Housing crisis: Multi-billion dollar threat to Australian building supplies

Australia needs to get smart about the way it harvests timber, a new report warns.

As rents increase and housing prices soar, most Aussies believe there’s an urgent need to erect more homes, but experts are warning about a threat to a key building material.

Severe bushfires are on the rise, and they’ve been destroying timber reserves critical to the nation’s housing needs, an alarming new international report has revealed.

Using today’s prices, researchers estimate between US $45-77 billion ($70-120 billion) worth of industrial timber was lost globally between 2001 to 2021. Australia was singled out alongside the United States, Canada, Siberian Russia and Brazil as the worst affected countries during this period.

Bushfires pose a threat to Australia's timber supply, which is essential to the building of new homes. Source: Getty
Bushfires pose a threat to Australia's timber supply, which is essential to the building of new homes. Source: Getty

While this news may appear bleak, report co-author Professor David Lindenmayer from Australian National University believes there are several solutions. “It’s true bushfires are going to be a threat. Now one of the key issues here is we need to be smart about where we grow our timber,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

Lindenmayer believes the frequency of severe blazes is now so high, that waiting 80 to 100 years for timber to grow in native forests no longer makes sense. “We have to get our timber from places where we can grow it quickly, and that’s plantations,” he said.

  • Key fact: From 2001 to 2021, 18.5-24.7 million hectares of timber-producing forest was destroyed around the globe.

How Aussie plantations could be redesigned to reduce fire risk

All forests are highly flammable, particularly for the first 70 years. However, plantations have an advantage because their structure and harvesting methods can be designed in a way that reduces risk to the timber.

Professor Lindenmayer thinks plantation managers have been “asleep at the wheel” for some time and they need to modernise to reduce the threat of fire. Five key aspects to consider are:

  • Not harvesting during high fire danger to reduce the risk of sparks from machinery

  • Design plantations with semi-cleared areas, or grazing paddocks between them to stop the spread of fire

  • Place them far away from human settlements because of the risk to property and life

  • Embrace new technologies to detect ignitions, for example from lightning strikes

  • Use drone fleets to extinguish fires quickly.

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Australia continues to harvest native forests

Australia is the only developed nation to be listed by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) as a deforestation hotspot.

While governments in Victoria and Western Australia have recently joined South Australia in signalling an end to native forest logging, in NSW, Tasmanian and Queensland, taxpayers continue to subsidise the industry.

In 2021, NSW Forestry Corp reported a $20 million loss. And despite receiving millions of dollars in state funds, the native forest timber industry employs few people.

Native forests have a higher value in sequestering carbon, holding water and attracting tourism than they do as a logging resource, Lindermayer believes. He suggests the money invested in harvesting native forests should instead be directed to improving the country's plantations and future-proofing them against bushfires.

If you would like to read the full study, you can find it in the journal Nature Geosciences.

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