The way the Government is investing in tackling climate change is scientifically ill-informed, and economically ill-considered. It needs a fundamental rethink, writes Dame Anne Salmond
My heart sank when I read about the commitments that New Zealand is taking to COP-26 in Glasgow. It seems we’re proposing to meet most of our international targets for sequestering carbon by spending $5 billion on restoring forests in other countries.
In Aotearoa, where 85 percent of the land was once covered in indigenous forests, home to a host of unique species of plants, birds, insects and reptiles, only 24 percent of this kind of land cover remains. Much of it is severely degraded by pests and weeds.
At the same time, we are experiencing a biodiversity crisis, with 4000 indigenous species at risk of extinction. Many of our native forests are being eaten to death, and dying.
Instead of seizing the opportunity to tackle climate change with nature-based solutions, it seems that the Government is proposing to do this overseas, while pursuing ecologically illiterate strategies at home.
As a distinguished international group of forest ecologists and carbon experts said recently: “[Natural] forests are among the most biodiverse places on the planet and form an enormous carbon store, regulating the world’s weather and climate… More carbon is stored in soil (44%) than living biomass (42%), with the rest found in dead wood (8%) and forest litter (5%).”
In New Zealand, regenerating and restoring native forests represents a huge opportunity for sequestering carbon, while creating jobs, restoring biodiversity, and protecting soils and waterways at home.
As the same global group of forest ecologists and carbon experts observed, “Agricultural tree plantations with very few species are much less carbon-dense and support much less life.”
Yet in Aotearoa, our main mechanism for tackling climate change, the Emissions Trading Scheme, overwhelmingly incentivises the mass planting of monocultural exotic tree plantations.
As we have seen in Tolaga Bay and elsewhere, industrial plantations with clear-felling on steep, erodible landscapes destroy topsoils, choke waterways with sediment and slash, and wreck estuaries and harbours. Rural landscapes are ravaged, and roads, bridges, fences and houses are destroyed.
In Tairāwhiti, with some of the most erodible landscapes in the world, the ETS look-up tables allocate 10 times more NZ carbon units per hectare by Year 5 for pine plantations than for native forests. This is a folly. And yet officials in Wellington are still talking about expanding industrial plantations on steep, erodible land.
At the same time, landowners including farmers and iwi groups who’d much rather be restoring or regenerating native forests are being penalised by an ETS that makes this economically irrational.
The science behind the look-up tables in the ETS for native forests is unreliable and highly contested, with very small allocations for below ground carbon compared with international estimates, for instance.
The ETS has been set up in ways that privilege short-lived, highly flammable, exotic monoculture tree plantations in New Zealand, an industry that is largely owned overseas.
If you add up the flow of taxpayer dollars under the ETS to international investors, the proposed investment under COP-26 in international credits, and the direct costs of this kind of forestry to local communities, this represents a huge transfer of Kiwi wealth to other countries.
The way the Government is investing in tackling climate change is scientifically ill-informed, and economically ill-considered. It needs a fundamental rethink.
In tackling Covid-19, the Government is listening to epidemiologists and modellers who understand the complex interactions between health and human behaviour to guide their responses, and weighing the impacts on local communities and economies in their decision-making.
In tackling climate change, however, a reliance on exotic forestry specialists and industry representatives with vested interests is leading to ecologically and economically disastrous outcomes, for instance carbon farming with ‘permanent’ plantations of short-lived exotic conifers in the wrong places, driven by rising carbon prices.
Instead, the Government should be listening to ecologists and modellers who understand the complex links between climate, forests, waterways and other ecosystems, and weighing the impacts on local communities and economies in their decision-making.
A recent report on the impacts of climate change from Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga Centre for Research Excellence, which conducts a risk assessment across a wide range of interconnected domains, shows the way.
Climate change, biodiversity losses, mass extinctions, pandemics, degraded waterways and oceans are interlinked crises, that must be tackled together. In New Zealand, we are still making climate change policy in silos, based on short-term thinking, with the ETS a prime example.
The international scientific community is now strongly recommending against plantation forestry as a solution to climate change, and in favour of win-win approaches (nature-based forestry, for example) that tackle the issues of jobs and thriving communities, healthy waterways, biodiversity and climate all at once.
Rather than being a climate laggard, with dying forests, degraded waterways and mass extinctions under way, New Zealand needs to wake up. These crisis are far more life-threatening than Covid-19.
Just as the Government is urging us to do in the pandemic, we need to follow strategies based on robust science, community cost-benefit analysis, and aroha for our children and grandchildren. As in the response to Covid-19, our politicians must lead by example.
Let’s look after the land and our people, and not be unduly swayed by those with blinkered perspectives, and corporate-style balance sheets for hearts and minds. Tiakina te taiao – its time to take care of the living world.