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Decline of birds in Victorian forests -

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Robyn Williams: But the point about climate change is that the evidence mounts from any number of
sources, such as the population of birds in Australian forests. Alexandra de Blas reports.

Alexandra de Blas: South Australia's record November heatwave felt uneasily like the scientists'
warnings that climate change is now tracking against their worst-case scenarios. The extended
drought in south-eastern Australia is taking its toll on both people and wildlife. As the climate
warms and dries, a series of studies in northern Victoria's box ironbark woodlands has found that
birds are disappearing at alarming rates. And it's not just in the bush remnants, the birds in the
national parks are declining too.

Monash and Deakin Universities ran three major studies over 13 years, as Professor Andrew Bennett,
head of the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at Deakin, explains.

Andrew Bennett: We were astonished when we put the results of these studies together, we found that
they were all showing major decline in a whole range of woodland birds across the last ten years,
about 108 species we were dealing with, but two-thirds of species of all kinds had declined
significantly.

Alexandra de Blas: And how much did they decline?

Andrew Bennett: It varied. It was both some of the common species and the uncommon ones. So,
examples like the grey shrike-thrush, a 20% decline. Even the laughing kookaburra that everybody
knows, 30% decline. And then some of the other less common ones that people mightn't know, but the
black-chinned honeyeater which is typical of these woodlands, 66% decline. Crested bell-bird, 65%
decline. So quite large declines of these bird species.

Alexandra de Blas: Do you know how many birds overall have disappeared?

Andrew Bennett: When I compare the first two years of surveys to the last two years, there was over
40% decline in the numbers of individual birds that are recorded there, and when you multiply that
out to a forest of 40,000 hectares, that means more than 150,000 fewer birds in the forest now then
there was when I started these surveys. And that's huge.

Alexandra de Blas: So what was causing it?

Andrew Bennett: We interpret it as complex changes resulting from long-term decline in rainfall. So
there's been over ten years of below average rainfall, and that has a range of effects. So the
first is there's less food. So there's less productivity, less insects, less flowering of
eucalypts, and that then flows through to reduced reproduction, so their nesting is not as
successful. And then there are other more complex effects because the forest dries out and the
shrub layer becomes more sparse and so there's less cover and less suitable areas for nest sites
and for refuge. So it's a whole complex array of factors that are acting to reduce the populations.

Alexandra de Blas: And what was going on with the flowering?

Andrew Bennett: The species of particular interest is the ironbarks. Red ironbark is the one that
is a winter flowering species. They have large flowers, lots of nectar, and this is what the
honeyeaters and the lorikeets and the wattle birds come to, and when you have a heavy flowering
event in winter you can hear where the flowering is occurring, there's just so many bird species
and it's a cacophony of sound. And that's changed. Normally they're reasonably reliable flowerers
but in the last eight years since 2002, in four out of eight years there's been essentially no
flowering of red ironbarks. So that means that the nectar feeders aren't there, the nectar feeders
that come from southern Victoria each winter don't come. So there are these wider ecosystem effects
off the change in that resource.

Alexandra de Blas: Do you think those bird numbers would just bounce back if the rainfall
increased?

Andrew Bennett: Some species probably would if the rain increased, but the issue here is these
changes are occurring on top of 150 years of land use change, and we're talking about the sheep
wheat belt of south-eastern Australia where in many districts we've lost 70%, 80%, 90% of the
native vegetation. So it's this compounding of the effects of habitat loss and fragmentation,
isolation with the climate change. And our concern is that we might be having a whole series of
local populations disappearing one by one from these districts.

Alexandra de Blas: What needs to happen to help remedy the situation?

Andrew Bennett: The first one is simply recognising we have a problem and recognising the scale at
which we're taking action now does not match the scape of the problem, particularly loss of native
vegetation. That's been the huge driver of these concerns. So the challenge now is how can we put
it back, how can we restore some of these areas to large-scale restoration so we have landscapes
that have 20% and 30% native vegetation present within them? And that's a huge challenge.

Alexandra de Blas: Is there sufficient policy focus and funding to make this happen?

Andrew Bennett: Nowhere near enough, it just doesn't match the scale of the problem. We look at the
Caring for Country initiative and I think the figures are something like $2.4 billion over five
years, and yet we have an economic stimulus package of $10 billion just before Christmas last year.
We really need to rethink the priorities for how we spend money and where we spend money and
recognise that biodiversity conservation is something that affects us all and affects the future of
Australia and affects the quality of life and our national heritage and who and what we are as
Australians.

Alexandra de Blas: Professor Andrew Bennett from Deakin University.

And now to the world stage where about 20% of global carbon emissions are released when forests are
either cut down or degraded. Addressing this problem is seen as one of the more effective ways to
reduce emissions in the short term. A key policy to promote this will be negotiated at the climate
talks in Copenhagen. It's known as REDD, Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest
Degradation in developing contraries. Dr Rachel Warren is a research fellow and computer modeller
at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK. She ran the numbers on several REDD
scenarios to see whether a political agreement on reducing deforestation could make a big
difference.

Rachel Warren: For the fossil fuel emissions we assumed that there was a very good agreement in
which emissions were reduced by 80% relative to 2000 in 2050, which is a very, very large amount.
So some countries at the moment are talking about making 80% emissions reductions, so we assumed
that all countries would do that, so we made the most optimistic assumption possible about the
output of Copenhagen, and then looked at what would happen if there was no agreement on reducing
tropical deforestation and if all of the tropical forest was lost during the 21st century.

Then we also looked at a scenario where there was an addition to that very stringent agreement on
fossil fuel emissions, a completely successful agreement to cease tropical deforestation
immediately, and we compared those two scenarios, and we also looked at a third intermediate
scenario in which tropical deforestation continued at current rates but didn't increase. And in
that scenario there is still some of the forest left at the end of the century.

Alexandra de Blas: So what did you find under the three scenarios?

Rachel Warren: So we found that in the case where tropical deforestation ceases immediately, that
we had a chance of two in three that the two-degree target would be met. So in other words, it was
more likely than not that the world would not experience temperatures above two degrees ever, in
fact, so right out to 2100 and beyond. We then found that if tropical deforestation continued at
current rates that that chance would fall to one in three, so in fact it would be more likely that
we wouldn't reach the two-degree target and...

Alexandra de Blas: And that we'd overrun it?

Rachel Warren: Yes. And then we found that if deforestation increased so that all the forest was
gone by 2100 that the probability of achieving a two-degree target would fall to about 10% or 15%,
so it would become very unlikely that we could meet the two-degree target.

Alexandra de Blas: What's the power of this finding then? How significant is this research?

Rachel Warren: I think it's a very significant advance on previous research because previous
research didn't look at deforestation in the context of stringent action on fossil fuels. So no-one
until now has looked at the balance between potential action on fossil fuels and potential action
on forests. Meanwhile everybody is talking about offsetting one against the other. So I think this
is a very important study because it actually shows that whilst offsetting may be a useful
political mechanism, we actually need a huge amount of action, both on fossil fuels and on reducing
deforestation if we're to achieve the two-degree target.

Alexandra de Blas: Rachel Warren from the Tyndall Centre at the University of East Anglia.

The two major sources of carbon emissions can be thought of as black and green. Black carbon
emissions come from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas, while green emissions come from
terrestrial sources like deforestation and land degradation. Brendan Mackey, professor of
environmental science at the Australian National University, says it's important not to confuse
these two carbon reservoirs.

Brendan Mackay: Currently the main approach governments are considering is to view these two
sources of emissions as comparable in that you can offset fossil fuel emissions by planting some
more trees. In reality, protecting the carbon stocks that are in natural ecosystems and restoring
degraded carbon stocks does not actually offset fossil fuel emissions. It's an additional measure
to reducing emissions from fossil fuel.

Alexandra de Blas: If we're emitting fossil fuels and then we plant trees which helps offset some
carbon, why does it matter if the original cause was fossil fuel or it was clearing land initially?
If you're improving the situation, isn't that worth recognition?

Brendan Mackay: Well, where do you plant trees? You plant trees where they naturally would grow. If
there are no trees there now that means the land has been cleared, in which case there's a carbon
debt, if you like, that has to be repaid. So when the land was cleared, the carbon that was in
those ecosystems was emitted into the atmosphere, and from a strict scientific point of view, if
you're going to then plant new trees on previously cleared land, that's a good thing to do because
you're repaying the carbon debt from when the land was cleared, not because you're offsetting
fossil fuel emission.

Alexandra de Blas: But isn't this just being pedantic?

Brendan Mackay: It's not being pedantic and that's because once a pulse of carbon dioxide gets into
the atmosphere it continues to interact with the climate system for a very long period of time. The
challenge is to keep carbon out of the atmosphere for as long as possible. So it takes thousands of
years for carbon, once it's been released into the atmosphere, to no longer be interacting with the
climate system. So when you clear land there's a carbon debt that takes many, many hundreds of
years to repay.

Alexandra de Blas: If we want to acknowledge the significance of this green source of carbon and we
want to stop emitting more from natural landscapes, how do we have to look at things differently?
What do we need to do now to start actually acting on that?

Brendan Mackay: I would argue we need two different sets of policies and measures. A cap and trade
scheme such as a carbon pollution reduction scheme the government is proposing I would argue may
well prove to be very successful but I would limit it to cap and trade of fossil fuel. I would put
a barrier and not allow any offsetting into the terrestrial carbon sector. We need complimentary
measures for land carbon, the green carbon in terrestrial ecosystems on land, which is more along
the line of payments for ecosystem services or land stewardship payments.

Alexandra de Blas: Professor Brendan Mackey from ANU.

Fiona McKenzie is a policy advisor with the Terrestrial Carbon Group, a think-tank with 18 members
across the globe. She's cautious about drawing distinctions between different types of carbon in
the marketplace.

Fiona McKenzie: I think what's important is not so much the distinction between different sources
of carbon but in making sure that greenhouse gas reduction targets that countries set and that the
international community sets are ambitions enough to reflect any abatement potential that's
available from all those sources. So as long as the numbers add up at the end of the day there are
mechanisms and ways of accounting for the different sources. It's not so important to split hairs
over the definitions.

Alexandra de Blas: Is it honest to account for tree planting as offsets for fossil fuel emissions
when in fact tree planting is repaying a carbon debt created when the original trees were cleared
in the first place?

Fiona McKenzie: In this case it's actually not necessarily just repaying a debt, it's actually
providing an incentive to change future land use. So what a lot of people are arguing for and
looking for is some sort of incentive system that creates a new economic development option for
people in developing countries other than having to chop down trees, for example. The opportunity
of linking terrestrial carbon to other carbon markets means that there's a chance to generate in
the long term a sustainable source of funding to keep that incentive system going. So I think it
should be viewed in the context which is being realistic about the pressures that are going to be
on forests in the future and other sources of terrestrial carbon and actually creating the economic
value necessary to protect the carbon that's in the land.

Alexandra de Blas: Your terrestrial carbon group is looking at a wide range of sources of
terrestrial carbon that you'd like to see incorporated into the carbon market in the future. Give
me some examples of the sort of sources you're looking at.

Fiona McKenzie: We're looking at sources not just from forestry but also from agriculture. We're
also looking at the options of both above-ground, so that's things like wood, trees grasslands, and
below-ground, so that's organic carbon in the soil, also looking at things like peatlands, for
example, which are a really crucial sink or source as well of terrestrial carbon. So it's important
that the system that's in place actually has some sort of commitment to eventually including all
these other pools that are interacting with the atmosphere to get to the scale that we need to get
the results that we need.

Alexandra de Blas: Australia's systems for measuring and monitoring carbon in the field are
world-leading, but Margaret Blakers, director of the Canberra based Green Institute, believes
there's a lot of room for improvement in the way we structure and present our carbon accounts.

Margaret Blakers: If you go to look at the figures for what's called land use, land use change and
forestry, so that's all the things that happen on the land, you'll get a single number. In 2006 it
was 14 million tonnes. If you open that up, pull it apart, you can see that there are actually huge
changes taking place within that single number, some of which is forests taking carbon out of the
atmosphere, some of it's logging, some of it is clearing, some of it is plantations, some of it is
grasslands, and until you can pick all that apart and get some idea of what's happening in each of
those individual ecosystems, there's nothing you can do in terms of deciding what sort of policies
to implement.

Alexandra de Blas: But don't we follow the UN framework convention on climate change system?

Margaret Blakers: Yes, we do, and that's a good thing, but there's nothing to stop Australia
getting into far more detail and developing its own more useful accounts. As long as they remain
consistent with the international methodology it doesn't have to stop there, Australia can go
beyond that. We have many types of financial accounts. What an enterprise does for its activities
is different from what a federal or a central government collects by way of financial accounts.
Carbon is the same. We need to get accounting structures and presentations that are suited to the
use that they're going to be put.

Alexandra de Blas: A much more sophisticated approach.

Margaret Blakers: Much more sophisticated but much more open, that's really the bottom line here,
that at the moment we don't have any real openness about the accounts and how they're put together,
and I'd really like to see that whole accounting framework opened up to a much wider public
discussion.

Robyn Williams: Margaret Blakers at the Green Institute in Canberra, and that report by Alexandra
de Blas. A question of openness once more.

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Guests

Andrew F Bennett

Professor of Ecology and Environment Deakin University Burwood Victoria

http://www.deakin.edu.au/scitech/les/about/staff-profiles/display/index.php?username=bennetta

Rachel Warren

Researcher and computer modeller Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research University of East
Anglia Norwich UK

http://www.tyndall.ac.uk/users/rachel-warren

Fiona McKenzie

Policy advisor Terrestrial Carbon Group

http://www.terrestrialcarbon.org/Who_we_are/FionaMcKenzie.aspx

Brendan Mackey

Professor of Environmental Science Australian National University Canberra ACT

http://fennerschool.anu.edu.au/people/academics/mackeyb.php

Margaret Blakers

Director Green Institute Canberra

http://www.greeninstitute.com.au/content/index.php

Presenter

Robyn Williams

Producer

Alexandra de Blas

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