Controversy continues over trees versus farming

Beef + Lamb New Zealand says the emissions trading reform legislation, passed mid-June, incentivises productive farmland being converted to pines planted – not for wood but for carbon credits.  

B+LNZ chairman Andrew Morrison says the legislation will not lead to a reduction in emissions, but simply lead to fossil fuel emitters offsetting their pollution by planting more trees.

“B+LNZ has been asking for a clear mechanism in law that allows the Government to place a limit on the use of forestry offsets, but the Government has repeatedly ignored this request.   

“Planting a tree does not make carbon emissions go away. Exotic pines absorb carbon for around 17 years. If carbon emissions don’t change, the same amount needs to be planted to offset for the next 17 years. This increases exponentially, and sucks towns, schools and communities into a ‘green hole’.”

Andrew says some 70,000ha of productive sheep and beef land has already been converted to forestry since 2019, and carbon-related investment has been a major driver for this. “As the carbon price rises, as a result of this legislation, this conversion is likely to increase.”

Since the legislation passed, The Forest Owners Association has come out saying NZ’s carbon-zero goal is seriously in doubt after a statement by Agricultural Minister Damien O’Connor, that the Government would ‘need to step in’ if new forest planting increased to more than 40,000ha a year.

FOA vice-president Grant Dodson says if the Government gives in to the ‘anti-tree campaign’, then NZ will fail to achieve a carbon neutral economy by 2050, which is part of the Zero Carbon Act.

“In 2018, the Productivity Commission set out scenarios for getting to zero carbon. They all involved reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They also accepted the need to expand the plantation forestry area to sequester large volumes of carbon that would still be emitted.”

But Andrew says large-scale exotic afforestation will not address climate change issues. “Allowing fossil fuel emitters unlimited ability to offset their pollution by planting trees – or ‘planting pollution on farms’ – allows the fossil fuel industry a get-out-of-jail-free card, while the pastoral industry is asked to pick up the tab for other industries’ pollution.

“While B+LNZ is supportive of the regeneration and restoration of indigenous habitats within farming landscapes, and establishment of plantation forestry where appropriate, we’re concerned about the impact of policies that look set to distort markets and economically incentivise wholesale land use change from pastoral-based farming into exotic trees for the sole purpose of carbon farming.”

Grant takes issue with the expression that forestry is taking over ‘productive’ land. “Forestry is productive too. The average returns per hectare per year from forestry are well above those from hill country farming. And farmers are increasingly questioning the economics of continuing to rely on a farm income.”

He also believes it’s a fundamental right to decide what business you conduct on your farm. “I know of many farmers who strongly believe it’s their right to farm stock or trees or both, without the Government telling them what to do.”

But Andrew says converting productive farmland to pine plantations for carbon credits is only a short-term solution to make progress on climate change targets “but one that will lead to severe long-term negative impacts, at a community and national level”.

He says research by BakerAg in 2019 found forestry supports far fewer jobs than the red meat sector, particularly in the regions. 

“The red meat sector employs 92,000 people in NZ and in some regions accounts for 12 per cent of full-time employment. The regions can’t afford to lose these jobs, especially as the economy seeks to recover from Covid-19.”


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