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Australian forests could become net carbon emitters in coming decades, report finds

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Forests in New South Wales are continuing to be cleared to a point that some could become net carbon emitters in coming decades, according to a report released in December by the New South Wales’ Natural Resource Commission.

The Commission has warned the Perrottet government the benefits the state’s forests provide are degrading and without “major intervention” they will continue to degrade.

The report urges the government to avoid “business-as-usual management approaches and reactive policy decision making,” saying this would lead to “sub-optimal outcomes at best, or ecosystem and industry collapse under worst case scenarios.”

The report called for enhanced monitoring of soil and forest recovery and recommended immediate actions including reducing the rates of land clearing, addressing grazing pressure in forests, and investing in pest and weed control.

Some independent candidates running in key Sydney seats are also calling for an end to logging of native forests. There have also been broader calls from the Greens and environment groups to address the state’s high rate of land-clearing.

The NRC report comes after the release of annual accounts for NSW Forestry Corporation, which showed its hardwood or native timbers division ran at an A$9m loss in 2021-22, largely due to flooding on the north coast and costs associated with bushfire recovery.

The report says the state’s forests are under increased strain from combined pressures of invasive species, growing population and economic and the intensification of urban and agricultural land use.

It also warns the unprecedented fires of 2019-20 “will not remain an outlier.”

Global heating drives more frequent fires and droughts, and these disturbances could trigger “ongoing cycles of decline in key areas such as forest regeneration and soil organic carbon” by reducing the capacity for full recovery after these events, it says.

“In this case, forests will become a net carbon emitter in the coming decades, undermining key government commitments to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050,” the report states.

It was commonly assumed carbon lost to fire would be reabsorbed by forests as they recovered and regenerated in the 10 to 15 years post-fire.

But the extent to which forests were able to recapture lost carbon would depend on their ability to fully recover and the absence of further disturbances in the recovery period, the report said.

The commission said there was a risk of a cycle of declining soil organic carbon if there were repeated fires “or other disturbances such as grazing, timber harvesting or land clearing.”

The report suggests the government develop an overarching forests 2050 strategy to “systematically address” the climate crisis and other stressors.

Andrew Macintosh, professor at the Australian National University and former head of the federal government’s Emissions Reduction Assurance Committee, said more frequent fires and dry cycles caused carbon stocks in forests to fall.

There are holes in state and federal regulation that needed to be closed, he said, and the most important thing for governments was to introduce stronger land-clearing regulations, incentives for landowners to protect forest on private land and to reduce logging.

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