Australia’s plantation boom has gone bust, so let’s make them carbon farms


Jason Alexandra, Charles Darwin University

In the rolling hills of Victoria’s Strzelecki Ranges, among paddocks of pasture and potatoes, stands a simple steel monument to the world’s tallest tree. The tree itself, which stood a mighty 115 m tall, was chopped down in the 1880s so that a registered surveyor could measure it.

Almost a century and a half later, Australia’s attitude to its forests is seemingly no less perverse.

Not chopping it down might have been a more fitting tribute.
Author provided

Not far north of where the tree once stood is the Latrobe Valley, dominated by some of Australia’s most carbon-intensive coalmines and power stations. Covering much of the surrounding hills are timber plantations, which store tonnes of carbon. Plantations can be used to soak up emissions – except the current rules don’t officially recognise this.

Intensive plantations don’t count as carbon sinks under Australia’s carbon farming rules. The boom that led to the creation of almost a million hectares of new plantation timber died with the global financial crisis – but with a bit of smart thinking these could be put to use as carbon farms, rather than being allowed to die off and returned to pasture.

Boom and bust

The see-sawing fortunes of Australian forestry have largely been driven by government policy. The 1990s saw major policy reforms, which spawned protests (including log trucks blockading the national parliament) and ultimately resulted in a widespread expansion of timber plantations.

The area of eucalyptus plantations grew from almost nothing in 1998 to about 1 million hectares by 2008, spurred by a massive influx of finance encouraged by the Managed Investments Act (1998), which turned plantations into tax-effective investments.

But then came the global financial crisis, which saw Managed Investment Scheme (MIS) companies like Timbercorp and Great Southern Plantations go bust. Shareholders and investors lost out, but the plantations themselves were in the ground.

Since then, plantation ownership has been consolidated into the hands of a few dominant players such as NewForests, which acquired more than 700,000 ha, and Global Forest Partners (more than 150,000 ha).

An expensive experiment

Some MIS plantations were poorly sited, in terms of climate and soils, used inappropriate species, or suffered pest or disease problems. Some have been written off, bulldozed and returned to pasture. Many more are likely to be.

Current estimates suggest that a third of the eucalyptus plantations are uneconomic with harvesting unlikely, another third will probably be harvested but are unlikely to be replanted. The rest will form Australia’s future hardwood estate. In this sense it has been a massive and expensive experiment.

This story shows the power of financial incentives, but reflects the problem of using tax inducements to fund an industry. For investors, tax deductions became the primary goal, rather than the quality of the investment.

The plantations’ boom and bust, with its focus on using fast money for fast-growing eucalypts, mostly for pulpwood, has obscured other important opportunities.

First, it shifted the focus away from the opportunities of integrating forestry into farming systems.

Second, the reputation of Australian forestry and forestry investments has almost certainly suffered.

Third, it may have blinded us to the potential of using Australia’s rich diversity of tree species for other purposes. Australia’s genetic gifts to the world include trees that grow prolifically in poor soils, can withstand fire and drought, store carbon, and produce hard, strong, richly coloured timbers.

A treasure trove for carbon farmers.
T. Grove/CSIRO/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Already planted across millions of hectares throughout the world, Australia’s eucalypts, acacias and casuarinas offer a genetic treasure trove for carbon farming.

With much to learn about Australia’s diverse and productive flora – including how to farm it for carbon – it seems perverse that investment in Australian forestry research and education is now declining.

Carbon crops

Carbon markets and emerging technologies could fundamentally alter the way we conceive of trees as crops.

With a million hectares of eucalyptus plantation approaching maturity, there is almost certainly an active search for commercial markets for the standing timber – as wood fibre, for bioenergy fuel, or for non-wood products.

Nonetheless, large areas are likely to be reconverted to pasture, resulting in less carbon being stored in these landscapes. But there’s another, even simpler option for what to do with these plantations.

Perhaps it is time to reconsider whether to credit the carbon captured by these trees, given that their plantings were sponsored by our taxes. Changes to the carbon farming rules might make these and other multi-use plantations more viable.

The Australian Forest Industry estimates that Australia’s Kyoto-compliant forestry plantations (those established on cleared land since 1990) offset about 4.5% of Australia’s total emissions, but these are not credited under Australia’s Carbon Farming Initiative.

There are no approved CFI methodologies for plantations that sequester carbon and produce commercial timbers, but if there were, multipurpose plantations could form a key plank of Australia’s Direct Action carbon abatement policy.

In addition to carbon, there is potential for plantings that deliver economic development and ecological benefits in terms of restoring landscapes. But new models of plantations are needed, supported with different policy setting that drive their development.

Any large-scale bio-energy or carbon plantings in the future need to heed the lessons from Australia’s plantation boom and bust. In emerging carbon-constrained economies, how we define resources in rural landscapes, including carbon credits, will literally shape our future.

The Conversation

Jason Alexandra, Honorary Fellow, Charles Darwin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

If you don't like looking at wind farms, why not build them at sea?


Clive Schofield, University of Wollongong and Tavis Potts, University of Aberdeen

The Australian government appears to be intent on scaling back wind farms in Australia. A Senate inquiry has recommended increasing regulation for wind farms in response to health concerns, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently commented to radio host Alan Jones that his government has managed to reduce the number of “these things” [wind turbines], but he personally would have preferred “to have reduced the number a whole lot more”.

But there’s another solution that would continue to build the capacity of wind energy while removing possible impacts on land-holders: put wind farms out to sea.

Terrible turbines?

The primary drivers for the government’s hostility to wind farms centre around the alleged socio-cultural and health impacts of wind turbines.

In the view of opponents, wind turbines represent an unsightly blight upon the landscape and cause intolerable noise pollution.

Concerns over their potential impacts on human health have also been raised although here it can be observed that the National Health and Medical Research Council recently stated that there is no direct evidence that turbines affect physical or mental health.

The Australian government’s stance is, however, increasingly out of step with the international community – both economically and morally.

In recent weeks the G7 group of nations announced their commitment to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide to 40-70% below current levels by 2050, and to eliminate the use of fossil fuels altogether by 2100. As a renewable energy source, wind farms can help to displace the use of fossil fuel generation in the electricity network.

And last week Pope Francis and his 183-page encyclical made a radical call to decarbonise and address climate change as a major existential issue.

The government-led attack on wind farms is therefore at odds with a global shift in the development of renewable energy with wind a leading technology in the renewable picture.

Stepping offshore

One approach that would serve to sidestep the problems of terrestrial wind farms (real or perceived) is to send the turbines offshore. Marine renewable energy, whether from wind, wave or tidal sources, is set to become a major supplier to global energy needs.

Among the differing technologies, offshore wind is emerging as the most efficient and competitive player with significant expansion in Europe and Asia.

In Europe more than 2,080 offshore turbines have been installed and connected to the grid in 11 European countries with a cumulative total of 6,562 megawatts (6.562 gigawatts, or GW) in 69 wind farms. Wind energy (both offshore and terrestrial) is a small but growing part of renewables produciton in the EU, consisting of 10.5 % of the EU-28’s renewable energy produced in 2013. The United Kingdom is the leading producer of offshore wind energy, with installed capacity of 4.5 GW, a further 12.6 GW in construction or approval, and 5.2 GW in planning.

Ambitious future forecasts include 40 GW of European offshore wind by 2020, meeting 4% of the EU’s electricity demand with a further 110GW to be installed between 2020 and 2030 that would meet 14% of EU demand.

In China 0.67 GW of offshore wind capacity is installed, with more on the way as renewable energy is increasingly recognised as an important and growing element of China’s energy mix. China produced 450 GW of renewable energy in 2014.

Meanwhile South Korea is forecast to become a major strategic player with numerous offshore wind farm sites in the planning phase, investing US$9 billion into a massive 2.5 GW wind power development led by Korea Electric, one of the world’s leaders in tidal energy production.

Small-scale but growing

In terms of the overall energy picture the amount of installed capacity from marine sources – wind, wave and tidal – is presently small. Of the 369 GW of global wind production, only 8.7 GW (2.3%) is from offshore wind.

Total ocean renewable energy as a proportion of the global renewable capacity (which includes hydropower and onshore wind) is also tiny, currently just 0.5%.

This situation is expected to substantially shift in coming years as terrestrial systems reach capacity in terms of competition for space, social opposition or in limits to generative capacity and the concept of the blue economy gains momentum in coastal states and regional clusters such as the European Union and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries.

Opportunities and challenges

Australia has a long coastline and abundant offshore wind, wave and tidal energy resources at its disposal. Pushing wind farms offshore would seem to circumvent the main objections to wind turbines on land whilst enabling the renewable energy sector an opportunity to grow.

Providing such an avenue for the renewable energy sector would grow the innovation and manufacturing base providing an avenue for a high skilled and technical workforce and giving Australia a stake in a growing global market.

Emerging technologies such as wave and tidal, while presently small, have been recently supported by coalition ministers including a recent world-first connection of a wave hub in Western Australia.

Arguably moving wind turbines offshore merely transfers the burden of their visual impacts to sea. Crucially though, few people (indeed, vocal voters) live where such turbines might be located.

Offshore wind turbines represent proven technology but are likely to be more expensive both to build and maintain, but recent estimates highlight that costs are falling, and are potentially cheaper than gas fired or nuclear options.

It can also be anticipated that existing marine users such as fishermen, are unlikely to welcome such a “new” and potentially competing offshore activity. That said, there are ways and means to overcome such apparently conflicting uses, for instance through processes of marine spatial planning that are emerging worldwide.

While implementation challenges exist for offshore wind energy developments, this option offers a pathway for Australia to stay in the renewable energy game, reduce our carbon emissions and develop innovative new industries.

The Conversation

Clive Schofield is Professor and Challenge Lead, Sustaining Coastal and Marine Zones at University of Wollongong.
Tavis Potts is Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at University of Aberdeen.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Spain: Donana National Park Threatened By Strawberries


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the threat posed to Donana National Park in Spain by strawberry farms.

For more visit:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/jun/28/strawberry-spain-donana-wildlife-iberian-lynx