Thursday, August 18, 2022

Emissions policy risks decorating with natives

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Forestry has rivalled agriculture for a portion of the emissions reduction plan funding, with the sector given more than $300 million in the next four years.

More than $250m is tagged to maximising forestry’s contribution to boosting carbon sequestration, largely through a focus on native tree planting.

But the focus on native plantings is coming with the caution a swing to greater indigenous plantings places New Zealand’s capacity to rely on forestry for carbon sequestration under pressure, given the slower rate of absorption and significantly higher establishment costs.

Forest Owners Association president Grant Dodson says as appealing as greater native plantings were to most New Zealanders, their ability to help reduce net emissions to any substantial degree this side of next century was negligible.

“They grow too slowly. In many cases expectations of carbon sequestration from natives are overstated in the current official data tables. That makes the problem worse,” he says.

“Native trees are a decoration in climate change efficiency terms. A great decoration to be true. But a decoration, nonetheless. In fighting climate change, we need tools – not decorations.

“We could plant enough huge areas to get some carbon volumes from native trees earlier than the year 2100. But I’m sure farmers wouldn’t like millions of hectares of farmland going into kowhai or tutu.”

Estimates show native forest plantings will typically only sequester 250t a hectare of CO2 by year 28, compared with 650tCO2/ha of mixed exotics, and 900tCO2/ha for pure Pinus radiata. 

Establishment costs are also considerably higher with natives, averaging $7500/ha and up to $20,000 a hectare, compared with about $4000/ha for pines.

Breaking down the allocation of emissions plan funds, $145m is allocated to establishing native forests at scale, specifically for long term carbon sinks. This aims to improve tech to scale up native seedling production, improve seed collection and propagation and develop a long-term plan to grow more native forests in partnership with farmers, iwi, and foresters.

A further $111m has been spread across various agencies including conservation, agriculture,and forestry to increase natural sequestration through forestry plantings.  

Alternative biomass fuel sources also received $73.5m, which will go towards planting 10,000ha of wood biomass forestry as an alternative to coal use.

The Government’s plan for forestry also aims to improve the accuracy of sequestration or “look up” tables used to calculate how much carbon different trees sequester over time. 

Significant known differences exist between the tables and reality at present. 

University of Canterbury research has revealed in some cases table estimates on sequestration are 60% less than reality. 

There are no specifics on whether rural landowners will be able to receive a subsidy to incentivise native plantings, given their significantly greater cost of establishment. 

Two Government-mandated schemes, the One Billion Trees project and the erosion control funding programme, have closed to grants. 

This leaves large scale Crown joint ventures and the hill country erosion control plan as the only remaining vehicles for funds at this point.

The Government also appears keen to revisit how it categorises forests under its emissions plan, where pre-1990 forests are not included in NZ’s carbon sequestration inventory.

The plan aims to incentivise and encourage management activities that lift carbon levels in pre-1990 forests, while also developing means to enable the recognition of additional carbon storage in these forests.

Despite a greater focus on natives the red meat sector continues to harbour concerns over the Government’s focus on forestry sequestration. 

Beef + Lamb New Zealand chief executive Sam McIvor says he remained “gutted” about the continuing ability of forests to claim 100% carbon sequestration under the ETS, compared with 7-10% in the European Union and Canada.

Canterbury University forestry professor Euan Mason has submitted to the Gvernment on his concerns around a greater focus on native sequestration. 

He has urged it to consider a multi-species approach that has a chosen forest mix, which could include natives and exotics, governed under a binding management plan between its owners and the Crown to ensure the forests are managed properly and removing the risk of canopy collapse and decay later in their lives.

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