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The community loses from burning native forests under the RET

I rise to speak on the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2015. Right across the country a shift is happening. Communities are ditching the old, destructive, polluting industry of the past and embracing the new, clean, innovative ways of the future. For the big polluters the future is bleak. For the rest the future is exciting, but now we are facing a choice: the old way or the new way. This deal, to reduce the renewable energy target and to include the burning of native forests for electricity within the target, is well and truly a backward step. The transition away from logging these centuries-old native forests is well underway. Logging of native forests is not where the jobs of the future are for these communities.

I came into this parliament with some clear aims: to strive for happiness and health for humanity; to protect our land, water and air; and to work so that the incredible diversity of life that we share this planet with can be protected and can thrive and flourish. Travelling through my home state of Victoria, I have met countless people who share my aims. Among them are community-minded business people who are leading the way in the businesses of the future, employing local people, respecting the environment and giving people from around the world the chance to experience our unique environment. People like Dave Whyte in East Gippsland. Dave runs Wilderness Coast Adventures, which takes people on cycling tours through some of the spectacular natural landscapes of East Gippsland. But his business relies on the lure of cycling routes surrounded by pristine wilderness. Dave says they experience the occasional logging coupe now but would not want to see more. People want to experience the natural beauty of the area and breathe in the fresh air. No-one wants to go for a ride through a freshly logged logging coupe or through the matchsticks of a regrowth forest.

Then you have farmer and tourist operator Ken Deacon, who has lived in Victoria's Rubicon Valley for over 40 years. Ken runs horse and bike riding tours through the forests in the Royston and Rubicon valleys, but he is struggling to cope with the level of logging. There are fewer and fewer areas of unlogged forest for his rides to travel through, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for his business to survive.

Dave and Ken's stories reflect the potential for these communities. This potential is lost when we destroy our native forest, which is what this deal seeks to do. The same scenario is playing out around the country. Over the past 40 years native forest logging has failed to protect our environment and failed to protect jobs. We have reached the point where industrial logging in public forests has had its day. The industry is looking for a future, and that future is in plantations. The most backward thing we could do would be to hold up this transition; yet this deal, to include the burning of our native forests for electricity under the renewable energy target, does exactly the opposite. It is holding up an inevitable transition. The delay is at the expense of taxpayers, at the expense of everything that science tells us about the values of our native forests, and at the expense of communities like those of East Gippsland, south-eastern and northern New South Wales, south-west Western Australia and throughout Tasmania. And it does so while doing the opposite of the intention of the renewable energy target.

Let's be clear: burning wood from native forests for energy is not clean energy. It does not reduce pollution. In fact it releases carbon into the atmosphere, speeding up climate change. This move would prop up and entrench an industry that is destroying our native forests. It is a desperate act from a government that is ignoring climate science in favour of their big business, flat-earther mates.

Climate change is real. It is happening, and if we do not take serious action to dramatically, drastically and urgently reduce our carbon pollution, the devastation it will cause is unthinkable. Winding back our commitment to clean energy by reducing our renewable energy target completely denies this reality. Arguing that we need a reduction because the target now represents more than 20 per cent of our energy use is a wilful denial of the whole purpose of the target. Achieving a greater proportion of our energy through clean energy sooner rather than later is cause to celebrate. It gives us the ability to take the next step of increasing the target to closer to the aim of 100 per cent renewable energy that we know we must achieve as soon as possible to give humanity and the planet the best chance of a healthy future.

Of course, by including burning wood from native forests for energy, it is worse than merely reducing the target to 33,000 gigawatt hours. Making the burning of wood from native forests for energy eligible for renewable energy certificates attacks the production of renewable energy on multiple fronts. Firstly, it reduces the number of certificates available for truly clean energy sources like wind and solar. Critically, it destroys the integrity—the clean, green brand—of renewable energy. Who wants to buy renewable energy when it has come from the logging of our precious native forests and has destroyed the homes of animals and birds like koalas, spotted quolls, swift parrots and powerful owls? But it gets worse. Climate scientists and campaigners alike know that when it comes to forests, the critical action to take when it comes to tackling climate change is to protect them—not to log them, but to let them grow old to keep soaking up and storing carbon, cleaning up our polluted atmosphere.

Minister Greg Hunt has a report on his desk that he so far has refused to release that shows that, if the forests of the Central Highlands of Victoria in the Great Forest National Park were protected rather than clear-felled, it would be the equivalent of stopping the pollution of 3.2 million tonnes of carbon every year and it would be worth at least $40 million per year to the Victorian government. You compare that with the massive subsidies, the loss of at least $5 million a year, for continuing to log the forests of East Gippsland. In stark contrast, allowing wood from native forests to be burnt for energy is going to drive the ongoing logging of our precious forests and the destruction of these important carbon stores.

We know that the Abbott government is not happy with this deal on the renewable energy target. The Prime Minister said just last week that he thought it an imperfect deal, and referring to the genuinely clean energy source of wind, he said, 'I frankly would have liked to have reduced the number a lot more.' So what is the government trying to get out of this deal? In addition to reducing the amount of clean energy Australians can benefit from, the government has tried for one big notch on their environment-destroying belt. Like a rundown car, the government wants to jump-start the native forest logging industry so that it can just go a few more kilometres. It might be dirtier and it might cost more to run, and everyone else has moved on to the next model, but the government is determined to stick to its 1950's ideology and prop up the industries of the past.

We have heard time and time again that this is just wood waste, but it takes only a quick look to realise that this is not waste at all. If it were only about sawmill waste then the regulations would only be about sawmill waste. If it were only about lower value wood products that cannot be sold elsewhere, there would not be an entire category in the regulations where 100 per cent of the logging coupe can be fed into the burners. If it were only about cleaning up tree heads and branches, then that would be what the regulations specified as well. If you go up to a logging coupe, you will see truck after truck with whole logs, but you have never and will never see a truck carrying timber offcuts, bark and branches that would otherwise be discarded—never. Why? Because it is simply not worth it to load it onto the truck and to pay the costs involved in transporting bark and branches. Any promises that biomass will be limited to otherwise discarded wood are simply nonsense, and this is the crux of the issue. What the government wants to burn is not wood waste at all. You can bet your bottom dollar that it will result in the destruction of whole logs and logs that could be sawn and that it will increase the logging of our native forests. It will send communities like East Gippsland backwards. So why does the government feel the need to prop up the industry?

Native forest logging in Australia over the last 40 years has been dominated by the production of large volumes of low-value woodchips. We must be absolutely clear what this means, what industrial-scale clear-felling looks like. We have a situation where one logging coupe is an area of forest the size of Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens, or larger, and it is totally destroyed. A few isolated habitat trees are left, but otherwise it is a moonscape. Only 10 to 20 per cent of the trees felled are cut into timber, cut into logs that are considered suitable as sawlogs. The other 80 to 90 per cent are classified as residual logs and are sent off to the chipper. The area is then burnt and reseeded, mostly with eucalypts, losing the vital diversity that forest animals rely on, and most of the animals that lived in this forest have died. Without the woodchipping industry, there would have been much less of our native forests destroyed, and more of the logs removed would have been used efficiently for sawn timber.

The industry is moving past the need for woodchipping. Sawmills are working out that it is actually possible to use smaller logs, younger logs, less perfect logs to create sawn timber. But, ridiculously, that is not the direction the industry has been pushed in. These logs do not even have a chance to be sawn. They have gone straight off to the chipper because of large contracts to export these woodchips overseas. But things have changed. Eucalypt plantations in Australia and overseas now produce better quality woodchips for paper pulp and do not rely on the clear-felling of precious native forests. They are certified under the internationally recognised certification system of the Forest Stewardship Council.

The market for the low-quality forest-destroying woodchips from Australia has crashed. The inclusion of wood from native forests in the renewable energy target is aiming to find a new market for these 80 to 90 per cent of logs that are removed from native forests, the so-called residual logs now so-called waste. So the industry is looking for a new market to justify the ongoing subsidised logging, and this new market is energy. It is aiming to turn hundreds of thousands of trees every year into pallets to be exported and burnt overseas. It is aiming at supporting the establishment of energy generation here and subsidising the establishment of such energy generation. I repeat: this is not about waste. Let that be absolutely clear. If it were about the tree branches, the bark, the tops of trees, then the legislation would exclude whole logs. It does not.

It is no surprise then that some of our biggest polluters are lining up to cash in on this deal. Indeed, one of our filthiest power stations, Hazelwood, in the Latrobe Valley, already has accreditation to use wood waste under the renewable energy target. The Prime Minister describes wind turbines as 'visually awful'. I would invite him to visit the Hazelwood coalmine, which burned for 45 days and spread ash over the entire region. Why would Hazelwood go to the trouble of getting accreditation if they were not planning to burn wood from native forests? They are waiting to pounce. They know the Abbott government has got their backs. They are ready for rules to change so that all the native forests in Gippsland and East Gippsland become classified as wood waste.

Across the country, in Western Australia, the proposed Manjimup power station could destroy the karri forest. So not only will genuine clean energy sources like solar lose out from the smaller target, but their biggest rivals—the big, old, hulking coal fired power plants pumping out dirty power—will start getting renewable energy certificates. The age of coal is over. Just as this backwards government is trying to prolong the transition from old growth to plantation logging, this legislation will be holding up the switch from these old dirty, coal plants to the clean energy of the future.

There is a different future for the timber industry, as there is for the renewables industry, and in fact it is much further advanced. We do not need industrial-scale clear-fell logging creating 'waste' in order to produce sawn timber. In fact, we already do not rely on it: 85 per cent of the wood products that we produce in Australia come from plantations, and this percentage is increasing. Plantations are much more efficient in their production of timber and they do not rely on the destruction of our precious native forests. The plantation sector looks on the native forest sector with bemusement. They scratch their heads and wonder why the government keeps on propping it up, subsidising it, when they are getting on with the business of creating high-quality wood products without any fuss, without huge community debate, without the environmental destruction. They do produce genuine renewable energy from their waste, because they are burning genuine waste—sawdust and sawmill offcuts—that they have grown themselves over the past 20 to 30 years. These plantation products are already eligible for renewable energy certificates, and we have absolutely no argument with them.

I want to specifically address the issue of production of sawn timber from eucalypt plantations, because that is what the purported justification for the ongoing logging of our forests comes down to in the end. Whenever the industry talks about logging, they do not show the devastation of clear-fell logging or the massive mountains of woodchips waiting to be exported from Eden or Burnie. They do not even show the pallets and tomato stakes—the low value products that the bulk of sawn timber from our native forests gets turned into. They show lovely polished floorboards, staircases, window frames and dining room tables. I would like to share with people that the largest eucalypt sawmill in the world, producing the largest volumes of desirable sawn timber, destined for high-value products like floorboards, staircases, window frames and dining room tables, is in Uruguay; it is producing wood from plantations of Australian 'flooded gum' that are only 20 years old. This mill and the whole industry have solved the problems of sawing young green wood that our industry has not been interested in solving, whilst they have access to wood from native forest. We can create sawn timber products from local eucalypt plantations; CSIRO researchers have outlined how it can be done. If and when we decide to stop the devastation of our native forests, the sawn timber industry will change and work out how it can be done here too, and we will be able to enjoy the beauty of wood products without the beast of forest devastation. But this happy outcome is not going to occur under this deal.

This deal comes down to a choice: who do we want to prosper? Is it the big polluters who are set in their old ways of destroying our most precious natural assets at the taxpayers' expense? Or is it the hard-working small business owners like Dave Whyte and Ken Deacon? Is it the magnificent forests that provide us with so many benefits? Is it the clean energy innovators who are facilitating the shift to the economy of the future? I know who I side with. We must side with the community; we must not let the Renewable Energy Target to be tainted with the burning of our community's precious native forests.

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