A recent paper by economist Dr Judith Ajani of the Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society, states that:
Deforestation and the degradation of native forests account for an estimated 20 per cent of Australia’s annual net greenhouse gas emissions. Most of the degradation occurs via (wood) chip exports …
Pardon? This is completely at odds with the Department of Climate Change (formerly the Australian Greenhouse Office) whose website quotes figures based upon the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) showing that emissions from the “land use, land use change and forestry” sector comprise just 2.5 per cent of Australia’s annual greenhouse emissions.
Dr Ajani’s paper (ANU E-press, Agenda, Volume 15 No. 3) goes on to explain that her estimation of annual emissions from forest “deforestation and degradation” is compromised of 11-13 per cent from land clearing for agriculture, with 7 per cent (or 38 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent) from logging native forests. However, this latter figure studiously excludes carbon capture by regenerated forests and, while said to be based on AGO figures, has actually been calculated by prominent “green” activist Margaret Blakers using a briefing paper from the Wilderness Society.
In reality, according to the Australian Emissions Information System reporting for 2006 against UNFCCC categories, harvested wood products and forest land are the only Australian sub-categories where carbon sequestration and storage outweigh emissions.
In view of this, Dr Ajani’s claims are quite extraordinary. Particularly given that logging largely involves transference of stored carbon from trees into the community via usable products; and that the forests from which these products are derived are being sustainably managed as a renewable resource that continually sequesters and then stores atmospheric carbon.
However, it appears that the major aim of Dr Ajani’s paper was to build-on an earlier paper, also published by ANU E-press, entitled Green Carbon – the Role of Native Forests in Carbon Storage – Part 1 (August 2008). This was authored by four ANU scientists, also from the Fenner School of Environment and Society, led by Professor Brendan Mackey.
Both the Mackey et al and Ajani papers advocate supposedly superior carbon accounting outcomes if native forest timber production is ended to enable forests “to regrow their carbon stocks towards their natural carrying capacity”. This mirrors a message that Australia’s mainstream environmental movement have adopted since climate change has gained political prominence.
In recent years, the environmental movement has sought to gain scientific credibility through developing close links with academia. This is evident in the Wilderness Society’s partial funding of the Mackey et al Green Carbon paper and the joint development and funding of an ANU Wild Country Research and Policy Hub based on the Wilderness Society’s Wild Country Vision. Professor Mackey is the current Director of the Hub, while Emeritus Professor Henry Nix chair’s the Hub’s Advisory Committee.
In return, the university supports the Wilderness Society through the provision of academic input to its Wild Country Science Council. ANU Emeritus Professor Henry Nix is Council Co-Chair, while Professor Mackey is a Council member.
The existence of these linkages raises questions about the influence of the Wilderness Society in the preparation of the Green Carbon paper, particularly given its uncompromising opposition to native forest logging. This is emphatically articulated in its Forests and Woodlands Policy (revised September 2005) which states that:
The Wilderness Society “does not support the use of native forests to supply woodchips for pulp, wood for power generation, charcoal production, commercial firewood, or timber commodities”.
Further to this, it “believes that all of Australia’s pulpwood, commercial firewood, and timber commodities should come from extant plantations of softwood and hardwood”.
In the latest edition of the Wilderness Society’s magazine, Wilderness News, an article describing the organisation’s Wild Country Vision for Victoria states that “securing our future starts with protecting our forests, one of the world’s biggest carbon stores;”… and “removing threats like woodchipping”.
Indisputably, the findings of the Mackey et al Green Carbon paper, and the more recent Ajani paper, fit neatly with the Wilderness Society’s vision for the future of Australia’s native forests – a future without a native hardwood timber industry.
Presumably, this is why scientific findings from the Green Carbon paper were launched at a Wilderness Society function in Bali during last December’s UN Climate Conference – some nine months before the paper was formally published on ANU E-press. Lead author, Professor Mackey was reported as presenting “new scientific research highlighting the critical role of forest protection in addressing climate change”.
A blog of Mackey’s Bali presentation by the Zero Emission Network gushed that his new research showed that “if the forestry sector was included in a carbon pricing mechanism …. the native forest industry would collapse overnight”. It also noted that “the report is only in limited release, but people interested in it should contact the Wilderness Society”.
The Green Carbon paper was at that time undergoing peer review, but the authors seemed to have no qualms in publicly releasing its findings. This smacks of a departure from normal academic process specifically to serve the requirements of political activism. The additional implication that the Wilderness Society was distributing the draft paper casts further doubt on the authors’ commitment to academic integrity.
In recent weeks, the timber industry has publicly questioned the scientific objectivity of the Green Carbon paper. This has included speculation about why ANU E-press published the paper without the accompanying technical data that underpins its findings. The paper itself explained that this was because “a technical paper that details the source data, the methods used and the full results is being prepared for a scientific journal”.
Whether or not this eventuates remains to be seen, but the absence of supporting technical data has certainly created difficulties for those wishing to critically analyse the paper’s scientific findings. It has also raised questions about ANU E-press acting as a conduit for incomplete or poorly conducted “psuedo-science”.
The university has vigorously defended ANU E-press as being an online publishing facility that is on the Federal Government’s register of Acceptable Commercial Publishers and one that requires independent review of all published works. ANU E-press has since confirmed that the Green Carbon paper was peer reviewed by three academics including one from outside the university.
Last month, the paper’s authors revealed that its two ANU referees were Dr Michael Roderick, who specialises in environmental survey and monitoring; and Emeritus Professor Henry Nix, who has been described as a pioneer in computer-based land resource inventory and evaluation. As mentioned earlier, Professor Nix is Co-Chair of the Wilderness Society’s Wild Country Science Council on which the paper’s lead author, Professor Mackey also sits.
The involvement of Professor Nix casts some doubt on the independence of the review process. On the question of whether the paper’s supporting technical data was deliberately excluded from publication, one would have thought that if it was part of the peer review process it would have been suitable for publication. On the other hand, if it was not part of the peer review process, there should be serious concern over the value of that process.
Further doubts about the veracity of the ANU E-Press review process are raised by Dr Ajani’s paper. She acknowledges and thanks seven reviewers, plus two anonymous referees for their input. Among the reviewers are three of the four authors of the Green Carbon paper, including Professor Mackey, as well as Margaret Blakers and Naomi Edwards.
Ms Blakers, who was mentioned earlier, is a well-known environmental activist who has worked for Greens Senator Bob Brown and latterly founded the Greens Institute. Ms Edwards assisted The Wilderness Society during its campaign against the proposed Gunns’ pulpmill. She was described by The Age newspaper in April 2006 as a “former high flying Sydney actuary who threw in the towel …. to became a mini-skirted performer and forest activist in the hippie community of Cygnet in southern Tasmania”. Neither would appear to have the ideological independence needed to objectively review Ajani’s paper.
It is particularly significant that although both the Ajani and Mackey et al papers are about forests, there is no evidence of input from forest scientists who are surely experts in this field. Unsurprisingly, both papers display a poor understanding of basic forestry concepts. This is amply demonstrated by the Green Carbon paper which:
1. Seriously overstates the extent of current and future timber production in SE Australia;
2. Displays only a simplistic understanding of what logging is, and what its variations and components mean in terms of carbon accounting;
3. Wrongly presumes that every forest left untouched by human disturbance will develop into “old growth” with maximum carbon storage;
4. Seriously understates the inevitability and severity of natural disturbances that affect forests, such as wildfire, and their impact on carbon accounting;
5. Misunderstands the role of lightning, access, topography, and suppression capability in shaping where the largest and most destructive fires occur;
6. Is unaware of the acknowledged link between forest use and the capability to effectively manage landscape-scale fire which has the greatest impacts on biodiversity and water, as well as carbon storage;
7. Does not understand that management expenditure and effort in particular parts of the forest provide flow-on benefits for other parts of the forest estate;
8. Draws a seemingly illogical distinction between the ecological resilience of regrowth after logging and fire even though the regenerative processes are the same;
9. Appears to ignore the ecological implications of totally avoiding disturbance which can ultimately result in the replacement of eucalypt forest by other vegetation; and
10. Fails to address the carbon accounting implications of not harvesting native forests – such as more imports and greater use of steel and concrete – given that its favoured plantations “solution” is unviable due to insufficient hardwood plantations capable of producing sawn timber.
It is clear that addressing the above matters would have severely weakened, if not invalidated, the paper’s central assertion that not logging forests will massively increase carbon storage. A cynical view is that in recognition of this, Mackey et al may have chosen to avoid informed scrutiny of their paper so as not to compromise findings that fit a pre-ordained agenda.
In view of the doubts surrounding its objectivity and veracity, it is very disappointing that the Green Carbon paper has gained such traction in the media and in some scientific circles. In particular, its infiltration into the Garnaut Climate Change Final Report is unfortunate given the likely influence of this on future government policy.
This was apparently driven by representations by the environmental movement during the public consultation phase which ended in April 2008. In the latest Wilderness News, a text box attached to an article entitled, Green Carbon, by Dr Heather Keith (one of the co-authors of the Green Carbon paper) states that:
The Wilderness Society made an organisational submission [to the Garnaut Review] that spells out the compelling science about forests and carbon. And we co-ordinated thousands of Australians to have their say on this critical issue by making their own submissions.
This shows that even before it was published, the Green Carbon paper was being commandeered for use in submissions to the Garnaut process. This would seem to further confirm the strength of linkages between some ANU scientists and the environmental movement.
In a recent media release, the ANU claimed that it was “proud of researchers who challenge current views and develop new ways of understanding our environment”. If this means supporting scientists who willingly compromise objectivity and academic process to serve the political agenda of a financial backer, the university may have a problem.
It is important to appreciate that conclusions being drawn from the Green Carbon paper are out of step with the international view of the role of forests in climate change. In 2007, this was articulated by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which stated that:
In the long term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fibre or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.
Mark Poynter is a professional forester with 30 years experience. He is a member of the Institute of Foresters and the Association of Consultant Foresters, and author of the book ‘Saving Australia’s Forests and its Implications’ (published in 2007).
This article was written on behalf of the Institute of Foresters of Australia was first published at On Line Opinion and is republished here with permission from the author.