The Australian timber industry has had a fraught relationship with the environmental movement.

The industry is complex, many-faceted and encompasses diverse supply chains. However, over the years of disputes, primarily over native forest harvesting, perceptions both within and outside the industry have been negatively influenced as environmental debate has escalated.

Public attitudes often now tend to lump all timber, whether sustainably grown or not, into the same basket. The image of rogue lumberjacks cutting swathes through virgin old growth forest has been planted into the public mindset.

As a result of the media circus that enveloped issues such as Tasmanian forests, anecdotal evidence suggests many young, environmentally conscious people do not differentiate their value judgement about the timber industry whether one is talking about plantation pine or imported rainforest veneers. Conflicting issues such as jobs versus conservation, or industry versus tourism, have been used ruthlessly by vested interests to further their own particular agendas and as a result, the public image of timber has been compromised.

“The major environmental activist organisations are focusing on forests, biodiversity and climate change,” according to an advisory committee on paper and wood products in Shanghai in 2007. “They work to make people feel guilty about using wood. Meanwhile, the substitute product industries (metals, plastics and cement) are capitalising on these negative perceptions to gain market share. These twin threats to the forest products industry work in concert. The forest products industry has long been plagued by negative public perceptions.”

That comment was surprisingly made about the European timber industry, but is even more applicable to Australia. In response, rather than capitalising on its one indisputable benefit and point of difference – sustainability and carbon sequestration, the industry response has shown that insofar as marketing and public relations go, it is its own worst enemy. Consider the following facts from Queensland forests:

  • Queensland’s forests store an estimated 2.1 billion tonnes of carbon (excluding soil carbon), equivalent to around 8 billion tonnes of CO2.
  • The carbon store in Queensland plantations increased by almost 3 million tonnes of CO2 since 1990, with around 1 million tonnes in Kyoto compliant forests according to Department of Climate Change data.
  • Queensland builds around 45,000 houses each year. If all of those houses were timber-framed, we could store an additional 450,000 tonnes of CO2. This is new and additional storage because the harvested plantations are replanted to begin the cycle all over again.
  • Wood is the only material to naturally store and lock away carbon, and the forest and wood products industry is the only industry sector in Australia that stores more carbon dioxide than it releases into the atmosphere according to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry’s 2008 State of the Forests Report.

Trees perform nature’s most efficient carbon capture and storage process. The forest industry – particularly plantation timber, should be a shoo-in for environmental respectability. Yet at a time when world summits on climate change mitigation predominate in the news cycle, many influential timber industry insiders still regard ‘greenies’ as the enemy. Correspondingly, the environmental movement in Australia has yet to fully grasp the benefits of timber and support the significant benefits available from timber construction methodologies.

The case for timber in construction has been made time and again, but to reiterate, whilst over 80 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions take place during the operational phase of buildings (heating, cooling, ventilation, lighting etc) up to 20 per cent of the energy is consumed in materials manufacturing and transportation and construction. Given that buildings account for about a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, the choices made in design and construction collectively add up to some big environmental impacts:

  • It takes eight times less energy to produce a tonne of timber than it does a tonne of steel, and a staggering 46 times less energy than a tonne of aluminium according to the CRC for Greenhouse Accounting.
  • To construct an average family home an extra 15 tonnes of CO2 is released to lay a concrete floor compared with a timber floor. The Australian Greenhouse Office estimates it would take 64 years to recover this carbon debt in energy savings.
  • More than 25 tonnes of CO2 would be saved if timber products were used to build a single-storey house compared with constructing the same house using alternative materials.
  • A wood beam requires 10 times less energy to make than an equivalent steel beam.

In a carbon trading environment, the case for timber would be even clearer. The building and construction sector uses many inputs (cement, steel, aluminium, glass and so on) that are emissions intensive or that will be affected by carbon policy. Together these make up just over 20 per cent of industry costs according to the CIE’s report, Effects of a Carbon Price on the Building and Construction Industry. A study in 2008, Economic and employment implications of a carbon market for industrial plantation forestry, found that plantation forestry, including the processing stage, creates more jobs than grazing or cropping.

Facts and figures are all well and good, but to me the simple take-out strategies for the timber industry should be: get over the forest wars, make peace with the environmental movement, embrace the simple message that timber is an environmentally superior product and let the public know in no uncertain terms that timber in construction is good for us all.

With the divisiveness of the Abbott era behind us, perhaps we can start to get some growth back into the forest and downstream timber industries.