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Environment Commissioner warns of dangerous over-reliance on forests

Auckland traffic contributing to global warming. Photo/Alamy

Simon Upton says our forestry dependence could seriously slow our progress on carbon-emissions reduction.

Climate change is an eternally elephant-crowded room, but there’s one that has even been told to wait outside. The Government has virtually ignored detailed work from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, who says we’re heading towards a dangerous over-reliance on forests that could seriously retard our progress on carbon-emissions reduction.

Upton rushed out a first report in March 2018 soon after taking office, as the Government then believed it was weeks away from an ETS bill. It wasn’t, but it did have before it his key recommendation that it was important to distinguish between our real emission-reduction progress and the net result through adding offsets.

A year on, Upton produced a much more detailed set of recommendations, the main one that Government not allow forest sinks to offset our carbon emissions, but only biological emissions (methane and nitrous oxide). His contention is that our open-ended use of forests to license further carbon emissions will needlessly delay the critical transition to eliminating carbon altogether. He also assessed that bracketing tree sequestration with farm emissions would lead to more intelligent decisions being made about what was the best use of and protection for land.

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Climate Change Minister James Shaw rejected the report immediately, saying for the sake of political stability and predictability for emitters and foresters, the Government would stick with its policy.

Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones says it’s important to remember the current policy is not intended to be permanent, but is designed to create momentum and make progress until the right technology is developed. But in rejecting Upton’s report, Jones says, “James spoke for the whole Cabinet. It’s a pity for the mana of the [commissioner’s] office, but the mahi [work] was already done. We’d already spent a year mucking around by the time that report came out. It didn’t figure in any of the thinking behind the scenes.”

Simon Upton. Photo/Supplied

Nevertheless, Upton’s warnings sit reproachfully on the record. Perhaps his most alarming projection is that New Zealand could hit zero net emissions by the 2050 deadline, but, having reduced its carbon emissions by only 40%, that would be an accounting triumph and rather hollow.

Carbon reduction should be our priority, Upton says, and such reliance on forest sinks will give us too much licence to continue producing emissions.

Instead of forcing farmers into the full ETS, he urges a two-tier system that separates biological gases from carbon. Biogas is about half our emissions, but whereas carbon stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years, methane lasts only a dozen and nitrous oxide about 120. We could fairly use forests to offset the emissions from the latter, which chiefly come from agriculture, but for carbon emissions, our focus should be on reduction, Upton says.

He expects the pending Climate Change Commission, which comes into being when the Zero Carbon legislation is passed, will ensure regular full and accurate reports showing how much true progress we’re making on reductions.

Some forests will become more susceptible to fire. Photo/Getty Images
Upton’s report also emphasises how changeable and even precarious the health of our forests could become. He says it can’t be assumed that the sorts of trees we grow now will remain suitable. Worse, climate change itself is likely to make some trees more susceptible to predation, flooding and fires. The trees we rely so heavily on in the “positive” ledger for our zero-carbon balance sheet in the short term might in the long term become considerable liabilities.

His reservations are not just maybes. Canada’s forests have been a source rather than a sink for the past 18 years. Forest fires and pest infestations have caused its trees to emit more carbon than they sequester. Special pleading that natural disasters such as fire, disease and pests should be left out of global-emissions accounting is proving a hard-sell for Canada and would presumably be for us, too.

The very warming we’re foresting to mitigate is affecting the health of some tree species and changing their environments. And biosecurity incursions are a constant risk. New Zealand is already battling grave threats to native trees in the form of kauri dieback and myrtle rust; macrocarpa are prey to cypress canker; and horticulture remains on high alert against the brown marmorated stink bug, to name just the highest-profile rogue defoliators.

The National Party says it’s open to Upton’s suggestions. “It’s a very good plan,” National’s agriculture spokesman Nathan Guy says, though reserving the party’s ultimate ETS policy direction “because I don’t want to do the Government’s work for it. There’s a lot to play out, but they’ll end up waving the white flag.”

This article was first published in the July 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.