New Zealand’s unique agriculture and energy profile get a unique assessment from a Parliamentary commissioner who has options that will change future land use significantly

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You can never have too many friends in high places and this particularly applies to agriculture at the moment.

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) Simon Upton looks as though he may well be one worth following. His just released report “Farms, forests and fossil fuels: The next great landscape transformation?” has shown a fresh approach to New Zealand’s unique and problematic emissions profile. (At 183 pages readers may find the Overview, 15 pages, more digestible).

When Federated Farmers come out in tacit support and Greenpeace are at the other end of the spectrum picking holes wherever they can and seemingly to miss the crux of what the PCE is saying and seem intent on just trying to kick dairying, the worm really has turned.

Farming has not been let off the hook it is just that Simon Upton is prepared to allow science to do the arguing for how any future policies should be developed.

He has also brought a degree of pragmatism to the debate seemingly setting achievable targets rather than aspirational ones which have been consistently missed of the last 20 or so years. He has come out with three major recommendations for Parliament as it moves to consider the Climate Change Bill:

• Develop two separate targets for the second half of the century: a zero gross fossil emissions target to be legislated as part of the establishment of the new Climate Commission; and a reduction target for biological emissions to be recommended by the new Commission and subsequently legislated. A later date than 2050 would still be consistent with the Paris Agreement and should not be ruled out if that is considered to be a more credible and achievable time frame within which to effect such a significant economic transformation.

• Allow access to forest sinks as offsets only for biological emissions on a basis to be advised by the Climate Commission.

• Develop the tools needed to manage biological sources and sinks in the context of a landscape-based approach that embraces water, soil and biodiversity objectives.

From a farming and in particular livestock farming viewpoint this doesn’t change things dramatically from what has already been in discussion. Methane and Nitrous Oxide will still need to be reduced and the PCE has been careful not to come out with a figure recommending what level of reduction farming needs to reduce Methane or Nitrous Oxide by (so get off your high horse Greenpeace).

The modelling has provided two specific examples and they are a 20% reduction and a 100% percent reduction. The IPCC has recently spoken of a 34% reduction for biologically emitted methane. The interesting and new idea brought to the table is making sequestering of CO2e (methane and nitrous oxide) through forestry only available to ‘biological’ (hence methane and nitrous oxide) emissions – the logic being, forestry cannot be seen as a permanent solution, a natural full sequestration cycle of Pinus Radiata is about 50 years, but as methane and nitrous oxide are considered short term gases and providing New Zealand does not lift its methane and nitrous oxide emissions over a longer period then a ‘short term’ removal will balance the CO2e equation.

This provides a ready means of reduction (for agriculture) at whatever reduction rate is decided upon by the government but it does provide a problem for those of us still emitting fossil fuels (almost everyone) as the low hanging tree will not be available to them (us) and as only 20% of reduction credits are able to be brought in from overseas that option is not a solution.

So, with less demand for “tree credits” as only ag can access them the green credit price will drop and at 20% reduction a $12 per tonne figure is mooted and at 100% a $35 is expected. This is in comparison to at 100% for fossil fuel emissions copping an $87 per tonne offset credit.

This will provide a huge incentive to get away from fossil fuels, which is and has been the major problem world-wide.

Bernard Hickey mentioned the figure a while ago that for every electric car sold there were 64 SUVs’ sold (I’m going from memory here, so apologies if out) so we have plenty of room for improvement, although at a cost.

The other poignant fact brought out was the areas of land to be converted into forestry. As a base New Zealand currently has around 1.8 million hectares in forestry (exotic). The current Zero Carbon by 2050 would see an initial extra 2.6 million ha by 2050 and another 2.7 million ha by 2075 a total of 7.1 million ha.

The PCE alternative plan would see an additional 1.6 mln ha by 2075 if a 20% option is chosen or 3.9 mln ha if the 100% is chosen.

At either 3.4 mln ha or 4.7 mln ha it is considerably less than the 7.1 mln ha under the current system.

All these options will have a considerable impact on both the physical and social landscape and the PCE was at pains to acknowledge that unforeseen outcomes are likely, good and bad and therefore add to the risk. Having been through Cyclone Bola and seeing the transformation of the East Coast when blanket forestry was brought in, this aspect cannot be under estimated. In that case the promise was of plenty of jobs for locals but the reality was gangs ‘imported’ from outside of the region.

Simon Upton also made the point that forestry is a reasonably risky solution as wind and fire can have a devastating effect, and with climate change likely to increase in occurrence.

Human behaviour can also be perverse. Despite all the warnings of climate change, since 1990 fossil fuel usage has increased by 35% and between 2002 and 2012 the area in exotic forestry has decreased by around 50,000 ha. Hence the PCE’s reluctance to rely on forestry as a panacea for the difficult gas i.e. carbon dioxide.

Given the large increase in area under all scenarios the forestry industry should not be too upset, the lower price of credits may take some of the cream off the table but it probably reduces risk at harvest and from unforeseen events also.

It should also be noted that water and soil etc. have not escaped the PCE’s view as point three alludes to this area. So farming is not off the hook but is provided with some rational options for mitigating their GHG emissions.

It should also be remembered that this is ‘just’ a report to Parliament and while it carries some weight what is finally decided upon may diverge somewhat. Already Minister for Climate Change James Shaw has rejected the report saying that time is just too short to reject forestry as a sink for all gases. The PCE ‘s view is that approach is just delaying a further problem down the track.

If nothing else this report has further drawn attention to the problems New Zealand has with its ag and energy issues, which no other developed nation has apart arguably from some of the South American countries, e.g. Argentina etc.

A final word should go to recognising the good work and stance the school pupils of New Zealand took in their march against the inaction of politicians in regards to climate change policy which got buried in the unfortunate events of the 15th.

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