By Don Carson, Communications Manager, Forest Owners Association
OPINION: The starting point for land use policy – the actual area of farmed hill country – is contentious. Depending on what you classify as farmed land, the national answer is between 7.5 and 10.5 million hectares.
According to the Ministry for the Environment, hill country farmers have more than 300,000 hectares of production forest, mostly planted in the boom of the 1990s and now in peak harvest.
The total exotic forest estate is 1.74 million hectares. A decade ago it was larger.
So the issue is not the present mix. It’s what happens next with a rising price of carbon credits as a potential land use driver.
Again, the meaning of carbon is different for different people. There are the carbon farms, also known as permanent forests. The landowner simply plants and claims the carbon units. They don’t intend to harvest. Returns are much less than for a harvest regime. But so too are the costs – including labour.
For some landowners carbon farming seems the ideal outcome because they will be paid to produce carbon on terrain which will support neither livestock nor production forestry.
Issues of increased weed, pest and fire risk arise though.
Incidentally, carbon farming is blocked for overseas investors.
Then there are the new plantings destined for harvest, but which also earn carbon credits. The forests will be permanent to retain carbon credits, but the trees will be harvested on a rotation and the logs will provide income.
The Climate Change Commission has budgeted for 380,000 hectares to be planted in exotics by 2035 to get New Zealand carbon neutral by 2050.
It’s far too early to tell if this target will be met, and we have to wait until May before we know whether the government will sign-off this area.
How much will be planted on farm woodlots and how much will be larger forests are also unknown thus far.
What is obvious though, is that if there is not a substantial forest carbon sink, then the government will have to find other means to make the greenhouse gas budget balance.
There are broadly three options;
- Buy credits overseas – expensive and not really effective
- Accelerate industrial decarbonisation – no government in the world has managed such a rate technically or politically.
- Cut back livestock numbers severely – some cuts are already in the greenhouse gas budget of the Climate Change Commission, which says they are modest enough to not materially affect production.
Immediately though, it’s farmer landowners who will make commercial choices. Selling a farm for planting a production forest makes for a good retirement nest egg.
Carbon credits provide the cash to fund the planting and help tide over a potential livestock income shortfall.
The 2020 PwC report found substantial value add and employment opportunity advantages in production forestry.
The world demand for timber is increasing as global supplies dwindle. An emerging global bio-economy will buy up current wood waste streams. New Zealand dairy companies are busy converting to wood fuels and ditching coal power.
It’s not as though the current area of sheep and beef land is farmed to maximum productivity.
Though there do not appear to be up-to-date figures on the extent of gorse for instance, only half of the entire ‘gorse estate’ would probably need to be planted to find room for all of the 380,000 hectares of pines.
A further debate over replacing pine sequestration with indigenous trees is needlessly confusing. To get the same carbon production by 2050 from indigenous trees would require 3.8 million hectares to be planted and establishment costs would need half of what the government currently spends on everything.