top of page

Deforestation is a Ticking Time Bomb for Australia’s International Reputation

Fiona Hurrey

Image credit: Harley Kingston via Flickr.

Australia is the only ‘developed’ country to be identified as a major global deforestation front. The impact visible on our already-declining biodiversity and ecosystems alone is reason enough to act. The threat deforestation poses to climate, resilience, and thus to human security is another. Now, as environmental priorities rise on the international agenda, this bygone practice threatens our international reputation and trade interests.


We have a deforestation problem. In 2021, Eastern Australia was identified as one of the world’s 24 hottest “deforestation fronts” by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), appearing alongside countries more typically associated with the issue such as Brazil. Between 2001 and 2021, Australia lost an estimated 8.73 million hectares of tree cover, principally driven by land clearing for cattle grazing. We can and must do better.


As the world’s third largest coal exporter and the world leader in mammal extinctions, Australia already stands out like a sore thumb when it comes to environmental decline. The international community’s growing willingness to address biodiversity loss and deforestation is demonstrated by adoption of the 2022 Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), European regulatory developments, and the faltering of major trade agreements. By continuing along our current path, Australia risks retribution from key international partners.


Bad news for climate, biodiversity, and Australians


Deforestation is a key driver of climate change and biodiversity loss – both urgent issues which the Australian Government has committed to address. In addition to the concerning paradox between policy and action, it increases the vulnerability of our landscapes and ecosystems.


Native forest clearing erodes natural carbon sinks and gives way to agricultural activities associated with high greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). This is inconsistent with Australia’s targets to reduce GHGs to 43 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 as enshrined in national legislation. Climate change is an everyday reality for Australians, already increasing the frequency and intensity of natural disasters. Native forest logging increases the severity of bushfires, meaning that it both accelerates climate change and directly erodes resilience.


Deforestation also shrinks and fragments the habitats of unique species. The 2021 State of the Environment Report revealed that 19 ecosystems show signs of collapse or near collapse. Changes to rules which were championed to improve protection of the endangered southern great glider in NSW have been criticised for instead facilitating logging. The Kunming-Montreal GBF, adopted in 2022 and supported by Australia, notably aims to conserve at least 30 percent of all land, inland waters, coastal areas and oceans, and to restore 30 percent of already degraded terrestrial and marine environments. Yet, deforestation continues, indicating that we are failing to protect the Australian environment and failing to fulfil international commitments.


To date, deforestation ‘down under’ has largely flown under the radar of international society. With increasing scrutiny catalysed by the high profiles of climate change and biodiversity loss, it is only a matter of time before inaction on the issue is questioned.


A serious diplomatic hazard


Australia already faces criticism for reliance on fossil fuels and degradation of the Great Barrier Reef, which experienced its fifth mass bleaching in eight years in March 2024. Our deforestation trend risks adding fuel to the fire, weakening our position on the international stage and leading to economic penalties from partners proactively seeking to reverse deforestation.


In April 2023, the European Parliament adopted a regulation on deforestation-free supply chains, ultimately blocking the sale of products sourced from deforested or degraded land. Deforestation caused significant roadblocks in negotiations for a trade agreement between the EU and Mercosur countries. France is one of the loudest voices on this issue, citing a need for consistency with the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels and preferably to 1.5°C. Furthermore, the Australian Government has committed to working with France on climate change as a pillar of their bilateral roadmap and relies on French support to conclude an EU trade agreement. This trade agreement stalled in 2023 largely due to disputes over agriculture. Given the EU’s proven interest in the matter, it is highly plausible that Australia's continuing deforestation will further complicate future negotiations.


The EU’s strong desire to secure critical minerals supply chains with strategic partners and the current lack of European media attention on the issue of Australian deforestation may buy Australia some time. However, the Australian Government should pay heed to the treatment received by other deforesting states and recognise the current Australian trend as a serious diplomatic hazard.


The sooner, the better


While we have a long way to go, political appetite for transition is stirring. The Victorian native logging industry shut down in January 2024, six years before initially planned, though the state continues to import native timber from interstate. State-owned native logging in South East Queensland —situated within the ‘deforestation hotspot’— is set to end by 2025. This is a challenging but necessary exercise. To ensure a just transition, government must provide appropriate support for the impacted workforce. The question remains: will Australia turn its trend around quickly enough to avoid the glare of key international partners?


Thus far, deforestation has narrowly avoided further tainting Australia’s coal-stained international reputation. This could change at any time, with devastating consequences for Australia’s legitimacy on environmental issues and fragile trade negotiations. Halting and reversing deforestation is a crucial step in curtailing biodiversity decline and is non-negotiable if we are serious about addressing climate change. It is also an intelligent diplomatic move and risk reduction strategy.


For all these reasons, reversing native forest logging and restoring degraded land is in Australia’s national interest. Until this is recognised and addressed at state, territory, and federal levels, deforestation is a ticking time bomb for our international relations.

Fiona Hurrey is an Editor for Young Australians in Internationals Affairs, consultant at the United Nations, and master’s student in environmental policy and international affairs at Sciences Po Paris. She holds a bachelor’s degree in international relations from the University of Queensland. All views expressed in this article are her own.


bottom of page