Q&A on Forests and Climate

This short video explains how forests and our climate are so closely connected. Forests are our greatest land based carbon stores, shade the earth, moderate our climate and provide clouds and rainfall.

Our Q&A on forests and climate answer almost all the basic questions (with references if you need them) and is essential reading if you’re concerned about our climate. There are no arguments that can justify cutting down more forests to burn for power or ethanol. We need to preserve and start restoring our forest cover if we are to help turn around dangerous climate change.

Forest carbon cycle

[collapse title=”How can protecting forests possibly help secure a safe climate?”]The planet’s natural vegetation is the best and safest way to absorb and store bulk atmospheric carbon (pollution).  The very best of these is the rich dense tall vegetation we know as forests. Forests also shade and cool. They transpire (breathe out) water vapour which make clouds and rain. They continually make deep rich soil that also safely stores more carbon. An old tree of 10 metres around can have 600 years worth of carbon stored. Forests also moderate heavy rainfall, slowing down runoff. They store and slow-release water to streams in drought years. Forests are hard-working, multi-functional climate moderators!

[collapse collapsed title=”Read more detail”] Forests have been the planet’s largest land-based carbon stores for thousands of years.  Forest plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen during photosynthesis. They store the carbon in their trunks and branches as they grow.

The carbon is safely stored in both living and dead wood. For example, when branches fall to the ground the carbon remains stored in the branch until it decays. The carbon is then captured and stored safely in the soil through the action of microbes, fungi and insects.
Enormous amounts of carbon dioxide are absorbed this way every day in forests across the planet. Global studies, including the Stern Report by economist Nicholas Stern[1] have found that protecting native forests is the easiest, cheapest and most effective means we have for absorbing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.

Protecting Australia’s native forests  will reduce emissions by tens of millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.[2]– equal to all of Australia’s transport system.
The logging of our native forest is responsible for about 15-20% of Australia’s total carbon emissions.[3]

When forests are logged, hundreds of years worth of stored carbon is lost into the atmosphere, and becomes carbon dioxide pollution. These carbon emissions come from various sources including: from clearing the land of stored carbon in vegetation; disturbances to soil carbon; from high intensity post-logging burns and from the fossil fuels used for logging operations, transport and manufacture of paper and wood products.
This all contributes to global warming.The Australian Governments recent climate report “The Critical Decade” [4] recognises the need to protect native forests immediately as a key climate change mitigation strategy. [1] Stern, N 2008, [2] Blakers, M 2011, [3] Blakers, M, 2009, and Blakers, M, 2011, [4] Climate Commission,  2011 and Garnaut, R, 2011,[/collapse][/collapse]

[collapse title=”But if forests are cut down don’t forests grow back and soak up carbon again?”]failed regen and burnsThe young regrowing forest can never absorb the carbon that was lost. Forests are logged in cycles of 20-50 years. Some trees are over 800 years old and the understorey can be much older. This ancient stored carbon can’t be recaptured with such a short time between being clearfelled again.

[collapse collapsed title=”Read a more detailed answer”]Natural forests are complex ecosystems. Once they are logged it can take generations to recover- if ever. Some types of native forests take 200 to 400 years to reach maturity and their maximum stored biomass levels[1].The logging of old growth forests that contain 600 year old trees[2] can not be considered ‘carbon neutral’. Logging is a major driver of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. The reality is, that once native forests are logged and burnt, they enter a  logging cycle of as little as 20 years[3], making it impossible to reabsorb the carbon released from logging the original forest. It is essential for reducing carbon emissions that forests that have been logged are protected from further logging so that they can regenerate and become stable carbon, water and wildlife strong-holds again. Carbon emissions from native forest logging are not included in the Kyoto accounts and are underestimated by Australia’s Green House Gas accounts (UNFCCC) [4]   because they do not take stock of soil carbon lost from  bulldozer disturbance and post logging burns.[5] It its estimated to take about 100 years for the soil carbon to build up to pre-logging levels.[6]  [1] Saldarriaga et al. 1988; Dean et al. 2003,[2] Carbon dating at the recently logged Brown Mountain in Victoria. ,[3] The time period of the cutting cycle is at Eden is about 25 years and for SC-Southern less than 20 years. Freedom of Information 4/2/2008.[4] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. [5] Blakers, 2009, [6] Diochon, A et al., 2009[/collapse][/collapse]

[collapse title=”If we use the trees for timber and paper won’t that lock up the carbon?”]Embedded carbon cartoonOf the entire biomass of a forest, only a very small part is used for making a product that will last. Most of the forest is wasted and left on the ground to rot or be burnt in a deliberate ‘management burn’.  Woodchips for producing paper make up the bulk of trees that are trucked from a forest. Most paper has a short life and soon ends up at rubbish tips. Furniture accounts for less than 0.1% of a forest’s stored carbon.

[collapse collapsed title=”Read a more detailed answer”]Chair in coupeOf the entire forests’ biomass, sawn timber products account for only between 5-7%.[1] Most of the rest ends up adding to greenhouse gasses soon after logging.The carbon stored in timber and paper products is negligible compared to the carbon that was stored in the undisturbed forest it was cut from. Depending on the forest type, there can be as few as one in five or even ten trees  good enough to be taken as a sawlog[2]. Then only half of the tree is used – the trunk. The trunk above the branches, the crowns and roots are left with the bulldozed understory plants. All that long-stored carbon is then quickly emitted as CO2 pollution in the post logging burn or through decomposition.  About 85-90%[3] of the logs that come from SE Australia’s forests are woodchipped to process into paper. The carbon stored in paper products has an average life of three years. [4]  Short life-span products either decompose in landfill or are burnt, releasing more carbon pollution. The carbon stored in the small percent of timber and building products such as flooring and furniture  has an estimated life of of 90 years[5]. The main product from native forest logging is woodchips for making paper and packaging. About nine out of ten trees go to make paper and one goes to sawn timber. So very quickly, the stored carbon in products made from  native forests ends up as pollution and after 90 years, the whole lot. [1] Birkeland,J 2002, [2] Annual Timber Release Plans – VicForests., [3] Vicforests Annual Report, 2009/10, [4] Poyry, J 1999, [5] Poyry, J 1999[/collapse][/collapse]

[collapse title=”What about burning forest wood to make electricty as a climate friendly, alternative to coal?”]Tree smoke stackClean, renewable energy is the best way to make electricity, (solar, wind and waves) – not looking for new things to burn. We will be told it’s only ‘waste’ from logging (the branches and left over trees) that will be burnt. But we were told exactly the same to justify woodchipping in the 1970s. Woodchips now account for 85% of what is taken from our native forests and is the main reason for logging. If the government allows our forests to be incinerated for power using the ‘waste’ excuse, it would drive the logging. Forests are best left standing to make fresh air and capture carbon pollution.

[collapse collapsed title=”Read a more detailed answer”]Burning native forests to make electricity is not a climate friendly option for trees cut down from a living forest ecosystem. The industry claims that it is “carbon neutral”. This is not true.  Burning wood releases 1.5 times smokestack CO2 than burning coal to produce the same amount of energy. [1] When wood is burned for electricity, all stored carbon is instantly released as CO2 into the atmosphere. With less forest, less carbon can be reabsorbed from the atmosphere. This must be taken into account when claiming carbon neutrality. It can also take around 600 years to recapture that carbon which has been released in a matter of days or weeks. The industry claims that it is “environmentally friendly” because it will only burn the “wastes” from logging operations such as sawdust and wood mill shavings, to make electricity. When habitat is called “waste” and that “waste” is worth more economically than the primary product (logs for sawn timber), the only real motive for developing a biomass electricity industry based on native forest wood is because the demand for native forest woodchips for paper making is in long term decline, with investors and consumers preferring more sustainable wood from plantations, so the industry needs to find a different market to sell the wood chips to if it wants to survive in native forests. [1]   MCCS, 2010[/collapse][/collapse]

[collapse title=”How much would it cost to stop logging our forests then?”]It wouldn’t cost us a cent. It would save us all money. For decades, governments have paid the logging industry’s way. Our taxes are used to keep this industry afloat. We would also save money by having less environmental degradation in water catchments.

[collapse collapsed title=”Read a more detailed answer”]Actually, we would save money if we stopped logging our native forests. Tax payers have been subsidising the industry for many years. As corporatised Government trading enterprises, state logging agencies have consistently failed to return profits to the state from  logging our forests and instead receive tens of millions of dollars worth of subsidies from state treasuries every year.[1] Forests NSW regularly makes multi-million dollar losses on its native forest logging and only survives because of cross subsidies from its plantation sector. The woodchipping industry’s profits are underpinned by the fact that the costs of native forest “management”  are borne by the states, and have been for over a century. This subsidy is massive. [2] Then there are government “stimulus packages” and multi-million dollar “exit payments” to encourage loggers out of native forests.[3]; These millions in losses are before any economic valuation of the loss of water, the conservation value of the forests or the loss in recreation amenity due to forest destruction is taken into account. If logging stopped in native forests, there would be hundreds of millions of dollars to be saved and in fact made out of eco-tourism and increased water yields.[4] As logging dries out water catchments,  protecting forests would mean less need for expensive de-salination plants and more high quality water for agriculture and urban centres.VicForests net profit/loss after State grants subtractedNet return to public reflecting direct State and Federal grants to forestry [1] Edwards, N 2011, Forest Products Commission, 2011; Forests NSW; 2011, Forestry Tasmania, 2011; Vicforests, 2011. [2] According to the 1992 EPAC paper “Managing Australia’s Natural Resources”, subsidies to the timber industry over the past 70 years amount to $5 billion. [3]  – $13 million to victoria alone in 2003 Victorian Auditor General’s Office ,2003,   [4] Tourism Queensland, 1999.[/collapse][/collapse]

[collapse title=”I’ve heard we’d have to import timber if we stopped logging.”]This is a lie the logging industry lobby groups and some politicians tell us. They never say that Australia has enough plantation wood to meet all our timber and paper needs. It’s not a case of our native forests or another country’s. Plantations are the logical alternative to cutting down native forests.

[collapse collapsed title=”Read a more detailed answer”]This is not true. Actually, Australian plantations can supply almost all of our wood needs. The graph below shows that plantation wood is not only displacing native forest wood products in the Australian market, but also the small amount of wood imports from overseas.[1] Plantations can also supply all of our woodchips needed inside Australia and for the huge export woodchip market to Japan and China. [1] Ajani j 2011.

Australia's sawn timber industry[/collapse][/collapse]

[collapse title=”The logging in other countries would have to be worse surely?”]Sadly – not much. Places like Indonesia and Malaysia clearfell entire landscapes of primary forest, burn the remains and replant the area with a commercial crop of palm oil. The same happens here, only we replant our forests with single age, single species eucalypt crops that suit woodchipping and paper making. Endangered wildlife is being killed here and overseas. We have ‘management’ and ‘codes’ but the end result is the same.Indonesian logging and Australian logging

[collapse collapsed title=”Read a more detailed answer”]In Australia, logging destroys the habitat of endangered and other wildlife as well as primary forests or Old-growth and rainforests. This is under legislated management. In Indonesia, logging destroys the habitat of endangered wildlife as well as primary forests or old growth and rainforests. In Indonesia, environment laws are inadequately policed. In Australia, our environmental laws are weak and logging is exempt from many of them.  State logging agencies and logging companies also routinely break environmental laws- there is evidence of systemic breaches of forestry regulations throughout our public native forests. [1] [1] Hammond-Deakin, N. and Higginson, S. 2011; and EEG v VicForests (2009)[/collapse][/collapse]

[collapse title=”We’re told that most forests are protected – is that right?”]Clearfell, reqrowth and burnNo. Only 15% of Australia’s forests and woodlands are protected. Some of the best and most environmentally valuable forests are left out of our parks to meet the demands of the logging industry. They want forests on the richest soils for the quality wood that grows there. They claim they only cut down a small % each year, but these forests are the last remaining stands of unprotected old growth and high conservation value forests left.

[collapse collapsed title=”Read a more detailed answer”]No. Only 15% of Australia’s forests and woodlands are protected. But the most valuable forests are zoned for logging or have already been clearfelled and are now regrowth forest. Much of what has been put into reserves in the past is low quality for logging, i.e. mallee, woodlands, coastal scrub or alpine vegetation. For example, the most carbon dense forests on Earth are in some of the tall eucalypt forests of south east Australia. They represent just 0.04%[1] of Australia’s forests yet 85% have been logged.
Only one quarter of these remaining tall forests are protected. These are extremely valuable forests for wildlife, carbon and water production but are also in demand by the logging industry as high yielding forests. [1] Bureau of Rural Sciences 2008.[/collapse][/collapse]

[collapse title=”If the government’s target is just 5% reduction, and yet by protecting forests we can store 15% why isn’t the government already doing something about it?”]Rent a politician cartoonFor unknown reasons, every government in power has supported logging despite huge public outcry and huge cost to tax-payers. It is a small industry but has a lot of political muscle which governments don’t want to challenge.

[collapse collapsed title=”Read a more detailed answer”]A very good question. Could it be that the logging industry is a very powerful lobby group that has encouraged outdated myths about the industry as a bastion of regional economies and employment when it has long been overtaken by other industries. Could it have something to do with trade deals with Japan? There seems to be no rational explanation. Logging has historically been a heavily protected industry.[/collapse][/collapse]

[collapse title=”Compared to plans for pumping carbon underground, how do forests compare?”]old fashioned climate regulating deviceForests can do it right now, safely, efficiently, economically and it’s a proven ‘technology’. Healthy forests also have spin offs that benefit us all. They don’t need years of costly research that might or might not find an answer that might or might not be safe. The solution to climate change is urgent. We can’t wait 20 or 30 years.

[collapse collapsed title=”Read a more detailed answer”]Nature’s methods like forests and soil, capture and store carbon in the cheapest, safest and most effective and immediate way. Protecting existing forests and restoring degraded and logged forests, will have by far, the greatest benefits for the climate, ecology and community. But the Australian government has committed $305 million of tax payer money to fund a Global CCS (carbon capture and storage) Institute and the fossil fuel industry has promised $1 billion[1] to researching technologies that are still unproven; could take 20 years to develop;  and will not achieve any where near the magnitude of carbon emissions reductions that undisturbed and regrowth forests do. [1] http://beyondzeroemissions.org/media/releases/questionable-benefits-taxpayer-funded-research-unproven-clean-coal-tech-110519[/collapse][/collapse]

[collapse title=”We lose all that carbon in a bushfire, so why not log and manage them before they burn?”]Carbon lost in logging and fire graphThe graph shows the difference in the amount of carbon lost from bush fires compared with logging. Logging is more than 10 times worse than a natural bushfire. [1]  Also, recent research after the Victorian bushfires show that logged forests are more flammable than unlogged forests. Logged forest also fails to recover well.  (Lindenmayer and Keith 2012) [1] Roxburg, SH et al…, Dean C. et al… [/collapse]

[collapse collapsed title=”References”]Ajani, J, 2011,  “Australia’s Wood and Wood Products Industry Situation and Outlook Working Paper”, Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT

Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), 2011, “Australia’s Forests at a glance”, http://adl.brs.gov.au/data/warehouse/pe_abares99001800/Forests_at_a_glance_2011.pdf

Blakers, M, 2009, “Australia’s national greenhouse accounts re-arranged for policy coherence , Green Institute Working Paper 4”, The Green Institute,
Blakers, M, 2011, “Inquiry into the Carbon Farming Initiative Legislation”, Green Institute,

Bureau of Rural Sciences 2008, “Australia’s State of the Forests Report” Montreal Proces implementation group for Australia,Canberra.

Climate Commission,  2011 “The Critical Decade” Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, viewed 3rd June, http://climatecommission.gov.au/topics/the-critical-decade/

Department of Climate Change (DCC), 2009 National Greenhouse Accounts (NGA) Factors, viewed 10th May 2011,
Diochon, A, Kellman, L and Beltrami, H, 2009 “Looking deeper: an investigation of soil carbon losses following harvesting from a managed northeastern red spruce (Picea rubens Sarg.) forest chronosequence”, Forest Ecology and Management, 257, 2, 31 January 2009, Pages 413-420,
Environment East Gippsland v VicForests (2009), VICSC8547, viewed 1st April, 2011, http://www.eastgippsland.net.au

Forests NSW, 2011, “Annual Report 2010-2011” , Department of Primary Industries, http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/366754/forests-nsw-annual-report-201011-part-2.pdf

Forestry Tasmania, 2011, “Annual Report 2010-2011” http://forestrytas.com.au/publications

Forest Products Commission, 2011, “Annual Report 2010-2011”, The Government of Western Australia, http://www.fpc.wa.gov.au/content_migration/_assets/documents/about_us/annual_report/2011/annual_report_201011.pdf

Garnaut, R, 2011, “Garnaut Climate Change Review”, http://www.garnautreview.org.au/update-2011/garnaut-review-2011.html

Jaakko Pöyry Consulting,1999, Usage and Life Cycle of Wood Products. Technical Report No. 8, Australian Greenhouse Office  
Lindenmayer D, Hobbs R, Likens G, Krebs C,Banks S, 2011, “Newly discovered landscape traps produce regime shifts in wet forests”, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University, http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2011/08/24/1110245108.short

Mackey, B, Keith, H, Berry,S, Lindenmayer, D, 2009, “Green Carbon- The role of natural forests in carbon storage”, The Fenner School of Environment & Society, The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT

Naomi Edwards, 2011, “Submission to the Inquiry into Forestry Tasmania Financial Performance” ,

Nunes,P , 2001, P.A.L.D., J.C.J.M. van den Bergh, “Economic Valuation of Biodiversity: Sense or Nonsense”, Ecological Economics, 2001, vol. 39, issue 2, pages 203-222 Journal.

South East Region Conservation Alliance (SERCA), 2010, “Submission to the Biomass-Fired Power Station Major Project Application 09_0034, 2010”,

 Tourism Queensland, 1999 “The Value of Ecotourism and Nature-based Tourism in Australia”, Ecotrends. 5, p 4., http://fama2.us.es:8080/turismo/turismonet1/economia%20del%20turismo/turismo%20y%20medio%20ambiente/the%20role%20of%20environmental%20tourism%20in%20clean%20of%20production%20New%20.pdf

VicForests, 2011, “Annual Report 2010 – 2011” http://www.vicforests.com.au/assets/vicforests%20annual%20report%202009-10.pdf

Victorian Auditor-General’s Office, 2003 “Budget and Projected expenditure / Managing logging in state forests”, Government Printer for the State of Victoria, Melbourne, Victoria
Water SOS, no date, website, http://www.water-sos.org/catchment-stability.html