Fake green energy from native forest biomass

There’s a new threat to Tasmania’s forests being paraded as a ‘residue solution’ and part of a ‘wood and fibre innovation’ program. Who knew that this entails resuscitation of industrial-scale logging under public subsidies dedicated to fighting climate change?

Here is the story of the push for forest biomass energy and why it must be resisted.

First we go back to the collapse of Gunns Ltd, Tasmania’s massive woodchip company. Under acute pressure in its Japanese markets because of customer sensitivity to the rampant destruction of forests, Gunns was forced to cease exporting native forest woodchips; lacking this key income-earner, the company found it could not continue. Along the way its proposed pulp mill went overboard.

Without the huge export woodchip trade, Tasmania’s forest industry was rapidly in trouble. The fundamental role of large-scale export woodchipping in underpinning industry finances was exposed, despite the years of misleading rhetoric that woodchipping was a boon for simply cleaning up unavoidable waste in the forest. In fact it comprised 90% or more of the logged forests at its worst, with the percentage of sawn timber arising from industrial clear-felling regimes being as low as 3%. The argument was made that the industry was sawlog-led because woodchips were a low-value product per unit of weight or volume and sawn timber was of comparatively higher value per unit. The reality that entire forests were felled with only a few trees going to the sawmill and vast log loads driving day and night to the woodchipper was being deliberately obscured. Woodchipping was a licence to print money.

As native forest ‘waste’ got a bad name when determined conservation campaigns unmasked the reality, the Orwellian spin-masters came up with a new name for the same thing – now called ‘residues’. Reviving the export woodchip trade or finding another way to make industrial-scale logging pay is now known in Tasmania as a ‘residue solution’.

Markets for native forest woodchips have never recovered properly, although exports of plantation-grown woodchip are on the rise. That part of the industry determined to remain in native forests has been on the hunt for the new woodchipping – and that turns out to be burning native forest biomass, the so-called residue from logging operations. It is conveniently subsidised by the public purse under misguided climate policy settings.

The misleading claim that burning of logged native-forest wood to produce energy – electricity or industrial heat – is somehow carbon neutral, or even good for the climate, is simply wrong. Burning wood emits carbon, in fact it emits more carbon per unit of energy produced than burning coal does. That’s because wood is less dense, and usually moist too. When an intact native forest that took hundreds of years to grow, or even a forest that was lightly logged many decades ago, is cut and a large proportion of the wood is burnt, the immediate emissions to the atmosphere are huge.

But trees grow again, we’re told, so surely that balances out the emissions impact as the carbon is drawn from the atmosphere and sequestered in the growing trees? If we had hundreds of years to spare, during which the forest was to be regrown to the same carbon stock that it contained before cutting, there may be some validity to this argument. Even then, we still wouldn’t be any further ahead in tackling climate change; we would merely have broken even. 

In fact we have only a few years in which to turn around emissions globally, which is why emissions reduction targets for 2020, 2030 and 2050 are being decided. Burning native forest biomass at this stage simply cannot contribute positively to slowing and reversing climate change inside this time frame. It exacerbates it.

When an intact native forest is brought into a logging cycle it then cycles at between 40% and 60% below its original carbon-carrying capacity. If converted to a plantation, it contains 80% less ecosystem carbon. The rest of that carbon is in the atmosphere, except for the small fraction that went into long-lived wood products. 

In Tasmania we have some of the most carbon-dense forests in the world, which have an important role to play in tackling climate change. They already represent large standing stocks of carbon, and are sequestering more each year. The job is to keep that carbon on the ground and out of the atmosphere, and to continue to suck more carbon out. Recent studies have dismissed earlier assertions that old trees cease to store carbon. The old mantra of the forest industry that over-mature trees must be cut for their own good and for the good of the forest and of the atmosphere is nonsense.

Big early gains in emissions reductions can be made by reducing the rate of industrial logging of native forests. The avoided emissions are substantial. This can be done in the context of additional reservations and/or changed management on public land and via introduction and support of domestic measures for private land. Lesser gains can be made by delaying harvests. Additional incremental sequestration then occurs over time as those forests continue to grow.

Tasmania’s carbon accounts tell the story eloquently. Following the collapse of Gunns and the consequent large reduction in logging volumes, substantial emissions reductions occurred. The annual volumes of native timber harvested dropped from 5.32 million cubic metres in 2002–03 down to an estimated 0.63 million cubic metres in 2012–13, with the greatest decline experienced in the years since 2008–09.

The greenhouse gas inventory shows a corresponding emissions reduction trajectory as total emissions of Mt 17.3 CO2-e in 1990 were reduced to a mere Mt 1.7 CO2-e in 2013. Emissions from the forest management sub-sector decreased significantly, from a peak of 9.0 Mt CO2-e in 2002– 03 to become a carbon sink of -7.9 CO2-e in 2012–13. 

The Tasmanian Government’s own greenhouse-gas inventory clearly states that the majority of Tasmania’s emissions reductions can be attributed to changed forest management – an initial decline in harvest volumes and a consequent increase in biomass carbon sequestration (growing trees and other species in the ecosystem).

An important opportunity flowing from abandoning industrial logging of native forests for emissions reductions is the switch from loss-making commodity production to profitable carbon credit selling. That’s correct – there’s money in not logging our forests!

Instead, under PM Tony Abbott, the Renewable Energy Target (RET) was altered to include native forest biomass burning as an eligible activity, along with wind and solar. Previously the Australian Government was on record in 2013 explaining that ‘to ensure that the RET did not provide an incentive for the burning of native forest wood waste for bio-energy, which could lead to unintended outcomes for biodiversity and the destruction of intact carbon stores’, it had been excluded.

The awful thing about the inclusion of native-forest biomass burning within the finite Renewable Energy Target is not just that it encourages the logging destruction of magnificent forests, depletes biodiversity and generates large greenhouse gas emissions. It also means that this energy source is competing with wind and solar. That is, it won’t displace the burning of fossil fuels, rather it will displace other, genuinely non-emissive forms of energy such as solar and wind power.

Article and images by Peg Putt, CEO of Markets For Change

Reference: Tasmanian Government, 2015, Tasmanian Greenhouse Gas Accounts: State Greenhouse Gas Inventory 2012–13 http://www.dpac.tas.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/265207/Tasmanian_Greenhouse_Gas_Accounts_Final_Report_2012-13.pdf