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Hold the line to keep emissions low

The community victory that stopped Gunns’ devastating pulp mill from being built in 2011 has some years later produced a stunning climate result. Tasmania’s emissions have fallen just below net zero emissions to a total of -2.2 Mt CO2-e in 2018. That’s an heroic result for any jurisdiction on the planet.

How did it happen? The official Greenhouse Gas Inventory report is clear: “Net emissions have declined by 111.2% on emission levels in 2005 due to reductions in emissions from the land sector, mainly resulting from reductions in native forest harvesting”.

Other emissions sources remained stable. Stationary energy is mostly generated from renewables (hydro and wind), and doesn’t figure prominently as a source of emissions compared to most places. Forestry emissions were by far our primary emissions source until the reduction in native forest logging. Tasmania’s unique emissions profile has given an unambiguous picture of how ending logging contributes initially to emissions reduction, and then allowing forests to keep growing contributes further through ongoing sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere. Called “nature-based solutions” in the climate world, the theoretical impacts of such changes have been published. Now Tasmania shows a stark real life example of what can be achieved.

Why did logging stop so suddenly in 2011? It wasn’t a policy decision of governments. It was that Australia’s largest woodchipper had over-reached, pressing ahead with the unpopular and ultimately unsustainable push to build a pulp mill whilst its overseas markets were in revolt over our destruction of high conservation value forests. It had also embarked on the ill-advised ($6.2 m) Gunns 20 SLAPP suit, targeting prominent conservationists and NGOs to try to stifle opposition to the odious pulp mill. When their remaining major customer in Japan dropped contracts Gunns was without enough income, overextended on the pulp project, and liable to cover costs of its failing court actions against environmentalists. They stopped taking native forest pulpwood and before long the company went into receivership.

It didn’t end there. Gunns had a virtual monopoly on woodchipping having progressively bought out its competitors. The loss of the huge export woodchip trade demolished the major source of income for native forest logging, making it uneconomic and exposing the rest of the industry to drastically reduced supply. The entire industry was going under. The lie that the industry was “sawlog driven” was exposed. Woodchipping had been introduced in the 1970s as an “efficiency” measure to “clean up waste in the forest”. It drove a transition from selective logging to clearfelling. By the turn of the century up to 7 million tonnes of woodchip exports left Tasmania for Japan each year. An average of 80 – 95% of product from clearfelling operations was so-called waste wood, the actual mainstay and driver of native forest logging destruction.

The collapse of the forest industry brought an immediate, massive reduction in emissions. So much for the claims of the forest industry that their logging regimes somehow contribute to the fight against climate change!

The Tasmanian Forest Agreement formalised the reduction in logging across almost 500,000 ha of Tasmania’s native production forests. World Heritage listing eventually secured 120,000 ha from logging, most in reserves. The remaining 350,000 ha was placed in a holding pattern pending future reservation. Those forests continued growing and drawing carbon out of the atmosphere. The Tasmanian government is quick to take credit for Tasmania’s great emissions result, but will not acknowledge how it has been achieved. They’ve put those future reserves back on the chopping block. The industry has substantially moved on, transitioning production and jobs into the existing plantations.

Such large and important gains in the fight against climate change should not be squandered. We must hold the line and now do work on reducing emissions from other sectors, like industry and transport. Further climate contributions can be made by protecting forests where destruction of threatened species and old growth has twice prevented Forest Stewardship Council certification. It could even be a good little earner.

Our official greenhouse accounts hold the evidence that ending logging works for the climate, despite rhetorical claims of loggers to the contrary. This is not simply a great outcome for climate and nature in Tasmania, it is inspiration and evidence for the rest of Australia and the world.

About the author: Peg Putt works on forests and climate, coordinating 150 environment groups in 32 countries opposing burning forest biomass for large scale energy generation. She is a former leader of the Tasmanian Greens

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