Report commissioned by state energy minister questioned

PHILIP HOPKINS

THE state government has been accused of using a landmark Victorian climate report, which was written without any input from forestry researchers or the forest industry, to prematurely close the native forestry industry.

The groups resent the lack of consultation and have attacked the intellectual content of the report.

‘Victoria’s 2035 Climate Action Target: Driving Growth and Prosperity’ was completed in March. It was written by a three-person expert panel consisting of climate change and investment consultants, and was commissioned in January last year by the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change, Lily D’Ambrosio. It’s task was to provide advice to the government under its Climate Change Act on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2035 and net zero by 2045.

The report urged the government to deliver its policy to close the native forestry industry by 2030. However, it should “accelerate measures to cease native logging and build a leading sustainable plantation forest industry while protecting Victoria’s natural carbon stores, biodiversity, and the tourism potential of native forests”. It highlighted a youth roundtable recommendation: “End native logging and preserve forests.”

The report was written without any contribution from leading forestry experts – Forestry Australia, which represents forest scientists, forest managers and timber growers; Forest & Wood Products Australia, the sector’s chief research and marketing arm; the Victorian Forest Products Association; and leading forestry academics.

The expert panel urged action to reduce negative socio-economic impacts in Victoria from the shift to net zero emissions.

“Careful planning and early consultation will be needed to ensure a fair and equitable transition for communities dependent on carbon-intensive industries,” the panel said. These included the Latrobe Valley and its coal-fired power stations and Gippsland’s native timber harvesting industry.

A former senior forestry executive in the Victorian public service, Peter Rutherford, said this high emphasis on consultation with those industries seemed “empty rhetoric”.

“There was no consultation with affected stakeholders before the announced closure of the native forest industry,” he said.

The chief executive of Forestry Australia, Jacquie Martin, said her organisation would have welcomed the opportunity to provide evidence-based advice to the expert panel.

The report was published in March – two months before the state government suddenly announced in the Budget that the native forestry industry would close by January 1 next year, and not by 2030 as planned.

Mr Rutherford said the March 2023 report, with targets, was confirmed by the government in May.

“Given the May confirmation of the report targets by the government, was this the trigger the government orchestrated, to make the May announcement to close the native forest industry by the end of the year?” Mr Rutherford, a forestry scientist who is the secretary of the NSW South East Timber Association, said.

The 2035 climate report said an 80 per cent emissions reduction target by 2035 would require revegetation of at least 400,000 hectares by 2035 – at least double the ambitious 200,000 ha target of Biodiversity 2037.

This went hand-in-hand with protecting and enhancing existing native vegetation, with one report showing that mature trees captured more carbon than young trees, so leaving forests intact had ‘carbon benefits’.

A 2022 report by the Victorian Forest Alliance and the Tree Project maintained that ending native forest logging now could prevent up to 14 million tonnes of CO2 emissions by 2030, the panel wrote.

Ms Martin said Forestry Australia’s evidence-based approach would have emphasised how actively managed forests can increase carbon stored in forest biomass, in soil and in harvested wood products and can deliver positive outcomes for Victoria’s climate action target.

“Different silviculture techniques, including native forest harvesting and forest thinning, can be utilised to support forest health and biodiversity; mitigate risks from fire, pests and diseases; and to grow bigger trees more quickly, storing more carbon and creating more resilient forests. These techniques can play a vital role in Victoria’s climate target.”

The chief executive of the Victorian Forest Products Association, Deb Kerr, said the report’s conclusions were not scientific and were based on the opinions of activists and others.

The expert panel were all of an environmental-activist mindset, she said.

Mr Rutherford said the report’s conclusion that native timber was a big carbon emitter ignored the reports issues by the International Panel on Climate Change.

The IPCC showed that sustainable natural forests used for timber production were a key carbon mitigation option.

“The experts have referenced opinions on carbon emissions from sources with a strong alignment to elements of the anti-native forest harvesting activist movement,” he said.

“No reference is made to reports by carbon experts that have highlighted flaws and significant omissions in the ‘research’ that underpins the document referenced by the expert panel.”

In urging the planting of another 400,000 ha of plantations, Mr Rutherford said the expert panel seemed unaware that government commitments to establish new plantations as part of the “transition” away from native forest harvesting, had to date been an abject failure.

“Was the expert panel aware that between 30 June, 2010 and 30 June, 2021, the area of plantation in Victoria fell by 47,900 hectares, an 11.1 per cent reduction? The area of plantations in Victoria at 30 June 2021 was 382,600 hectares,” he said. “More than doubling of the area of plantation and other tree plantings in 12 years, would seem to be grossly optimistic at best and in the eyes of experienced forest practitioners, absolutely fanciful, based existing data and past experience.”

Mr Rutherford said some of the content of 2035 climate report suggested the independent expert panel members may have accepted opinions of bureaucrats and others, without checking the reliability of those opinions.

“For example, they claim ‘Victoria’s Parliamentary Budget Office has calculated an immediate end to native forest logging could save Victoria $191 million over the period to 2030’,” he said. No supporting analysis was provided to support this opinion, he said.

A government spokesman said the decision to end native timber logging was not informed by the independent panel expert report.

“Forestry workers, their families and communities are our immediate priority – we do not take the decision around an early transition out of native timber harvesting lightly, but the uncertainty from ongoing litigation and several bushfires cannot continue,” the spokesman said.

The government says the independent expert panel’s report provides advice on policies to achieve Victoria’s emission reduction targets and will form an input into future policy and program development.

In May this year, Victoria formalised its target to reduce emissions by 75-80 per cent by 2035. The government says Victoria was the first jurisdiction in Australia and one of the first in the world to set a 2035 emissions reduction target.

It maintains that bringing back the SEC will help the state achieve this target by investing an initial $1 billion in renewable energy and storage projects.

The government says it will also deliver the country’s first offshore wind generation industry and pave a way towards electrification for Victorian households and business through the government’s gas substitution roadmap.