Should burning forest waste count under the renewable energy target? Not when the forests serve us better while they're in the ground, writes Senator Lee Rhiannon
Woodchipping of Australia’s native forests continues across the country, despite feeble woodchip prices and shrinking markets. The industry is desperately looking for ways to extend its life by generating an income from burning wood waste for electricity.
Granting a renewable energy subsidy for clear felling and burning our native forests would result in a massive loss of habitat and biodiversity. Logging is a significant source of carbon pollution, so it is perverse that any government would consider creating a financial incentive for the forestry industry to log and ignite native forests in the name of climate action.
Yet the Opposition climate action spokesman Greg Hunt has indicated he is in favour of the proposal. He has said not backing the initiative would "both destroy renewable energy from waste through biomass and destroy blue collar jobs".
The Climate Change Authority released its final report on the Renewable Energy Target late last year and recommended support for the use of native forest wood waste in biomass burners. This is so incongruous one is left wondering whether the Climate Change Authority is taking advice from the forestry industry.
Lobbyists for the industry are pushing the simplistic line that greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced by replacing fossil fuel with native forest logging wood waste to generate electricity.
The 2003 review of the mandatory Renewable Energy Target received conflicting submissions with two main proposals. The first recommended removing wood waste from the scheme altogether. The second sought to leave native forest wood waste in but to separate it from plantation wood waste sources so that the value of renewable energy certificates from plantation wood waste generation would not be effected.
The Howard government left native forest residues in the Renewable Energy Target. Wood waste from native forests was removed in 2011 following agreement of the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee and after persistent campaigning by Greens Senator and climate change spokesperson Christine Milne.
Just over a year ago, during the House of Representatives debate following the passing of the clean energy future legislation, Independent MP Rob Oakeshott lodged a disallowance motion to reinstate native forest waste in the package. Oakeshott claimed his proposal would not result in one additional tree being felled because only forest waste would be eligible — a naïve argument at best.
After the vote in the lower house was tied, thankfully the Speaker used his casting vote to defeat the motion.
Some optimists thought the demise of Oakeshott's disallowance motion would finally convince the native-forest based timber industry to restructure rather than seek quick fixes to its long-term decline, but such predictions have proven premature.
On 11 December 2012 Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke announced additional funding to help implement the Tasmanian Forests Intergovernmental Agreement. Part of this additional funding included $25 million to support regional structural adjustment and sustainable residue solutions, and to encourage innovation in the use of plantation timber. In this case, "sustainable residue solutions" — as it was called — was code for a subsidy to help fund a new native forest biomass burner.
Just over a week later the Climate Change Authority's favourable recommendation to include the burning of native forest residues in the RET review gave further encouragement to the native forest industry's misguided strategy. The Climate Change Authority's reasoning was that if a forest would have been logged in any event then burning the wood waste in a power station is a better environmental outcome, in greenhouse gas emission terms, than burning the waste alone or allowing it to decompose.
On the surface this seems plausible, but the logic is deeply flawed. The argument goes that if wood waste from logging native forests is used to generate electricity, then this will displace fossil-fuel based generation and, as a result, reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This logic is in keeping with the Climate Change Authority's goal to find a balance between promoting investments in renewable generation and containing the costs of the arrangements to electricity users.
Andrew Macintosh, Associate Director of the ANU's Centre for Climate Law and Policy, and Richard Denniss, Executive Director of the Australia Institute, have both expertly argued their opposition to the eligibility for native forest wood waste under RET.
The first of their four arguments combats the Climate Change Authority’s claim that burning native forest wood waste to generate electricity will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In the context of Australia's carbon pricing scheme this claim is unsustainable.
While Australia has a national emissions target, nothing that alters emissions within the sectors that count towards the existing emissions cap should have any impact on the national or global emissions outcome. All that a change within one participating sector will do is alter the distribution of emissions between participating sectors or countries. Even if, as the industry claims, the burning of native forest biomass did displace fossil-fuel based electricity generation, the purported reduction in total greenhouse emissions would not occur. It would simply result in more emissions coming from an alternative source.
The second argument that giving native forest biomass furnaces access to renewable energy certificates will result in a boost to renewable electricity generation is also unsustainable.
The Large-scale Renewable Energy Target (LRET) sets a compulsory amount of renewable electricity that needs to be generated each year. Including native forest wood waste in the scheme would only result in the displacement of other forms of renewable electricity. In other words, an increase in electricity generation from native forest biomass would only diminish the electricity generated by other renewable sources such as wind, solar or hydro.
Forest furnaces would also conflict with the stated aim of the LRET to lower the cost of alternative technologies more rapidly than would normally occur in the absence of financial incentives. Biomass burning is an old technology and promoting it would be at the expense of sustainable technologies.
The proposal to allow native forest biomass burners to attract Renewable Energy Certificates under the large-scale renewable energy target needs to be crossed off any Australian government’s to do list.
Australians do not want native forests and the homes they provide to wildlife become fodder for furnaces in a bid to rescue a dying industry.
Macintosh and Denniss point out:
“Ironically … the final nail in the industry’s coffin could come from the valuable carbon credits that could be generated by not harvesting native forests. While it has been spoken about for decades, the day has come where native forests are more valuable standing up than chopped down.”
With the spectre of an Abbott government looming let’s hope that the nail is driven in sooner rather than later and that our precious forests are preserved to protect Australia’s biodiversity and for the benefit of our climate and future generations.
Lee Rhiannon is Australian Greens Senator for New South Wales. Lee was a NSW state MP for eleven years. For four decades she worked in the social justice and environment movements. She was a founding member and former director of AID/WATCH and the Coalition for Gun Control.