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Since the recent global climate summit in Glasgow, the argument for keeping trees in the ground has never been more compelling. And in Tasmania, our forests are an impressive case in point.

In Glasgow at COP26, Australia and over 100 other countries signed an agreement promising to end deforestation by 2030. If put into practice, this landmark pact will play a vital role in slowing catastrophic climate change because forests, quite simply, suck carbon from the atmosphere and thereby help stem global warming. In fact, they’re so good at it that one of the only reasons the Federal Government can claim Australia has so far reached our emissions targets, is because we’ve stopped cutting trees down so fast.

Worryingly though, the research shows that if you exclude the carbon stored in our forests and land then Australian emissions have actually risen in the past 15 years. In other words, it’s the forests doing the heavy lifting while the Federal Government flounders. And even that achievement is potentially a mirage because, once intact forests are felled, the carbon they stored is released and most likely lost to the atmosphere forever.

Such “irrecoverable carbon” means that protecting our existing forests must be a top priority for all Australian jurisdictions, especially in Tasmania where the forests are some of the most carbon dense in the world. Indeed we rely on them drawing down some 10 million tonnes of carbon per year, enough to offset all other emissions state-wide. By protecting half a million hectares of forest and halving the logging quota, Tasmania was able to go from an emitting state to the first jurisdiction in Australia to be carbon neutral.

While this is an amazing achievement, it’s only one part of the puzzle because carbon sinks aren’t an excuse for business as usual elsewhere. They shouldn’t be relied upon by state governments or the Federal Government to hide the fact that our real emissions aren’t going down. In Tasmania, for instance, there’s been precious little change in our emissions output across other sectors like transport and industry despite our net-zero status. In other words, just like at the federal level, the Tasmanian Government is relying on the forests and other natural carbon sinks to bring down the numbers.

But you can’t offset your way to zero. Instead we must rapidly phase out coal, gas and oil, and fast-track to 100 per-cent renewables because, frankly, there simply aren’t enough trees to suck up all the filth we pump into the atmosphere. Surely it’s blindingly obvious to anyone following the science (and watching the dangerous weather) that we need to actively reduce emissions across the country in all sectors, and that goes for Tasmania too.

The trouble is we have a Federal Government obsessed with fossil fuels who will try anything to keep polluting. Like pouring money into fanciful distractions like carbon capture and storage, even though this technology remains an unproven, expensive furphy peddled by polluting companies in a bid to justify their continued bad behaviour.

Which brings me back to trees and the fact they remain the only way currently to capture carbon on a massive scale. We must protect them because it’s crucial we keep these natural carbon sinks going, especially with the Federal Government now claiming to be committed to ending deforestation.

Who has the best climate credentials will no doubt be a big decider at the ballot box in 2022, but both major parties remain well short of the mark in the environmental protection stakes. Both have the same 2050 emissions targets and worryingly similar ambitions for 2030. What we really should be talking about is net zero as soon as possible while aiming for 2035 at the very latest. That’s the sort of ambition we should be showing. Sometimes I wonder if we can’t see the forest for the trees.

This opinion piece was published in the Mercury newspaper on January 3, 2022.