Frank Convery – Chairman of COMHAR, the Sustainability Development Council and Peter Clinch – now special advisor to the Taoiseach on economics, were the lead authors of a 2001 report that suggested Irish forestry could account for almost 10% of Ireland’s reduction target for greenhouse gas emissions. Since then, as other justifications have been steadily undermined, the argument for 100% grants for forestry planting with 20 year subsidies – all tax free – has increasingly relied on this ‘sequestration’ benefit. At the outset, a clear distinction must be made between ‘natural forests’ and ‘plantation forestry’. Natural forests are self-regenerating: as older trees fall, younger ones spring up in the clearings, absorbing more greenhouses gases. Soil disturbance is minimal, preserving the large soil carbon store. Natural forests are magnificent environmentally. They are excellent carbon stores.
In Ireland 97% of our forest cover is industrial plantation forestry, the majority on peat soils. The use of the land is changed, the soil drained, and an intensive, often fertilised crop of trees is planted and harvested in a short time frame: less than 35 years. Because it disturbs the soil at the times of planting, road construction and harvesting, plantation forestry on these soils is bad for the environment. Irish forestry policy is currently based on a 1996 document that requires 20,000 hectares of planting until 2030 to produce ‘critical mass’ to make a viable pulp or paper industry, a target repeated in successive Programmes for Government. But forestry planting figures have not reached that figure since 1997 and have fallen steadily ever since. Just over 5,000 hectares were planted in each of the last two years. With grants recently cut by 8%, the figures are likely to fall further.
An analysis of the forestry industry in 2003 by Peter Bacon – now special advisor to NAMA – held that 1996’s ‘critical mass’ would still be valid if 12,000-15,000 hectares a year could be maintained: warning of “serious implications in terms of the ongoing credibility of the policy”, if planting rates fell below that. As the subsequent Malone report noted, “it is self-evident that if plantings fall below a certain threshold the future growth potential of the industry will be undermined”. It is against this background that Clinch and Convery led the charge to replace the increasingly discredited 1996 policy’s grail of ‘critical mass’ with the value of trees in mopping up our spiralling greenhouse gas emissions. This has led to 2009 figures from the Environmental Planning Agency (EPA) claiming that 9% of our required 2008-2020 carbon reductions will be accounted for by Ireland’s post-1990 forestry planting. The problem is Ireland’s conifer plantations on peat soils are not sequestering carbon as quickly as they are diminishing our natural sinks – the peat soils of Ireland. Studies suggest that globally peatlands may store more than three times the carbon stored in tropical rainforests. Forestry that drains and regularly disturbs large areas of peat soils causes carbon emissions, or at best breaks even. It does nothing to sequester carbon.
The loss of Irish peatlands over the last 20 years has been catastrophic. The Irish Peatland Conservation Council estimated in 1996 that 82% of our blanket bogs and 92% of our raised bogs had been disturbed. The Parks and Wildlife Service recently reported to the European Commission that 36% of our raised bogs had been destroyed in the ten years since the Habitats Directive – intended to protect them – came into force in Ireland in 1997. The EPA itself ironically published figures showing that the 1990–2000 loss of carbon from Irish soils was 27 million tons, more than 24 million of them from our peatlands. If forestry on peat soils is so bad, how much of it have we planted? The European Environmental Agency [EEA] caused an uproar when it came out in 2004 with figures that showed 84% of Ireland’s forestry since 1990 (the only forestry we can count under Kyoto rules) had been planted on peat soils – contributing not to carbon sequestration but to carbon loss.
How then did the EPA end up claiming carbon credits for Irish forestry on peat soils? Here’s how. COFORD, the research body set up to serve the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, responded to the EEA’s report by producing a document called ‘Dispelling myths: the true extent of recent peatland afforestation in Ireland’. That 2008 document claimed the percentage of planting on peat soils in that period was not 84% but 48% – giving 36% more of the planting on non-peat soils that might legitimately be claimed to be storing carbon. But their figures are based on a misleading definition of peat soils. The EU based Nitrates Directive defines peat soils as any soil with more than 20% organic matter. But the Forest Service uses a different definition – soils with peat depth greater than 30cm, excluding vast areas of the thinner peat-based soils characteristic of Ireland’s uplands. Next, the estimates of carbon sequestration were compiled using inflated planting figures. Irish forestry has been struggling to plant 5,000 hectares a year for the last two years, and yet the 2008 calculations for carbon credits are based on a planting rate of 8,000 hectares per annum up to 2020, making a further exaggeration of the claim based on trees that are not being planted. Then they claim the trees grow better than they do, and so are capable of taking up more carbon from the atmosphere than they actually do.
Just as the areas planted on peat soils have been underestimated, the yield class [YC] – the measurement of what size a tree will become and so how much carbon it will absorb – have been grossly overestimated. A 2003 COFORD report on plantations in the west stated that “almost one third of the total plantation area surveyed is only expected to reach a top height of 15 metres, while a further 43% may only reach a top height of 18 metres, before the risk of windthrow may require it to be clearfelled”. Data for carbon sequestration is based on a minimum of 30 metres, the height of a well grown Sitka spruce plantation at 35 years. They add an extra 15 years on to the carbon-absorbing life of tree, suggesting that they will not be cropped for 50 years when in fact the average felling age of conifer plantations is less than 35 years. To top all this off, in what must be credited as a stroke of genius, COFORD calculates and supplies to the EPA sequestration figures which are formulated using a model that does not include the carbon in the soil at all – a blatant violation of the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change 2006 Guidelines. These Guidelines require reporting of carbon balances in five areas: – above-ground biomass, below-ground biomass, deadwood, litter, and soil.
COFORD’s CARBWARE modelling omits changes in soil carbon stocks, claiming that “changes in carbon stocks in the fifth pool – soil carbon – are the hardest to detect”. This is in spite of the fact that in another 2008 report COFORD states that 87% of Irish forestry’s carbon is in the soil, explaining guilelessly that “one of the main reasons for the high level of soil carbon is that many Irish forests have been established on peat soils, which have very high levels of carbon to begin with”. Ouch! Clinch’s and Convery’s clothes finally vanish altogether when the end use of Ireland’s conifer plantations is considered. Of too poor quality to produce solid construction grade timber, the trees are turned into pallets, fenceposts, and chipboards. None of these has a long life, and when they decay they release the stored carbon back into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, to provide Ireland with durable hardwood timber ,the remnants of tropical forests are felled, contributing to accelerating third–world deforestation and carbon emissions. How indeed can we ask underdeveloped countries to account for their emissions from deforestation while we shamelessly ‘game the system’ ourselves?