Not enough wood in the climate change debate

People are becoming increasingly aware of their own ‘carbon footprint’and the little things they can do to reduce carbon emissions and diminish climate change pressures. Switching to low wattage light bulbs, turning appliances off at the wall, walking more, and buying a hybrid car are firststeps. But as consumers, what else can we do to make a difference?

Just about everything we use has been manufactured and produced using large amounts of energy, causing the emission of carbon dioxide. Synthetic substances such as plastics, alloys and concrete are central to our everydayliving. We use a computer, drive a car, and cook our food using these products.

How often, then, do we use predominantly pure, natural substances, created cleanly and without vast amounts of energy?

Wood products typically require less energy to make than alternative materials. Living forests provided the means of production for almost 4.6million cubic metres of sawlogs, pulpwood and timber products in NSW in 2006-2007.

This provided the structural building materials for homes, furniture, newspapers and much more.

“A living forest is an outstanding natural resource and with its trees both alive and dead, the logs, the litter, the understorey and the soil, it’s a significant component of the global carbon cycle,” explains NSW DPI forest research scientist, Dr Fabiano Ximenes.

“Growing trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and store the carbon in their tissues. Carbon is released back into the atmosphere only when vegetation is burned, or broken down by bacteria in a decaying process.”

Australian timbers are sourced from sustainably managed plantations and native forests to provide the quantity and variety of tree species for our many timber products. A growing proportion of wood products are also imported with around 45% of timber consumed in Australia supplied from overseas. Australia has a trade deficit in forest and wood products that is valued at $2 billionper annum. 

Within NSW there are 2.3 million hectares of publicly managed State forests. These forests supply around 45% of the State’s total timber requirements. Each year, less than 2% of State forests areas are selectively harvested. All native State forests contain significant areas which are set aside for conservation protection. Most State forests are also found in close proximity to a national park. In NSW national parks cover more than six million hectares. The two tenures are complementary in the landscape – allowing us to meet our timber production means, enhance biodiversity and see some areas managed exclusively for conservation purposes.

The Australian Government’s State of the Forests Report (2008) estimates that Australian forests store around 6.56 billion tonnes of carbon which is equivalent to keeping 24 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The National inventory of Australia’s plantations and commercial forests reveals that a net 51.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide was removed from the atmosphere in 2005. To put this in context, Australia’s total annual greenhouse gas emissionsis 576 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

The carbon sequestration benefits of forests are extended by the production of wood products, as wood products have been shown to retain their carbon while they are in use, and even after disposal.

Fabiano and colleagues analysed the carbon content of paper and wood products found in landfill and were able to demonstrate that at least 82% of the carbon originally in the sawn timber is still present, after 46 years –regardless of the species.

“This research makes an important contribution to carbon accounting debates. It shows that all wood products can act as a carbon sink while they are in use, and continue to retain this carbon even after disposal,” Fabiano said.

The Australian Government estimates that the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent that is being stored in Australian wood products is currently increasing by over 4 million tonnes per year.

“A productive and sustainably managed forest can play a valuable role in mitigating climate change through growth and sequestration, harvest for wood products, and subsequent new growth.”

Fabiano’s research has been embraced by the forestry industry as yet another example of the environmental benefits of sustainable forest management.

Forests NSW chief executive, Nick Roberts, is passionate about the role that sustainably harvested native forests can play in combating climate change and wants more people to understand the science of forestry behind the timber production industry.

“Forestry is a highly technical undertaking, backed by a solid foundation of operation and scientific research spanning over 150 years in Australia alone,” Nick said. “If you want proof of the benefit of this research and the way we manage our forests, look out of the window of the plane the next time you fly over the north or south coast of NSW. What you see is healthy growing forests for miles and miles… forests that have been sustainably harvested for decades.

“Through our use of timber we are effectively supporting carbon capture and storage. If our locally grown native forest timbers were replaced with non-renewable alternatives or by imported timber from non-sustainable sources, atmospheric carbon concentrations and other pollutant levels would be much higher.”

“We hope the community will work with us to develop a better appreciation of the science and planning that is involved, and the positive contribution the forestry industry is making in reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” he said.

Nick said forest management in NSW is world class – demonstrated through its certification to the Australian Forestry Standard, an independent, globally recognised standard for sustainable management practices.

“High conservation value old growth forests, rainforest and rare ecosystems are protected, harvesting is excluded in critical habitat areas and the forest is actively managed to promote biodiversity. It is our business to keep the forests healthy for perpetuity.”

Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) continues to support the production of wood products under sustainable forest management strategies aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks.

In Australia, the forestry industry is pleased to see that carbon sequestered in eligible forests will be tradeable as carbon credits, following the release of the Australian Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in December 2008.  The Australian Government has also committed to increasing efforts internationally to achieve acknowledgement of the carbon storage benefits of wood products in the negotiations for the ‘next’ Kyoto Protocol.