No Trees, No Rain: Land Clearing Laws and the Future of Australia’s Climate

7 September 2016 Stephanie Goche, Research Assistant, Northern Australia and Land Care Research Programme

Background

The possibility of human-induced climate change and what, if anything can be done about it is one of the most debated issues of our time.  There is now, however, an abundant body of research supporting the view that human activity is contributing to the warming of the planet. Our lack of knowledge, short sightedness and greed is hindering an adequate response to the problem. Recent studies have shown that climate change is not only influenced by emission gases but also by the management of land surfaces. Land clearing is a contentious issue in the climate change discussion and has prompted detailed research globally. Excessive tree clearance can cause significant changes. As development continues at a rapid rate, the environment is likely to suffer increased adverse consequences. Two Australian State jurisdictions that have caused a stir for their controversial actions are Queensland and New South Wales. Over the last decade land clearing has accelerated in both States. With increased awareness of climate change and land conservation, States, governments and individuals have become more aware of the importance of sustainable development to ensure preservation for future generations; however, it seems that Queensland and New South Wales have missed the memo, sparking debate on the land clearing laws these states have implemented.

Comment

In recent years both Queensland and New South Wales have been accused of excessive land clearance and deforestation. In 2013/14 Queensland cleared 278, 000 hectares of native vegetation and a further 296,000 hectares between 2014 and 2015. New South Wales has recorded 23, 000 hectares of clearing in the last 6 years. This level of land clearance is amongst the highest rates of deforestation in the developed world and is an indication that both States have crucial short comings in their environmental legislation.

Trees have a vital importance to the environment that is often undermined or overly simplified. Land clearing has consequential effects on the climate that are intensified depending on the rate of occurrence. Clearing trees not only releases carbon emissions in the atmosphere it alters the climate by increasing warmth, altering the circulation of heat and moisture and thus changing rainfall.  A lack of trees in essence may result in warmer weather and droughts. What is increasingly worrying is that the actions of a particular area can have regional and global effects, further emphasising why both governments need to strictly regulate land clearing in their states.

Despite the possible dire consequences, political and social factors that have hindered the enactment of further constraints. It is believed by some that both Queensland and New South Wales are in need of policy reformation and increased regulation yet there is still continuing debate rather than action. Recent suggestions for policy change have caused controversy amongst the Queensland and New South Wales communities. Premier of New South Wales, Mike Baird’s new Biodiversity Bill received criticism from both environmentalists and farmers. Critics accused the drafters of creating a mechanism to facilitate rapid clearing for the purpose of development, facilitation of large businesses, and short term profit gains. In Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk received a negative response from farmers who were far from delighted by her proposal to strengthen land clearing laws in the region. Numerous farmers experiencing difficulties with vegetation and soil fertility believe their only hope for survival is to clear trees, trees they perceive as roadblocks; it’s understandable that with farming being their source of income, some farmers would be more concerned with an immediate solution for their dilemma rather than regenerating existing degraded agricultural soil. Without a change in land management practices the pattern will persist. An immediate, short-term solution, possibly, but it is not a long term resolution.

The long term consequences are potentially, too damaging to ignore. Queensland and New South Wales are home to some very significant endangered species and clearing their habitats will threaten their survival. Another species that faces great endangerment is the human population; temperature rises and decreased rainfall will result in an environment that is less conducive to growing food and raising livestock, a future that will be coupled by increased food shortages and drought. If this isn’t enough for policy reformation in both states, Australia faces a bleak future. What do the governments of Queensland and New South Wales need, well at first instance the governments should focus on reducing inconsistent policy shifts. Inconsistent measures will not solve the matter but rather continue to add to the demise. Leaders and policy drafters should focus on restructuring and strengthening implemented policies whilst educating those in the community about the vitality of trees. Short term goals may produce immediate and satisfactory results but they are misleading and deceitful in the prosperity they promise.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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