest management practices (longer rotations, fertilisation, reduced impact harvesting or changing fire regimes) could increase carbon stocks. The challenges for negotiators are agreeing on methods to factor out the impacts of large-scale, unplanned disturbances such as bushfires or insect damage and developing a baseline approach that addresses effects of forest age-class dynamics that cause the US problem. There is general agreement that improved monitoring systems are needed to better quantify carbon stock changes in the forest estate, in Australia and overseas.

The inclusion of carbon in harvested wood products is also on the agenda. Kyoto reporting rules assume that the carbon in harvested trees is emitted at the time of harvest. This is clearly not what happens. Some carbon is stored for a considerable time in house frames, flooring or furniture. Even short-lived products such as paper are recycled and a proportion ends up in landfill where the carbon can remain stored for a considerable period. Timber producing countries such as the US, New Zealand and Australia are arguing for this to be properly recognised in accounting rules. If the value can be transferred to forest growers through the trading system, it would provide further incentives to increase the forest area for wood production.

A range of forest-related issues are prominent in the Copenhagen negotiations. However, many of the technical matters relating to their inclusion are complicated. As happened after Kyoto in 1997, it is likely to take a number of years to develop the operating rules for implementing forest-based emission reduction measures. The best outcome will provide a package of options that allows forests to play their full role in contributing to climate change mitigation objectives but that also recognises the need for adaptation of forest management to potential impacts of climate change and that provides adequate resources for effective and sustainable forest management.

Professor Rod Keenan is the director of the Victorian Centre for Climate Change Adaptation Research at the University of Melbourne.

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