Tuesday 26th March 2019
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The government is committed to using forests as carbon 'sinks' for all greenhouse gas emissions, dismissing recommendations in a new report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment that forests should only be used to offset agricultural GHGs.
Commissioner Simon Upton argues that if the government relies too heavily on forests to capture emissions to meet its 2050 climate target, it could face an even steeper challenge to reduce emissions after that date if policy settings had not also forced a stronger focus on reducing emissions from burning fossil fuels.
The government wants the economy to be net-zero emissions by 2050. But New Zealand is unusual internationally for the fact that its climate change-causing emissions are split roughly 50:50 between carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels and emissions of methane - a powerful but short-lived gas - and nitrous oxide, both of which are produced by farming.
"We could store carbon in forests over large areas of New Zealand and score a net zero accounting triumph around mid-century, or adopt a more ambitious approach to reducing fossil fuel emissions and make a clear statement about how far biological emissions should be reduced," Upton said in the report, titled “Farms, Forests and Fossil Fuels: The next great landscape debate?”
"The risk of the current approach is that, while New Zealand might achieve net zero emissions, delayed action on gross fossil (fuel) emissions could mean they are still running at around half today's level. New Zealand would need more time - and land - to offset the balance well into the second half of the century."
However, Climate Change Minister and Green Party co-leader James Shaw immediately ruled out the proposed approach.
While the proposals were "thought-provoking", he said the government is committed to retaining the use of forestry offsets for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions “for the sake of providing policy stability and predictability for emitters and the forestry sector."
“As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report says, there is a narrowing window of opportunity to stay within 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming. It is because that window is so narrow that planting trees to offset emissions is a necessity; at least in the coming decades."
Shaw agreed that locking up carbon in forests only worked for as long as the life of the trees, "whereas emitted carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. He also said that "the priority must be actual gross reductions in emissions".
Commenting for the Science Media Centre, Professor Euan Mason from Canterbury University's forestry school also took issue with Upton's proposals, saying they would inevitably mean New Zealand would miss its 2050 net zero emissions target.
"We cannot get there by 2050 without integrating tree sequestration into our overall plan," said Mason. He also disputed Upton's "weak premise" that forests don't last as long as greenhouse gases.
"Forests in aggregate are often maintained over millennia and the question of what average level of carbon storage they represent can be predicted quite accurately. Trees represent the most economically viable mechanism for removing CO2 from the atmosphere, and we ignore this potential at our peril."
Upton argued that forests were at risk from fire, disease and climate change itself.
"Managing a long-term problem with a short-term 'fix' is risky," he said. "Under an alternative scenario, fossil (fuel) emissions would be managed down to zero by the second half of the century, separately from biological emissions and forests sinks."
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