Eastern-Australian forests projected to be global hotspot of deforestation

The following is a synopsis of an article published today in The Conversation by Martine Marone of the University of Queensland and ALERT director Bill Laurance.

When we think about global deforestation, certain hotspots spring to mind.  The Amazon.  The Congo.  Borneo and Sumatra.  And… eastern Australia?

Forests continue to fall in Australia (photo (c) Martin Taylor, WWF)

Forests continue to fall in Australia (photo (c) Martin Taylor, WWF)

Yes, eastern Australia is one of 11 regions highlighted in a new chapter of the WWF Living Forests report, “Saving forests at risk”, which identifies the world’s greatest deforestation fronts –- where forests are most at risk –- between now and 2030.

So why is WWF putting Australia in the naughty corner?

The report uses projections of recent rates of forest loss to estimate how much we are on track to lose over the next 15 years.  The estimates for eastern Australia range from 3 million to 6 million hectares.  In particular, it points the finger of blame at recent and foreshadowed changes to environmental legislation.  These changes have already removed protections for well over a million hectares of Queensland’s native vegetation.

Australia’s rate of vegetation clearing still dwarfs our efforts to replant and restore bushland by much more than 100,000 hectares every year.  This is mostly driven by vegetation loss in Queensland.  And although these rates of loss were, until recently, slowing, recent reports suggest they have rebounded sharply.

In a recent article in The Conversation, we wrote of the alarming figures suggesting large increases in land clearing, which coincided with the changes to vegetation protections under the former Newman Government in Queensland.  The state’s new Labor government is currently considering whether or not to revoke these changes.  There have been suggestions that they may not reinstate the previous protections for native vegetation.

Most of the nations highlighted in the WWF report, such as Papua New Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are in a starkly different economic situation to Australia.  At least some deforestation will be an inevitable part of their economic and social development.

Arguably, it is the responsibility of wealthier countries to help such nations to follow more-sustainable development pathways -- though we will face many challenges in doing so.  But should Australia, as a wealthy, developed economy, continue to rely on deforestation for our own development, we can hardly ask differently of others.

It is time to think about the end-game of land clearing in Australia, and what we are willing lose along the way.  If we genuinely want to achieve a reversal of deforestation by 2020, then we need to see significant policy changes.  And they need to happen now—sooner rather than later.

So which future for us?  Will we choose the path of forest sustainability, with the tradeoffs it requires, but also the lasting rewards it will bring?

Or will we sacrifice sustainability for short-term gains, as underscored in the alarming projections of the WWF report?  These are vital decisions with starkly different futures, and we can only hope that our state and federal governments make the right choices.