Australia spends billions planting trees – then wipes out carbon gains by bulldozing them

Adam Morton and Anne Davies
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Since 2015 the Australian government has committed more than $1.5bn of taxpayer funds to climate change projects that plant or protect native habitat. Over a slightly longer period it has also spent nearly $62m on a policy to plant 20 million trees promised under Tony Abbott.

At the same time the country has significantly stepped up land-clearing programs in several states, bulldozing hundreds of thousands of hectares of forests, mostly for agriculture.

Official data allows an estimate of the scale of the contrast: little more than two years of land clearing will effectively cancel out what the public is spending to avoid 125 million tonnes of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere. The equivalent to what has been planted over several years in the 20 million trees program is wiped out in just six months of land clearing.

“It’s pretty absurd,” says Jess Panegyres, the Wilderness Society’s national nature campaigner.

“We’re putting huge amounts of taxpayer dollars into avoided deforestation and reforestation and at the same time we’re allowing Australia to become a deforestation hotspot globally. Any of the gains that we’re making under these taxpayer-funded schemes are being wiped out almost immediately.”

What is being lost can be cut up in different ways. Using government figures, the Wilderness Society estimates a Melbourne Cricket Ground-sized area of forest and bushland was cleared every two minutes in 2017.

Over a longer timeframe, an academic study found last month that more than 7.7m hectares – an area larger than Tasmania – of potential threatened species habitat had been cleared since 1999. It said 93% of this land had not been referred to the federal environment department for assessment and approval before being cleared, as required under national environment laws.

Not all land cleared is equal. Much of it is regrown forest in areas that have been felled before. But a significant minority is intact mature forest, which is a deeper store of carbon dioxide. Scientists say both need to be protected if Australia is to stem an unfolding extinction crisis.

A crop paddock prepared for sowing on the road linking Nyngan to Bourke in outback NSW. It has been left bare because of the lack of rain. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Australia has a long history of forest clearing. The proportion of the country covered by forest has fallen from about 30% to less than 16% since European invasion. But, after a relative decline, a big upswing in land clearing began in 2013, when Campbell Newman’s Liberal National government relaxed laws preventing mass deforestation in Queensland.

Data from the state’s world-leading vegetation monitoring system, known as Slats (statewide landcover and trees study), shows that in the five years that followed about 1.7m hectares – an area larger than greater Brisbane – of native vegetation was bulldozed, far more than in the rest of the country combined.

In the most recent two years in which data is available, ending in June last year, about 40% of that was in Great Barrier Reef catchments, increasing the amount of sediment running into the ocean along the coast.

The Labor state government passed legislation last year that the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, said would end broad-scale land clearing – despite environmental lawyers warning that the new laws were full of loopholes. The latest Slats data that will show the result of that are yet to be released, but Panegyres says while the laws should work to reduce the bulldozing of mature forest, anecdotal evidence suggests the loss of growing forest and native vegetation has continued in some areas. “There’s a lot of land clearing still being reported to us,” she says.

While Queensland closely tracks land clearing, the picture in other parts of the country is less clear.

Neither Western Australia nor the Northern Territory keep jurisdiction-wide data. In the west, where land-clearing laws were relaxed under the former Liberal premier Colin Barnett in the name of removing red tape, a partial picture can be calculated by tallying the permits granted by some departments – but this leaves significant gaps.

Land clearing in New South Wales is unarguably on the rise. While it has not reached the heights of Queensland, figures from the state’s Office of Environment and Heritage show clearing for crops pasture and thinning tripled between 2014-15 and 2017-18, the year the state government introduced more lenient native vegetation protection laws.

More than 27,000 hectares, nearly 100 times the size of Sydney’s central business district, were cleared for agriculture in the latest year for which data is available. Most of the clearing has been between Moree and the Queensland border. If native forestry is included, the figure rises to 58,000 hectares.

The data shows land clearing had already escalated before the laws came into effect, farmers having apparently anticipated the change. Though some Liberal ministers are deeply concerned about the scale and pace of the escalation and its impact on biodiversity, the National party has repeatedly called for protections to be wound back.

The contrast makes little sense to some people planting trees on behalf of taxpayers. Around the Moree water park, a human-made water-skiing area 6km north-west of the New South Wales town, a small forest of native trees is taking root, despite two years of drought, thanks to a $29,500 grant from the 20 million trees program. Eventually 7,000 trees will be planted.

John Mailler, 80, a retired share farmer and volunteer working on the project, germinates his own plants from local seed at his property 40km away and drives in regularly to tend the trees, which are being planted by a local employment group. He lists the local species: carbeen, casuarina, box trees, emu apple or grewi, brigalow and roly poly.

Mailler’s trees are bred so they don’t need drip irrigation and can survive with an occasional watering. He loves the work but says the loss of local vegetation around Moree is heartbreaking.

“It’s definitely changed. That was open grass country,” he says, gesturing towards the horizon to the east. “But it’s now crops, barley, wheat, chickpeas, lupins, cotton.

“They buy this wide machinery, and they say it’s too much of a problem to go round the trees so they get rid of them. It’s tragic.”

Related: Australia cleared 7.7m hectares of threatened species habitat since introduction of environment act

The north-west of NSW is ground zero for tree loss. In the Moree council area alone, 1,189 hectares – roughly the size of the greater Melbourne area – of woody vegetation was lost to cropping, pasture and thinning in 2017-18. Even more went in neighbouring council areas.

The situation is set to get worse in the next year. The NSW government has said it will not pursue cases against farmers who broke the old laws and it is planning to introduce regional plans, beginning with the north-west, that could further increase broad-scale clearing.

On a national scale, some experts have doubts about whether national greenhouse accounts accurately reflect the full impact of forest clearing and have called for the federal government to introduce a nationwide monitoring system on a par with that used in Queensland.

Even without that, Bill Hare, the chief executive and senior scientist with Berlin-based Climate Analytics, says a key message from the national emissions data published by the government is that it expects clearing to continue at current rates for at least the next decade.

Specifically, pollution from land clearing is projected to stay at about 46m tonnes of carbon dioxide a year to 2030, roughly equivalent to emissions from three large coal-fired power plants.

“That’s the bottom line,” Hare says. “This is significantly damaging the climate, as well as the natural environment, and Australia is not planning to do anything to stop it.”

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