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Millions more trees isn't the climate fix New Zealand thought

Ainsley Thomson and Tracy Withers, Bloomberg News on

Published in Science & Technology News

Of all the solutions for a warming world, “plant more trees” seems pretty obvious.

But in New Zealand, which tested that premise by linking incentives for forestry development with its emissions trading scheme, the results have been more controversial and less effective than climate advocates hoped.

Now, after four years of frenetic planting, a prominent government watchdog has joined international agencies, industry groups and environmental advocates in calling for a radical overhaul, one that threatens a reversal of fortunes for investors in the recent forestry boom.

“Pine production and permanent forestry are legitimate land uses,” Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton wrote in a report on land-use change, published Wednesday in Wellington. “But afforestation should not be incentivised by treating it as a cheap way to offset fossil fuel emissions.”

It is an aggressive challenge to one of the world’s most prominent campaigns for afforestation. Ingka Group, the largest global Ikea franchisee and a major investor in New Zealand forestry, said in an email that Upton’s advice is “significant, and we are closely reviewing the potential impacts,” adding that its long-term commitments in the country are unchanged. Other forestry investors say the ongoing debates are sapping confidence in the market.

“While uncertainty remains, New Zealand is missing a significant opportunity to grow its forest estate,” said Phil Taylor, managing director of New Zealand forestry at Port Blakely, which owns 35,000 hectares of mixed species plantations. “It needs to be sorted out.”

 

Since 2019, the country has added 175,000 hectares (432,000 acres) of forests, almost all the fast-growing, carbon-sucking Pinus radiata pine, helping New Zealand make progress toward its 2050 net zero goal. But the new growth has subsumed the nation’s farmland, the beef-and-sheep lobby says, undermining the meat-and-dairy industry. Increased waste from forestry — the logs, leaves and branches known as “slash” — more than doubled the damage of the flooding caused by last year’s Cyclone Gabrielle.

While those might be worthwhile trade-offs for significant long-term reductions in climate-warming CO2, the current system doesn’t really achieve that either, experts say.

Forests do absorb a lot of carbon dioxide, but their efficiency wanes over time. To achieve the same environmental effect over decades, “you’re going to have to keep planting more and more forests,” said John Saunders, a senior researcher at Lincoln University’s agribusiness and economics research unit. “That isn’t actually solving the problem.”

The seeds of New Zealand’s recent forestry boom were planted in 2019, when the country’s emissions trading scheme required companies to use only domestic measures to compensate for CO2. In practice, it prohibited companies from buying carbon offsets developed abroad to shrink their carbon footprint.

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