Given New Zealand's Paris climate commitments, Keith Woodford sees no alternative to planting 80,000 ha of extra trees per year. And that won't happen without a change in Government policy

Given New Zealand's Paris climate commitments, Keith Woodford sees no alternative to planting 80,000 ha of extra trees per year. And that won't happen without a change in Government policy

By Keith Woodford*

In late 2015, the New Zealand Government made a commitment at the Paris climate negotiations that by 2030 New Zealand will reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 30 percent compared to the 2005 levels. This overall commitment includes methane and nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture.  These agricultural emissions are converted for carbon-accounting purposes to the equivalent tonnes of carbon dioxide.  The daunting and unique challenge for New Zealand is that agriculture emissions comprise some 50 percent of total emissions.

Given the fundamental biology of ruminant animals, there are limits as to what can be done to reduce livestock emissions without drastic destocking. And destocking would have a major impact on the whole economy.  Also, in a global context, and unless everyone goes to a vegan diet, eliminating New Zealand’s pastoral agriculture would not make a great deal of sense. This is because New Zealand is one of the more efficient producers of milk and meat on a relative GHG intensity basis. 

Alternatives such as reducing the number of cars on the road, or the numbers of kilometres they are driven for, is not going to solve the problem.  A car that is driven for 15,000 km each year produces about 2.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide. This is very similar to the carbon dioxide equivalent emissions of a dairy cow.   There are simply not enough cars on the roads to make enough difference.

Whether or not New Zealand should or should not have agreed to these GHG reductions is not a topic I want to get into here. Some groups are already arguing our commitments are insufficient; others will say we have gone too far.  Those are arguments for another day. The key point of this article is that our Government has signed up to a 30 percent saving by 2030, and there is no obvious wriggle room. So it would seem that 30 percent is what we will have to achieve.

When I look at the numbers, the overall task in front of us is not achievable unless a lot more trees are planted.  We need to reduce our annual net emissions by about 18 million tonnes.  Over a 30-year rotation, each hectare of trees will, on average, soak up between 20 and 25 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.

However, it is not quite that straight forward. In the early years of growth, the sequestration of carbon is less than later in the cycle, so by my calculations we need to be planting about 80,000 hectares of new pine forests each year and starting right now. This is in addition to the replanting of existing forests that are harvested.

In recent years, the economic incentive to plant pine trees, or any other type of forest, has been very limited. Some new forests were planted between about 2008 and 2010 based on calculations that the value of carbon credits would make it a worthwhile endeavour, but that system has been a fizzer.  The original estimates were that carbon would be priced between $15 and $25 per tonne, but after 2011 the prices crashed.  This crash was at least in part a result of allegedly fraudulent credits which New Zealand and other countries purchased, largely from the Ukraine and Russia.   

Looking back over the last ten years, and indeed 20 years, there had been lots of huff and puff but little real action. Whatever action has occurred, such as the emission trading scheme (ETS), has largely been flawed and ineffective.  In the next five years, the talk will have to change to action.

Given the pickle we are in, it would make sense for lots of trees to now be planted. But it is not going to happen without a change in Government policy. The history of the last ten years has shown that making private forest investment decisions in an environment where carbon markets are at the mercy of political decisions is not a smart move. So private landowners will continue to sit back and watch.

If the Government were serious about providing solutions, they would start purchasing North Island hill country and turning it into forest. Government would then own the credits which could be sold to emitters. Any surplus could be sold overseas.  However, there is currently little if any talk of this occurring.

Alternatively, the Government could underpin the carbon market at a minimum price of say $25 per tonne with a long-term guarantee. Whether that would be a sufficient price to encourage hill country farmers to plant trees, or for corporates to enter the land market to make their own investments, would need to be tested. Once again, the credits could be sold to carbon emitters, either in New Zealand or overseas.

These ideas may well be too radical for many people to support. My response is for those people to come up with a better alternative. If we don’t plant more trees then we either have to kill the cars, kill the cows, or most likely kill both.

One thing I do know is that private investors will want a considerable risk premium before investing in carbon, given the fickle nature of politics. Without cast-iron guarantees they will not invest.

A further problem with forestry is that if and when the trees are harvested, the carbon credits have to be repaid. That means that the carbon credits are really just an interest-free loan. So what will the timber value be in another 30 years?

Over the last 20 years, the lumber value of the timber has gone backwards. Current prices are almost the same in nominal dollars as 20 years ago. Adjusted for inflation, the price has dropped by well over 30 percent. The reason there are currently so few new forests being planted is that it makes no economic sense. Without substantial carbon credits, it will stay that way.   

Meeting the 2030 targets will not mean we are at the end of the road.  To keep earning carbon credits to offset other carbon emitting activities, we will need to plant more and more of our hill country into forests, be that pine trees or allowing native forests to regenerate. However, by then the world may be a very different place.

The key long-term energy technology that I am watching out for is thorium. It is nuclear but it can be safe.  China, Russia, India and Canada are amongst the leading countries researching these possibilities. Thorium nuclear power technology already exists, but it has to be scaled-up to commercial levels, and that presents its own challenges. However, there is enough thorium fuel to last many thousands of years, the radioactivity is short-lived, it does not make nuclear bombs, and it does not create greenhouse gases.

In the meantime, we have to plant trees. Given the commitments our Government has made, there is no alternative. 

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant who holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University and Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University. 

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

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if we had developed down stream industries instead of shipping off the raw product, the market would have seen to this

Can you list a few examples of such down stream industries?

there are plenty
furniture, prefab buildings, paper products of all types, musical instruments etc etc

I know of one case personally, a large mill in Southland had a small laminate wood company on site (separate to the mill) The laminate company had to import their timber from china - the same timber that was sent to china from the mill next door as this was cheaper -due to the contracts in place between the Chinese company and the mill.

Two points carbon trading is just a BS manipulation that lets the emitters avoid their responsibility. It will never work. The second is that a Labour government removed a law that required any milled forest to be replaced. The consequence is 10's of thousands of hectares converted to diary. Neither of these solutions will occur without Government regulation, but of course the big money doesn't want regulation that will impact on them, so it won't happen.

it could, if it pays enough.
carbon credits, as proposed by the author, could work..
But more R&D in forestry is needed, to look at other ways of making trees an economically desirable crop to have (whether to leave and use as is, or to harvest).

Follow the money trail... or should i say milk trail. Disgusting what the dairy sector has done to NZ clean green image just look at the pollution of our rivers. Who cares though were making more money this way!

Interesting and ironic given the millions being spent in the South Island to eradicate pine trees and preserve the bland and bleak tussock landscape. Arboreal racism running up against environmentalism - hmmm!

If the South Island was more heavily forested (happening organically) we wouldn't even need any more commercial plantations.

Arboreal racism ? What tosh. Don't you knock the beauty of our magnificent South Island landscape. It needs to be maintained with love.

Actually i reckon it looks better with trees on it. And you're saving the planet as well.

It was all forest a while back. Nature reverts. "Pollen records show that before Polynesian arrival in New Zealand, 85 to 95% of the country was heavily forested, with low scrub and herbaceous plants above the treeline."

The tussocks look nice, I agree, but that's only high country.
There are whole swathes of the South Island that are overgrazed and too dry, and therefire turn into a dust bowl over summer. The area around Wanaka is absolutely ruined by this.
The amount of grazers undoubtedly needs to be reduced, and a variation of agriculture, viticulture, horticulture and forestry needs to be implemented. It's better for the environment AND for the farmers AND for the city dwelling folk.

I holiday in Wanaka every year, yet to see one of these 'dust bowls'. Wanakas one of the most scenic places in NZ.

Do we take it you don't frolic in the lake?

Lake Snow (aka Lake Snot) threatens Lake Wanaka

Lake Snow making Wakatipu unfishable

Now it's called Lake Snot

Show me one bit of evidence that relates 'lake snow' to these 'dust bowls' from farming. I read those articles and they even state they have no idea why the 'lake snow' is increasing... unless you know something nobody else does?

But pine trees were introduced to New Zealand... so your point is invalid. Please do research before making absurd claims.

Is the government actually interested in doing anything at all? They show little sign of it - the reverse in fact. I thought the general idea was that a 2030 target could be safely ignored, it's not a meaningful goal in terms of our three-year electoral cycle. Or am I confused somehow?

The article implies one solution, where there may be a number. It intrigues me why New Zealand car importers seem to be very slow laggards in terms of electric cars being available. Presumably there is something about the tax and incentive mix relative to other countries why this is so. Given NZ has nearly 100% renewable electricity, and could easily ramp that up if needed, then electric cars should be a significant part of CO2 reductions. Planting trees might be a necessary part also, as may carbon capture and maybe some cow genetics.
But it is our electric car lack of availability that seems a simple own goal.

Also as a long term goal we need to heavily invest in inter city rail, so freight can be moved via rail again, taking heavy trucks off the road. This will also significantly reduce the maintenance spend on roads.

Unfortunately, unless you have an excess of renewable electric energy, you are going to have to burn coal or LPG to make the extra electricity for the cars. 85-90% self sufficient is not enough; I think even if Tiwai Pt was closed we still would not have excess elecricity to use in cars.
Electric cows may be some way off too.....

There is a chicken and egg situation with electricity supply. A number of renewable projects have understandably been delayed or shelved while current supply nearly always meets demand. Lift demand progressively, and those projects will make sense. There is no need to reopen coal or even LPG plants.
Even if electric cars were made readily available, takeup would obviously take some years, even if in my view you would likely get to a critical mass quickly where, like smartphones, people would wonder why they would buy anything else.
Renewable electricity supply could be ramped up accordingly.

Those inventive used car dealers seem to be bringing in numbers of Nissan Leaf cars from Japan currently. Don't seem pricey, and by report are very successful vehicles in use

The Nissan Leaf is a good example. Why do Nissan not bring the cars in directly? While it's tempting to buy a used import, there is always the fear that if it breaks down, that servicing will be a challenge if the authorised dealers are not importing the car.

Well said Keith, totally agree. The planting of trees should be a key plank of govt policy to meet there targets however your suggestions are far too sensible to be enacted. Its all about outcomes and the willy nilly carbon trading system has been a complete failure.

If carbon farming came close to being as profitable as sheep and beef I think there would be a massive uptake. Considering sheep farming is hard work, the average sheep and beef farmer is getting on (60ish) and the capital costs for environmental compliance faced by most drystock farms.

No chance with this morally bankrupt govt that is intent on treating climate change as an annoyance that can be solved by creative accounting. They will happily let carbon emisons grow and our hill country continue to wash into out wadeable rivers. Wether it money laundering or the environment, I loathe this Govt... it stands for greed and nothing else.

Doris - steep land forestry is generally more profitable than sheep farming on equivalent country. Unfortunately a lot of farm blocks have poor access and/or unmanaged stands which reduce returns or in some caes even make extraction impossible. Quite different businesses and long time frames so can understand why sheep farmers down't want to get in to it.

That's right but if you were farming the carbon wouldn't there be an income stream straight away?

There's different ways to meet these targets. Compulsory electric cars, a ban on burning coal to generate electricity. If every farmer retired a some of their steepest faces and planted them into trees, it would all add up. How can they regulate to restrict stock numbers when they wouldn't have a clue how many animals there actually are in NZ. Do we need inspectors to go around everyones farm and physically count every animal and tree? And on the flip side we are letting more people in, more tourist planes, cutting down trees to build more houses. These regulation have been pushed by the the most corrupt country in the world the USA. A country like many who's policies are largely driven by corporate inerest groups and pushed by the corporate owned media. a country that has told lies to start wars to benefit corporates. Maybe these policies would really be about shifting control of vast amounts privately owned NZ land into corporate owned forestry.

Statistics NZ collects data from farmers each year. I'm lucky enough to have to fill in a huge form - they want to know stock numbers, land use, crops, forestry, fertiliser etc etc etc. I think it gives them a pretty good idea of what's happening.

The carbon emissions scheme is a tax on the consumer.
Legislated by the whim of Government.
Collected by the wealthy and savvy speculators.

Unsure how this scheme in its present form will benefit the general public and environment.
Planting up rural NZ will close down our communities.
If further processing of timber worked we would more of it.
Consenting and compliance is a real hurdle to achieve returns.