Friday, April 22, 2016

Climate change: The stopgap solution

Pure Advantage, New Zealand's clean business lobby, has a major report out today on Our Forest Future. The short version: planting 1.3 million hectares of trees will soak up enough carbon to meet our 2050 emissions target. Pure Advantage suggests the government establish a national forests strategy to make this happen.

This is an old idea - the government has been talking about planting huge forests on the East Coast for the last twenty years - but its a solid one. The problem is making it happen. Because for the past decade, the economic incentives (high dairy prices, low wood prices, carbon prices near zero) have all pushed towards deforestation rather than afforestation, which makes the problem worse.

There's also another problem: this forest has to be permanent. While Pure Advantage talks of commercial forestry having a role (and seems to be using this as a way of pushing to allow commercial harvesting of native species again), forests are only a permanent carbon sink if you never cut them down. Which means that we will need strong regulation to ensure that supposed "permanent" commercial forestry keeps its word, rather than e.g. deciding to cut it all down to turn into dirty dairy farms again in thirty years time.

Unfortunately, while pointing to a solution and calling for a strategy, the report is very short on actual policy. There are a couple of minor things we can easily do - increasing funding to the QEII national trust so it can actually cope with the number of applications, get the government to establish a native seedling nursery to gain economies of scale and lower the cost of re-establishing native forests. There's also an interesting proposal to create a "premium" permanent forestry unit within the ETS and set an (increasing) quota on polluters to provide a strong economic incentive. But fundamentally the government is going to have to get involved through regulation, grants, and punitive deforestation taxes to make this happen. And on a project with immediate costs to cronies and no immediate political payoff (and requiring sustained attention for over a decade), I just can't see that happening under a National government.