The Government is signalling that its plans to meet its UN Climate Change targets may involve radical land use changes such as the conversion of some dairy farms to forest.
The news came in a speech yesterday from Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett to a Climate Change conference in Auckland organised by the Environmental Defence Society.
POLITIK understands that there is some urgency within the Government to announce some policies on forestry and climate change because a session of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Marrakech in early November will be devoted to forestry.
But so far details on how the Government might encourage more forestry to provide a carbon sink to enable New Zealand to meet its overall climate change goals are vague.
New Zealand has promised to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
This is to be achieved using three different tools:
- Domestic emission reductions
- Removal of carbon dioxide by forests
- Purchase of international carbon credits
In August Associate Primary Industries Minister Jo Goodhew announced the formation of the Forestry Reference Group to test evidence, analysis and policy options with sector experts.
But so far neither its terms of reference nor members have been publicly released.
However, the Minister did outline a work programme which included looking at the supply of carbon credits.
This is critical for farmers and others wanting to plant forests because if the Emissions Trading Scheme Unit price plunges then the economics of the forest evaporate.
“Forestry is so important because it’s currently our most important source of domestic emission removals,” she said.
“It can deliver at scale and is likely to cost less than purchasing international emissions reductions.
“If forestry is cheaper than purchasing international units, and we think it might be, there is a strong economic case for planting more trees.”
Asked later if this meant the Government would consider more subsidies she said: “I don’t know, to be honest; there’s mixed views on that.
“I think if we get some of the settings right and some certainty it will be whether that’s enough of a push.”
She conceded that some forests would come from dairy land coming out of production, but she said this would help with erosion control and water quality as well.
And she floated the idea of planting indigenous forests.
“I see some of the work that is going on with native forests which often can be planted on land that’s no good for anything else.”
But the issue of competing land uses came up later in the day at a forum on the ETS with discussion on how big a role forestry could play in not only absorbing carbon themselves but also displacing methane producing livestock farming.
Dr Andy Reisinger, Deputy Director of the NZ Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre, questioned the ethics of taking farmland out of production for forests.
“The fundamental issue is whether we accept land use change as part of New Zealand’s mitigation strategy or whether we say, no, we feed the world, therefore changing land use to let someone else feed the world is a stupid thing,” he said.
“That’s a fundamental philosophical and ethical discussion that needs to be had; to what extent we change land use in order for our emissions to come down and what that means for global food markets.”
There was a clear consensus among business people at the forum that what business needed was policy certainty and the Minister appeared to agree with that by promoting the idea of a cross-party consensus on climate change policy.
“We are working on political consensus – something we haven’t done before,” she said.
However, Labour’s Climate Change spokesperson, Megan Woods, said there had only been one cross-party meeting with the Minister so far on climate change.
Instead, MPs themselves had formed a group under the auspices of the Global Legislators’ Organisation (GLOBE) which links MPs from across parties internationally to discuss climate change issues.
That group had access to research by the British-based Vivid Economics (who have previously conducted research on green growth in NZ).
Ms Woods says Labour has said that they will look for points of commonality with the Government.
“There are still points where we hold very separate views, but I think the most important thing is that we identify those areas where there is a real desire to see progress,” she said.
What is abundantly clear from all this is that post the Marrakech meeting, the detail of the climate change policies and how they will impact on people directly will become clearer.
Kay Harrison, Director of Climate Change for the Ministry for the Environment told the conference that the Ministry expected the details to be ready by the middle of next year ready for legislation in 2018.