Zak Mather-Gratton’s blog

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Zak Mather-Gratton

Last month, over 100 senior academics and researchers signed on to a knee-jerk letter from an industry lobby group criticising a Chatham House report that highlighted the serious damage industrial biomass energy is doing to the climate and environment. The Chatham House report’s findings aren’t just some treehugger mumbo-jumbo, they’re well-documented in peer-reviewed articles and IPCC reports. The critique letter, on the other hand, is biased, vague, and a clear attempt to derail the argument for a properly sustainable bioenergy regime that provides real climate benefit without degrading forest biological diversity. Because the biomass boom is great for business, the bioenergy industry is lobbying hard to keep loopholes open and to maintain false definitions of sustainability. These give big energy companies access to vast subsidies and tax breaks to convert ageing coal plants to burn wood fuel, releasing dangerous amounts of CO2 and trashing global forests. But why are otherwise sensible, highly trained forest researchers and academics joining this murky movement? An immediate answer to this is that these lucrative sectors open up lots of funding from governments and forest-based industries. Also, academics spend entire careers developing economic models and scientific approaches to research, requiring detachment and objectivity. Many forest researchers are therefore not necessarily comfortable or encouraged to consider the holistic impacts of their work. This reflects a wider attitude problem within the forestry sector, which fails to take responsibility for its impacts on the global environment. Take Dutch Elm disease and the Ash Dieback epidemic, just two examples in a long list of tree-destroying diseases that have piggybacked into Europe on wood imports. Each of these disasters is wiping out entire species, not just of affected tree species but also immeasurable guilds of invertebrates, fungi, and animals associated with them. Foresters tend to talk about the spread of such diseases as random events, part of the inevitable risks associated with forest management. The counter “phyto-sanitary” measures presented are unfailingly reactive, treating symptoms while avoiding making any real, proactive changes to the global timber trade, the shipping industry, or to forest management as a whole. A long debate about whether monoculture-based forestry increases disease risks continues to rumble on. Arguments in favour of “business as usual” forestry are supported by citing specific examples where it works.

Untangling forest management’s impacts on the global environment from the influences of other pressures is an impossible task — however, when viewed as a whole, it becomes clear that our actions are increasingly undermining the resilience of ecosystems worldwide. How about supporting domestic tree nurseries and locally sourced native tree species, rather than importing foreign-grown trees and soil? What about challenging global trade and consumerism, which promotes ever-growing amounts of useless junk being shipped around the world, boxed up in timber which has been linked with the spread of the Asian longhorn beetle in the USA and pinewood nematode in Portugal? These are difficult visions to realise in our globalised world, as existing WTO trade rules expressly forbid the laws and regulations which would be required to implement real change, while new developments such as TTIP and CETA provide even further cause for concern.

Forestry as a sector could add weight to calls from environmentalists to reform our relationship with global forests and design new, truly sustainable approaches to tackle the challenges we face in the 21st Century. A good opportunity right now is the open letter urging the FAO to rework its definition of what constitutes a forest — the current definition includes tree plantations, meaning conversions from old growth, native forest to even-aged monocultures don’t need to be accounted for on climate or biodiversity reports. Over 100 NGOs have so far signed the letter, while just a handful of academics have signaled their support. Joining environmental organisations in calling for positive changes to global forestry might appear beyond the scope of forest research, but many academics clearly have no problem adding their voice to industry lobbying efforts aimed at protecting the status quo and preventing that change from happening. This is especially troubling at present, as the EU is currently debating a suite of post-Kyoto forestry and bioenergy policies for 2021 onwards, while industry and corrupted officials are fighting to weaken accounting rules to hide the true impact burning biomass has on the climate.

Forestry is a broad sector, and I don’t mean to tar all foresters with the same brush. That said, my experience as an MSc student of forestry, as well as working alongside bioenergy activists from around the world, has led me to feel that forestry has become disconnected at large from the positive changes we need to force upon our policymakers right now. It is half-jokingly estimated that forestry has a 20-year “seed dormancy,” a lag-time for the sector to embrace new ideas. Forestry is a classical, slow moving beast. It wasn’t so long ago that removing ancient woodlands to plant non-native monocultures was textbook practice, and foresters are slowly realising that following natural forest processes in management decisions can benefit both biodiversity and economy. So, perhaps in 20 years those foresters who still lend their name to industrial lobbying will wake up and realise that they missed a huge opportunity to contribute to re-designing our relationship with global forests. But it could be too late by then. We can adapt management globally to massively boost forest CO2 removals from the atmosphere, getting us on track to meet our urgent climate change targets. We can close the loopholes in accounting rules, so instead they honestly show the impact burning trees for energy has on the climate. We can move towards forest management that protects biodiversity while supporting local communities worldwide. Adding a clear voice from forestry to environmental campaigns would add momentum to this exciting movement.

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