The government has confirmed it will give councils more power to block or control the planting of permanent pine forest plantations as ministers wrestle with complex and sometimes contradictory policy impacts.
It’s the latest move by ministers to try to balance competing priorities around carbon forests, which are planted with the primary purpose of earning carbon credits and not harvested and replanted.
The political and policy problem for the government is that planting more forests helps New Zealand meet its carbon budget, but has other consequences.
One is a fear that productive farmland will be planted with pine trees and harm rural communities. Balancing this is the rights of property owners to make choices about land use.
Forests earn owners carbon credits in the form of NZ Units (NZUs), which emitters need to settle their Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) obligations. However, under current rules, the government has no control over how many of these NZUs enter the market, which affects their overall supply and price.
Another problem is that those emitting industries will tend to plant trees instead of reducing emissions if that is a cheaper option.
Last year, ministers floated the idea of controls or limitations on which forests earned NZUs under the ETS.
This was put to one side after a backlash, including from Māori forestry interests, who argued that a way to earn money off some of their highly marginal land was being removed through a change in the rules.
A review of ETS settings was promised some months ago, but a discussion document on options is yet to be released. National this week said if elected it would introduce limits for new farm-to-forest conversions – including a moratorium on whole-farm conversions to exotic forestry on high-quality land from 2024.
Last year, Labour suggested it would enact a 2020 election commitment to tighten up rules on farm-to-forestry conversions by giving communities greater control over the planting of forests.
This has been confirmed today after consultation, with changes to be made to the National Environmental Standards for Plantation Forestry.
Forestry Minister Peeni Henare said the changes are about getting the right tree in the right place, by seeing fewer pine forests planted on farmland and more on less-productive land.
“We are empowering local councils to decide which land can be used for plantation and carbon forests through the resource consent process,” Henare said.
“This gets the balance right by giving communities a voice, while not restricting the purchasing of land or ability for farmers to choose to sell their farms to whomever they want.”
The amendments to the environmental standard will mean permanent pine forests are managed the same way as plantation forests.
Aside from allowing councils to put in place more rules around management and consider wider impacts, the moves could also effectively block carbon forests in some areas.
“For example, the proposal to enable councils to have more stringent rules for afforestation will clarify their ability to make plans and rules to control the extent and location of plantation and exotic continuous-cover forestry within their communities,” Henare said.
“Operational changes proposed to the forestry standards regarding slash provisions, sediment control and harvest management plans will start to improve the environmental impacts of forestry.”
These changes follow the outcry over the damage caused by forest waste (slash) after recent cyclone events.
Henare said more work is also being done to redesign the permanent forest category, with the goal of enabling a successful transition from exotic species to indigenous forests.
This is because some planting carbon forests say the intent is to convert them to native trees over time.
This would be beneficial in reducing the potential for large parts of NZ to be planted in monoculture forests. It also means the problems caused by pine trees’ carbon sequestration ability reducing over time would be reduced as they were replaced by slower-growing natives.