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Op-ed: Working forests: front and centre in a greener future

Where does our timber come from? Many of us don’t care and, to be honest, have probably never thought about this. What was the last timber, paper, or cardboard product that you bought, and did you check where it came from? Was it imported from deforested land or grown in sustainable, regenerated working forests?

It’s an uncomfortable question that we need to ask ourselves – and our retailers. Addressing climate change is dependent on stopping deforestation and reducing emissions.

The clear message from the Paris Agreement and the United Nations IPCC report is that carbon neutrality isn’t enough – we must achieve carbon negativity. In addition, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN has released its 2022 State of the World’s Forests Report, calling for:

  1. Halting deforestation where forests are converted to other land uses
  2. Restoring degraded land and expanding working forests and
  3. Sustainably using working forests to build ‘green’ value chains.

 

Yet the climate benefits of our working forests are increasingly being challenged and used as a weapon by some in the environmental movement, leading to confusion and doubt about the place of forestry in climate change mitigation.

I think we all agree that meeting the challenges ahead will be hard. It will require removing a substantial amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and reducing new emissions.

The most prominent removal strategy in global modelling is afforestation/reforestation.

Typically, afforestation initiatives mostly talk about only conservation forests, rather than public and private working forests that are harvested and regrown time and again. As half of every tree harvested is carbon, the wood products from these working forests can help to reduce emissions, for example, by replacing carbon-intensive building materials.

Studies, such as the ones done by Fabiano Ximenes, Senior Research Scientist at the NSW Dept. of Primary Industries, show that actively managed working forests deliver greater climate benefits than conservation forests that are left untouched and unmanaged. The benefits compound over sequential harvests.

Of course, this isn’t to say we shouldn’t value and protect our conservation forests. But our working public forests are set aside for multiple uses such as camping, recreation and yes harvesting of timber. But I’d like to remind you that we harvest only 4 trees in every 10,000 of these working forests each year. That still leaves a lot of trees.

Locking up native forests as a silver bullet is a flawed argument. The carbon sequestration potential in forests is finite, and conservation forests are at best carbon neutral. Once forests reach maturity, the rate of sequestration slows until an equilibrium is reached.

Carbon storage in forest products, on the other hand, is infinite and achieves the goal of being carbon negative by delivering both removal and storage of carbon from the atmosphere and reducing reliance on high emitting materials.

Unmanaged forests also don’t produce the best outcomes for wildlife. Active forest management includes thinning, regular removal of fuel load to prevent bushfires and managing invasive pests and species. This form of management can lead to much better ecological outcomes – why not here in Victoria? Indeed it is how Indigenous peoples managed our forest landscapes over tens of thousands of years. It is why the Dja Dja Wurrung peoples have stepped in to insist on active management and repair Wombat State Forest. Why isn’t the government consulting more broadly with traditional owners all over Victoria on best practices to manage country? Why do we insist on ‘knowing best’?

In addition, Victoria needs to improve its timber security. The current shortages in the building industry have taught us that, but it goes much further than that.

We have a responsibility to grow our forests and its resources. All countries that can manage sustainable forests share this responsibility. It’s not acceptable that we would push this task to countries where deforestation is rife. Not to mention the carbon miles those imports stack up!

Timber shortages are a global issue and the future competition for timber will be fierce. We have a responsibility to grow and harvest our fair share of timber to produce enough for our domestic needs, if not more.

Some prefer living in denial about the impact our wood demands have on the forests of Borneo or the Amazon. The inconvenient truth is that shortages create demand and demand creates high prices. But high demand can result in poor practices and illegal timber harvesting – which goes against all the principles of climate change mitigation.

We need to question from where our timber products came. And we need to care about the answer.

We all love wood, so let’s start recognising the responsible and renewable forestry that we have here in our state. Victorian forestry gives you the wood and wood products that our industry is proud of – from our forests to your home.

 

Deb Kerr, CEO, Victorian Forest Products Association

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