NSW forests still face chainsaw despite emission reduction targets

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NSW forests still face chainsaw despite emission reduction targets

By Laura Chung

Almost 52,000 hectares of NSW land were cleared in 2020, prompting critics to say the state might miss emission reduction targets and continue to drive threatened species towards extinction.

The latest state government data shows 51,400 hectares of woody vegetation were cleared in 2020, roughly 183 times the size of Sydney’s CBD. While the figure is slightly less than the previous year’s total of 54,500 hectares, it remains well above the 2009 to 2017 average of 38,800 hectares.

Land clearing in western NSW.

Land clearing in western NSW.Credit:Nick Moir

There was a 28 per cent increase in land clearing of woody vegetation for forestry since the previous year, most occurring in the south-east of the state. There was a 44 per cent decrease in the rate of loss of woody vegetation attributed to agriculture from 2019, while the loss attributed to infrastructure increased.

WWF Australia conservation scientist Stuart Blanch said that, while the figures were heading in the right direction, bushfires and floods might have slowed the rate of clearing. He said the number of hectares cleared could increase in the coming years.

“Those 51,400 hectares are home for animals; trees store a lot of carbon and trees make rain,” he said. He said that, in recent NSW budget announcements, there had been little money assigned to driving down the rate of land clearing and no strengthening of laws – which were rolled back in 2017.

Blanch suggested that increasing financial incentives and support for farmers to invest in alternative land management practices needed to be explored as national and international financial and trade markets had indicated their desire to move away from deforestation practices.

The latest NSW State of Environment report launched this year notes there needs to be significant action across the agriculture, energy and land clearing sectors if NSW was to achieve its emission reduction targets of 50 per cent by 2030 and net zero by 2050.

“Deforestation and land use change is a major source of carbon emissions and reduces future carbon sequestration potential,” independent NSW MP Justin Field said. He said that, while the land sector remained a key part of the government’s emission reduction policy, there had been little information about how this would be done.


“There is little point throwing hundreds of millions at the land sector for natural capital and carbon sequestration when nothing is being done about the thousands of hectares of potentially illegal land clearing,” he said.

Nature Conservation Council chief executive Chris Gambian added that native forests in the state could absorb about 44 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare annually. He said the 2020 figures for clearing could have killed up to 4.6 million animals.

“After the government weakened land clearing laws in 2017, deforestation rates doubled and have remained at these dangerously high levels ever since,” he said. “These figures, and the rising number of threatened species, shows the laws completely fail to deliver on that promise.

“More than 1040 plants and animals are now threatened with extinction in NSW, about 40 more than when the scheme was introduced.”

A Department of Planning and Environment spokesperson its land management framework would be subject to a statutory five-year review which was due to commence shortly and would report by August 2023.

The spokesperson said the government’s plan to reduce emissions included a range of initiatives including a $206 million Sustainable Farming Program, which was recently announced in the state budget to support farmers to reduce their carbon emissions and protect biodiversity.

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