The Government’s newly-announced freshwater reforms will lead to tens of millions of tonnes of emissions reductions, Marc Daalder reports

The emissions reductions achieved as a by-product of the Government’s freshwater reforms could be equivalent to the impact of the Government’s ill-fated feebate scheme – 60 times over.

A quietly-released appendix of the Cabinet paper outlining the wide-ranging freshwater reforms notes that the change in land-use the new policies will prompt – including afforestation of farmland – will lead to massive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

“The Action for healthy waterways package has the potential to result in substantial annual net emissions reductions,” the Cabinet paper reads.

“The majority of emissions reductions are through sequestration and are a result of anticipated land-use change primarily due to the interaction of the sediment proposal and the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). It is expected that a portion of hill country pasture will be converted to forestry between 2025 and 2050, as afforestation is a cost-effective option for achieving the sediment bottom line. The maximum amount that could profitably be converted is estimated at 600,000 ha.

“However, on-farm mitigations through [freshwater farm plans] will play a role and contribute to achieving the sediment bottom line without changing land use, so it is uncertain how much contribution land-use change will make. There are already places where plantation forestry for harvest would be more profitable than the current use, but this is not the only driver of land-use decisions.”

Depending on the degree to which new sediment requirements are met with afforestation, three different emissions reductions scenarios were drawn up.

Even the most conservative scenario found a reduction of 35 million tonnes of CO2 or the equivalent amount of another greenhouse gas (Mt CO2e) by 2050.

For reference, Ministry of Transport analyses found the Government’s ill-fated feebate scheme, which would subsidise electric vehicles and place a fee on high-emitting vehicles, would reduce emissions by 1.6 million tonnes over 20 years, while banning the import of all fossil fuel vehicles by 2035 would reduce emissions by 27 million tonnes by 2050. New Zealand’s annual gross emissions are around 80 Mt CO2e.

The most optimistic emissions reduction scenario for the freshwater reform package projected a sink of 97.2 Mt CO2e – 60 feebate schemes or more than all of the greenhouse gases emitted by New Zealand in a single year.

Excluding the sediment policy, the freshwater package is still estimated to present impressive reductions, on the order of four million tonnes of CO2e by 2050.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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