Forest Owners Association president Phil Taylor says the Government goal of an additional 500,000ha of trees over 10 years had always been an ambitious target.
“If you look at the One Billion Trees policy, it was a New Zealand First initiative. I think it did get to the nub of the issue on how to deal with global warming in the short term,” he said.
Unfortunately, the initiative has become embroiled in an unnecessary two-sided “trees versus farming” argument that did neither group, nor the country, any favours.
“The point is the NZ government made a significant and binding commitment to the Paris Accord to reduce carbon emissions by 2050,” he said.
“This includes a reduction of 30% of 2005 levels by 2030, these are big and fast approaching targets.”
He says while not perfect, the forestation scheme offers NZ a short-term approach to helping meet those targets as the country adopts new low-carbon technologies like wood fired boilers over coal in the dairy sector, for example.
A Ministry for Environment (MfE) paper released earlier this year, indicated if 75% of the estimated 600,000ha of land available for planting went into trees over 10 years, it would amount to 8% of agriculture’s emissions absorbed over the next 30 years.
“The increasing political pressure on the initiative is also ignoring the potential impact of climate change on our ability as a country to produce food,” it said.
Proposals to restrict forestry have included Environment Minister David Parker suggesting Labour would use the RMA to limit forest planting on areas of less than 50ha if it was classed as arable land.
But Taylor says it was these smaller land areas that offered the most benefit to the scheme, and to farmers.
Should the billion trees scheme falter, there would be some tough questions NZ had to answer to global signatories to the Paris Accord, and we may also be compelled to source carbon credits offshore.
While NZ carbon credits are capped at $35 a unit at present, overseas prices are already riding significantly higher. Finland, for example, was NZ$107 a unit, France NZ$52 and Canada NZ$76.
Figures for last year’s first full year planting indicate despite 22,000ha of new area planted in trees, total exotic area planted actually declined by 7900ha to 1.7 million hectares. This is below the country’s 10-year plantation area average by 2%.
Keeping that lower level in mind, Taylor says emotions were running unnecessarily high over forestation’s effects on pastoral farming.
“And politicians in election year have been disingenuous throughout this whole process,” he said.
He says he appreciated rural communities’ concerns over wholesale afforestation’s effect upon them and their way of life. But for some, forestry not only offered another income stream if incorporated into farm boundaries, it could also offer viable land use options beyond.
“Our company has looked at a 480ha block that’s been on the market for a year,” Taylor said.
“The owner lives in Auckland and leases it, they have had 50 people look over it, none have bought it. There has been no interest from farmers, despite being an ideal first farm size. The owner wants to exit and can’t find a buyer, while the place goes backwards.”
He says forestry held a viable option for such blocks.
Professor of Forestry at Canterbury University Euan Mason says while the One Billion Trees project was a start, even more needed to be done to bridge the carbon gap.
“If farmers can be shown it is possible to keep their culture and have trees in their less productive areas, that would be great,” he said.
He believed a key gap in achieving this was the lack of extension and education services for farmers.
“For example, if I was put in charge of a dairy farm without any help, I would struggle. So will farmers without good advice around the best trees to plant, and where,” he said.
The ETS scheme also needed a tune up, for it tended to favour wholesale purchase of larger blocks of land for forestry, and struggled to recognise smaller farm-scale plantings.
“Farmers have a real contribution to make with these smaller areas. Those that planted small blocks 20 years ago have won a lottery ticket at harvest time now – they can add significantly to a farm’s rate of return,” he said.