Forest Carbon Accounting Tricky Business

There is more to the climate-forest relationship than carbon.


“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.”

The Australian
May 07, 2008

End the forest wars
David Bowman, Peter Kanowski and Rod Keenan

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.

David Bowman, Peter Kanowski and Rod Keenan are professors of forest
science at the University of Tasmania, Australian National University
and University of Melbourne, respectively.

Copyright 2008 News Limited.


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