Tree planting not always so green

Planting trees to capture carbon dioxide seems like a good idea on the surface, but in drought-stricken regions, there may be a need to use water more wisely and look for other ways to reduce emissions, new research from The University of Queensland shows.

Forests are the lungs of the planet, so surely planting more of them could only be a good thing.

It’s not so simple, according to Professor Karen Hussey from the Global Change Institute at The University of Queensland.

“Planting trees is a good idea on a range of fronts,” she said.

“They’re great for addressing salination and erosion, sequestering carbon and interrupting floods.

“So there is an assumption that projects that seek to sequester carbon in the landscape are automatically a good thing – for example some of the projects funded by the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF). Certainly, for reducing greenhouse gas emissions those initiatives can be very effective, but there’s a complexity which needs to be understood.”

With 86 per cent of Queensland officially in drought, Professor Hussey said there was a need to use water more wisely.

“Trees need water, so if you have a policy for planting a lot of trees, you’re obviously going to need a lot of water,” she said.

“In Australia we have twin challenges – to address climate change and to recognise that water is a precious resource.

In Australia we have twin challenges – to address climate change and to recognise that water is a precious resource.

Professor Karen Hussey, Global Change Institute, University of Queensland

“We’ve made fantastic progress on the latter, and we’re just starting to pick up momentum on the former.”

Professor Hussey said the Emissions Reduction Fund was a case of putting all the eggs in one basket.

“I would like to see a systemic approach, which starts with a price — or a constraint — on carbon,” she said.

“Australians are well and truly over the debate.

“The climate talks in Paris were incredibly powerful in giving everybody the freedom to move forwards, recognising that we all have to work on solutions together.

“The enemy is not ‘dirty industry’ – that’s far too simplistic an approach. Instead we’ll need to see steady change across a range of sectors, from the ‘low hanging fruit’ that is energy efficiency through to land-use changes and of course significant shifts in our electricity and energy supply mix.” 

She said Australia already had the world’s highest uptake of photovoltaic solar panels, and was pursuing a broad range of solutions.

“Australians love solar. Better insulation on homes and retrofitting LED lighting can also make a surprisingly big difference when you consider that urban environments – suburbs – are the largest infrastructure we have in Australia,”

“So can running fossil fuel plants as efficiently as possible while we transition to ‘greener’ energy generation.”

But Professor Hussey said time frames were crucial.

”Unfortunately, urgency is the enemy of good policy,”

“We’ll need to see careful, considered reflection on how we can pursue solutions that manage the pain but maximise returns.

“There is no silver bullet for this challenge, but we certainly have the tools at our disposal to manage it.”

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