Keynote speech by GreenCollar Chief Scientist, Dr Jenny Sinclair
2023 Australasian Emissions Reduction Summit, Darling Harbour, Sydney
Good afternoon and welcome. As I begin, I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of this land – the Gadigal people of the Ēora Nation – and acknowledge Elders, past, present, and emerging.
Keeping trees in the ground – it’s a straightforward concept for everyone attending an annual emissions reduction summit.
Looking around, I think we can be reasonably confident that everyone in this room understands that global deforestation is one of the main drivers of the climate catastrophe. So we know the world needs to keep trees in the ground.
I’m also sure that, throughout the day, you have been talking about the need to rapidly decarbonize, how to reduce emissions, deploy technology, and find innovative pathways to net zero. Having discussions about what can be done, how we make it more rigorous and efficient, and how we can accelerate the pace are all very important.
Amongst all of this, I do wonder how much discussion has focused on how we reduce Australia’s second-largest source of carbon emissions. How much discussion have you had today about how we reduce the emissions caused by land clearing and deforestation? How much have you been talking about the opportunity to build carbon sinks through reforestation?
Last year, Australia became a founding member of the Forests and Climate Leaders partnership, an international group dedicated to accelerating the contribution of forests to global climate action. The partnership is dedicated to advancing the Glasgow Leaders Declaration which commits Australia to halting and reversing forest loss and degradation by 2030. Now only 2301 days away, as we heard this morning.
Over the last few months, several Australian states have released their annual land-clearing data sets. This data shows that clearing continues at a large scale across many parts of Australia and that thousands upon thousands of hectares continue to be cleared each month.
Off the back of this data, WWF released its Trees Scorecard in July. This scorecard assesses how all jurisdictions are performing in forest protection and restoration. It rated both New South Wales and Queensland as “very poor”, at the bottom of the barrel. They found that New South Wales has just 36 percent of its original forests and woodlands remaining. Queensland performed only marginally better with about 50 percent remaining.
This is an image [on the screen above me] of what land clearing looks like in many parts of Australia – in this case, native woodlands in western New South Wales – important carbon sinks and home to a vast array of biodiversity. State datasets show that land-clearing hotspots in both New South Wales and Queensland are in this type of landscape.
The situation is dire. Australia has lost 50 per cent of its forests since European colonization. It is the only developed nation to sit among the 24 identified global deforestation hotspots. Despite this, the Avoided Deforestation method was recently revoked with nothing to replace it and media debate continues, at pace, about the legitimacy of approaches that, in effect, reimburse people for choosing to keep trees in the ground. This is not how I envisaged Australia would go about accelerating the contribution of forests to climate action.
The reality is there wouldn’t be so much conjecture about the pros and cons of vegetation-based carbon methods if we could just clearly state the science, supported of course by evidence.
I’m sure you are all acutely aware of the reporting in the news cycle of ever-increasing heat and extreme weather conditions. We’ve just emerged from the hottest July on record, have we not? I’m sure you all see the escalation of language and the rapidly increasing urgency in the calls for action from the UN Secretary-General and others.
Surely, over the last decade, the vast amounts of data, research, and analysis have provided us with more information than ever, providing a powerful basis on which to take informed, highly effective action. But as we saw through COVID-19, poor science communication can create uncertainty and fear, leading to misunderstanding, even conspiracy theories, and driving people to make decisions that forsake science. Ultimately, this can lead to perverse outcomes, like losing time ‘debating’ when we should be ‘acting’.
Acting! to protect our trees. Not only is land clearing a major contributing factor to climate change, but it also has significant other environmental, social, and economic impacts.
- It is well documented that deforestation releases greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere by destroying vegetation that acts as a natural carbon sink.
- It destroys and fragments habitat, threatening biodiversity, leading to loss of wildlife and rapidly accelerating extinction rates.
- Deforestation accelerates erosion, leading to increasing pollution of waterways and the marine environment.
- It compromises the ecosystem services provided by intact vegetation, resulting in increasing dryland salinity and the frequency and severity of droughts.
- It also threatens indigenous connection to the country, placing traditional knowledge and heritage at risk.
This is not just an assertion.
For example, WWF’s 2021 Deforestation Fronts report found that forest destruction is a threat to more than 700 endangered Australian animals, which rely on native trees for food and shelter among their branches, as well as in tree hollows, which can take up to 250 years to form.
Anyone who knows me would understand how heartbreaking I find this statistic.
It is estimated that Australia’s remaining forests store 22 billion tonnes of carbon in their trunks, leaves, and roots and that bulldozing them releases approximately 24 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere each year. In fact, in the time it takes me to deliver this message to you more than 450 tonnes of carbon will be released.
Science tells us that if we want to reduce carbon emissions, there are lots of things we can do, and one with a significant impact is to keep the trees in the ground. Another is to restore forests. Both of these, we can act on today.
This image that you see not only represents what deforestation looks like in many parts of Australia but sadly, it also represents a failed carbon project opportunity.
This now-cleared area is on a property where GreenCollar had been working with a landholder to develop a carbon project that would protect the trees for 100 years. But with the revocation of the Avoided Deforestation method and nothing to replace it, combined with the current commentary around carbon vegetation methods, the opportunity was lost and the landholder reverted to ‘Plan A’. This was a simple business decision – without access to payment for preserving and protecting the trees through the generation of ACCUs, they defaulted to the traditional approach of clearing and grazing.
This is the consequence of failing to incentivize land managers who are looking for alternatives to land clearing.
Some would say “Regulate”, and make rules that force land managers to keep the trees. To use New South Wales as an example, since 1881, successive state governments have passed at least 28 pieces of legislation to restrict land clearing. Yet – still – the rate of land clearing is the highest it has ever been. My point is that history has shown us that legislation alone does not work.
Meanwhile, we are losing biodiversity at pace. In addition, we are losing public confidence in some of the essential measures we need to tackle climate change and the extinction crisis. We are losing the opportunity to develop and implement approaches that have strong scientific backing; to make mistakes – which are inevitable in any evolving system; and to learn from them and refine them in a quest to achieve the best and most valuable outcome we possibly can.
Regulation is just one tool in the kit. It is clear that we also need other approaches if we are to succeed in reducing clearing and mitigating climate change. The scale of the problem demands that we come at it in many different ways.
We must acknowledge that private landholders own or manage more than 60 percent of the land on which our native forests sit. So if we are to successfully engage them in this effort, we must provide incentives that encourage the economic decision not to clear these critical forests, as well as to encourage private investors to act – to stop deforestation and to drive reforestation – today.
Environmental projects and environmental markets hold the power to do this, – today.
So, why the delay? Why can’t the obvious imperative to keep trees and forests provide us with enough impetus to fix this very worrying situation?
In my view, we just need to go back to basics – we need to be clear and transparent about what we do know and what we don’t, what works and what doesn’t. We need to be clear about what carbon accounting can accomplish, and what it can’t. And as scientists, we need to work together to clearly explain, so any uncertainty can be accounted for.
As new technologies evolve and better data emerges, we need to ensure that there is built-in flexibility to harness innovation in carbon accounting methods. The need for innovation doesn’t mean that the system is flawed or the outcomes are wrong. It means that, at any point in time, we are working with the best available tools and knowledge.
Are we better off adapting and improving an existing method, for example, or abolishing it and starting from scratch? Either way, it is clear that we need to work together – we need to be prepared to invest the time and money to undertake the trials that are needed to prove and improve. This is science at work.
As a community, country, and world, we are at a turning point. Our physical world is demonstrating the consequences of our previous actions and ongoing inaction over and over again. World leaders are telling us of the increasing urgency and dire consequences if we don’t act now.
These are not just science projects for the sake of science. This is the golden opportunity for science and policy to collaborate to develop and deploy the tools that incentivize and embed land management change, halt deforestation and biodiversity loss, and ultimately provide the means for Australia to honour its international commitments.
Delivered at the CMI, Sydney.