By Anne Salmond

It’s time for Labour and the Greens to rescue their climate consciences and stop plans to plant vast, environmentally risky pine forests as a way of offsetting our greenhouse gas emissions.

In New Zealand, we have a Labour-Green government at present. There are many smart, switched on people, both in the Government and in Parliament. For tackling Covid-19, we now have a cross-party consensus that largely follows scientific advice on how best to deal with the pandemic.

Why then, is it so different when it comes to dealing with climate change? It is difficult to imagine a less sustainable set of strategies than those that New Zealand took to COP-26 in Glasgow last November. These were short sighted and cynical, winning New Zealand a second ‘Climate Fossil’ award, for good reason.

Unfortunately, New Zealand’s ‘Nationally Determined Contribution’ to COP-26 at home relies on covering our landscapes with short-lived, shallow rooting, highly flammable monocultures of pine trees. This kind of ‘off-setting’ is high risk, socially, ecologically and economically.

In a warming climate, ‘lock up and leave’ pine plantations are vulnerable to pest attack, wind throw and fire. If they go up in flames, New Zealand’s carbon debt will rise, not diminish. They create very few jobs, and displace sheep and beef farming, production forestry and their support services, putting rural communites at risk of collapse.

To make matters worse, New Zealand proposes to meet much of the rest of our carbon debt by paying international investors to establish carbon farms in other countries. Taxpayers will fork out billions of extra dollars to put rural communities and ecosystems in other countries at similar risk, while pretending we’re doing them a favour.

Worse still, this kind of ‘off-setting’ is unlikely to be internationally supported in the short to medium term. As a strategy for dealing with climate change, it’s regarded as a kind of ‘greenwashing,’ not unlike the fake international credits that New Zealand used to purchase in large quantities.

As the science on climate change and biodiversity converges, scientists and international policy-makers have recognised that it’s foolish to try and tackle climate change with monocultures, especially those at high risk in a warming planet. As a recent article in Nature indicates, scientists are demanding nature-based solutions to carbon sequestration, especially the restoration of natural forests.

As rising carbon prices drive up rural land prices in New Zealand, and investors in carbon farming out-compete other buyers, the option for restoring natural forests at home is being lost, even though this is by far the best long-term strategy for sequestering carbon.

Once our landscapes are planted in ‘lock up and leave’ plantations of pine trees, with their weeds and pests, it is uneconomic and impractical to shift to other kinds of land uses. As the lead author of the Nature article, Professor of Global Change Science, Simon Lewis (UCL Geography), notes, “There is a scandal here. To most people forest restoration means bringing back natural forests, but policy makers are calling vast monocultures ‘forest restoration’. And worse, the advertised climate benefits are absent.”

For those officials obsessed with New Zealand meeting its COP-26 targets, the COP-15 on Biodiversity is coming in Kunming, China in April. There, New Zealand will have to set targets for restoring biodiversity, in addition to those for tackling climate change. With more than 4000 native species at risk of extinction, we run a high risk of failing to meet both.

All of this is being driven by the ‘look-up’ tables in the Emissions Trading Scheme, an ecological nightmare designed in offices in Wellington that awards many times more New Zealand Units (10 times more in some regions) for planting pine trees than for restoring native forests.

It seems incredible that a Labour-Green government and a Green minister should continue to support this scheme, when it is causing so much grief to rural communities and environmental damage. It is also undermining New Zealand’s ‘Clean Green’ image, so vital to local businesses including agriculture, horticulture, clothing and tourism.

There are mitigating steps at hand, which should be taken as soon as possible. First, the incoming ‘Permanent Forest’ category in the ETS (due in early 2023) should be reserved for native forests, and awarded at least as many New Zealand Units as pine plantations. These forests should be biodiverse, and pest and weed controlled.

This makes sense, since pine plantations are monocultures, and pine trees are relatively short lived (perhaps 80-100 years) compared with native trees such as totara (perhaps 800 years). Over their lifetime, natural forests sequester far more carbon (40 times more on average, according to the Nature article) than industrial plantations, which do not qualify as ‘permanent,’ or indeed as ‘forests.’

This would give farmers and other landowners, including iwi, a realistic option for planting and protecting eroding gullies, slopes and waterways with permanent native forest on their land, while earning a reasonable income for the carbon sequestered and the biodiversity protected. Carbon credits based on native forests are highly sought after, and this would help to meet market demand.

Second, the ‘fast track’ for overseas investors in forestry should be closed down in short order, since this is helping to drive rising rural land prices. Like all other overseas investors, forestry investors should be required to meet the test of serving the national interest. Why on earth should they get special treatment?

Third, the National Environment Standard for Plantation Forests should be revised to include carbon farms, which are currently unregulated. That makes no sense.

Fourth, forest environment plans should be required in parallel with farm environment plans, creating a level playing field for these land uses. Given the huge damage caused by harvesting pine plantations (witness Tolaga Bay and other disasters) to rivers and the ocean, as well as to other landowners, it is inexplicable that this hasn’t already happened.

The forestry lobby may be wealthy and formidable, but it is also short-sighted and greedy. The Labour-Green government is there to serve New Zealand and New Zealanders, not well-heeled corporate and international investors. It’s time to rescue its social conscience and its environmental reputation, and to follow the best science in tackling climate change.

This article was originally published on Newsroom and was republished with permission. For the original, click here.

Dame Anne Salmond is a Distinguished Professor in Anthropology at the University of Auckland.

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.

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