Don’t expect miracles from Paris until we protect the trees

Piece by Dr Douglas Kerlin - AKF Chief Ecologist

I’m not holding out much hope for meaningful action from the Paris climate change talks. 

I was in Copenhagen in 2009.

Don’t get me wrong.  There were plenty of tremendous people there, saying and doing tremendous things, working to try and protect the future of the planet, but did anyone listen to them?

Most of the decisions had already been made away from the theatre of feigned inclusiveness.  All that was left was minor bickering; bureaucrats hidden to the side, arguing about whether this article should include an ‘and’ or an ‘or’.

Each morning the Australian Government would brief the non-government organisations (NGOs) at the talks.  These briefings were painful affairs, as bureaucrats tried to give as little detail as possible and avoid any feedback from the non-Government funded NGOs in Copenhagen. 

And as the heavy hitters - the presidents, the prime ministers – flew into town, the NGOs were increasingly locked out. Just imagine: Copenhagen in December, temperatures below freezing, as we waited to be told we cannot come in. 

The Australian Koala Foundation (AKF) sent a delegation to Copenhagen to argue what we thought was a simple but important point: how can we start to talk about carbon without considering that the existing Koala forests of Australia – indeed the existing forests of the world – are a critical carbon stores that absolutely need protection.

In 2009, the Australian Koala Foundation established a long-term research project looking at tree growth and carbon sequestration.

At Copenhagen we argued that, at a Carbon price of $35.00 per tonne, the Koala forests as they stand are worth over $AU350 billion. If they were destroyed it would take more than 22 trillion new trees to replace them – and three times the land mass of Australia.

Saplings simply cannot replace the carbon stores of mature trees. It is common sense really. Proposed REDD+ (Reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation) schemes are starting to address this, but are currently focussed on forests in developing nations.  No one is talking about protecting forests in the developed world.   

The Federal Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, wants us all to plant 20 million tree saplings.   

New trees in the ground are great… but they are not an answer for today; it will take at least 20, 30, 50, even 100 years for them to mature, if they survive that long.  Our research suggests as many as half will die within a year.

And new trees in the ground are a futile gesture if the old forests and woodlands continue to be cleared.

Our modelling suggests 20 million saplings is the same as keeping 10,000 mature trees in the ground. 

And yet, in 2013-2014, 275,000 hectares of bush was knocked over in Queensland alone.  At a reasonably conservative estimate (80 trees/hectare), that’s 22 million trees lost. 

So 20 million new saplings, planted under Minister Hunt’s 20 million tree policy, doesn’t even replace the 22 million trees lost in Queensland in 2013-2014.   

It is all too easy to clear vegetation in Australia. There are too many exemptions, and too few officers monitoring and enforcing compliance. Existing legislation, such as the Federal EPBC Act and State vegetation management laws are not doing the job. What is needed is real efforts to protect our existing forests: stronger legislation like a Koala Protection Act and proper governance to ensure legislation is working. 

If the laws in this country cannot protect trees in Australia, how will the situation be any different in the developing world and who will be watching?