Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Australia's deception about its LULUCF forestry

Australia makes use of Land Use, Land Use change and Forestry (LULUCF) credits as part of its national emissions profile while most countries do not include this area of emissions. We have done this since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol Agreement when we threatened to wreck the agreement if these emissions weren't included. Subsequently a clause to allow counting of these emissions was included, and it was colloquially known as the Australia clause.

Australia has long used this clause based on land use emissions in the past to allow a target for Australia  to actually grow our emissions, while nearly all other nations had targets to reduce their emissions.

So Australia has cruised along without doing much work in any other sector in decarbonisation, based upon historical reduction in Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry emissions.

Pretty shonky and hardly fair.

A recent remote sensing study has highlighted even further the shonky nature of carbon accounting in LULUCF emissions. The study is called 'Annual Maps of Forests in Australia from Analyses of Microwave and Optical Images with FAO Forest Definition', published 23 August.

Fellow science tweeter Mark Plackett drew my attention to a twitter thread by Pep Candell, Chief Research Scientist in the CSIRO Climate Science Centre and Executive Director of the Global Carbon Project discussing this study.

"Australia ranks 6th in the world in the amount of forest area, with about 134 Mha (FAO 2020), after Russia, Brazil, Canada…, the countries where you might think forests really are, not in the dry Australian continent." said Pep Candell in the first thread tweet.

"Although Australia does have extensive, diverse and beautiful forests, the very large area claimed is because of the decision by the Government to report forest extent based on forests equal or taller than 2 m, while the rest of the countries report on taller than 5 m."

Figure 7: Spatial distribution of NVIS forest and woodland in Australia.

The study authors "have produced a forest map based on radar (PALSAR) and optical (MODIS) data using 5 m height to have an extent more comparable with other countries."

Figure 11 - Forest areas in Australia from six forest data products in 2010 under different forest definitions.

"That gives an area of 32 Mha of forests for the year 2010, compared with 149 Mha reported by the Government. See paper and data links."

"There are reasons for the choice of 2 m over 5 m, including perhaps that the FAO forest definition is a Northern Hemisphere view of what a forest should look like."

"In the end, definitions need to serve their purpose in the first place (structure, function, biodiversity, resources)."

"And regardless of the forest definition, even single trees outside of forests play an important role."

Ecologist Dr Pep Turner commented: "Australian temperate forests, their structure and function, are largely driven by disturbance, mostly #fire. This makes classification based on tree height alone problematic."

So to allow comparison to other countries we should be using the same canopy height measurement: 5 metres. Yet Australia is using a 2 metre canopy height. This means we are working on a total of 149 million ha forest for 2010 when in reality using comparative canopy height of 5 metres we have only 32 million ha of forest in 2010 over Australia according to this remote sensing study analysis.

Is this another way Australia is undermining carbon accounting and greenhouse gas emissions from our Land Use sector?

As the Climate and Forests Alliance put forward, there are "Still no financial incentives for protecting existing vegetation." and these actions are needed:

1. Protect existing vegetation 

2. Let forests grow old (habitat and carbon storage)

3. Restore and enhance connectivity

4. Improved landscape biodiversity, shelter, soil moisture and rainfall. 


Failure to meet tree planting commitment

Meanwhile, a 2018 commitment by the current Federal Government to plant one billion trees has resulted in less than one per cent of that total reforestation. 

"At this rate, forget hitting the 2050 target; it will take 357 years to hit a billion trees," independent senator Rex Patrick told parliament. Senator Patrick said plantation land had declined in Australia since a peak of more than two million hectares in 2008.

According to the ABC news report, Statistics from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) show only 2,800 hectares of new plantation trees have been planted. 

"That's roughly 2.8 million trees against an annual target of 170 million that is needed [to meet the goal]," Senator Patrick said.

Study Abstract

The Australian governmental agencies reported a total of 149 million ha forest in the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 2010, ranking sixth in the world, which is based on a forest definition with . Here, we report a new forest cover data product that used the FAO forest definition ( and  at observation time or mature) and was derived from microwave (Phased Array type L-band Synthetic Aperture Radar, PALSAR) and optical (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, MODIS) images and validated with very high spatial resolution images, Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) data from the Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat), and in situ field survey sites. The new PALSAR/MODIS forest map estimates 32 million ha of forest in 2010 over Australia. PALSAR/MODIS forest map has an overall accuracy of ~95% based on the reference data derived from visual interpretation of very high spatial resolution images for forest and nonforest cover types. Compared with the canopy height and canopy coverage data derived from ICESat LiDAR strips, PALSAR/MODIS forest map has 73% of forest pixels meeting the FAO forest definition, much higher than the other four widely used forest maps (ranging from 36% to 52%). PALSAR/MODIS forest map also has a reasonable spatial consistency with the forest map from the National Vegetation Information System. This new annual map of forests in Australia could support cross-country comparison when using data from the FAO Forest Resource Assessment Reports.


Yuanwei Qin, Xiangming Xiao, Jean-Pierre Wigneron, Philippe Ciais, Josep G. Canadell, Martin Brandt, Xiaojun Li, Lei Fan, Xiaocui Wu, Hao Tang, Ralph Dubayah, Russell Doughty, Qing Chang, Sean Crowell, Bo Zheng, Kevin Neal, Jorge A. Celis, Berrien Moore, "Annual Maps of Forests in Australia from Analyses of Microwave and Optical Images with FAO Forest Definition", Journal of Remote Sensing, vol. 2021, Article ID 9784657, 11 pages, 2021. https://doi.org/10.34133/2021/9784657 

Thomas, N., Baltezar, P., Lagomasino, D. et al. Trees outside forests are an underestimated resource in a country with low forest cover. Sci Rep 11, 7919 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-86944-2

Lead Photo: Mountain Ash in Victoria's Central Highlands. Photo by John Englart

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