New Zealand's unique agriculture and energy profile get a unique assessment from a Parliamentary commissioner who has options that will change future land use significantly

New Zealand's unique agriculture and energy profile get a unique assessment from a Parliamentary commissioner who has options that will change future land use significantly

You can never have too many friends in high places and this particularly applies to agriculture at the moment.

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) Simon Upton looks as though he may well be one worth following. His just released report Farms, forests and fossil fuels: The next great landscape transformation? has shown a fresh approach to New Zealand’s unique and problematic emissions profile. (At 183 pages readers may find the Overview, 15 pages, more digestible).

When Federated Farmers come out in tacit support and Greenpeace are at the other end of the spectrum picking holes wherever they can and seemingly to miss the crux of what the PCE is saying and seem intent on just trying to kick dairying, the worm really has turned.

Farming has not been let off the hook it is just that Simon Upton is prepared to allow science to do the arguing for how any future policies should be developed.

He has also brought a degree of pragmatism to the debate seemingly setting achievable targets rather than aspirational ones which have been consistently missed of the last 20 or so years. He has come out with three major recommendations for Parliament as it moves to consider the Climate Change Bill:

• Develop two separate targets for the second half of the century: a zero gross fossil emissions target to be legislated as part of the establishment of the new Climate Commission; and a reduction target for biological emissions to be recommended by the new Commission and subsequently legislated. A later date than 2050 would still be consistent with the Paris Agreement and should not be ruled out if that is considered to be a more credible and achievable time frame within which to effect such a significant economic transformation.

• Allow access to forest sinks as offsets only for biological emissions on a basis to be advised by the Climate Commission.

• Develop the tools needed to manage biological sources and sinks in the context of a landscape-based approach that embraces water, soil and biodiversity objectives.

From a farming and in particular livestock farming viewpoint this doesn’t change things dramatically from what has already been in discussion. Methane and Nitrous Oxide will still need to be reduced and the PCE has been careful not to come out with a figure recommending what level of reduction farming needs to reduce Methane or Nitrous Oxide by (so get off your high horse Greenpeace).

The modelling has provided two specific examples and they are a 20% reduction and a 100% percent reduction. The IPCC has recently spoken of a 34% reduction for biologically emitted methane. The interesting and new idea brought to the table is making sequestering of CO2e (methane and nitrous oxide) through forestry only available to ‘biological’ (hence methane and nitrous oxide) emissions - the logic being, forestry cannot be seen as a permanent solution, a natural full sequestration cycle of Pinus Radiata is about 50 years, but as methane and nitrous oxide are considered short term gases and providing New Zealand does not lift its methane and nitrous oxide emissions over a longer period then a ‘short term’ removal will balance the CO2e equation.

This provides a ready means of reduction (for agriculture) at whatever reduction rate is decided upon by the government but it does provide a problem for those of us still emitting fossil fuels (almost everyone) as the low hanging tree will not be available to them (us) and as only 20% of reduction credits are able to be brought in from overseas that option is not a solution.

So, with less demand for “tree credits” as only ag can access them the green credit price will drop and at 20% reduction a $12 per tonne figure is mooted and at 100% a $35 is expected. This is in comparison to at 100% for fossil fuel emissions copping an $87 per tonne offset credit.

This will provide a huge incentive to get away from fossil fuels, which is and has been the major problem world-wide.

Bernard Hickey mentioned the figure a while ago that for every electric car sold there were 64 SUVs’ sold (I’m going from memory here, so apologies if out) so we have plenty of room for improvement, although at a cost.

The other poignant fact brought out was the areas of land to be converted into forestry. As a base New Zealand currently has around 1.8 million hectares in forestry (exotic). The current Zero Carbon by 2050 would see an initial extra 2.6 million ha by 2050 and another 2.7 million ha by 2075 a total of 7.1 million ha.

The PCE alternative plan would see an additional 1.6 mln ha by 2075 if a 20% option is chosen or 3.9 mln ha if the 100% is chosen.

At either 3.4 mln ha or 4.7 mln ha it is considerably less than the 7.1 mln ha under the current system.

All these options will have a considerable impact on both the physical and social landscape and the PCE was at pains to acknowledge that unforeseen outcomes are likely, good and bad and therefore add to the risk. Having been through Cyclone Bola and seeing the transformation of the East Coast when blanket forestry was brought in, this aspect cannot be under estimated. In that case the promise was of plenty of jobs for locals but the reality was gangs ‘imported’ from outside of the region.

Simon Upton also made the point that forestry is a reasonably risky solution as wind and fire can have a devastating effect, and with climate change likely to increase in occurrence.

Human behaviour can also be perverse. Despite all the warnings of climate change, since 1990 fossil fuel usage has increased by 35% and between 2002 and 2012 the area in exotic forestry has decreased by around 50,000 ha. Hence the PCE’s reluctance to rely on forestry as a panacea for the difficult gas i.e. carbon dioxide.

Given the large increase in area under all scenarios the forestry industry should not be too upset, the lower price of credits may take some of the cream off the table but it probably reduces risk at harvest and from unforeseen events also.

It should also be noted that water and soil etc. have not escaped the PCE’s view as point three alludes to this area. So farming is not off the hook but is provided with some rational options for mitigating their GHG emissions.

It should also be remembered that this is ‘just’ a report to Parliament and while it carries some weight what is finally decided upon may diverge somewhat. Already Minister for Climate Change James Shaw has rejected the report saying that time is just too short to reject forestry as a sink for all gases. The PCE ‘s view is that approach is just delaying a further problem down the track.

If nothing else this report has further drawn attention to the problems New Zealand has with its ag and energy issues, which no other developed nation has apart arguably from some of the South American countries, e.g. Argentina etc.

A final word should go to recognising the good work and stance the school pupils of New Zealand took in their march against the inaction of politicians in regards to climate change policy which got buried in the unfortunate events of the 15th.

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"a zero gross fossil emissions target to be legislated". Surely it must be net emissions? These perennially wrong Malthusians really do want to take us back to the stone age. Satellite data for February was negative 0.07 degrees below the 40 year average for Australia and -0.05 for southern NZ. So 40 years of emissions in this part of the world for no net warming as of last month. Run for the hills.

Thanks for the summary, Guy. I definitely agree with the PCE, pinus radiata forestry should not be seen as the principle path toward a carbon neutral/free future. It simply replaces one monoculture (exotic grass) with another (exotic forest). New Zealand needs to return as much of its land use as is viable to native bush and natural wetlands - and this is more so the case in marginal and erosion prone land, as with the increased storminess of climate change - we really don't need steep hill country planted in harvestable monocultures.

Regenerative biodiversity is to my mind extremely important, and we have to factor return to native bush in respect of our overall climate mitigation strategy.

Pine plantation are hardly a monoculture and no one is cutting down native to plant pines. No radiata stand is pure - there are always plent of riparian and native gullies in most stands. "The mix of planted forest and native ecosystems remnants that make up these forests are home to many other species, including at least 120 threatened indigenous species."

GIven temperatures in NZ have not budged in the past 40 years, going by the satellite data last month, what inter-glacial warming rate would you like to see?

Can we stick more or less to fact, Profile? I appreciate your problem in that regard, but it would be helpful at this stage in the narrative.

Radiata plantations are indeed monoculture. Period. The remnants may well be 'home to threatened species' but in nine cases out of ten - make that all ten - they are only threatened because their habitat has been decimated. By the likes of monocultural radiata plantations. Only a tout purposely inverts causality, and it's painfully obvious when they do so.

May I suggest getting our more PDK - perhaps a walk in a pine forest or a trip to Scion?
Think about it for a minute - planting a pine plantation on a ryegrass monoculture is going to increase diversity or decrease species diversity? Not all knowledge can be found on Malthusian crackpot websites?

"...diversity will increase significantly in plantations
established on former pasture (Schipper 1996). These
observations are important in relation to perceptions that
biodiversity is lost after harvesting. Our research suggests
that there is only a temporary decline (Fig. 2) and that
even recently harvested stands provide habitat for
indigenous species, albeit different ones. Furthermore,
because most plantations consist of many stands where
harvesting occurs at different times, there should always
be stands with desirable levels of plant biodiversity."

I owned one - a large one. They are monocultural. Pure Advantage and Scion want to paint some kind of better picture than stark reality because pine forests imply a revenue source and neither those two organisations get get past the notion of limitless GDP/revenue growth. And neither are prepared to admit that our consumptive lifestyles must decline.

What we need to focus on is well-being not well-having. And yeah, I can cite plenty of academic literature that points that out e.g.,

Hopwood, B., Mellor, M. and O’Brien, G. (2005) Sustainable Development: Mapping Different Approaches, Sustainable Development,13: 38–52.

We need to start thinking very differently about what sustainability really means.

But are they more monocultural than the grassland they replace? Basic observation and the lit. suggests they are. Limitless GDP/revenue growth... has anyone ever implied growth is limitless or for that matter that the plant is infinite - most of all forest biologists?! NZ growth is anemic and once net immigration is taken into account is flat lining so I don't think NZ has anything to worry about in the limitless growth stakes any time soon.

Whether radiata pine forests are more diverse than exotic grassland is a sort of fruitless argument. All we had moving/growing in ours in any significant way were possums. Mind you, they are a protein source. Point being, I'm not even sure we'll be clear felling pine forests for timber in the distant future anyway.

And I find your second point contradictory. First you say, none of these folks are implying that GDP/revenue growth is limited (or that the planet is finite) - but then I think you make the point that NZ's growth is anemic and so we need to grow more. Thing is the world's growth is anemic - no one is escaping the downward spiral.

My point (and pdk's) is that in real terms recession is inevitable. We (and the globe) are in a period of inescapable decline of the old well-having growth model. It is time to plan for managed retreat from energy over-consumption and a biological/agricultural form of intra-island self-sufficiency.

I noted today that ANZ is moving back to greater comfort/more room in their economy class. Many more airlines will follow suit. It doesn't mean they will last forever, it just delays the sunset on that industry.

If you agree growth is anemic then why are you worried about limitless growth? Yes recessions are inevitable, yes the plane will disappear one day, just like the horse and likely wood too. Perhaps you would feel better if you compared the diversity of a forest plantation to an iron ore mine? Some of the CTL high rises are getting up there.

"The 85.4-metre-high tower was built using cross-laminated timber (CLT), a pioneering material that allows architects to build tall buildings from sustainable wood."

profile. We seem to be talking past one another. Let me put it another way.

Growth is gone.

Maybe in NZ but globally "Broadly speaking, changes in energy demand track the fortunes of the world economy. Robust global GDP growth of 3.7% last year caused energy demand to rise by some 2.3%, its fastest pace for a decade."

That's a nice idea Kate, but how would it be funded?

I have 25% of my farm in conserved in regenerating native bush... have spent over $100,000 on fencing and thousands of hours on weed and pest control, but because some forest cover existed in 1990 (on its last legs due to being unfenced and riddled with deer and goats as well as farmed stock) we are not eligible for any carbon credits.

That's a perfect example of what makes our ETS scheme design, presently ludicrous. Sending all the wrong/opposite incentives into our land-use future. Point is, we could choose to define what a NZU is any way we want, particularly if we exclude our native bush credits from being traded internationally. In other words, we set an internal transfer price for native bush at whatever level we want - and make them tradeable offset credits for any emissions type. Many sheep/beef farmers could just regenerate bush on the less productive land they have and offset their own methane emissions (i.e., become carbon-neutral on their own) and turn any spare native bush into a 'cash' (carbon) crop.

If we plant manuka amongst the regenerating bush we get a double benefit in terms of bee/honey production. And I'm pretty sure there are other cash crops we could produce from bush farming.


Oh, and BTW toss out that silly pre- and post-1990 timing thing. I believe our ETS was written in response to Kyoto. Kyoto is dead. NZ is too small to make any different to global emissions - but we do need to make a difference to the self-sustainability of NZ and NZers.

Good on you.

I'm not sure society has the 'funding' to mitigate itself - it's going into increasing 'debt' which is an increased assumption that the future will somehow repay it. Yet the future has to be less resourced, year on year.

So it probably has to be voluntary, unpaid. We planted (exotics but not radiata, and some native) but have decided against going for 'carbon credits'. All you are doing by 'spending them', is adding to the consumption which is the basic problem. Maybe there is a way to link up with an ethical credit-needer, but I've never bothered going there. We just see it as doing our bit, carbon-wise.