Australia’s bushfire catastrophe has burned a giant hole in the government’s strategy to use stored carbon and shown the folly of claiming that tree-planting programs can offset rises in fossil fuel emissions.
So says Australian National University climate scientist Professor Will Steffen. Using CSIRO figures, he estimates the 350 million tonnes of carbon the bushfires belched into the atmosphere by early this month will have blown our CO2 emissions out to possibly more than 800 million tonnes this year, up from 532 million tonnes last year.
The fires have highlighted the extreme risk in thinking we can count on carbon storage in trees, other vegetation and soil while fossil fuel emissions continue to rise. Carbon credits counted in government projections can, quite literally, go up in smoke and blow out the emissions side of the CO2 ledger, Steffen said.
He is just one of several scientists warning that feel-good programs are not a fix for two major issues the bushfire crisis has highlighted – the rising carbon emissions driving climate change and the devastating species loss that global warming has wrought.
Steffen, co-author of the 2019 Climate Council report “Climate Cuts, Cover-Ups and Censorship”, says the planet may be reaching a tipping point – where forests become carbon emission sources, rather than sinks.
“You cannot offset fossil fuel emissions by planting trees,” he told The Saturday Paper in the wake of the bushfire crisis this summer. “It will be very interesting to see once we’ve done some analysis of what these fires have actually done, how many of these offset schemes and projects the government’s Direct Action plan – that is, planting trees – has actually gone back into the atmosphere as CO2.”
At least one state government is pushing ahead with tree planting in national parks, seeing it as a way to make carbon money through the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF).
According to conservationists, the results are not pretty.
Early last year, former New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) officer Debbie Andrew found a planting she describes as “an absolute disgrace” in Capertee National Park, west of the Blue Mountains.
Rare native grassland in the two-hectare site – which, as a senior ecologist, she had earmarked for strategic plantings to assist the endangered regent honeyeater’s survival – had been ploughed to plant hundreds of eucalypt saplings.
She believes its main purpose was to claim carbon credits for state government coffers.
The CSIRO recommends 30 mature trees a hectare for woodland restoration, but a NPWS contractor, CO2 Australia, had planted 800 a hectare without ground cover, digging deep trenches and causing “irreversible damage” to the harsh landscape, Andrew said.
“Ploughing the entire landscape with an enormous bulldozer, ripping up the ground, has promoted a whole lot of weed growth,” said Andrew. “This was not driven by the restoration of vegetation and habitat. It was driven by maximising dollars.”
National Parks Association director Gary Dunnett said the NPWS had responded to his complaints and undertaken to rectify the poor work in Capertee. The NSW Environment Department neither confirmed nor denied this.
Capertee is one of 16 national parks where the NSW government is turning restoration sites over to carbon farming.
“Conventional environmental rehabilitation projects can be very costly, so taking the opportunity to generate revenue from carbon credits is a fresh approach to environmental rehabilitation,” Mark Speakman, then NSW Environment minister, said in 2016.
By October last year, 1079 hectares of tree plantings in 11 national parks were being used as carbon farms, with an estimated return of $1.3 million through the ERF, the NSW Environment Department revealed in answers to Greens MP Cate Faehrmann.
Registering another five sites, with a total area of about 215 hectares, would bring in another $350,000 to $450,000, the department said.
Beyond the economic boon, tree-planting announcements also are favoured by politicians wanting to grandstand on climate change – as United States President Donald Trump demonstrated at the Davos forum this week when he committed to join the drive to plant one trillion trees.
Climate activist Greta Thunberg quickly rebuked him: “Planting trees is good, of course, but it’s nowhere near enough … Emissions need to stop.”
In Australia, both Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor and Environment Minister Sussan Ley have trumpeted 20 Million Trees, a program born in the Abbott era under the Direct Action umbrella.
“A single grown tree can absorb up to 20 kilograms of CO2 per year,” Taylor said in a July 2018 media release, pictured with a child watering a sapling in his electorate of Hume.
“As of March this year more than 18 million trees have been planted across the country,” Ley said in July 2019, “improving the condition of native vegetation, supporting native species and helping to reduce Australia’s greenhouse emissions.”
Last month, academics from Adelaide University released a scathing paper about 20 Million Trees.
They described it as the nation’s “flagship” vessel for regenerating habitat to halt species loss. But after crunching available data on planting area and cost, they concluded that at least five times more funding was needed to make it effective.
They said rebuilding habitats and halting species decline can lose out to the competing aim of sequestering as much carbon as possible.
“If you plant something in what would otherwise be koala habitat and the koalas never come because there’s not enough trees … you didn’t plant koala habitat,” said Associate Professor Patrick O’Connor, a co-author on the study.
The message is timely for a nation where the latest bushfires have reaped a grim toll on already threatened species. This week the Environment Department indicated the habitats of “272 plant, 16 mammal, 14 frog, nine bird, seven reptile, four insect, four fish and one spider species” – all of which are threatened – are in the paths of the fires. A total of 114 species have lost half or more of their habitat.
The Adelaide University analysis labelled 20 Million Trees “Australia’s largest co-ordinated reconstruction program”, but found government funding for the program is short-term. And the “significant ongoing maintenance” that plantings need for long-term survival, especially with warming, is left up to landholders.
As the paper pointed out, the two main goals of the program “will be entirely dependent on the landholder’s private motivations and resources”.
O’Connor believes 20 Million Trees has been more about announcements than achievements for politicians. “It was a cheap program and the sourness of a low-quality program will linger a long time after the sweetness of the low cost,” he told The Saturday Paper.
This is not the first time the program has been criticised for poor monitoring. In 2017, Environment Department officials told Greens senator Janet Rice in senate estimates that monitoring lasted 18 months to two years – landholders did not enter a covenant to care for the trees beyond that time.
A spokesperson for Senator Ley told The Saturday Paper that some contractors are required to maintain plantings for a minimum of 10 years after project completion. This is generally applicable to later contracts. Others are obligated only to carry out “their normal land management responsibilities”.
“It is not possible to quantify the number of trees that have died during the program as these trees are generally replaced,” the spokesperson said. In a final plant survival survey, landholders provide tree survival rates.
It is not yet known whether any trees have been lost to recent fires but “this analysis is under way”, the spokesperson said.
He added that the department can monitor tree cover beyond the program’s life using satellite imagery, as part of its FullCAM ecosystem modelling.
But ANU professor of ecology David Lindenmayer said that while satellite monitoring is suited to agricultural surveys, it’s “shit in forests” and for ecological restoration work because “it doesn’t tell you about the quality of the planting and how it was managed”.
Lindenmayer describes the 20 Million Trees program scope as “trivial”. Billions of trees have been lost from the Murray–Darling Basin since European settlement, “so planting the 20 million trees is a fraction of what needs to go back in if we are talking carbon storage”.
Allowing big old paddock trees to be knocked down, then touting tree-planting programs is perverse, he said. “A bunch of small trees is not the same as a big, old tree.”
Guardian Australia reporters Adam Morton and Anne Davies reported last October that “the equivalent to what has been planted over several years in the 20 Million Trees program is wiped out in just six months of land clearing.”
Plantings under 20 Million Trees don’t qualify for the federal Emissions Reduction Fund; however, plantings in several areas of NSW national parks now do.
Plant ecologist Roger Lembit, an independent consultant on restoring landscapes, has seen the way chasing carbon credits skews plantings.
Areas of endangered box gum woodland that had been cleared for grazing before being incorporated into the Kosciuszko National Park were already naturally regenerating and should have been left to recover, he said, but instead there has been “industrial-scale planting” of red stringybark trees, which have a comparatively higher level of carbon sequestration. The tree is not normally dominant in box woodlands, and so chasing credits has modified the ecosystem and interrupted the bush’s natural regeneration process, he said.
It was Australia that pushed for land-use emissions to be allowed under the Kyoto Protocol in 2011. If that push had not succeeded, the nation would have failed to meet its overall targets, according to the Climate Council’s report.
A fundamental problem with counting carbon stored in vegetation and soil is that changes wrought by humans and nature can release “significant amounts” into the atmosphere, the council warned.
Fossil fuels left in the ground undisturbed “cannot be returned to the atmosphere”, the report explained.
Counting land-use emissions, it said, is the only way Australian politicians have been able to claim that the nation is meeting its international obligations under climate change agreements.
But as the bushfire crisis continues, Angus Taylor and the federal Coalition are not budging.
Taylor boasted on Sky News on Tuesday that Australia was overachieving: “We have less carbon in the atmosphere as a result of the hard work of Australian businesses and households. We are in a position to meet and beat and you’ll see we are ahead of our target in 2019.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 25, 2020 as "Planting doubt".
This month marks 10 years since the first edition of The Saturday Paper. The paper is as audacious now as it was then: a rejection of conventional wisdom about what makes the news and who will read it.
To celebrate those 10 years - and the issue-defining journalism produced in them - we are offering all new subscribers a two-year digital subscription for the price of one. That's $298 worth of journalism for $109.
Get more of the best journalism in the country - and celebrate the success of a newspaper built on optimism.
Select your digital subscription