NSW forests could be net carbon emitters

by | Jan 11, 2023

Australian Forest

Poyt448 Peter Woodard, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

According to a report by the Natural Resources Commission, published to the public in December, forests in New South Wales could become net carbon emitters in the coming decades, undermining state government efforts to reach net zero emissions.

The Natural Resources Commission (NRT) has warned the Perrottet government that the benefits the state’s forests provide are degrading and will continue to degrade without “major intervention”.

The report synthesises program findings and recommended actions to improve forest management and outcomes in New South Wales. It represents the consensus of independent scientific experts, senior forest managers, and new monitoring and research that the NRC has commissioned over three years of the program.

The report says that unprecedented bushfires in 2019-2020 will not remain an outlier and that scientific consensus predicts the likelihood of such an event will become increasingly frequent in future. This, along with invasive species, population growth, economic growth, and intensification of urban and agricultural land uses will continue to place demands and pressure on New South Wales forests.

“Business-as-usual management approaches and reactive policy decision-making will lead to sub-optimal outcomes at best or ecosystem and industry collapse under worst-case scenarios,” the report says.

“Forest use and management is a highly contested space. For example, the native forestry sector is subject to significant community scrutiny and policy shifts. Other jurisdictions are experiencing major policy shocks as decisions have been made on the future of native timber harvesting – ceasing future harvesting in Western Australia and Victoria – with some stakeholders questioning the strength of the evidence base for those decisions.”

“All sectors that rely on New South Wales forests – nature-based tourism, apiary, water supply utilities – are now subject to the additional stress of a shifting climate in which droughts, floods, and fires are likely to occur more frequently and intensely.”

According to the report, recent New South Wales and Australian State of the Environment reports identify the same repeated issues of species decline, increasing risks, and inadequate management responses. Therefore, it urges for a more strategic focus on forests across all tenures while drawing on the extensive evidence base collected through the Forest Monitoring and improvement Program (FMIP) to ensure they are more resilient and continue to provide diverse services for future generations.

As global heating drives more frequent fires and droughts, the report warns there is a risk 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.

“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.

However, the NRC says more positive futures are possible with increased recognition of – and investment in – the social, cultural, and economic values of forests, and by actively addressing emerging risks. It is time to shift towards co-creating an overarching cross-tenure strategy for New South Wales forests towards 2050 to systematically address the threats of climate change and other stressors.”

“To achieve this, we recommend the New South Wales Government works with stakeholders, community, and experts to assess long-term risks and identify opportunities to improve the outlook for New South Wales forests. This will ensure strategic investments and actions can proactively protect assets, improve forest resilience and reduce risk exposure over the long term.”

The full report is available here: https://www.nrc.nsw.gov.au/fmip-insight#fmip-insights-report