Gum trees and the fight against global warming
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Gum trees and the fight against global warming

Just as the world grapples with the effects of climate change – fiercer and more frequent bushfires, droughts, floods and freak storms – Australia is doing its darndest to cut down more trees. Forests are disappearing so fast in NSW and Queensland that WWF International has put Australia on its list of global deforestation hot spots – the only one in the developed world – while koala populations continue to be decimated through habitat loss.

Climatologists say one of the easiest and cheapest ways to reduce carbon emissions is to preserve forests; deforestation accounts for 18 per cent of global emissions, far surpassing vehicles and aircraft combined, according to the Climate Council.

Trees in the outback may fare better than those in urban centres, at high risk of dieback over coming decades.

Trees in the outback may fare better than those in urban centres, at high risk of dieback over coming decades.Credit:Getty Images

It's not only forests that are vulnerable: the trees in our streets, parks and backyards will also come under increasing heat stress in the coming decades. A 2017 study of 1.5 million trees in 29 council areas from Darwin to Launceston, Brisbane to Perth, revealed that nearly one in four trees in urban centres will be at high risk of dieback: wilting, browning of leaves and dead branches. Around 40 per cent of trees in parts of Sydney, 32 per cent in Melbourne and 85 per cent in Darwin will be vulnerable if current carbon emissions continue. Exotic trees from Europe and North America may be at special risk.

The sooner we adapt to a warmer, drier future, the better, says Dr Gregory Moore, a University of Melbourne botanist who has been studying Australia's 750 eucalypt species since 1975, and suggests we grow more native plants in urban areas. While Australia's eucalypts aren't immune to heat stress, some are as "tough as old boots", he explains. "Messmate stringybark is a great survivor in the harsh Australian environment. Its thick, stringy bark helps protect the trunk during bushfires; shielded under the bark are buds that can help re-establish leaf coverage. It's a species likely to cope well with climate change."

Moore says our highest priority should be to protect the size of our forests. "Australia's high-country national parks are substantial but not connected. You need really large single areas to allow evolutionary processes to take place."

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.

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