Guilt forests invade

Emissions offsets allow polluters to do bad things to the planet, as long as they plant a tree to remove the guilt. By Peter Andrew.

In Environment9 Minutes

Emissions offsets allow polluters to do bad things to the planet, as long as they plant a tree to remove the guilt. By Peter Andrew.

What’s happening?

The agricultural emissions programme is going to see huge areas of Gisborne and Wairoa farmland planted in pines for permanent carbon.

Sadly, our remaining hill country in this district is in the firing line and our productive sustainable farmland is being gobbled up by rich overseas buyers. Carbon is a get-rich-quick game mainly played by the rich and the very rich.

As Kiwis, we must be brain dead to allow our top farmland and hill country land to go into permanent pines. A decision driven by a social experiment rather than the best land use.

We have been blessed with some of the most productive soils in the world, and the best we can do is plant them in trees! Overseas visitors have been in awe of our yield, our stock carrying capacity, our ability to sustainably farm this land.

I have closely monitored the hill properties in this district being farmed for more than 30 years. Soil health continues to improve with beautiful, black, organic topsoil continuing to build. Isn’t this what sustainability is all about?

People say we need to plant our hills in trees to prevent erosion. Most people I hear talking about changing land use tend to be selling trees or are part of the social experiment.

Erosion is a natural process where geology and gravity meet rainfall. Just about every landform we live and farm in New Zealand has been created or impacted by erosion. We need to live and farm with erosion and not try to stop it, rather than use it as an excuse to plant trees. Our native bush is great at colonising post-erosion – it’s what it does for a living. If we are going to plant any permanent carbon it should only be natives.

If the people driving this programme were really committed to saving the planet, to saving our soils, why allow offset? Offset allows you to do bad things to the planet as long you plant a tree to remove the guilt. Why are we the only country in the world that allows 100% offset?

Every hectare of our soil should be treated with the conservation respect it deserves.

If we look 40 years into the future, carbon sequestration rates will drop, carbon traders and the politicians will be well gone, and what are we going to be leaving for our children? How hard have we fought to protect their futures? Our land will be unproductive and loaded up with carbon liability.

Under Government direction, we are rapidly heading to a modern-day Bridge to Nowhere. Sadly, this bridge will head straight into a wall of Pinus radiata on easy-contoured land, not the lush bush of our steep Whanganui River example.

Gisborne/Wairoa is probably the most favourable hill country to farm in New Zealand, where grass grows all year on its own with no need for feeding supplements in winter or irrigation in summer. Ask anyone who has shifted here from farming other parts of the country or the world.

These are productive hills with many of the top 10 farms on our AgFirst account analysis database being hill country farms with no flats. This year’s Farmer of the Year winners Mount Florida being a great example.

These days we are often making more production off our hills than our flats.

Our hills are also loaded with aspects perfect to survive winter weather events.

Our top sheep farmers are now lambing 170–180% off these hills with the ewes’ light footprint being an environmental solution.

The decision makers must be hard bastards, because I could not sleep at night if I knew decisions I was making were permanently destroying sustainable land use and caring communities. These are real people with passion – the passion that was so evident at Ruatoria’s Whakarua Park a few weeks back when the Hearty Ngatis rugby team took out the Lochore Cup. There was no need for co-governance as everyone was enjoying the moment. Isn’t this the world we are trying to create, not destroy?

There are no gangs, no ram raids, just a rugby team, a passionate community, and a whole lot of big and small kids on horses.

The only sniff of the need for co-governance was making sure we all got a crack at a hot paua pie at Tokomaru Bay.

So what are the financial returns from heading down the permanent carbon pathway?

The price of carbon is just over $80 a tonne and predicted to go to $100 or more.

As the pine forest grows, there is carbon sequestration that starts low but quite quickly in this region gets up to 30 tonnes a year. When sold at, say, $80, it will generate $2400 a year in carbon income as demonstrated in the following table. In the following example at $80/t you can see the carbon farmers have gross income of almost double regular farmers.

What is the financial equation?

Sure, there are establishment, management and planting costs of up to $3000/ha. However, you can see these costs are easily covered once the forest gets up and running. Annual running costs will depend on forest size, silviculture, etc, but at, say, $400/ha would allow a $2000/ha net at the $80 rate.

However, there is no free lunch. If you sell carbon, the market value of your land will drop. Land with a significant carbon liability could potentially have a negative market value.

The person who thinks he is going to stop erosion should go for a walk in the deep bush behind Ruatoria sometime. Thanks to natural tectonic uplift, these are some of the youngest soils.

If you want to try to stop some serious erosion, why not look to plant the shingle screes of the South Island?

Where did all the fertile plains of NZ come from? Erosion from the hills that spread across the flats: it is nature doing what it does best.

Where to from here?

Everyone passionate about this place needs to make that phone call, text or send that email that we don’t want to destroy our wonderful region. Enough damage has already been done.

Under the current proposal, there is little recognition of the hard work done in getting tree cover on farmers’ properties. We need to continue to champion wise land use with sustainable production.

If we are true kaitiaki (guardian) of this planet, we need to preserve the land for future generations.

  • Peter Andrew is a consultant director with AgFirst, Gisborne.