The need to see both the wood and the trees

Pine trees in South Otago. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Pine trees in South Otago. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Ongoing tinkering with the emissions trading scheme is concerning foresters, Jim Childerstone writes.

It was a credible attempt by the Otago Daily Times to tackle the complexities of the emissions trading scheme (ETS) in an editorial (21.6.23).

Is the ETS really just holding emissions from escalating? Not really cutting back on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions? Time is running out fast towards the ultimate possibility of animal, even human extinction.

However the government’s attempt to alter the ETS settings last month to cut emissions is causing "extreme concerns" among foresters. So far forestry was the only climate change initiative that was working to keep emissions low, the NZ Forest Owners Association (FOA) says. That is while technology is developing to replace fossil fuels and other greenhouse gas emissions. Hence the haste to increase the fastest growth and quickest carbon offsetting exotic conifers.

Pinus radiata, already established in New Zealand as production forests, is the principle species and the most cost effective to increase plantings. Plus it is the basis of our forest industry and vital to our national economy.

Carbon credits have added significant value for the grower. With the introduction of the ETS a couple of decades ago units were pegged at $25 per ton of sequestered carbon. However these units have escalated to over $85 when auctioned in the open market, and are predicted to hit triple-digit numbers.

Thus medium and low productive farmland became a prime target by investors for permanent carbon farming. The only cost was getting trees into the ground and left to do their own thing.

That is grow, surpassing livestock beef and lamb annual income per/ha (around $1500, 2020 figures). So the spectre of land covered in a monoculture of pine trees resulted in adverse reactions from many quarters, led by Beef + Lamb farmers, backed by conservationists.

Net result, government had to do something about it, hence the recent ETS Consultation Document. It lists four scenarios, none of which has found favour with forest stakeholders, where potential land use restrictions may be implemented.

Seed selection has reduced radiata maturity to 25 years in some areas ready for harvesting. But with carbon farming, trees remain permanently to grow with no further management regime. Any forest expansion is now reported by the FOA as virtually being stopped in its tracks by the government’s consultation document.

The potential restrictions under the four recommendations will put investors off future plantings, it believes. Thus uncertainty reigns.

FOA president Grant Dodson believes if any new regulations are implemented, this would "effectively wipe out any prospect of forestry contributing further to the NZ climate change targets."

The carbon uptake requested internationally by the IPCC Paris Agreement, and locally through the Climate Change Commission, is to reduce overall CO2 emissions. The CCC target is to reduce 2030 net emissions to 50% below gross 2005 emission levels.

However authorities need to distinguish production forests from permanent carbon farming forests before imposing regulations. The right tree in the right place mantra.

There is a strong lobby for replanting cut-over exotic forests with native vegetation — the transition option, natives replacing exotics. Planting native trees takes longer time to maturity, has slower up take of carbon and five times the cost to establish.

Up to recent times prime polluters, such as mining, manufacturing and fossil fuel extraction industries, have paid off their emissions through the purchase of carbon credits. Theoretically it replaces green house gas emissions through forestry CO2 sequestration. The FOA emphasises the double whammy with the government’s consultation document causing potential decreasing forestry expansion. Mr Dodson believes New Zealand will get even further behind its climate change targets.

The net result; "the government spending even more than it needs to purchasing overseas carbon credits than if it allowed forestry to expand in a sensible and measured way.

"Billions of taxpayer dollars wasted overseas buying carbon credits when the money could be used to build domestic forest investment and a more productive industry in New Zealand."

This would include "more productive farms with diversified farming, forest and carbon revenues.

"The overseas credits the government will buy will be 100% offsetting, totally against the CCC advise to incentivise emission reduction," Mr Dodson explained.

What should be emphasised is that these permanent forests, mostly quick growing conifers, have a detrimental effect on our wood production industries. It affects supply of building materials, employment, mills and processing plants, and log exports — not counting fire danger due to climate change.

Apart from the fact trees sequester CO2, so do timber products which retain carbon. And wood-based biomass is the most efficient and simplest method to replace fossil fuel heating systems, and the lowest carbon footprint to produce.

— Jim Childerstone is a forestry consultant.