Officials may have been aware of an error in the Government’s emissions budgets three months before a news investigation forced them to correct it, Marc Daalder reports

New Zealand can only emit 290 million tonnes of greenhouse gases between 2022 and 2025, under the Government’s new emissions budgets announced last week.

That’s the same figure as was recommended by the Climate Change Commission, but 2 million tonnes below the Government’s own suggested budget released in a consultation document in October. A Stuff investigation in March revealed that the 2 million tonne adjustment by the Government was based on an error and would have given free license for 1800 hectares of deforestation.

However, a document obtained by Newsroom under the Official Information Act reveals a missed opportunity to correct the error came in December, when officials briefed Climate Change Minister James Shaw on the reasons for the adjustment.

In a statement, Shaw said that the mistake was not picked up at that time either.

The root of the issue is changing projections for tree planting and deforestation between the commission’s May advice and the Government’s consultation in October. A survey of foresters which wasn’t available to the commission showed a third more pine planting was expected by 2025. That meant the second and third carbon budgets, which cap greenhouse gas emissions in 2026-2030 and 2031-2035, respectively, were adjusted downward in the October consultation.

The first few years of a tree’s growth is considered a net source of carbon, because more CO2 is released from the soil than sucked up by the growing plant. After four years, the pattern changes and the trees become a net sink of carbon.

Advice to Shaw in July 2021, which went to Cabinet twice and was also mentioned in the October consultation, said that this release of soil carbon was the reason for the 2 million tonne adjustment.

In reality, the release of soil carbon was almost negligible. The main cause of the 2 million tonne adjustment was an increase in expected deforestation over the same period, which was expected to release an additional 1.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

While the Government was comfortable with adjusting the budgets to account for increased afforestation – given this would lead to emissions reductions in the long term – it wasn’t meaning to give a free pass for deforestation. 

When Stuff revealed the error in March, Shaw promised to look into it. The budgets released last week undid that 2 million tonne adjustment.

But the December 2 briefing obtained by Newsroom shows officials may have known about the error three months before it was revealed by Stuff – or else missed an opportunity to spot it. That briefing correctly attributes the reason for the adjustment to deforestation, but raises no issues with doing so. It also shows the Government was aware that people were operating under the assumption that the change was due to soil carbon release.

“The updated [forestry] intentions survey, incorporated into the updated projections from June 2021, result in an increase in deforestation relative to the CCC projections and budgets. This is the primary driver for the 2 Mt CO2-e increase in the emissions budget,” officials wrote to Shaw.

The briefing came after an inquiry from an individual whose name was redacted for privacy reasons. That individual wrote to Shaw after the release of the consultation document and said that the 2 million tonne adjustment was too high to have come from soil carbon changes alone.

“We think it is possible that our use of the phrase ‘changing land use and planting new forests’ has been misinterpreted by [redacted] as only referring to an increase in afforestation when in fact it is intended to cover initial carbon emissions from deforestation as well,” officials wrote.

“[Redacted] only assesses the impact of soil emissions from afforestation in his assessment which has a relatively minor impact on net emissions and has not included any emissions arising from the change in deforestation.”

In a statement to Newsroom, Shaw said officials still didn’t realise while writing this briefing that an error had been made.

“In advice I received in July 2021, the reason for the proposed increase to the first emissions budget was mistakenly put down to increased afforestation, based on information reported in the 2021 forestry intentions survey. That advice fed through, uncorrected, into cabinet considerations in August 2021, on into the Emissions Reduction Plan consultation material, and into a subsequent cabinet paper in December 2021,” he said.

“Also in December of 2021, I was given advice in response to separate concerns around the proposed budgets. That advice appears to include a point correctly attributing the emissions increase to deforestation. Unfortunately, at that time, the connection was not made and the previous mistake remained uncorrected. As I have said before, I was grateful to be made aware of the error earlier this year. “

Shaw said that deforestation shouldn’t be given a free pass through changes to the emissions budgets.

“My view is that we should not make the emissions budgets more lenient to accommodate deforestation – much as we would not amend them to allow for increased pollution in another sector of the economy. As a result, I proposed a set of amended budgets, which have subsequently been considered by Cabinet, in which the first emissions budget has been set at 290MT – as recommended by the Climate Change Commission and not taking into account emissions from deforestation.”

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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