- first published in EcoNews from SCEC May-June 2013
Recent surveys in Australia and the US have found majority support for action on climate change. Clearly, even in these last bastions of climate denial, there is growing acknowledgement that we are facing a frightening future which will demand the employment of the best contemporary knowledge to come up with the most creative solutions, if we are to maintain our quality of life into the future.
But not the Federal Coalition. It is the conservative way to look back to the golden days of the past (and the Tea Party) for policy inspiration, and when you've backed yourself into a corner on carbon pricing with nowhere else to go, why not cobble up a crazy story and try to make it sound believable?
So what better for the Coalition than to reinvent the conservative ideology of 'work for the dole', combine it with Howard's Greencorps, dress it up as carbon reduction, and create a Green Army of 15000 to be recruited from somewhere within the ranks of the unemployed, disenchanted, and confused? The Green Army is tasked with planting 20 million trees by 2020, and this has become a major plank in the Coalition's 'Direct Action' policy - a title with a swaggering, cut the crap, General McArthurish appeal to those voters who, the Coalition hopes, won't think too much about it. Furthermore, 'Direct Action' echoes notions embodied in the Coalition's 'delivering frontline services' mantra - in this case, doing the carbon abatement 'here, in Australia, where we benefit directly from it'.
All sounding fair enough?
Well, no. The science is becoming far less certain around a second key plank in the Coalition's Direct Action policy - soil carbon's value for carbon sequestration – and economists almost universally condemn a third plank - the competitive grant scheme (effectively a carbon tax in disguise) where the government will buy reverse auction emissions reductions bids from businesses - because it will result in enormous administrative loads and ballooning taxpayer costs. As a result, the Coalition is finding that its Direct Action solution for carbon reduction is looking shakier than ever (although would-be deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce still can't see anything wrong with it because it sounds good and... should work anyway, whatever).
To avoid looking too silly the Coalition has quickly advanced the Green Army forward as the flagship solution, particularly for its neat opportunities to create warm fuzzy propaganda about winning community hearts and minds and boot-camping 'lazy' youth, but especially because it will provide endless ministerial photo ops around 'mission accomplished' tree planting events.
If we do try to assume for a moment that the Coalition in Government will be genuine about using the Green Army to help achieve their commitment to a 5% carbon emissions target by 2020, then the deployment of this 'army' will have to be at the very least on the 'shock and awe' scale. However, military jargon has always specialised in turning gore into glory. This will not be a disciplined army but a loose collection of 'militia', shanghaied for the job of planting 20 million trees by 2020, with a care factor somewhere around zero. And, if the Green Army is genuinely intended to meet its targets, it is the size, scale and speed needed to achieve its objectives that will create ugly problems. At 15000 strong, the 'Green Army' will be larger than most state police forces, over half the size of the Australian army and similar to the air force and navy, without the supporting infrastructure that these bodies have. It will be composed of young, generally poorly committed novices, learning as they go, conscripted for just six mistake filled months before being replaced by new recruits - their tour of duty terminating just as they might be starting to 'get it'. And this is one of the core problems. There is nothing wrong with planting lots of trees, but it has to be carried out with science and sympathy because ecosystems are very complex and enormous damage can be done through otherwise well-intentioned restoration schemes. And the challenge is huge - according to their Direct Action Plan, the Coalition aims to offset 15 million tonnes of emissions by 2020 through tree planting. To achieve this it has been estimated that an area of 25,000 square kilometres will be required, plus about 9,100 GL of water - two and a half times that proposed for the Murray Darling Basin Plan. So it will not be a trained and disciplined army which will face these impossible challenges, and the collateral damage is likely to be severe. Biodiversity will be the big loser, but also water quality and farming may be impacted, and communities and local councils will be obliged to pick up the pieces. Most pertinently, the objective of sequestering enough carbon to meet the 2020 five per cent carbon reduction target simply cannot be meaningfully assisted by planting 20 million trees in this way, within this time frame.
Biodiversity's last stand?
To understand how a massive tree planting program can have devastating effects on biodiversity we need to get a picture of how the Green Army battle will play out on the ground, day by day.
Tree planting requires 'preparation' of target sites. Many of the sites selected across Australia for this project will already have vegetative cover. These will be stream banks, wetlands, forest corridors and road verges that, although weedy and 'untidy', still provide critically important habitat for countless fauna species. To achieve the Coalition's emissions goal of replanting 25000 square kilometres by 2020 it follows that the target sites will be many and as large as possible in every case. Desperate to be time efficient and to get highly visual results quickly, 'preparation' will most likely involve herbicide carpet bombing of weeds, 'wasting' of most existing vegetation, and deployment of heavy armour to smooth landscape and apply mulch. Thus microhabitats are lost, connecting corridors cut and river banks bared. These exposed sites, dotted with newly hatched trees, are customarily then spot-sprayed for years to suppress infiltrating weeds.
Transformation at this speed and scale will alienate large areas of the landscape from biodiversity for many years before trees grow towards maturity and ground cover re-establishes. Depending on location, this will be compromised by climate change factors such as more extreme droughts, floods and fires. Added to this will be the legacy of collateral damage caused by novice Green Army recruits inadvertently eliminating friendly native plant communities, clearing weedy vegetation containing strategic nesting sites, and simply stepping on things.
Desperate to try to achieve its 2020 targets, the Green Army will no doubt largely ignore the newer, science - based practice conditions of 'ecological restoration', which respect the complexity of the environment, call for a careful understanding of the ecology and biodiversity values of each target site and employ a cautious approach by staging work to always provide some cover for fauna.
Why this won't help achieve the 2020 emissions reduction target
Clearing landscape removes vegetation that is already functional as carbon sink. Waste vegetation then breaks down to release more carbon. Typically wood mulch is used in the preparation of tree planting sites, and this releases carbon as it rots down. Young trees are nowhere near as good at sequestering carbon as the grasses and weeds they have replaced and will require years of growth and management before they become effective carbon stores.
So the restoration site becomes a net producer of carbon emissions and not really functional as a carbon sink until years after the 2020 target date, at which time more drastically expensive carbon mitigation measures will be necessary because we will have lost precious time.
But there is a further, overwhelming irony in all this: While the Green Army is busy planting 20 million trees, any gains made will be swallowed up by decisions like the one recently to trash legislation restricting tree clearing in Queensland. This, along with approvals for hundreds of kilometres of new open cut coal mines means it is conceivable that 20 million trees will be cleared in Queensland alone each year out to 2020. And to that we need to add the Coalition's new frontier ideas, like Tony Abbott's proposal for 100 new dams across Australia (millions more trees drowned).
More collateral damage
Other fall-outs from the Green Army plan include potential competition for irrigation water, increases to weed resistance due to heavy and ongoing use of herbicides, more nutrient and herbicide run-off into waterways delivering blue-green algae problems and toxic impacts on estuaries, vulnerability of cleared sites to increased erosion, ongoing costs to ratepayers through pressure on local communities to create project opportunities for the green Army and then pick up the pieces after they leave, and the rapid growth in numbers of poor quality, 'fly-by-night' contractors, in response to opportunities provided by projects started by the Green Army. All this creating potential for problems like those experienced with the home insulation program.
Knowing what we know
In 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, desperate to explain away the Bush administration's failing basis for war in Iraq, made his infamous 'unknown unknowns' speech. Nobody understood what he was talking about.
But applied to the Coalition's Direct Action policy it all becomes terribly clear: For Direct Action, the 'known knowns' are the clear indications that the Coalition in Government will abandon their costly carbon mitigation measures under the pretext that will be set by their 'commission of audit' – a sham process routinely trotted out by incoming conservative governments which will 'uncover' - to much mock horror - a whole set of economic unknowns unknowns that we all knew weren't too bad until the audit turned them into unknown knowns (really, really bad).
This may leave the Green Army standing alone as the Coalition's main carbon mitigation tool, and while it certainly won't lead to victory on the emissions reductions front, this clumsy 'green' idea may well end up defeating biodiversity across big slabs of the Australian landscape.