Biden moves to protect the Tongass, North America’s largest rainforest, from logging and road building


View of Hobart Bay off Stephens Passage in Tongass National Forest, southeastern Alaska.
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

Beverly Law, Oregon State UniversityAsk people to find the world’s rainforests on a globe, and most will probably point to South America. But North America has rainforests too – and like their tropical counterparts, these temperate rainforests are ecological treasures.

The Biden administration recently announced new policies to protect the Tongass National Forest, the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world and the biggest U.S. national forest. It spreads over more than 26,000 square miles (67,340 square kilometers) – roughly the size of West Virginia – and covers most of southeast Alaska. The Tongass has thousands of watersheds and fjords, and more than a thousand forested islands.

Map overlaying Alaska on the continental U.S.
Alaska’s national forests, the Chugach and the Tongass, compared with the lower 48 states.
USFS

For over 20 years the Tongass has been at the center of political battles over two key conservation issues: old-growth logging and designating large forest zones as roadless areas to prevent development. As a scientist specializing in forest ecosystems, I see protecting the Tongass as the kind of bold action that’s needed to address climate change and biodiversity loss.

An ecological gem

The Tongass as we know it today began forming at the end of the Little Ice Age in the mid-1700s, which left much of what is now southern Alaska as barren land. Gradually, the area repopulated with plants and animals to become a swath of diverse, rich old-growth forests. President Theodore Roosevelt designated the Tongass as a forest reserve in 1902, and then as a national forest in 1907.

The Tongass is the traditional homeland of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people. It is named for the Tongass group of the Tlingit people, who have continuously occupied the area for over 10,000 years. Alaska Natives relied on the forest’s rich diversity of plants and animals for their survival and traditions. Today the Tongass has abundant populations of animals that have become uncommon in other parts of the U.S., such as brown bears and wolves.

Most of the 900 watersheds within the Tongass are in near-natural condition. This ensures that they can provide habitat for many wild species and recover from or adapt to stresses, such as warmer temperatures due to climate change. They support salmon that spawn in the forest’s creeks and rivers, providing food for bears, eagles and other predators. Such ecosystems are incredibly rare around the world today.

The Tongass National Forest is home to bears, bald eagles and five species of salmon.

How roads threaten forests

Intact old-growth forests, with trees hundreds of years old, are essential for carbon storage, biodiversity and climate resilience. They have fully developed root systems that can reach water in deep soils, and are more resistant than young forests to drought, fire, insects and strong winds – effects that are all likely to increase with climate change.

Because old-growth forests have accumulated massive amounts of carbon in their trees and soils over centuries, protecting them is an important strategy for curbing climate change. Today, however, scientists estimate that logging, agriculture and urban development have left only 6% to 14% of the forest area in the U.S. intact. And only 7% of total U.S. forest area is more than a century old.

Old-growth logging is controversial because intact forests are so rare. And forest losses often start when roads are cut through them to access timber. The roads are effectively long clear-cuts across the landscape.

Building roads through moist temperate forests can make it easier for warm air, wind and sunlight to penetrate from the edges to the interior, drying soil, mosses and ferns. It also provides entry points for invasive plants carried in by vehicles.

And roads’ negative effects extend beyond the actual driving surface. A road 30 feet (9 meters) wide may influence an additional 80 to 100 feet (25 to 30 meters) of adjacent land because of land disturbance during construction and wide buffer zones created for vehicle safety.

Road building can harm animals like brown bears through collisions with vehicles and increased poaching and trapping. In the Tongass, a strip a quarter-mile (0.4 kilometer) wide on each side of the highway system is closed to big game hunting, but this can mitigate only some of roads’ pervasive effects.

Bulldozers grade land next to a gravel logging road.
Upgrading a logging road into State Highway 43 on Prince of Wales Island in the Tongass National Forest.
Jack Olen, USFS Alaska Region/Flickr, CC BY

Decades of controversy

In its final days in January 2001, the Clinton administration adopted the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which barred logging, timber sales, mining and road construction within inventoried roadless areas in most national forests across the U.S. About 9.2 million acres (37,231 square kilometers) of the Tongass – more than half of its area – were designated and managed as inventoried roadless areas.

This step launched 20 years of debate and litigation. The Bush and Trump administrations, supported by conservative Western state officials, sought to limit the roadless rule and exempt the Tongass from it. The Obama administration generally supported the rule and defended it in court.

In 2020, the Trump administration opened the Tongass to extensive new logging, mining and road construction activities. Critics, including environmental advocates and tribal governments, argued that Alaska’s economy was better served by outdoor recreation and commercial fishing than by clear-cutting its remaining old-growth forests.

Now the Biden administration has restored protection for roadless areas of the Tongass. It also has pledged to end large-scale old-growth timber sales and focus on restoration, recreation and other noncommercial activities. It will permit old-growth logging only for cultural uses, such as totem poles and canoes, and for small sales that serve community needs. It also proposes a US$25 million investment in sustainable economic opportunities, with particular focus on investments that are responsive to Indigenous needs.

Forest advocates have welcomed this action and the administration’s plan to publish a new version of the roadless rule. But it remains to be seen how permanent this shift will be.

A strategic climate reserve

New hope for protecting the Tongass comes amid growing alarm over two converging environmental crises: climate change and accelerated extinctions of plant and animal species. In my view, protecting ecological treasures like the Tongass is a critical way to address both issues at once, as scientists have recommended.

The southeastern and south-central regions of Alaska, which contain the Tongass and Chugach national forests, store about 1 billion metric tons of carbon in live and dead tree biomass. This amount could increase by 27% by 2100 if the forest is allowed to continue to grow and accumulate carbon.

I believe the Tongass’ vast intactness, rich biodiversity and significant carbon storage make it an excellent choice as the first of a series of strategic climate reserves – areas that scientists have proposed setting aside to protect large carbon sinks and biodiversity of plant and animal species. U.S. old-growth forests are disappearing rapidly, but with smart management they can deliver ecological benefits for decades to come.

[Like what you’ve read? Want more? Sign up for The Conversation’s daily newsletter.]The Conversation

Beverly Law, Professor Emeritus of Global Change Biology and Terrestrial Systems Science, Oregon State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Spot the difference: as world leaders rose to the occasion at the Biden climate summit, Morrison faltered


Lesley Hughes, Macquarie University and Will Steffen, Australian National UniversityPrime Minister Scott Morrison overnight addressed a much anticipated virtual climate summit convened by US President Joe Biden, claiming future generations “will thank us not for what we have promised, but what we deliver”.

But what will his government actually deliver?

Morrison’s speech was notable for its stark lack of ambition and a defensive tone at odds with the urgent, front-footed approach of other world leaders. He resisted the peer pressure to enter the global fold on climate action by setting clear goals, saying Australia made only “bankable” emissions-reduction commitments.

Morrison instead pointed to Australia’s “transformative technology targets”. As we will explain below, those targets are small, vague and certainly not “bankable”. And the spending commitments pale in comparison to the past and future cost of extreme weather in Australia.

Expectations of Australia heading into the summit were low – a fact perhaps reflected in the summit’s agenda. Morrison’s address was way down in the running order – he was 21st of 27 speakers. Biden was reportedly not in the room when Morrison spoke. And in an unfortunate glitch, Morrison’s microphone was on mute at the start of his speech.

The summit did deliver some major gains. There was palpable relief as Biden brought the US back to the table on global climate efforts, committing to an emissions-reduction target twice the ambition of Australia’s. Other nations including Japan, Canada and Britain also outlined major new commitments.

But sadly for Australians, the summit revealed the stark contrast in climate policy leadership between Morrison and his international peers.

Scott Morrison in front of Sydney harbour backdrop and Australian flags
The contrast on climate policy leadership between Scott Morrison and Joe Biden was on display at the summit.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

The world steps up

Biden opened the summit by emphasising the urgent need to keep global warming below 1.5℃ This century. Failing to do so, he said, would bring:

More frequent and intense fires, floods, droughts, heat waves, and hurricanes tearing through communities, ripping away lives and livelihoods, increasingly dire impacts to our public health […] We can’t resign ourselves to that future. We have to take action, all of us.

Biden committed the US to a 50-52% emissions reduction by 2030 compared with 2005 levels. Other notable emissions-reduction pledges included:

There were hopes Morrison would use the summit to announce Australia would finally join more than 100 countries to set an emissions target of net-zero by 2050. (Australia’s current emissions trajectory has us on track to get to net-zero in the year 2167).

But Morrison dashed those hopes early, telling world leaders: “For Australia, it is not a question of if or even by when for net-zero, but importantly how”.

He pointed to the government’s Technology Investment Roadmap, including A$20 billion to bring down the cost of clean hydrogen, green steel, energy storage and carbon capture. He also spoke of a goal to produce clean hydrogen for A$2 a kilogram, and his dream that Australia’s hydrogen industry would one day rival the scale of California’s Silicon Valley.




Read more:
Scott Morrison can’t spin this one: Australia’s climate pledges at this week’s summit won’t convince the world we’re serious


Homes with solar panels on roof
Morrison spruiked Australia’s high uptake of rooftop solar.
Shutterstock

Will technology save us? Not likely

Earlier this week, Morrison set the scene for his address by announcing a suite of technology funding commitments. Let’s take a closer look at them.

On Wednesday Morrison announced A$540 million for regional hydrogen hubs and carbon-capture and storage (CCS) projects. Some A$275 million will be committed to seven hydrogen hubs in regional areas over five years – that’s about A$7.8 million per hub each year.

It’s hard to see this buying much more than a plan on a piece of paper. Further, there’s little detail on how much will be spent on clean vs dirty hydrogen – that is, hydrogen generated from renewables vs fossil fuels. However the proposed location of some of these hubs in fossil-fuel rich areas, such as the Latrobe Valley and Hunter Valley, does not bode well.

A further A$263.7 million over ten years will fund CCS projects. Since 2003, the Australian government has spent more than A$1 billion on CCS projects, with very little to show for it.

Globally, CCS has been criticised as unproven and expensive, simply designed to extend the life of fossil fuel industries.




Read more:
‘Failure is not an option’: after a lost decade on climate action, the 2020s offer one last chance


trucks carry coal through mine
CCS critics say it is simply a move to prop up fossil fuel industries.
Shutterstock

The third tranche of funding, announced on Thursday, is A$566 million for research partnerships with other countries for new technology such as green steel, small modular nuclear reactors and soil carbon storage. There was little detail in the announcement, so for now it remains rather hypothetical.

In sum, the government will spend a relatively small amount on hydrogen production and CCS, spread wafer thin in various regional areas (and at least some of it subsidising fossil fuels), plus hypothetical funding for research.

Compare this to the A$35 billion cost of extreme weather disasters in Australia between 2010 and 2019, as detailed in this Climate Council report.

More recently, the New South Wales government estimated the potential cost of last month’s devastating floods at A$2 billion. A report by the NSW Treasury estimated by 2061, future economic costs of climate impacts in four key risk areas (bushfires, sea level rise, heatwaves and agricultural production) could reach up to A$17.2 billion a year – and this is just for NSW.




Read more:
Cyclone Seroja just demolished parts of WA – and our warming world will bring more of the same


Debris washed up against bridge
The recent NSW floods caused $2 billion in damage, the state government says.
James Gourley/AAP

A tale of two leaders

Morrison told world leaders Australia would update its emissions-reduction target ahead of the Glasgow climate summit later this year. The current target – a 26-28% cut by 2030, based on 2005 levels – is broadly viewed as woefully inadequate.

Any increased ambition would be long overdue. However, more broadly, the contrast on climate policy between Morrison and Biden could not be clearer. Biden used the summit to tell world leaders:

Your leadership on this issue is a statement to the people of your nation and to the people of every nation, especially our young people, that we’re ready to meet this moment […] We really have no choice. We have to get this done.

Morrison, depressingly, showed little sign of hearing that message.The Conversation

Lesley Hughes, Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University and Will Steffen, Emeritus Professor, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

After Biden’s win, Australia needs to step up and recommit to this vital UN climate change fund


Jonathan Pickering, University of Canberra

Now Joe Biden is on track to be the next US president, there has been plenty of speculation about what this means for Australia’s policies on climate change.

Biden promises to achieve a 100% clean energy economy and reach net-zero emissions in the US no later than 2050. This puts Australia — which is ranked among the worst of the G20 members on climate policies — under pressure to revisit its paltry greenhouse gas emissions targets for 2030 and to commit to reaching net-zero by 2050 as well.




Read more:
Biden says the US will rejoin the Paris climate agreement in 77 days. Then Australia will really feel the heat


But emissions targets are only part of the story. Another important area where the US election could make a difference involves climate finance: when rich countries like Australia channel money to help low-income countries deal with climate change and cut their emissions.

Biden’s win could be the perfect opportunity for Australia to save face and rejoin the UN Green Climate Fund, the main multilateral vehicle for deploying climate finance.

Australia’s initial commitment to the Green Climate Fund

Under the Paris Agreement, developed countries, including Australia, have committed to mobilise US$100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020.

Of this, US$20 billion has been formally pledged to the UN Green Climate Fund. The rest of what countries have committed so far is spread across a range of bilateral partnerships (typically through aid programs), other multilateral channels such as the World Bank, and private investment.

In 2014 Obama committed US$3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, but only transferred the first US$1 billion before President Trump cancelled the remainder in 2017. Biden has pledged to fulfil Obama’s original commitment.

Australia, under the Abbott government, eventually decided to support the fund, initially contributing A$200 million in 2014 and co-chairing its board for much of its early stages.

Then Foreign Minister Julie Bishop meets with Vice-President Joe Biden at the White House.
The Abbott government joined the fund in 2014.
The Office of the Minister for Foreign Affairs

When the fund called for new commitments in 2018, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced over talkback radio that Australia would not “tip money into that big climate fund”. Australia lost its board seat at the end of 2019.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne elaborated at the time:

it is our assessment that there are significant challenges with [the fund’s] governance and operational model which are impacting its effectiveness.

Australia steps back

Australia stood by — and even exceeded — its overall pledge to provide A$1 billion in climate finance over five years to 2020, but it opted to provide this assistance through other channels, mainly bilateral partnerships with governments in neighbouring countries, including A$300 million for the Pacific.




Read more:
Pacific Island nations will no longer stand for Australia’s inaction on climate change


Even so, Australia’s stepback from the fund was condemned by Pacific island countries, whose populations are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and who are strong supporters of the fund.

Former President of Kiribati Anote Tong commented on the decision in 2018:

I think we are coming to the stage where some countries don’t care what their reputation in the international arena is. It seems [Australia] is heading in that direction.

The cast has changed – will the script say the same?

Our 2017 research on Australia’s climate finance commitments found pressure from the US — not least during Obama’s visit to Australia in 2014 — and other countries ultimately served as a catalyst for Prime Minister Tony Abbott to overcome his reluctance to contribute.

Obama on climate change at the University of Queensland.

Subsequently, the Trump administration’s recalcitrance on climate change appears to have given the Morrison government cover to resist international pressure and pull out of it.

Now that the cast has changed again, can we expect Australia to rejoin the fund?

There are signs Morrison’s rhetoric on climate change has shifted compared to Abbott’s. But this hasn’t translated into a major policy shift, and he still faces intense pressure from the coalition’s right wing to do as little as possible.




Read more:
Australia is lagging on climate action and inequality, but the pandemic offers a chance to do better


However, as one of the more moderate members of the Liberal Party, Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne can be expected to appreciate the diplomatic value of recommitting to the Green Climate Fund.

After the government’s recent audit of multilateral organisations, Payne observed that mulilateralism through strong and transparent institutions “serves Australia’s interests”. Recommitting to the Green Climate Fund would be consistent with this message.

Global momentum on climate action

Two other key variables are how the fund and the broader global context have evolved.

In 2014, the fund hadn’t yet delivered any money to developing countries. Since then, work on the ground has got underway, but the fund has faced criticism around its governance and slow disbursement.

Progress has been hampered by recurring disagreements between board members from developed and developing countries over the direction of the fund.

While on the fund’s board, Australia was a persistent advocate for robust decision-making processes. But it won’t be in a position to shape the fund’s governance for the better unless it recommits.




Read more:
China just stunned the world with its step-up on climate action – and the implications for Australia may be huge


In any case, a number of contributing countries, such as France, Germany, Norway and the UK, have doubled their previous commitments.

This is a vote of confidence in the fund’s capacity to deliver results and leverage private resources more efficiently than dozens of bilateral funding channels.

And it shows how pressure on Australia from Biden will be backed up by the global momentum for climate action, which has built up since the Obama administration.

The COVID-19 wild card

While Australia has pledged a further A$500 million for the Pacific from 2020 onwards, its overall A$1 billion commitment, which extends across the Indo-Pacific and beyond, expires this year. Many countries are also due to update their emissions targets under the Paris Agreement ahead of a major summit in 2021.

But COVID-19 is a wild card. It has placed new demands on development assistance programs and national budgets in Australia and elsewhere.

Still, Australia has fared much better in the pandemic than many other countries so far, while also running an aid budget lower than many of its peers. This means Australia can hardly justify going slow on funding when climate change poses a growing threat.

Ramping up its overall commitment to climate finance — and renewing its support for the leading multilateral fund in this area — will be an important sign that Australia is ready to play its part.




Read more:
New polling shows 79% of Aussies care about climate change. So why doesn’t the government listen?


The Conversation


Jonathan Pickering, Assistant Professor, Canberra School of Politics, Economics and Society, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.