14 Sept 2023

THE POWER OF TREES: THE RACE TO END DEFORESTATION AND RESTORE NATURE’S CLIMATE CONTROL

How WWF-Australia is championing the protection of trees and forests

Imagine if we could unlock a new technology that could absorb extraordinary amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while also pumping out fresh oxygen across the planet. It would help keep the climate in balance, purify our air and enrich our soils and landscapes.

Well, it turns out we already have this innovation growing right in front of us. Trees do all of this and more. Purpose-built to keep the planet functioning in balance, trees support all forms of life to thrive, including our precious native wildlife. This marvel is one of nature’s most fundamental and brilliant ecosystem services. And trees are our natural allies against climate change.

But for far too long, massive and unchecked deforestation has hindered the ability of our trees to do the job that nature intended. And the remarkable environmental, social and economic opportunities that come with protecting and restoring trees are still waiting to be unlocked.

That’s why WWF-Australia is leading the effort to protect and restore our trees. Together with our partners and communities around the nation, we have a mission to save and grow 2 billion trees by 2030. As part of this, we’ve released the first Trees Scorecard that presents an overview of how our state, territories and federal governments are performing in tree protection and restoration. And now the challenge is now on across Australia to safeguard our trees, forests and our future.

The deforestation dilemma

Deforested site in NSW
Deforested site in NSW © Supplied

It’s estimated there may be 73,300 different tree species on Earth. And scientists believe there could be thousands more that haven’t been discovered or identified yet. But the incredible rate of deforestation has decimated so many trees around the globe.

From the forests of eastern Australia to the Brazilian Amazon, WWF has earmarked 24 global deforestation hot spots that need urgent attention in the Deforestation Fronts: Drivers and Responses in a Changing World report. This report provides an in-depth analysis of the world’s deforestation hot spots in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Oceania.

Together, these 24 global deforestation fronts have been responsible for a staggering 43 million hectares of forest cleared between 2004 and 2017. That’s an area roughly the size of Morocco.

Australia is the only developed nation on the list.

Eastern Australia’s deforestation hot spot

A wild koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) climbing in its natural habitat of gum trees.
© Shutterstock / GunnerL / WWF

The forests of eastern Australia are a global biodiversity hot spot. They are home to some of the most unique wildlife on Earth, including the iconic koala, greater glider, red goshawk, swift parrot, regent honeyeater, Albert’s lyrebird and eastern bristlebird.

But, according to WWF’s Deforestation Fronts report, eastern Australia is also one of the world’s deforestation hot spots. Nearly half of the area once covered by forests has been lost. The once vast brigalow and grassy box forests of inland eastern Australia are now endangered or critically endangered. And more than 700 native plant and animal species are threatened by forest habitat destruction.

Why has there been so much deforestation? The main reasons are deforestation to create pasture for livestock, native forest logging, bushfire and drought, and clearing for cropping. Landclearing for livestock accounts for 75 per cent of forest lost, while native forestry logging is responsible for a further 16 per cent.

On top of that, increasing bushfires, forest fragmentation and weeds are expected to further impact substantial areas of the eastern Australia forests. And scientists predict that large areas of forest will change to woodland or savannah, meaning there will be fewer trees overall.

In the devastating 2019–20 summer bushfires alone, a staggering 7.3 million hectares of the eastern Australia forests were impacted—almost all of this was in New South Wales. Half of the stunning ancient Gondwana Rainforests World Heritage Area was burned and may not ever fully recover. While the devastation caused by bushfires is overwhelming, it’s important to remember our forests were already facing severe pressure before these extreme bushfires.

And this is just in eastern Australia. Almost 300,000 hectares of native forests and woodlands are bulldozed every year across Australia—that’s more than 57 Sydney Harbours’ worth of forests.

Fewer trees and forests mean that less carbon dioxide is absorbed, which creates higher concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This leads to more warming in global temperatures and increased climate change impacts. It’s a negative ecological feedback loop that just keeps on amplifying the more we cut down trees and forests.

Why we need trees

As powerful allies against climate change, trees and forests remove large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In fact, it’s estimated that our Australian forests store a total of 22 billion tonnes of carbon in their trunks, leaves and roots. This is the same as the annual emissions from 4.7 billion cars or the total annual emissions of China, India, Russia, Japan, Germany, Canada and the United States combined.

According to a peer-reviewed study, the older a tree is, the better it can absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And research suggests that almost 70 per cent of all the carbon stored in trees is accumulated in the last half of their lives. That’s why it’s so important to protect mature trees and old-growth forests.

As the ultimate multitaskers, trees also play an important role in regulating the water cycle, rainfall and stabilising weather patterns. They also protect our air quality, improve the health and integrity of our soils, help to reduce erosion and reduce the impacts of flood events.

In addition to that, trees and forests provide habitat for our beloved Australian wildlife. Many native animals rely on trees for shelter and food. Scientists estimate that 700 threatened animal species across Australia depend on our forests for their survival.

Heroes for our health

But it’s not just animals and the environment that need trees to survive and thrive. According to a report by WWF-Australia and Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA), trees play a critical role in supporting human health and well-being.

We know that trees help to supply and purify our drinking water supplies, produce much of the oxygen we breathe and remove fine particles of pollution from the air.

“Air pollution contributes to more than 3,000 deaths each year in Australia. Those figures would likely be higher without trees which help filter air pollution. They also help cleanse water so that we use fewer chemicals to make water drinkable,” said Dr Kim Loo from DEA.

They also protect us against heat and sun exposure. For example, research has shown that shaded surfaces can be 11–25 degrees cooler than peak temperatures of unshaded surfaces. This is particularly important in a world of increasing global temperatures and heatwave events. Trees also protect our skin against ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

“More people die each year from heatwaves than all the other disasters combined and trees are one of the ways we can really reduce people’s exposure to heat,” says Dr Cybele Dey, also from DEA.

“They reduce heart attacks, strokes, heat exhaustion - there are just so many ways that trees can make a different to people’s health.”

Not only that, these wonders of nature encourage outdoor physical activity for people and provide opportunities for children to play in natural environments. This is vital for their health, well-being and development. And a growing body of research suggests that being in nature and surrounded by trees can boost our mental health.

And, for First Peoples, trees provide a continued connection to places and Country, which is critically important for health and well-being.

Trees Scorecard report

With all these incredible benefits, it’s clear that trees and healthy forests are an essential part of our insurance protection for the future. That’s why WWF-Australia is calling on our leaders to make Australia a global leader in protecting and restoring trees.

For the first time, WWF-Australia’s Trees Scorecard report provides a snapshot of how state, territory and federal governments are performing in protecting and restoring trees across the nation. This Scorecard assesses and ranks each jurisdiction based on indicators including native forest logging and landclearing.

And it shines a light on where governments are standing tall and where they must do more to protect our precious natural assets.

Leaderboard results

South Australia tops WWF’s new Trees Scorecard

South Australia is leading the way, followed by the Australian Capital Territory (ranked second), Victoria (ranked third) and Western Australia (ranked fourth). These four jurisdictions all received an ‘Average’ score, showing that while each has more work to do, there has been strong performance in ending landclearing and native forest logging. The recent announcement of an end to native forest logging has provided a welcome boost to Victoria’s score.

The Australian Federal Government, Northern Territory and Tasmania all placed midway with ‘Poor’ but for different reasons. Ranked fifth on the leaderboard, the Australian Federal Government has made strong commitments to halt and reverse forest loss with the announcement of key reforms but these are yet to be put into action.

At sixth on the leaderboard, the Northern Territory’s landclearing rates are currently low but there are signs that landclearing could increase. Known for its pristine forests and wilderness, Tasmania is currently ranked seventh on the leaderboard. By ending native forest logging, Tasmania could rapidly climb up the leaderboard but at this time there is no commitment from the government to do so.

New South Wales and Queensland are the lowest-ranking jurisdictions, both scoring ‘Very Poor’. For Queensland (ranked eighth), this is due to the significant scale of deforestation and weak regulation across the state. And coming in at ninth, New South Wales is ranked last on the leaderboard thanks to its continued native forest logging and weak regulation on landclearing.

With not one government performing above ‘Average’, there is a wealth of opportunity for Australia to stand taller. And the Trees Scorecard report shows how each government can do this.

Across the nation, this would help to recover our biodiversity, achieve net-zero carbon emissions, and become more resilient in a changing world of carbon and sustainability markets.

Towards two billion trees

For Australia to meet its goal of halting and reversing deforestation by 2030, we need to take bold action now to save our trees. Australia could become a beacon of hope for the world and lead the way in sustainable tree management and conservation.

The role of governments and respected conservation organisations like WWF-Australia in leading this change can never be understated. And, as Australia’s conservation champion, WWF-Australia has captured the imagination of a nation with our mission to save and grow two billion trees by 2030.

This is part of our ambitious plan to Regenerate Nature. And WWF-Australia’s Towards Two Billion Trees report outlines a 10-point plan to get there. This includes ending deforestation and native timber harvesting while transitioning the forest industry to plantations or Forest Stewardship Council-certified forestry.

It also includes support for the expansion of carbon farming markets and regenerative agriculture, which could provide opportunities for Australian farmers and help our agricultural industry to become more resilient and sustainable into the future.

As we enter a new climate era, the 50-year-old “forest wars” are drawing to a close. And the reality is that our native trees are worth much more standing than they are felled.

The power of partnerships

Dermot O'Gorman (WWF-Australia, CEO) and Brad Pulford (HP Inc. Managing Director)
Dermot O'Gorman (WWF-Australia, CEO) and Brad Pulford (HP Inc. Managing Director) © WWF-Australia / ThinkMammoth

We know that one organisation alone can’t affect the change needed. The changes we want to see in the world can only come about through the efforts of many actors. Unique and diverse partnerships are critical for achieving conservation outcomes that otherwise might not be possible.

The corporate sector drives much of the global economy, so we consider that companies also have a specific responsibility to ensure that the natural resources and ecosystems that underpin their business are used sustainably. Companies are also primed to lead on rapid adaptation and on the innovative solutions needed to drive change.

After collaborating with WWF for more than a decade, HP has committed to a $90 million partnership expansion to restore, protect and improve the management of over 400,000 hectare (nearly 1 million acres) of critical forest landscapes. The partnership aims to address the impacts on forests from the total amount of paper used in HP printers, including impacts from non-HP brand paper. This groundbreaking partnership raises the bar for corporate leadership by taking responsibility for even the indirect environmental impacts of their business and becoming the first company to pilot science-based targets for forests with WWF. 

This groundbreaking partnership has identified the first three critical forest landscapes, which include the Atlantic Forest of Brazil, the Madre de Dios in Peru and the eastern Australia forests.

This positive partnership will help restore more than 1,500 hectares of degraded koala habitat in eastern Australia while also improving climate resilience and improving forest management practices over nearly 20,000 hectares.

This is just one example of how WWF-Australia is working closely with our partners and philanthropists to find meaningful solutions to safeguard our trees.

Be a force for nature

There is much more that needs to be done to protect and restore our trees now and for the future. Together, we can be a voice to save our trees.

Sign our petition to show your support for stronger nature laws to protect trees.

Our well-being, our communities, our wildlife, our planet depends on it.