Koala forests in Australia – more than just a branch to sit on!

As Australia sweats through another exceptionally warm summer, it’s important to talk about the role of Koala forests in our climate. 

As we are taught in school, trees play an important role in the water cycle.  Roots suck up water from underground and release it into the atmosphere through a process called transpiration.  That water released by trees plays a vital role in bringing rain.   Massive land clearing can stop clouds forming; if we don’t have trees, rainfall is significantly diminished. 

Koala forests play an important role in combating the effects of global climate change. 

Trees take CO2 from the atmosphere and through the process of photosynthesis convert it into organic carbon as they grow.  As long as these trees do not decompose or burn, the carbon is safely locked away.  Photosynthesis also produces clean oxygen, which is released into the atmosphere.  The eucalypt species that grow in Koala forests have been proven to be among the most effective species in the world when it comes to storing carbon.  Koala forests are Australia’s carbon vault.

Why can’t we just plant new trees?

In both Queensland and New South Wales, Government changes have significantly weakened land-clearing laws.  In 2013-2014, 84,000 hectares of critical Koala habitat was lost in Queensland.  Tens of thousands of hectares have also been lost in New South Wales.

The magical remedy the Government implies will counteract this clearing is to spruik the message of tree planting.   Even if 20 million new trees were planted, the biomass lost is huge.  

New trees in the ground are great… but a token gesture if the old forests and woodlands continue to be cleared. 

Saplings are much less efficient carbon stores compared to mature trees.  Big trees store more carbon, more quickly.  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 four years without a lot of care and attention. 

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

The koala forests of Australia are located along the east coast, and currently cover 380,000 km2 (down from 1.5 million km2 at the time of European colonisation).  If you want to place an economic value on these trees, with a Carbon price of $10.00 per tonne, the Koala forests as they stand now are worth over $AU100 billion.

AKF modelling suggests planting 20 million saplings is equivalent to keeping 10,000 mature trees in the ground.  If the Koala forests of Australia were destroyed, it would take more than 20 trillion new trees to replace the carbon. To plant this many trees, you would need an area three times the land mass of Australia - including the deserts.

Are natural forests better than planted forests?

Planted forests do not capture the diversity and ecosystem dynamics of natural forests.  This diversity – genetic, taxonomic and functional – increases the resilience of these forests to pests, diseases, changes to water availability and disturbance. 

It is also important to remember that protecting Koala forests isn’t just about protecting Koalas.  Protecting Koala forests means protecting millions of insect, bird, mammal, reptile, and plant species that share these forests.

It is also about protecting our air quality, our soils, our rainfall and our standard of life.

What do Koala forests have to do with carbon storage?

The existing Koala forests of Australia – indeed the existing forests of the world – are critical carbon stores that absolutely need protection.  It is estimated that 80% of the world’s forests have been cleared, degraded or fragmented. 

Global schemes are starting to address this, but are currently limited to protecting forests in developing nations.  No one is talking about protecting forests in the developed world, or the many species that live in these forests.  What is the point of protecting forests in the developing world, if the benefit is lost because of continued clearing in developed countries such as Australia?  

It is all too easy to clear vegetation in Australia.  There are too many exemptions, and too little compliance and enforcement.  Existing legislation, such as the Federal EPBC Act and State vegetation management laws are not doing the job; they are being watered down in every jurisdiction.   Australian governments are not effectively mapping Koala forests, consequently leaving them unable to understand the carbon value of Eucalypts in Australia.  The New South Wales Government doesn’t even have the mapping available to know when forests are being cleared.

What can be done?

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. 

The Koala Protection Act would require developers/governments at all levels to consider Koala habitats in development proposals. The KPA is not developer un-friendly, and there are models-in-action that allow habitats to remain within urban areas, and allow the carbon to remain in the trees rather than being released into the atmosphere.

We need to rethink our attitudes to our forests, and make a new assessment as to how we value these areas.  The existing Koala forests of Australia need protection.