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Byron Shire
December 4, 2021

Opinion: Native forest must not be made a ‘renewable energy source’

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Marion Riordan

The horror of recent drought and bushfires has made the urgency for action on climate change ever more apparent to most Australians.

The intense logging that is happening right now in the small patches of state forest that have survived the recent bushfires is appalling. These trees are the only habitat left for the wildlife that has survived. It is estimated that over one billion animals perished.

Demand and supply of industrial wood pellets. Image supplied

Yet there are plans to significantly increase logging of our native forests and there are some who claim this is in order to combat climate change when it has been scientifically proven that logging increases the risk of more intense and devastating fires. https://go.nature.com/2U0Idvm)

Large amounts of flammable debris are left behind, an open canopy increases wind speeds and forest drying and a surge in sapling regrowth all combine to ratchet up the flammability of forests.  Further research shows that it takes 200 years for forests to recover from post-fire logging, it takes 80 years for soils to recover and the wildlife simply perishes.

Right now, Australia’s renewable energy agency (ARENA), is consulting with industry groups and the general community on whether to allow native forest timber to be classified as a renewable energy source.  The logic being: trees contain carbon, which is released into the atmosphere when you burn them, but more trees can grow in their place sucking up carbon once again – thereby making the whole process “carbon neutral.”

Most of us will recognise the missing links in this logic: It omits the 70-100 years it takes for trees to regrow.  It doesn’t account for the impacts on climate from the removal of living carbon sinks.  It doesn’t account the carbon emissions caused by the increased frequency and intensity of wildfires.

Federal energy minister Angus Taylor is not perturbed by this implausible concept. He has asked ARENA for a ‘Bioenergy Roadmap’ which he hopes will include forest hardwood pellets to be burned as a ‘renewable energy source’.

Taxpayer dollars will be used to subsidise logging operations to take more trees from the forest to be burned for electricity in repurposed coal furnaces and co-gen electricity plants. Subsidising biomass incentivises stripping a forest bare.

Small trees that would normally be left to grow are now more valuable to take for chipping and pelleting. Importantly the value of lost wildlife habitat and biodiversity is not part of the calculation that classifies biomass as renewable.

The figures quoted by NSW forestry are huge. They expect to log 1 million tons per annum in NE NSW alone (400,000 tons of this from our state forests).  How much of this is incentivised by convenient calculations that equate forest derived biomass with genuine renewables like solar, wind, wave and thermal energies?

Hunter Energy (in the Hunter Valley) is one of several companies hoping to qualify for government “energy certificates”.  It intends to convert the former Redbank Coal Plant into a biomass operation that produces 150 MW of electricity.

CEO Richard Poole describes the process as ‘zero emissions’ using the convenient calculation above.  In our region Cape Byron Power admits to using “wood waste” in their co-gen plants combined 30 MW operation.  In response to a FOI request from NEFA last year on their actual fuel sources they declined to answer.

There is another part to this current push in Australia.  Overseas the biomass industry has grown incredibly fast since the EU put woody biomass on the renewables subsidies list in 2009.  A large percentage of Europe’s emissions reduction targets are achieved by burning wood pellets for electricity – shipped from forests across the globe. Australia is at a crossroads.

We are on the verge of joining this supply chain and exporting forest derived biomass at a startling rate of increase https://environmentalpaper.org/biomass-threat-map-2018/

How many dollars will be diverted away from genuine renewable if we go down this slippery path?  Or we can choose to follow Beyond Zero Emission’s plan for Australia which received widespread support including from Malcom Turnbull. ( https://bze.org.au/research/renewable-energy-plan/)

Using commercially available technology we can achieve zero emissions whilst gaining significant economic benefits in a ten-year time frame.

The choice looks like a no-brainer to me.

Submissions are open until end of this week at:

https://arena.gov.au/knowledge-innovation/bioenergy-roadmap/

Or the Nature Conservation Council have a comprehensive submission (avail at their website) You can sign-on to support this at:

https://www.nature.org.au/get-involved/take-action/dont-allow-forests-to-be-burned-for-power/


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7 COMMENTS

  1. This is a case of people who are stupid and ignorant and just interested in making money, with no idea about the advantages and necessity of conservation of our scientifically priceless natural heritage, of being unable to see the forest for the trees, and even worse, seeing those trees as woodchips. And for this to even be an issue on the table after the worst bushfires in our living memory, when vast swathes of the East Coast rainforests, forests and woodlands were torched by a combination of drought, climate change and poor landscape management, boggles the mind.

    These forests ARE NOT and should not be regarded as a ‘sustainable’ energy resources. Particularly when European Australians have already destroyed so much (huge percentages) of the forests and woodlands which existed prior to the invasion of this country. Just because the Europeans have done this, doesn’t make it right – where are they buying their wood pellets from (‘shipped from across the globe’)?

    We’ve destroyed so much natural vegetation and those in power want to destroy what’s left to produce energy, in a country which has enormous solar and wind power resources, world class technology to capture this truly sustainable energy source, and a population who are ready and eager to access it??!!

    At a time when we should all be planting trees like mad to absorb as much CO2 as possible to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change, it beggars belief that forests could be viewed as a ‘renewable’ energy source.

  2. Marion,
    The urgency of Climate Change did not come in with the wind and the bushfires.
    And it did not come in with Kevin Rudd about a great challenge of our time.
    In the early 1970s the world’s scientists felt something was changing in the world’s weather.
    In 1979 in Geneva there was a meeting of all the world’s scientists on the First Conference on Climate Change. The name “Climate Change” was branded in the world’s media by the sponsor of the event by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). That was 41 years ago. Climate Change is not something that has just been discovered. Scientists have been banging the tin for decades and no one is listening. Climate Change costs money so all politicians are tone deaf. Urgent action was called in 1979. When politicians don’t listen the planet must die.

  3. Very good article. The exploitation of Australia’s native forest as money-making ventures for the obscenely wealthy who run the world’s extractive industries must be stopped. You don’t have to be a scientist to understand that trees are not “renewable” in the same way that wind and sun are. Look at Google maps if you want to see just how thin on the ground is the remaining forest cover in NSW. Any remaining native forests must be preserved for the benefit of the planet. The logging of NSW native forests for use as fuel to fire power stations will rapidly see them decimated.

  4. Important for everyone to get onboard the very well researched submission by the Nature Conservation Council. Let ARENA know what you think our future renewable subsidies should be investing in. Surely deforestation cannot & should not be part of it.

  5. Logging increases the risk of more intense bushfires. Far too much of our native forests have been destroyed and our fauna and flora is at the cross roads. The government should be focussing on renewable energy instead of destroying the remaining forests.

  6. No matter how remaining forests are logged or burnt it will be detrimental to the rate of the climate crisis we are facing. Nobody knows the extent of damage from pollution caused by this years’ bushfires. We should be mitigating this damage and nurturing what we have left. This twisted logic only serves selfish agendas. Proper renewable energy plans must be made a priority.

  7. Yes, please get on the Nature Conservation Council’s site and help!
    Some things you can do to help plant more trees around the world and help low income communities:
    Help the UN-sponsored campaign by buying trees as cheap as 15 cents each through Eden Reforestation at
    https://www.trilliontreecampaign.org
    Also, switch your internet browser to the free one at http://www.ecosia.org
    It’s legit, no greenwashing, 100% green powered, and so far, they’ve planted over 97,000,000 trees around the world.
    If we could get young people to make the switch now, they could be helping to plant trees for decades this way.
    Or, there are sites based in Australia that plant native trees and donations are tax deductible, like https://www.plantatreeforme.org.au/ or https://www.greenfleet.com.au/

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