According to the chief executive of the Climate Forestry Association, proposals to reform the Emissions Trading Scheme amount to “vandalism,”  because “the system is already working.” The question is, though, working for whom?

Is the ETS working for the planet? According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation, the international forestry industry ‘value chain’ (from propagating the plants to the end life of its products), far from reducing global emissions, emits about twice as much carbon as it sequesters. 

In other countries, this kind of value chain analysis is becoming commonplace to assess the validity of claims to carbon sequestration. Those businesses or industries that fail the test are described as ‘greenwashing.’ 

In New Zealand, where raw logs are exported to distant markets and converted into mostly short-term products, industrial forestry seems unlikely to pass the value chain test.

This presents an acute risk to our ETS, which relies very heavily on production forestry for its claims to carbon sequestration.

If the international rules around carbon sequestration change so that only genuine reductions in planetary emissions are counted, only those credits that meet the test will have lasting value. 

In that case, our ETS would be regarded as ‘greenwashing,’ most of its credits will be worthless, and New Zealand will be left with no affordable way to meet its international climate commitments.

This is not just a risk to our reputation as a good global citizen, but to our ability to trade with other countries – the EU, for instance.

These risks are too great for a small country to bear.

Apart from these international risks, there are also the national risks to consider.

According to the Climate Change Commission, current ETS settings have been driving an expansion of industrial forestry and carbon farming on a scale likely to flood the market, collapsing the system.

At the same time, pine plantations have been displacing other land uses, including food production through sheep and beef farming, while increasing the risks of fire, disease, wildling pines, erosion with clear fell harvesting, and flooding with forestry slash.

During Cyclone Gabrielle in Tairāwhiti, for instance, forestry debris destroyed roads, bridges, fences and farm buildings; paddocks, orchards, vineyards and crops; homes and communities; rivers, beaches and harbours; livelihoods and lives.

This industry should think twice before accusing others of ‘vandalism.’

As the inquiry into Land Use and Forestry Slash chaired by Hekia Parata vividly describes, forestry has had a devastating impact on almost every other business and community activity in the region.

When the inquiry asked people in Tairāwhiti whether the ETS is working for them, in submission after submission (except for those with a vested interest in the industry), they vehemently disagreed. The industry has lost its social licence.

It does seem, though, that the ETS was working for the forestry industry itself, which helped to craft the settings it is desperate to retain. It is well funded, with a lobby that has had the ear of some ministers. 

In recent times, for instance, carbon farming lobbyists managed to gain entry for pine plantations (short-lived, shallow rooting, highly flammable monocultures) into a new ‘permanent forest’ category in the ETS – at a time of biodiversity collapse as well as climate change. 

Their modelling assumes that carbon credits based on exotic monocultures will attract willing buyers over a very long period. This is improbable, given that this kind of offsetting is being internationally dismissed as ‘greenwashing.’

Industrial forestry, well conducted on stable landscapes, can make a valuable contribution to sustainable timber construction and other uses, but its value for carbon sequestration is short term, high risk, and unlikely to survive rigorous analysis.

Given these factors, a major overhaul of the ETS is vital, and long overdue. As recent court cases and the Land Use and Forestry Slash inquiry have made clear, industrial forestry in New Zealand urgently needs to improve its own standards and practices. 

It would be great to see industry leaders devoting their time and resources to meeting this challenge. 

As for our country’s leaders, It is good that they are consulting on a reform of the ETS, because at present, it is not fit for purpose. It is right that they should put the interests of the planet, and their own land and people first and foremost, not the interests of the forestry companies.

The only reason for this country to have an Emissions Trading Scheme is to reduce global emissions and to mitigate the impacts of climate change. At present, it is doing the opposite.

Dame Anne Salmond is a Distinguished Professor in anthropology at the University of Auckland, and 2013 New Zealander of the Year.

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