Carbon farming: seeing the wood for the trees

This article was authored by Colin Jacobs and originally published on https://www.businessdesk.co.nz. It is reproduced here with permission from the author.

If we are honest about it, the farmers who more than a century ago cleared the native forest from our steep hill country for farm conversions made a mistake. 

Based on what we know now, the land was unstable without forest cover. Topsoil runoff and erosion became major problems, and the land became unsafe to farm. The economics of farming the bit out the back did not really stack up.

Our steep, marginal hill country is perfectly suited to trees. While we might have made mistakes about clearing certain land in the first place, the good news is that reforesting these areas – and doing it responsibly – represents a unique opportunity for our farmers, our economy and our climate. 

There is huge potential for a thriving forestry industry that we have yet to deliver on. The forests we are harvesting now were often planted on the wrong land, failed to consider the future of waterways and did not consider how these forests would ever be responsibly harvested – particularly with extreme weather events in mind.

In most cases, the focus has been getting the logs as cheaply as possible on a boat to China.

Time for a change

Now is the time to set new standards and focus on the opportunities that responsible forestry can deliver.

We need a mix of exotic and native forest on our steep, marginal farmland. At the same time, we need to protect the productive land that remains at the core of our agri-economy.

For sheep and beef farmers with a mix of productive and marginal land – and there are many of them – planting the right tree on the right land as part of diversified farm operations can transform a farm’s economic and environmental performance.

Exotic forests absorb carbon quickly, generating regular annual returns via carbon credits. Domestic and global demand for New Zealand’s timber provides significant additional value streams. Returns from forestry for carbon and timber can provide valuable cashflow for investing in farm succession, improving productivity from the better parts of the farm, paying down debt and investing in farm infrastructure.

A mix of exotic and native forest in the right places can protect waterways, stabilise soils and, with concerted pest control, dramatically enhance biodiversity. The best farmers in NZ are already doing this, and most of the rest want to.

The trouble with natives

We hear the argument that we need to plant back all our hill country with natives. That would be nice. But the harsh reality is that the economics don’t work and, for the moment, very few are willing to pay for it at scale. Like exotic species, native trees need to be established in the right place, managed throughout their lifetime and pests continuously removed.

This is an extremely expensive proposition with no timber outcome.

We’ve got to find a way to reward the preservation, regeneration and planting of native forests, but even if we do, this won’t get us even close to our Paris 2030 or net-zero 2050 targets. Exotic forests absorb carbon more than five-times faster than native forests. In the absence of dramatic gross emissions reductions, we are, rightly or wrongly, dependent on carbon sequestration from exotic forests to deliver against our commitments.

However, it is no silver bullet. Exotic forestry planting does not reduce emissions. But it does buy us all a small but incredibly valuable window of time to decarbonise our homes, our businesses and our economy. Forestry is our only bridge to a low-carbon economy. It is essential to our economic and environmental future.

We’ve got to do forestry differently to how we did it in the past. The forestry my organisation manages is two-thirds exotic and one third in established or regenerating native forest. We design our forests with generous setbacks around all waterways and leave large portions of land unplanted, recognising that not all land can hold trees. All exotic trees planted are maintained for harvest.

Pest control is essential to good forestry practices. With sustained pest control, the regeneration and recovery of the native forest, and with it native bird life, is occurring much faster than we ever expected. But we cannot overstate how plague-like NZ’s pest problem has become. Over the past three years, pest control professionals have shot more than 20,000 deer and goats on our land and bait stations have likely accounted for tens of thousands of possums. This is the tip of the iceberg.

Stop meddling 

In terms of government policy, the refusal to listen to rural communities and prohibit so-called ‘permanent’ pine forests is another potential long-term mistake in the making. There is inadequate science to reliably inform us as to how ‘permanent’ pine forests will behave when the trees all reach the end of their lives at roughly the same time. The notion that they will gradually transition to native forest is more hope than fact. Not to mention the value of the timber is forgone.

We need to enforce good forestry practice with policy and the current review into forestry land use practices must deliver clear recommendations around those requirements. This review should also reconsider permanent pine forestry and its potential long-term implications.

Finally, government policy must encourage New Zealanders to take the opportunities in front of them through registration of forests in the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Now is the time for certainty in knowing that when you plant an exotic forest for harvest, you will be able to earn carbon credits over the period to support the management of the forest throughout its life and make a reasonable return in doing so.

If we are serious about reducing gross emissions at the same time as offsetting them, we must let the ETS do its work. Politicians need to stop interfering for the sake of short-term politics.

The price of carbon must be allowed to drive the behaviour change, for which it was always intended, and not be countered with more fossil-fuel subsidies. We must do a better job of incentivising economy-wide gross emissions reductions

Whether we like it or not, the role of forestry in meeting the country’s climate commitments is now non-negotiable. What is negotiable is how we go about it and the standards that are acceptable to us.