Land-use decisions need unbiased information

Friday 26 Mar 2021

Keith Woodford is a Professor of Farm Management and Agribusiness at Lincoln University for 15 years and is now Principal Consultant at AgriFood Systems Ltd. In his last article on forestry, a little over two months ago, he ended by saying that “there is a need for an informed and wide-ranging debate as we search for the path that will lead to the right trees in the right place, planted and owned by the right people”. Here he takes up that issue again.

In the interim, the Climate Change Commission (CCC) has published its draft report on how New Zealand might meet its Paris obligations through to 2050. A key message in the report is that forestry must not be used as the ‘get out of jail card’ (my term) that avoids facing hard decisions elsewhere in the economy.

The CCC estimate is that under current policy settings and with carbon priced at $35 per tonne, then new forests will increase by 1.1 million hectares by 2050. If the carbon price rises to $50 then the CCC thinks new plantings will increase to 1.3 million hectares. Here is their precise wording (p45) in relation to using forestry in this way:

This [forestry-based approach] would fail to drive meaningful decarbonisation and instead use up land resources for the purpose of offsetting avoidable emissions. This is not sustainable and would leave the next generation with the task of reducing gross emissions at the same time as they will need to be adapting to escalating climate change impacts.

The CCC has done an important job by pointing out that it is a policy that takes us to the 2050 targets but then leaves New Zealand falling off a cliff. As the Commission puts it: “We need to avoid pushing the burden to future generations”

The CCC then suggests just 380,000 hectares of new exotic forestry by 2035 in addition to replanting of harvested forests, together with 300,000 hectares of permanent native forests on less productive lands. The CCC says (p67) that there is ‘in the order of 1,150,000 to 1,4000,00 hectares of marginal land’ that could be most suitable for these permanent forests but acknowledges nursery capacity, pest control and fencing as practical limits to the speed at which this conversion can occur.

The apparent flaw is that the CCC seems to over-align permanent forests with native species. The much-maligned radiata pine can also provide an important pathway towards non-harvested permanent forests on some marginal lands. It is much easier and a great deal cheaper to establish radiata pine than native forests. The fast-growing radiata will also provide much greater carbon credits.

There is no single answer as to the right tree for permanent forests. However, radiata pine and perhaps other trees such as Douglas fir do have a role to play, even if the long-term aspirations remain focused on natives. Sterile pine-hybrids, which do exist, might be part of that transformation strategy.

A key issue right now is that Government policy is screwing the scrum towards forestry on productive farm land. This derives from a policy that encourages foreign investment on productive land as long as that land is used for production forestry. Conversely, these investors cannot purchase the land for farming purposes.

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