Environment Tasmania Forum to Address Gunns’ Pulp Mill and Climate Issues

Presenter: Dr Fred Gale, Senior Lecturer, School of Government, University of Tasmania, Launceston

Date: August 20, 2008

Title: Climate Change, Carbon Sequestration and Tasmania: The Need for a New Forest Politics

CLIMATE CHANGE is challenging all of us to rethink our current policies, practices and decision-making arrangements.

Around the world, governments, business and civil society actors are grappling with climate change, seeking approaches that will reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to acceptable levels at reasonable cost.

While the onus to reduce GHGs lies mainly with the direct generators of greenhouse gases—notably the coal and oil industries—forests can play a crucial role in mitigating climate change by sequestering carbon.

This is increasingly being recognised by international policy makers and experts who are promoting Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) as a key component of the second, post-2012, Kyoto commitment period.

While the increased attention being paid to the role that forests can play in mitigating climate change is welcome, future policies must not result in ecosystem degradation, loss of biodiversity, interference with hydrological cycles, or disentitlement.

Three major difficulties confront business, environmentalists and governments as they prepare their policies on climate change. 

For business and labour, the drive to expand production may lead them to oversell the value of forests as carbon sinks, leading them to play down the role forests play in delivering a broader array of economic, social and environmental benefits linked to tourism, watershed protection and biodiversity.

For environmental groups, the drive to protect native forests and wilderness, may lead them to overlook the threat global warming poses to wilderness itself as warmer temperatures increase the number and severity of wildfires and pest attacks.

For governments, the drive to get (re)elected may require them to respond favourably to industry pressure, leading them to back carbon sequestration projects that marginalise new economy, environmental, community and Aboriginal interests.

To avoid these three dangers, we require a new forest politics in Tasmania—one that delivers an optimum forest policy that will secure the benefits of REDD without incurring significant costs.

Overselling Carbon Sinks?

The forest industry has a vested interest in promoting the benefits of forest-based carbon sinks.

In an extended recent discussion by Malmsheimer et al (2008) in the Journal of Forestry, a very strong case is made for including forests as part of the solution to climate change.

The authors present a compelling case that forests can prevent greenhouse gas emissions as well as reduce them. Prevention occurs when:

• Wood is substituted for more carbon-intensive products such as steel, concrete, brick or vinyl;
• Biomass is substituted for fossil fuels;
• Forest management reduces the frequency and severity of wildfires and pest outbreaks; and
• Deforestation and conversion to other uses is prevented.

In addition to reducing the volume of GHGs emitted into the atmosphere, Malmsheimer et al examine the role forests can play in sequestering carbon. Trees sequester large volumes of carbon when:

• They are managed on relatively fast-growing rotations, since the majority of carbon sequestration occurs in the early years of growth; and
• Wood products are produced, which remain as carbon stores for periods up to 100 years.

Malmsheimer et al (2008, 121) conclude their review in dramatic fashion:

The challenge is clear, the situation is urgent, and opportunities for the future are great. History has repeatedly demonstrated that the health and welfare of human society are fundamentally dependent on the health and welfare of a nation’s forests. Society at large, the US Congress, state legislators, and policy analysts at international, federal and state levels must not only appreciate this fact but also recognize that the sustainable management of forests can, to a substantial degree, mitigate the dire effects of atmospheric pollution and global climate change. The time to act is now. 

Malmsheimer et al’s analysis is compelling but they oversell the benefits of forests as carbon sinks and fail to spell out what they mean by sustainable forestry management (SFM). In forestry circles, SFM is a highly elastic concept that can justify all manner of unacceptable practices from an ecosystem perspective. The approach adopted by Malmsheimer et al requires a more thoroughgoing embedding in an ecosystem-based approach to forests and forestry.

Undervaluing the Global Warming Threat

In contrast to Malmsheimer et al’s analysis, a recent report from the Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment & Society promotes the benefits of wilderness as carbon sinks.

Mackey et al argue in their report Green Carbon: The Role of Natural Forests in Carbon Storage that natural forests ‘are more resilient to climate change and disturbances than plantations because of their genetic, taxonomic and functional biodiversity’ with a high capacity for ‘regeneration after fire, resistance to and recovery from pests and diseases, and adaptation to changes in radiation, temperature and water availability’ (2008, 5).

Moreover, the authors found that intact natural forests in south-eastern Australia, including Tasmania, store on average three times more carbon than conventional estimates. For example, while the default value for carbon sequestration for temperate forests used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is 217 tC ha-1, the average stock of carbon found by Mackey et al was 640 tC ha-1.

These authors conclude: ‘From a scientific perspective, green carbon accounting and protection of the natural forests in all nations should become part of a comprehensive approach to solving the climate change problem’ (Mackey et al 2008, 8).

To do this, they argue that two core definitions need to change:

• ‘Forest degradation’ should refer to ‘any impacts of any human land-use activity that reduces the carbon stocks of a forested landscape relative to its natural carbon carrying capacity’; and
• ‘Forest’ should be redefined ‘to recognize the differences between the ecological characteristics of natural forests and industrialised forests, especially plantations. These differences include the higher biodiversity, ecosystem resilience, and carbon residence time of natural forests’. 
These authors are building on ecological and conservation literature that better grasps the full range of forests ecological and social values. Nevertheless, they are possibly optimistic about the resilience of natural forests to wildfires, pests, drought and extreme climate events in an era of climate change. Thus, they play down the degree to which climate change raises questions concerning the adequacy of a hands-off approach to maintaining intact natural forests.

Overestimating Liberal Democratic Institutions

In some academic, and much popular, literature a schizophrenic view of liberal democracy is in evidence.

On the one hand, many believe that liberal democratic governments should be, and are in fact, capable of acting in the general public interest. Thus, the argument goes, the policies we get are optimal because governments have consulted all relevant interests, enlisted expert advice, considered available data, and conducted cost-benefit and/or other analyses to reach an appropriate, informed policy decision.

This belief in the autonomous power of governments to make policy in the public interest sits in stark contrast to our awareness of the powerful forces in society that seek to have their own interests met and that threaten trouble, behind closed doors as well as publicly, if they are not. 

Our ideal conception of an autonomous state capable of expressing the public interest conflicts markedly with our experience of the state as acting at the behest of powerful societal interests.

Evidence for both conceptions of the state exists. The extent to which one encounters the autonomous or compromised state depends on the country, the sector and the period being studied.

As Lindblom (1982) and others have noted, however, it is a fundamental feature of our capitalist market economy that business is in a privileged position to influence public policy deliberations.

Under capitalist market economies, government has devolved responsibility onto business to invest in production, creating profits for companies, jobs for workers and taxes for governments. These benefits also legitimise governments, enabling them to run strong campaigns for re-election.

The general dependence of governments on business is especially evident in natural resource industries like agriculture, forestry, mining and fisheries. In these sectors, well-organised special interests can bend the public policy agenda in their own direction.

Liberal democracy is permissive with regard to this type of natural resource politics.

As currently structured, liberal democracy cannot deliver sustainable development because governments are incapable over time and across sectors of performing the neutral, impartial role assigned to them in liberal democratic theory.

While the basic components of liberal democracy need to be preserved—constitutionalism; the rule of law; free, fair and regular elections; parliamentary debate; an independent judiciary; and a core set of individual rights and freedoms;—they are no longer sufficient to deliver sustainable development. 

As noted by Stoker (2006), liberal democratic institutions must be supplemented with a range of intermediate institutions that promote more balanced, deliberative, consensus-based policy development. In particular, policy networks must be opened up to the full participation of the three core affected constituencies—those representing economic, social and environmental interests.

Components of a New Forest Politics

If we are to move from where we are to where we need to be, we need to think through some of our taken-for-granted assumptions. Reforms are required in at least the following three areas.

Deliberative Governance Institutions

A discussion is currently underway about the dysfunctional nature of Tasmania’s parliament. With only 25 members in the House of Assembly, it is being argued, correctly in my view, that the Lower House is too small to deliver good government.

The reason is that the government of the day is unlikely to have more than 15 members. This can result in either all members of government being in the cabinet or, as we have increasingly seen, ministers being responsible for several portfolios at the same time. Neither is desirable.

It should not be assumed, however, that expanding the House of Assembly to 35 members will resolve Tasmania’s governance problems in an era of climate change. This is only one of several reforms that are required to create the conditions for policy to reflect not only the will of the people but also the requirements of sustainable development.

In particular, serious attention must be given to developing governance arrangements that are balanced in terms of the core constituencies of sustainable development. If one interest dominates all others, seriously sub-optimal policies masquerading as the public interest will continue to result.

Ecosystem-based Forest Management (ESBM)

ESBM is a scientific approach to forest management that derives from the discipline of conservation biology. Unlike the discipline of forestry, ESBM seeks to give equal weight to all forest values, not merely their timber values. ESBM does not rule out the logging of natural forests per se. It does, however, require that natural forest management occur within social and ecological limits.

With respect to ecological requirements, ESBM employs the concept of ‘range of natural variability’ (RONV) and ‘pre-industrial condition’ (PIC). These concepts refer to the long-term structure and function of forests prior to human intervention. Forest management occurs within the limits prescribed by nature.

With respect to social requirements, ESBM embraces the rights of Aboriginal peoples, communities and workers to have a say in how forests are managed. It encourages an opening up of the forest policy network to ensure greater deliberation and participation in the decision-making process with respect to any forest management decision.

Forest Certification

Forest management interacts in a world of increased globalisation. Australia, for example, imports from China large volumes of timber products, many of which are manufactured from wood from Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, the Solomon Islands and other developing countries.

Much of this wood is semi-legal or illegal due to corrupt governments and unscrupulous companies. Australian consumers of imported wood products may be complicit in the deforestation of surrounding countries if they purchase forest products that are not certified to an adequate standard.

In order to safeguard consumers—and secure markets for legal producers—it is crucial that products come from forests that meet high-quality management standards. This means that preference should be give to forest products carrying the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo, which provides the best guarantee that the products are both legal and sustainable.
If FSC certified forest products are not available, then it is preferable to purchase forest products that carry the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) logo. Although PEFC programmes, including the Australian Forestry Standard, are relatively permissive in terms of their social and environmental practices, they do provide a better safeguard of legality than no logo whatsoever.

Forest, Carbon Sequestration and Gunns Pulp Mill

I have already written a critique of the deficiencies of the planning processes used to assess Gunns’ Tamar Valley pulp mill under the Pulp Mill Assessment Act (Gale 2008). In my view, the pulp mill is an example of bad environmental governance and should not proceed. The review of the pulp mill under the Pulp Mill Assessment Act resulted in inadequate scrutiny of the range of risks the pulp mill poses to the Tasmanian economy, environment and community.

To these process considerations must now also be added the potential future benefits to Tasmanians of alternative uses of its forest resources for carbon sequestration. 

While there are a whole host of unknowns—whether REDD will be included in post-Kyoto arrangements, what terms and conditions will be placed on its operation, whether carbon trading will prove successful, and whether the price of carbon will be sufficient to compensate governments, industry, communities and environmentalists for the opportunity costs of foregoing other productive activities—the potential is certainly there. 

Proceeding with the pulp mill now risks foreclosing the adoption of alternative and potentially better policies in the near future. These new policies could not only protect Tasmania’s old-growth forests, but also provide employment opportunities in wilderness protection, natural forest management, plantations, and tourism. These opportunities need to be fully and seriously considered under a new forest politics and policy process. 

If proper deliberation under a new forest politics were to occur, I doubt that a pulp mill on the Tamar Valley would emerge as an optimal use of Tasmania’s forest resources in an era of climate change and carbon sequestration. If it were approved under a new forest politics process, however, the proponents could proceed with the full backing of the majority of Tasmanians—in stark contrast to the situation that exists today.

Gale, F. 2008. ‘Tasmania’s Tamar Valley Pulp Mill: A Comparison of Planning Processes Using a Good Environmental Governance Framework’, Australian Journal of Public Administration (In Press).

Lindblom, C. 1982. ‘The Market as Prison’, The Journal of Politics 44, 2 (May): 324-336.

Mackey, B, H. Keith, S. Berry and D. Lindenmayer. 2008. Green Carbon: The Role of Natural Forests in Carbon Storage. Canberra, ACT: The Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University.

Malmsheimer, R., P. Heffernan, S. Brink. D. Crandall, F. Deneke, C. Galik, E. Gee, J. Helms. N. McClure, M. Mortimer, S. Ruddell, M. Smith and J. Stewart. 2008. ‘Forest management solutions for mitigating climate change in the United States’, Journal of Forestry 106, 3 (April/May), pp. 115-173.

Stoker, G. 2006. Why Politics Matters: Making Democracy Work. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.


Dr Fred Gale

The challenge is clear, the situation is urgent, and opportunities for the future are great. History has repeatedly demonstrated that the health and welfare of human society are fundamentally dependent on the health and welfare of a nation’s forests. Society at large, the US Congress, state legislators, and policy analysts at international, federal and state levels must not only appreciate this fact but also recognize that the sustainable management of forests can, to a substantial degree, mitigate the dire effects of atmospheric pollution and global climate change. The time to act is now.