If ever there was doubt NZ had gone up a blind climate alley by moving towards large plantings of pine trees, the latest international scientists’ report has firmly laid that to rest, writes Dame Anne Salmond.
It is now beyond doubt that New Zealand’s primary strategy for tackling climate change – offsetting through the Emissions Trading Scheme, with the financial incentives it gives to the large-scale planting of monocultures of exotic pine trees – runs in the opposite direction to international scientific advice.
In the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (AR6) report, for instance, released yesterday, the practice of “planting large scale non-native monocultures, which would lead to loss of biodiversity and poor climate change resilience” was placed among the ‘Worst Practices and Negative Adaptation Trade-offs’ for temperate forests.
By way of contrast, to “maintain or restore natural species and structural diversity, leading to more diverse and resilient systems” was placed among the ‘Best Practices and Adaptation Benefits’, with very high impacts.
Last year, in its report Biodiversity and climate change: interlinkages and policy options – Royal Society (UK) 2021, the Royal Society (UK) also advised against establishing large monoculture tree plantations as long-term carbon sinks:
“Policy measures to discourage: Planting trees, either for bioenergy or as long-term carbon sinks, should focus on restoring and expanding native woodlands and avoid creating large monoculture plantations that do not support high levels of biodiversity. Simple targets such as ‘numbers of trees planted’ ignore biodiversity considerations, such as long-term survival of trees or stewardship, and can be misleading, potentially contributing to policy failure and misuse of carbon offsets.”
Likewise, the Report from the Joint workshop COP Panels on Biodiversity and Climate Change 2021 recommended discouraging ecosystem-based approaches to climate mitigation that have negative outcomes for biodiversity, such as tree planting in inappropriate ecosystems, and monocultures, for the following reasons:
– Large-scale tree planting can be harmful to biodiversity and food production due to competition for land.
– Afforestation may even reduce existing ecosystem carbon storage, cause further biodiversity loss and displace local people or curtail their access to land and its use. Single species plantations can increase pests and disease.
– Plantations of exotic species often have negative impacts on biodiversity, on adaptive capacity and on many nature’s contributions to people not related to timber production or carbon sequestration, especially if the planted species becomes invasive.
Further, their climate benefits may be offset by local warming, especially in boreal and temperate regions, which is induced by different exchanges of water and energy compared to the land cover which it replaces.
The concept of ‘offsets’ using natural climate solutions has been proposed to achieve early emissions reductions (particularly at lower cost) or to compensate for continued emissions from hard-to-decarbonize sectors; such offsets are increasingly part of ‘net-zero’ emissions pledges.
However, the use of carbon offsets has come under increasing scrutiny because of the challenges of additionality, problems with overstated emissions reductions and double-counting, difficulty in monitoring and verification, and the unclear permanence of such actions, as well as potential social equity impacts of actions like large-scale tree planting.
These reports are based on the best available science, rigorously cross-checked by authorities around the world.
It is extremely frustrating to watch our country trying to tackle climate change with a strategy that is overwhelmingly condemned by the global scientific community.
We wouldn’t dream of doing this with the Covid-19 pandemic; and yet climate change is even more dangerous, as another UN report, ‘Extraordinary Landscape Fires’, released last week, spells out.
Silo thinking; vested interests in forestry and carbon farming; a focus on short-term profit; ‘green-washing’; and a failure to think about the complex interactions between ecosystems, communities, prosperity and wellbeing have led New Zealand up a blind alley in tackling climate change.
The uncontrolled conversion of sheep and beef farmland to monoculture plantations is happening at pace, exemplifying ‘Worst Practices and Negative Adaptation Trade-offs’ according to the IPCC.
As temperatures rise, bringing droughts and the risk of wild fires, conifer plantations make this effect worse, through the absorption of solar radiation (the albedo effect) and impacts on the water cycle.
As the IPCC observes, “projected increases in fire, drought, pest incursions, storm and wind places forests at risk, and affect their ongoing role in meeting New Zealand’s emissions reduction goals”. The risk is that all the carbon gains made will be lost at a stroke, and become debts instead.
While David Parker, Minister for the Environment, has announced a law change to reinstate the ‘national interest’ test for international investors in forestry under the Overseas Investment Act, this is just a first, tentative step.
Other steps, including reserving the incoming ‘Permanent Forest’ category in the Emissions Trading Scheme for native forests; bringing carbon plantations (which are currently unregulated) under the National Environmental Standards for Plantation Forests; and requiring Forest Environment Plans in parallel with Farm Environment Plans, are urgently needed.
Above all, New Zealanders – politicians, officials, investors and Kiwis at large – need to be aware that global scientific advice recommends strongly against New Zealand’s primary strategy for tackling climate change – large scale industrial tree plantations, both at home and abroad.
New Zealand’s overwhelming reliance on ‘offsetting’ by planting large swathes of pine trees across its landscapes is itself blind to the impacts of climate change, and that is a fundamental mistake.