Why not wildings?

In a useful article in the Tree Grower (November 2016) Nick Ledgard thoughtfully defined wilding conifers, and gave a wide-ranging review of the arguments for and against.  He wrote with authority, and manages a forest of these species with first-hand experience of their performance, production and control.  Sitting in Wellington far from the problem and without that background, I have a different perspective.

At around the time Nick wrote his article I became involved in spinoff work from the 2015-16 review of the Emissions Trading Scheme.  At that time the Paris accord on climate change was only a year old but it was already clear that, as Tom Hanks put it, “We have a problem.”

Carbon Match in its newsletter of Thursday 17 November 2016, said

Under the Paris Agreement, New Zealand expects to have a 2021-2030 carbon budget of approximately 611 million tonnes.  But based on business as usual emissions forecast we would potentially emit approximately 840 million tonnes, (creating) a deficit of some 230 million…  Our hope?  Help from international markets, provided (that) cheaper abatement can be sourced from them.  But as expected, progress on the details of how international market mechanisms might operate has been slow.  Meanwhile our onshore easy-win abatement opportunities appear to be limited, and we don’t seem to have a cohesive plan…

Nothing has changed.  Although the emissions overshoot of 230 million tonnes hit the news at the time I have met people since who are astonished at the idea, so perhaps it’s still not widely understood.  MFAT officials have been working to find countries from which we might buy carbon credits; and while this is allowed under the Paris agreement the rules have yet to be drafted, let alone agreed, and there is no talk yet about prices.

Officials seem to hope that international carbon prices will remain low until around 2030, making the cost to New Zealand (in some way) acceptable.  However they acknowledge the risk:

Up to 80 per cent of New Zealand’s target to cut emissions… by 2030 is expected to be met through the purchase of international credits.  But in a confidential briefing paper to climate minister Paula Bennett last May, officials said that the strategy was risky.  [Carbon News 10 February 2017]

Of course climate change advocates have been arguing that we should establish another million ha of forests to sequester carbon, and the Government is taking some action.  However not everyone is convinced, progress is slow and trees do not grow overnight.

Largely the decision on whether or not to plant more trees rests with individuals and the industry, i.e. ‘the market’.  The ETS review is aimed at making ‘the market’ more efficient, for example by reducing compliance costs and harvest liabilities in the expectation that this will encourage landowners to plant forests where they are appropriate; but it will be over to them to decide whether to plant, or whether to sell their land for planting.

Right now ‘the market’ is not encouraging commercial foresters.  Land suitable for production forestry is expensive; it is hard to get approvals for overseas investment; and even at $25 per NZU, carbon prices aren’t sufficiently high to overcome these hurdles.  In a forward scenario of managed carbon prices this environment is unlikely to change much.  Farmers might start planting, but they are unlikely to produce a million ha of new forests.

What has this to do with wilding conifers?  Well, in short:

  1. A deficit of 230 million tonnes of CO2 is somewhat huge. Aside from agriculture our 100 biggest emitters today put out about 14 million tonnes of CO2 a year.
  2. Supposing the Government is right and carbon prices stay flat, the likely cost of making up the carbon deficit will be around $6 billion, spent offshore with no onshore benefits. In reality the cost might be higher (Treasury estimates range up to $37 billion).
  3. Clearly officials believe that the $6 billion or more couldn’t be better spent here, else Government investment would be going into those initiatives – and it’s not.
  4. Supposing officials are right – and I doubt it – as a taxpayer I am still concerned at the risk. New Zealand could be held to ransom over the supply of offshore credits.  They might be necessary, but I’d far rather we did all we could to get our emissions under control now, even at a perceived higher cost.
  5. Wilding conifers offer a risk management strategy. For them, we don’t need foreign investment.  We don’t have to buy the land.  We don’t need nurseries for planting stock.  We don’t have to plant and tend the trees; many of them are already in the ground.
  6. Of course that will mean we lose grassland to forests, with all of the environmental implications of species displacement and water yield. But climate change is already nasty and becoming worse.  We can expect more severe floods, droughts, pests and diseases, wildfires, landslides, coastal erosion, species loss, refugees and immigration.  Our landscapes, lifestyles and wellbeing are heading downhill now, and will never be the same.  In that perspective, the managed loss of grassland to forests looks pretty benign.

Nick Ledgard’s colleague suggested that the idea of growing wilding conifers for carbon storage was ‘a bit like saying that farming rabbits is a solution to improving our export earnings.’  Well, if rabbit farming is better than your existing land use, why not?  Perhaps rather than looking at wilding conifers as a problem we should be looking at them as part of the solution, and spending some of that $6 billion plus on developing a really strong ‘rabbit-proof fence’ to contain them – not killing them as pests.

Howard Moore
16 October 2018.

Howard Moore is a Wellington business analyst who has been involved with forest finance for over 30 years, in terms of loans, leases, forestry rights and sale and purchase agreements.  He closely follows climate change issues in relation to forestry and is a member of the Forest Investment Action Group of the NZFFA.