Comment: Dame Anne Salmond lays out the fundamental problems with this country’s strategy to use pine forests and overseas offsets to help wish away our climate emissions
New Zealand’s strategy for responding to climate change is fundamentally flawed. Much of the nation’s carbon debt is to be addressed by ‘off-setting’ – planting trees to sequester carbon, either at home or abroad.
On one hand, the government proposes to spend billions of dollars on international carbon credits – in other words, paying people in other countries to plant trees to sequester the carbon emitted in New Zealand.
On the other hand, the Emissions Trading Scheme has been designed as a ‘market’ for the owners of trees in New Zealand to sell the carbon they sequester to buyers who want to offset the carbon they generate.
Since most of the plantations in New Zealand are owned offshore, we’re paying even more to people in other countries to sequester the carbon we’re emitting.
The ETS is a spreadsheet designed in a silo, and an ecologist’s nightmare. It privileges the planting of monocultures of exotic conifers in New Zealand, while failing to assess their social, cultural, ecological and economic impacts on local communities and landscapes.
As Rob Campbell wrote recently, we are in a collision with nature. In addition to climate change, New Zealand is facing a biodiversity crisis, with 4000 indigenous species at risk of extinction; a freshwater crisis, with degraded aquifers, streams, lakes and rivers; and a coastal crisis, with degraded estuaries and harbours.
In this context, the idea of planting vast swathes of relatively short-lived, shallow-rooting, industrial monocultures of highly flammable exotic conifers to address climate change is asking for trouble.
In a warming planet, the risks of fire, pest attack and wind throw in such plantations are increasing sharply. As the trees die, their carbon is released.
If the trees are planted on highly erodible landscapes and then harvested, the risks of erosion, sediment and slash in streams, rivers, estuaries and harbours, damage to the roading network and the harm to forest workers have to be weighed in the balance.
In Tairāwhiti, for instance, one of the most highly erodible landscapes in the world, under the ETS land owners are paid 10 times more by year five for planting pine trees than for restoring native forests. Almost every river in the region has been ruined, with impacts that are obvious in disasters like Tolaga Bay; the roading network has been wrecked, and many forest workers are killed or injured in the forests.
When raw logs are exported to distant markets to be processed into short-lived products, more carbon may be emitted in the process than was sequestered while the trees were growing. Too few of these logs are being processed for domestic uses at present. Again, the strategy doesn’t add up.
Worse, as the price of carbon rises, investors are paying very high prices for land to plant pine trees for carbon farming. Since it is cheaper not to trim and harvest the trees, no timber is produced, and there are very few jobs.
‘Lock up and leave’ plantations are full of pests and weeds, and the trees are relatively short-lived. As they die, more carbon is released. As other land uses such as sheep and beef farming are displaced, more jobs are lost and rural communities die.
Socially, culturally, ecologically and economically, carbon farming with pine trees looks like a monumental folly.
Offsetting only makes sense if there are genuine benefits to New Zealand and the planet. The ETS is short-term, high risk, and riddled with perverse incentives.
As for buying international carbon credits, paying billions to people in other countries to offset the carbon we emit in New Zealand is a fool’s game. Cabinet needs to urgently rethink our carbon strategy.
It would be much smarter to invest those dollars in New Zealand – in plantations on stable land yielding timber and other products for local profit and uses; in permanent native forests in eroding slopes and gullies and around waterways to prevent erosion while restoring biodiversity and streams and rivers; and in nature-based indigenous forests that together with regenerative agriculture, produce high value, unique timbers and high skilled, well paid jobs in the regions.
This is the only kind of off-setting strategy that’s worth having – one that restores thriving landscapes and communities at home while helping to save the planet.