June 27, 2010 | Ronda Jambe

Neither the forest nor the trees

Time to focus on the key issues, as an election may be sooner now than later. Only open, evidence based policy should be allowed. The spun has begun: we now have a minister for ‘sustainable’ population, with heaps of blather from Tony Burke to reassure anyone who chooses to feel reassured. Don’t think the new education revolution, or whatever they called it, will deliver the skills to boost our internal employment. That is in a different policy silo.

As foreshadowed, I’m passing along my current understanding of some of the issues around carbon accounting. I’m hoping some of you can fill in more bits of this puzzle. It is complex and shrouded in political decisions disguised as reasonable assumptions.

As I predicted (actually my mate Blind Freddy told me), the Gillard gov will now have to seriously come up with some goods on climate change. Some of that argy-bargy was reported in the SMH:


Clearly, any commitment to address climate change must be underpinned by an accurate, transparent and internationally effective means of counting what has been saved, spent, and documented. (Just as someday I will have to set up spreadsheets for tax time, a personal goal that keeps falling to the bottom of the pile.)

At a weekend workshop on carbon accounting, people who have studied this informed me that while national economic accounts take into account both stocks and flows, the current models for greenshouse accounting only consider flows. This allows great distortions in the way stocks are depleted and most importantly, does not include the time component.

We all know, again from our personal financial accounting, that time matters for our planning. For example, a long term loan such as a mortgage has to be at a lower rate than a short term car loan, and we take into account the risks of either capital growth or asset depreciation. (That’s why I’ve never bought a new car.)

All accounting and planning also has irrationalities built in, along with assumptions. (Like buying new cars.) Carbon accounting, it was explained, doesn’t include forests, although they are vast stores of carbon. It also doesn’t look at the time scale, meaning the time we have to keep CO2 from hitting the tipping point: within the next 5 years, according to Australia’s Chief Scientist Penny Sackett.

The time scale for a plantation forest to mature and store vast amount of carbon is in the hundreds of years, and fossil fuels are clearly irreplacable over human time as stores of carbon. A native undisturbed forest can store up to 1300 tonnes per hectare apparently, although those measurements also have a lot of fiddle and built in assumptions.

Arguments about bio-char being the replacement for our slowing wood chip industry are misplaced, if we take into account the time storage ability and the added transport and processing costs. And it was argued with data that China will not be picking up our wood export slack.

Now we go for a walk in the woods: the fed gov has been the main driver of forestry policy, and the forestry schools, unions and govs have been playing team tag forever. Ergo: the CFMEU, and its combined forestry and furnishings divisions in Victoria, along with the NSW building industry, will have major influence on how Australia approaches this key store of carbon as part of any serious emissions reduction scheme. You may recall Jared Diamond found deforestation was a key underlying factor in the collapse of many civilisations, in his seminal book Collapse.

So we need to get past the rhetoric of greenies and the 1 million women wanting real policy on climate change as obstructive. Look instead to the unions and industry players and government agencies and make them put real, measurable economic cards on the table. Or would you leave our future to the Australian equivalents of BP?

Posted by Ronda Jambe at 11:50 pm | Comments Off on Neither the forest nor the trees |

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