By Peter Fowler
At first glance, I was delighted to see the Government set a goal to plant a billion trees by 2028. But as this policy unfolds in my backyard, I fear it is fundamentally flawed and will only contribute to the further decline of rural communities.
I have plenty of experience with forestry. My small farm in the Tukituki Valley in Hawke’s Bay is surrounded by about 900 hectares of pine trees, recently harvested, and I have a stand of pines that I sold for a tidy profit a decade ago and replanted.
Many farmers have some pine trees on their land, particularly if it is marginal hill country, but the billion tree policy is seeing increasing numbers of farms sold to corporates and offshore investors to create carbon farms.
In Wales, MPs recently expressed concern that farmers are being ‘priced out’ of the market by wealthy corporations who are buying up land to offset their emissions with trees. But you don’t need to look overseas to see this happening.
The sheep and beef farm over the road from me recently sold to what’s believed to be a consortium of European billionaires, and is currently being planted in pine trees. Sheep and beef farms like this on hill country that fetched about $8,000 per hectare are being snapped up for about $22,000 a hectare for forestry conversion.
At these prices, many areas such as Wairoa and Hawke’s Bay could see all their sheep and beef farms converted into forestry. Beautiful landscapes once visible from the road could disappear behind walls of pine trees and towns and cities will be coated in clouds of pine pollen.
Research conducted by rural consultancy BakerAg for B+LNZ found if all the sheep and beef farms in Wairoa were converted to forestry, then Wairoa would see a net loss of nearly 700 local jobs (the equivalent of one in five jobs in Wairoa) and net $23.5 million less spent in the local economy when compared to blanket forestry (excluding harvest year).
If you are looking to sell, it is a huge windfall, and farmers can’t be blamed for taking it. Integrating trees onto farms is something that should be encouraged. But the reasons behind this wholesale land conversion to forestry appear fatally flawed.
I have been reporting on Climate Change for over 30 years, producing and presenting a documentary in 1989 on the Greenhouse Effect for RNZ called “A Beginners Guide to Global Destruction”. Back then, the farming community dismissed me as peddling conspiracy theories.
Over 30 years later, things have changed for the better. The vast majority of farmers now accept that human made pollution is causing climate change and action is needed. But the main solution governments have come up with, carbon markets, is a farce.
Carbon markets monetized climate change and created a financial mechanism to justify corporations maintaining and increasing pollution, using offsets such as the trees. Carbon markets were introduced in 1990, but greenhouse gas emissions have steadily increased since then. If the pandemic did one thing, it showed it was possible to put emissions in decline.
To stop the emissions from rising sharply we, more than anything, need to reduce fossil fuel use – and that’s not happening. The methane emitted from a cow at least provides food for people to eat, whereas the rich person putting 4,000 litres of gas in their boat serves no great purpose for society.
Farmers will soon be required to pay for the greenhouse gases their cows are emitting and for some it may mean they are no longer viable. But the pain needs to be shared equally across the economy, unable to be avoided through smoke and mirror schemes such as carbon markets.
For example, this means limits on the numbers of planes Air New Zealand can operate and limits on how far you can drive your car every week. The rich guy is only allowed 500 litres for his boat.
We need to reduce carbon emissions and a major part of doing this is reducing use of machines that burn fossil fuels.
This will see an end to economic growth as we know it, but if managed with foresight and support, the reward will be a world that generations to come can still comfortably live in.