While there are many sources of emissions, it is only native forests that can remove carbon from the atmosphere at the scale and time required. Protecting and restoring native forests is a critical mitigation action if Australia is to meet its net zero emissions targets within the critical one to three decades.
The government has legislated a 43 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030 below the 2005 level. To meet this new target, Australia will need to reduce carbon emissions by around 15.3 megatons (MT) each year over the next nine years.
This is about the same annual carbon emissions caused by logging our native forest.
Each year around two per cent of our native forests are logged, resulting in 15 MT Co2. The other 98 per cent of native forest is left standing and continue to grow - providing an incredibly powerful offset against carbon emissions. If we were to stop logging native forests, the avoided emissions alone are close to what is needed annually (15.5 Mt CO2) to achieve our 43 per cent reduction by 2030 target.
Indeed, such is the power of native forests and other ecosystems in the national GHG accounts, that their removal not only offsets logging emissions but also about 14 per cent of our fossil fuel emissions.
Full protection of native forests - by this we mean a rapid exit from native forest logging - is therefore a critical mitigation action. Australian forests are among the most carbon-dense forests in the world. Indeed, quickly wrapping up the extensive loss making and uneconomic native forest logging industry in Victoria would be the equivalent emissions saving of taking 730,000 cars off the road every year. Ceasing logging and protecting native forests in Tasmania is estimated to be an equivalent emissions saving to taking 1.1 million cars off the road every year. Empirical analyses led by economics firm Frontier Economics has clearly demonstrated that halting native forest logging in southern NSW would be by far the biggest carbon abatement project in NSW. The mitigation power of forest protected was evident in a recent study where Tasmania delivered negative emissions due to a large and rapid drop in native forest logging. Going well beyond carbon neutral will be essential if we are to limit global warming to around 1.5 degrees and avoid more dangerous climate change.
The economic value of native forests for carbon storage is greater than the value of forests for woodchips and paper production, which is what more than 85 per cent of native forest logs are used to produce in states like Victoria. Our analysis shows this is true even at very low prices for carbon.
Beyond the climate change and carbon storage benefits of forest protection, there are many other reasons why native forests should no longer be logged. One of these is the elevated fire severity problems created by logging - which endangers people's lives and property. Forests are more flammable for up to 70 years after they are logged and regenerated, with the elevated fire severity created by logging adding to further carbon emissions. However, it is also critical to understand that even in the event of major wildfires, most of the carbon still remains in a burnt forest. A careful study of forests before and after the 2009 Black Saturday wildfires in Victoria showed that just 6-14 per cent of the total carbon stock was lost - the remaining carbon stayed in the forest.
Switching to a long-term carbon storage role for native forests will still require a major skilled workforce in rural and regional Australia. This workforce will be needed to manage carbon stocks, including regular measurements to quantify change in carbon storage levels over time. A skilled workforce also will be critical for fire protection. A workforce will be needed to facilitate replanting programs in extensive areas of former forest where regeneration has failed after repeated past wildfires, past logging operations, or a combination of both. Additional work will be needed to repair damage from soil erosion and stream sedimentation so that water catchments are protected, and to monitor the health of forests, for example to provide early detection of pest and disease outbreaks. These jobs, coupled with more jobs in processing plantation-grown pulp logs and high-value sawn timber products and composites in Australia, means that we can expand and diversify the kinds of industries associated with the forest sector in climate-appropriate ways.
A new era in seriously tackling climate change means that we also need to seriously tackle the protection of our carbon-dense native forests. Failure to properly protect forests makes no environmental sense nor any economic sense in a carbon-constrained world where dealing with climate change is a must.
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