Harvesting camphor – a green solution?

Clear felling of camphor laurel to create ‘renewable energy’ in the local sugar mills leaves Jessie Cole pondering the realities of wood-burning as green power.

Burringbar is my hometown. Turning off the Tweed Valley Way into the main street always does something to my heart. Lifts it in some way. I know I’m lucky to have such a connection to place, to walk a winding road through the greenest hills and think – this is home. It is a luxury of grand proportions. But lately walking through my valley has become something completely different.

Huge double barrelled trucks zoom past at high-speed leaving the overpowering scent of camphor dust in their wake. Giant machines move up the hillsides clamping the camphors at their bases and felling them left, right, and centre. The trees are wood-chipped in the paddocks where they once stood and then carted off to burn. The sound of heavy machinery echoes through the hills, punctuated with the slow cracking of falling trees. The picturesque hillsides have become a site of carnage. I’ve been here thirty years, almost all my life, and never have I seen such devastation.

The harvesting of camphors to burn in the nearby Broadwater and Condong sugar mills is a ‘green initiative’ partly funded by the NSW and Federal governments. The proposal was simply to turn cane waste from the sugar industry into energy, clearly a win-win scenario, eliminating the polluting cane field fires, and topping-up the electricity grid with renewable energy. ‘The reality is,’ says local educator and environmentalist Alison Polistchuck ‘there was never enough cane waste to burn, and camphors are now being clear-felled to fill the gap.’

Foreseeing the reliance on woodchips the NSW Greens Leader, Ian Cohen, rejected the initial proposal in 2003 claiming it was ‘not a green plan at all.’ Though green groups raised questions about the energy required to cut, chop, and transport the wood, the loss of mature trees as a carbon sink, the erosion and silting up of the local creeks, the possible threat to endangered plants and animals, and the basic pollution of wood-burning, these problems were disregarded, and the plan was sold to the public as renewable energy.

On a global level this kind of ‘green power’ is called ‘biomass burning’ – chipping up trees and burning them in power plants to create electricity. This practice was deemed carbon neutral at Kyoto back in 1997, even though burning trees for energy emits 150% of the CO2 that burning coal does, and it takes 30-90 years of new growth to re-capture the CO2 that is released instantly from burning trees for energy. The word loophole springs to mind.

Camphor laurels have always been a vexed issue on the North Coast. A declared noxious weed, they are the cane toad of the flora world, colonising spaces where the Big Scrub used to be. The ecological benefit of regenerating camphor trees to native forest is largely unchallenged, but there are bigger questions at hand here. Are camphor laurel trees better than bare pasture in green terms? What is the value of a tree, any tree? And perhaps most pertinently – is burning woodchips ever a green power solution?

In an interesting turn of events, the co-generation plants were placed into receivership early this month. The Executive of NSW Sugar Chris Connors has blamed the financial crisis on the fall in value of Renewable Energy Certificates due to a flooding of the market. But a closer look at NSW Government audit documents reveals a complex mix of factors leading up to the economic problems. Lower than forecast amounts of cane waste and limited availability of alternative fuel sources were both cited. No questions have been raised about the basic unsustainability of harvesting trees to burn for fuel, and it is unclear whether this recent financial crisis will mean an end to the clearing, or an increase as the sugar mill scrambles to stay afloat.

Camphor laurels are a noxious weed and there is a legal objective to control the species. But the irony is – unlike natives these trees thrive in open country so clear-felling them does little to stop their spread. For the practise to be ecologically viable there would need to be staged removal of trees and replanting with native species to protect habitat, prevent erosion and weed infestation, as well as to minimise the loss in carbon stores. Even if wood-burning for electricity was a green power solution, no effort has been made to manage the camphors in a sustainable manner. Walking down the road in my hometown I am left wondering what strolling through my valley will be like when all the bulldozers are finally gone.

This article was first published in The Echo in March 2011

           

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