Including forest ‘waste’ in the RET is bad for emissions, says research

A new scientific study shows that Australian forests are better for the climate left standing compared with being logged. The finding comes as the senate had cleared the way for forest burning in the renewable energy target.

Hensleigh Creek logged East Gippsland April 2015NEW SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH has called into question the wisdom of the Australian senate’s decision last week to allow the burning of wood under the renewable energy target.

The Australian forests studied absorb more carbon dioxide by being left alone than by being logged, even in a sustainable way, according to three scientists from the ANU.

Andrew Macintosh, Heather Keith and David Lindenmayer analysed climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions from the full life cycle of forests on the NSW south coast.

“The object of the paper was to draw attention to a flaw in a lot of the life cycle analyses on products and systems. What in the past that a lot of people have forgotten about is the impact of what we call policy institutions,” said Associate Professor Andrew Macintosh, from the ANU College of Law.

“What we found is that for native forests in the southern part of NSW, conserving it is better for the climate than harvesting it and putting it into wood products.”

He used the example of beef to explain the implications policy can have on understanding carbon dioxide emissions. If beef is considered to emit a lot of carbon dioxide then it would be bad for the environment. However if government policy said that all beef producers were required to plant trees to absorb the emissions, then beef would be, in effect, carbon neutral.

They applied the same logic to Australian forestry and found that policy can have a similar impact on whether the industry is good or bad for carbon dioxide emissions.

Andrew Macintosh explains: “If you burn biomass and you get credits under the renewable energy target, the question is: does that reduce emissions across the electricity sector as a whole? Answer: no.

“If the scheme works so that if you increase the amount of biomass that you burn and get credits, by definition it means that you’re not displacing fossil fuel generation. You’re actually going be displacing another renewable generator, because if that biomass was not burned, then another generator, wind, solar, one of the other types of renewable energy, would fill the void filled left by the non-burning of that biomass,” he said.

A change in policy

Andrew Macintosh wouldn’t be drawn on whether he believes the senate made the wrong decision last week, “I’m currently the chair of the emission reduction assurance committee and I don’t think it’s my role to comment on government policy.”

However his co-author, David Lindenmayer was less coy. “Our study shows that this is not a good outcome. It’s one that needs to be changed,” he said.

“There is no way that emitting carbon through emissions this way can be regarded as renewable energy. It just simply can’t. I think it’s a misnomer to include it at all. Because it’s a long term carbon emission that has long term impacts on Australia’s climate and on the world’s climate.”

He said about 40 per cent of carbon emitted by burning trees stays in the atmosphere for 2,000 years, far longer than the 100 years used in most carbon calculations. He added that there are also economic implications.

“When biomass burning displaces other forms of truly renewable energy, like solar, like wind, what happens is that we have to think about that in terms of what the taxpayer has to deal with. We already know that our native logging sector costs the taxpayer a fortune. It’s already heavily subsidised. So if we’re going to keep logging the forests, and in fact there’s a significant risk we will increase the amount of logging to put biomass through biomass burners, then the taxpayer has to subsidise the whole activity twice: once through below-cost logs; but then via the renewable energy target.”

Australia currently does not have any policies that encourage the use of government-owned forests for carbon storage rather than timber.

“They could potentially be included in the emissions reduction fund but at the moment they’re not,” said Andrew Macintosh.


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