Australia spends millions on forests that don’t exist

Australia spends millions on forests that don’t exist
Australia spends millions on forests that don’t exist

Forest regeneration projects, despite receiving millions of carbon credits in Australia, appear to have a negligible impact on forest cover and carbon sequestration. A recent study conducted by the Australian National University (ANU), in collaboration with Haizea Analytics, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and the University of Queensland, highlights the shortcomings of these initiatives.

Analysis of a contested strategy

The study focused on 182 human-induced regeneration (HIR) projects, an offset method that is very widespread worldwide but which turns out to be the largest when excluding projects avoiding emissions. These projects, located mainly in the arid outback areas of Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia, do not involve any tree planting. They claim to regenerate native forests from seed stocks in the ground and removed seedlings, reducing the number of livestock and wildlife.

The researchers found that reducing grazing did not have the desired effect on woody vegetation cover, which is controversial as decades of scientific research in Australian rangelands suggests that grazing generally does not have a negative material impact on this cover.

Disappointing results

Credited areas, where forests of similar ages were expected to regenerate, were scrutinized to assess whether woody cover had increased. However, the results indicate that tree cover has barely increased, and in many cases it has even declined. Nearly 80% of projects experienced negative or negligible change in tree cover during the study period.

Furthermore, the marginal gain in tree cover and the low impact of project registration on forest cover change suggest that the projects are failing to regenerate native forests as intended.

Methodological issues and implications

The main problem with HIR projects is that sequestration is modeled and not directly measured. The models assume that uniform-aged forest regeneration occurs across credited areas, independent of actual conditions on the ground.

Dr Megan Evans from UNSW Canberra pointed out that credits are allocated on the basis that uniform-aged forest regenerates across the credited area and that, in approximately 10 to 15 years from the presumed start of regeneration, all the area will be covered with forests. However, observations suggest this is unlikely.

Consequences for climate change

When carbon credits are issued for projects that don’t sequester as much carbon as they should, it makes climate change worse. Credits from low-integrity projects make it easier to increase emissions without a corresponding reduction being made elsewhere. This raises serious questions about the validity of carbon offsets as a tool to combat climate change.

International Day of Forests: March 21, 2024

Perspectives and recommendations

The study results highlight the practical limits of offsets and the potential for offset systems to credit non-existent, non-additional and ephemeral reductions. This calls for a critical reassessment of carbon offset strategies and suggests that other measures, directly measurable and verifiable, may be necessary to effectively combat climate change.

It is essential that regulators, researchers and policymakers take these findings into account when adjusting carbon offset policies, to ensure that emissions reduction efforts are real and substantial. The role of ongoing research will be crucial in monitoring the effectiveness of these projects and ensuring that reforestation initiatives truly contribute to the fight against climate change.

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