Can’t see the forest for the trees

Chief Advocate, Ian Henschke, questions whether tax minimisation schemes are the best way to address climate change.

Image courtesy of South Australia Tourism Commission

Key Points

  • Tax concessions have been used to promote tree planting for carbon capture
  • Kangaroo Island was one of the locations used by corporations to achieve emissions offsets
  • Twenty years later, there are plans to burn 5 million tonnes of plantation on Kangaroo Island

I opened my local newspaper recently and realised the editor must have had their irony meter switched to 11. Directly opposite the Page 3 article about fires ravaging Greece and a report about the need to plant more trees to address global warming was a story about a forestry company wanting to torch 5 million tonnes of plantation timber on Kangaroo Island. This all coincided with the latest warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The burning question is how did this cluster of calamities come about?

To understand more, we need to go back to 1996. John Howard was newly elected as Prime Minister. During the 1997 UN climate conference in Kyoto, Australia said it was a special case and fought for a target for 2020 which was an 8% increase in our 1990 emissions. We also won what became known as the “Australia Clause” where we could offset our emissions by planting trees. Carbon credits became the new big thing.

Around this time, I went to Western Australia for Landline to film the millions of trees being planted by BP as part of their ‘Beyond Petroleum’ (BP) vision, where they used the carbon credits to offset their emissions.

All this post-Kyoto Protocol activity was built on the fact that trees soak up and store carbon dioxide – the greenhouse gas produced by burning coal, oil and gas.

Billions of dollars were invested, propped up by billions in tax concessions. Soon, plantations popped up all over the country, even on Kangaroo Island. The big attraction was the ‘tax effective’ side of the investment. The trouble is a boom industry based on a tax minimisation, rather than real profits, is bound to go bust.

When I filmed the vast expanse of newly planted bluegums on Kangaroo Island, I wondered – like the locals did – how they were going to be shipped to the mainland. They were also puzzled why a place known for bushfires caused by lightning strikes, and full of fire-loving plants had gotten involved in the eucalypt plantation industry. Skip forward to the fatal fires of January last year and we had the ‘I told you so’ moment.

I suspect some of you reading this will be already writing letters and emails saying the climate is always changing. That’s probably why the fossil fuel lobby decided twenty-five years ago to start using the term climate change rather than global warming. But let’s look at the facts. The burning of carbon-based fuels still supplies 85% of the world’s energy.

In 1920, we pumped 3.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Today, we pump ten times that amount every year. It sits above the Earth like an invisible blanket trapping the sun’s warmth. So, is it surprising the average global temperature has gone up over the past century or that Italy just had a record high of 48.8 °C? Or that had we’ve had horrendous fires in quick succession in Europe and the USA – only a year after the ones we had here.

I worked on an ABC/BBC documentary in1999 called Emission Impossible which predicted the impacts of global warming – Google it and have a look, it’s my ‘I told you so’ moment. I met Margaret Thatcher’s Chief Adviser, Sir Crispin Tickell. He said he had no trouble convincing her to take action “because she understood the science.” She had a chemistry degree from Oxford and was the first world leader to warn about climate change and push for a strategy to deal with it. She said we need “to make changes and sacrifices, so we do not live at the expense of future generations.”

Sir Crispin – now 90, like his friend Sir David Attenborough, who is 95 – is another senior still fighting for a better future. Although he did tell me “I’m glad I’m in life’s departure lounge not the arrival lounge, as I think the next generation is in for a very bumpy ride!”

A survey this year by National Seniors found 85 per cent of older Australians believe in climate change and three out of four of those want action, even if it increases living costs. Whoever wins the next election both at a state and federal level should take note. Perhaps create ‘Better Future Bonds’ so the billions in term deposits getting little or no interest could be invested usefully in renewable energy programs and tree planting.

Let’s protect the trees we have left and recognise how much we need them – if only to keep cool in summer. Fight back against the planning laws that allow and almost encourage developers to cut them down. And remember the old proverb, ‘the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago’ – just as long as it’s not part of a tax minimisation scheme on Kangaroo Island!

National Seniors Healthy Earth, Healthier Future campaign

If you are like many other older Australians and are concerned about the issue of climate change and nature conservation, then check out and join our new Healthy Earth, Healthier Future campaign.

We have kicked off the campaign with a call to allow older Australians to invest in clean energy infrastructure.

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