'Carbon bomb': Shock report could 'blow up' Australia's net zero plan

·Environment Editor
·4-min read

Queensland’s “alarming” rate of land clearing could be the "carbon bomb" that derails Australia’s net zero commitments, conservations warn.

Satellite imagery analysis has revealed 680,688 hectares, or 0.7 per cent, of the state’s woody vegetation was affected by land clearing in 2018 - 2019.

That’s almost double the rate acknowledged in the previous reporting period, which estimated just 392,000 hectares had been bulldozed.

Mulga forest is being cleared at a rate faster than previously realised. Source: Google Maps via Dr Martin Taylor
Mulga forest is being cleared at a rate faster than previously realised. Source: Google Maps via Dr Martin Taylor

The difference is thought to be largely due to enhanced monitoring systems used for the first time by the environment department to produce its latest Statewide Landcover and Trees Study (SLATS).

How Queensland's land clearing is driving the climate crisis

Dr Stuart Blanch, a scientist working with the conservation group WWF-Australia, said it’s not just the state government that has “significantly under-reported” damage being done to native habitat areas.

He points to the Federal Government’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory report which estimated the entire amount of woodland bulldozed to create grassland nationally was just half the amount that occurred in Queensland alone.

“The implication for the climate is that land carbon emissions from Queensland, and nationally, are substantially under-reported,” he said.

“More forest and woodland is destroyed in Queensland than in any other state in Australia.”

When woodlands are destroyed, trees are either burnt, or left to rot and this releases the greenhouse gas carbon into the atmosphere.

“This report is a carbon bomb that threatens to blow up the commitments to net zero emissions by 2050 made by the Queensland and Australian governments,” Dr Blanch said.

Australia only developed nation on 'infamous' land clearing list

Australia is the only developed nation to be declared a deforestation hotspot this year by WWF-International.

Land clearing across both Queensland and NSW led to Eastern Australia being singled out on the list of 24 other “infamous places”.

Analysis of the SLATS by WWF-Australia found livestock production accounted for 633,333 hectares or 93 per cent of land cleared.

With pressure on fast food retailers to ensure their meat supply chains are deforestation-free, Mr Blanch has urged the Queensland government to switch from “being the worst state on land clearing” to a leader in reforestation and carbon farming.

Great Barrier Reef catchment cleared for livestock production

Just months after the Federal Government fought moves within UNSESCO to have the Great Barrier Reef listed as in danger, data in the SLATS revealed almost a third of cleared lands was in its catchment zone.

Eighty-five percent of it was exempt from the state’s land clearing laws.

The report broke down the bioregions where the clearing had occurred, finding that 290,952 hectares (43 per cent) occurred across the Brigalow Belt, a 14.3 million hectare region stretching from Queensland’s coast to its semi-arid interior.

This was closely followed by Mulga Lands, of which 284,648ha (42 per cent).

Dr Taylor uses satellite imagery to track deforestation across Queensland. Source: Google Maps via Dr Martin Taylor
This map shows a eucalypt forest west of Bundaberg before deforestation. Source: Google Maps via Dr Martin Taylor
This map shows a eucalypt forest west of Bundaberg after deforestation. Source: Google Maps via Dr Martin Taylor
This map shows a eucalypt forest west of Bundaberg after deforestation. Source: Google Maps via Dr Martin Taylor

Conservation scientist Dr Martin Taylor told Yahoo News mulga scrub is often bulldozed to feed cattle, a process called strip clearing.

This usually occurs in areas where the environmental code prevents an area from being totally cleared, while lands with unregulated clearing laws can be bulldozed free of all vegetation.

Wildlife 'squashed' as bulldozers flatten forest

With the SLATS regularly delivered years after land clearing has taken place, Dr Martin uses geospatial analysis to get a clear up-to-date understanding of recent occurrences.

Using content from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 2 satellite, which produces an image every five days of Australia, he hunts around to pinpoint where areas have been bulldozed.

Dr Martin told Yahoo News the clearing can have a devastating effect on wildlife, impacting reptiles like the woma python and yakka skink.

“There's often no requirement in the code to look out for wildlife while they’re running a bulldozer over the forest,” he said.

“Any wildlife in the trees on the ground that’s in the way can just be squashed.”

Dr Martin said even though Newman Government era land clearing loopholes were removed by the state Labor government in 2018, the move has not stopped the bulldozers.

“It hasn't slowed down the clearing at all, in fact it has increased, which is alarming to us,” he said.

“They obviously need to do a lot more work.”

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