The North East Catchment Management Authority is undertaking a number of case studies, demonstrating how leading farmers from North East Victoria are managing the risks associated with climate change. The Embedding Climate Adaptation in Agriculture project is working with the region’s farmers to determine how the use of climate projections supports their farm management. This project is supported by North East Catchment Management Authority, through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program.
HVP Plantations released its Climate Commitment Statement in November 2021 (link). The company says the good story it tells is about HVP Plantation’s climate mitigation credentials and how it expects its Victorian operations to have met, and continue to maintain net zero (that is, the annual increase in carbon captured by its plantation estate more than offsets emissions associated with growing and selling logs).
The Climate Commitment Statement will be followed by a detailed Climate Disclosure Report later in 2022. HVP Plantations General Manager Forest Resources, Dr Tony O’Hara (pictured), is drafting the report. There is a strong commitment from HVP Plantations’ staff to net zero, that is reinforced by the strong stance on climate change issues held by its main shareholders (US majority shareholder Manulife Investment Management and Australia’s UniSuper), as well as the influence of other shareholders and related companies in Queensland and New Zealand.
“We have worked through the full profile of issues, not just where we stand in terms of net zero, but also climate adaptation, risk assessment and risk management,” Dr O’Hara said.
“The climate disclosure report will be for the financial year ending June 2022 and is targeted for release in the last quarter of 2022.”
HVP Plantations estate is situated across Victoria, extending from Gippsland in the east to the border with South Australia in the west and with large plantations in north east Victoria. The total area of land managed by HVP equates to more than 240,000 ha. About 170,000 ha of this land is pine and eucalypt plantation.
Dr O’Hara said few companies were in the position of HVP, where emissions reduction programs could be supported within the company by capture of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, clearly proving and demonstrating how it met net zero emissions.
“We are able to play a significant role in climate change mitigation. We have supportive contractors who are keen to work with us to find reductions in emissions arising from our operations.
“As a primary producer, we are clearly exposed to climate change,” he said. “Our reason for being is growing trees in a natural environment and the very real changes in climate are a high risk issue for us. We need an active program around adaptation.”
Climate change mitigation also includes recognition of two major opportunities for HVP - the net carbon benefit of wood compared with other materials such as steel and concrete, and potential changes to management of the estate that would incorporate the generation of renewable energy such as wind power.
“The value of what we produce will increase across the range,” Dr O’Hara said. “A game changer will be being able to sell everything we grow. There will be new products that use every part of the tree that we wish to sell, such as converting waste wood to products such as bioplastics,” Dr O’Hara said.
“We are also a large land manager and we are exploring opportunities for having wind farms on the windier parts of the estate. They can be set up to work well within plantations.
“Perhaps our slogan could be … ‘we’re growing the wood for future homes and once they’re built we’ll turn the lights on’.”
Dr O’Hara said pulling the right data together had been imperative to HVP developing its climate disclosure report and being able to prove its net zero status.
“We’ve always had good data on how fast our trees grow, but we didn’t have good data on carbon and emissions,” he said.
“The key issue about net zero is the change in sequestration, the total amount of carbon sequestered in the estate from one year to the next. That’s what you’re measuring.
“For every cubic metre of logs we sell, something between 25 and 30 per cent of the carbon in that log stays out of the atmosphere in wood products. That took a lot of work to understand and the calculations are being refined both nationally and internationally.”
Dr O’Hara said HVP’s operations in north east Victoria were unique because every single tree on the estate could be sold locally to processing mills in north east Victoria and southern NSW.
“We are a major contributor to timber processors in Benalla, Wangaratta, Tumbarumba and Tumut, producing pulp and paper, plywood, MDF, panelling and truss timbers from lower grade as well as higher grade logs,” he said. “Products from these mills are used in timber frames for houses, wooden flooring, furniture panels, paper and packaging.
“No other part of the estate is like that, in a region where forestry and processing are such significant employers. It is a unique market and a very strong forestry market. Notwithstanding the losses from fires in 2019-20, it is still a very strong forestry market.”
The 2019-20 bushfires impacted 6000 ha of HVP’s 45,000 ha in north east Victoria. In comparison, Forestry Corporation, which manages more than two million ha of State forests in NSW had 40,000 ha out of about 80,000 ha lost or burnt by the fires.
“The fact so much of the plantation estate is close to large areas of native forest, interspersed with agriculture in various forms, makes it challenging to manage the fire risk,” Dr O’Hara said.
“We are taking a much more landscape approach to fire prevention and suppression and all owners of land need to work together to manage that issue. There has been a ramp-up in exploring with other landholders on how we can work together. With climate change that challenge is going to become bigger and not smaller.”
As part of adapting to climate change, HVP regularly re-examines its plantation management, particularly the establishment of new plantations with reference to the direction of possible fires and the inclusion of more or potentially wider fire breaks.
“When we replant areas, after either routine harvesting or bushfires, we explore issues around plantation design. For example, should we orientate the rows differently and do we have a few more breaks in the middle of the plantation to make access easier?
“We may make the firebreaks around the plantation edge a bit wider, providing a bigger gap between a neighboring property and where our plantation starts. That’s because the vast majority of fires will start outside a plantation rather than in it.”
Dr O’Hara said this includes fires started by lightning, where it is “quite unusual” for lightning to start fire in a stand of plantation pine trees. Instead, he said it is more common in native stands which have a bigger pool of flammable material on the ground.
He said HVP Plantations’ research and development was more focused on improving growth rates and tree resilience through genetics and silviculture instead of directly on the impact of climate change.
“Pinus radiata is an amazing species that will cope with a wide range of conditions and do well.
“One focus of research is mycorrhizal fungi treatments used to treat seedlings in the nursery, as a way to improve resilience. If we improve the resilience of the seedlings we plant and we can get them off to a good start, healthy and growing well by age 4, then those seedlings are more capable of coping with a wide variety of adverse conditions than seedlings that struggle early on.”
Dr O’Hara said another major area of emissions work for HVP is getting better information on actual fuel usage for operations undertaken by contractors, enabling a better baseline from which to chart emission reductions.
“In the past we have used averages for fuel usage, which is by far and away the biggest emission component,” he said.
“With regard to HVP’s direct emissions, we need to carefully balance how we reduce emissions with other considerations. For example, reducing our fertiliser use would negatively impact on production and growth, so it’s about balancing emissions reductions with other opportunities or looking at alternatives.”
“One benefit of value being assigned to generating carbon credits and thus have an early cashflow in the life of a plantation is that it makes it more attractive to establish greenfield plantations (new rather than replanted),” he said.
Dr O’Hara said the broader environmental credentials of wood, as well as reducing emissions, also supports the expansion of greenfield plantations, by making them more attractive to investors.
“This is not about converting entire landscapes to plantations – the economics simply do not support that - but there are significant economic and environmental benefits to increasing our wood supply that will underpin plantation expansion,” he said.
“That will make it more attractive for farmers to put small stands on farms. They will see the financial and environmental value of it, with revenues providing welcome income diversification.”