Woodman, spare that tree (foresters attitudes to the ETS)

pine.gif As one would expect from a rurally based sector, foresters are a conservative lot. I don’t say that disrespectfully, because societies – for the sake of stability – need a balanced mixture of change-makers and change-resisters. But it did mean that, when in 1989 I started work on Climate Change and forestry, I met with considerable opposition: “what bullshit is this? The climate has ALWAYS changed. Nature is self-balancing.” And so on, you’ve heard it all before.

As the topic started to become fashionable, the main forestry spokesmen on climate change worked at Carter Holt Harvey. Nobody else had the interest or the time to be involved. These CHH men were bitterly opposed to the whole issue. As well as disregarding the science, they thought it would be terrible for business (remember that CHH owned sawmills, a pulpmill and a lot of other fossil-using industries). They also thought that  – if carbon credits for afforestation every became popular – it would be bad news for forestry, because South America would convert large areas of pampas to trees and flood the market with wood.

Eventually, a “civil war” occurred within the forest sector. Some people – such as the leading spokesman, Roger Dickie – did not own processing plants, but were responsible for large areas of post-1990 forests planted on farmland. They formed the Kyoto Forestry Association and lobbied hard to stop the government “retaining” (“stealing” according to their terminology) their credits. Eventually they achieved a majority among the mainstream Forest Owners Association, who did a 180 degree about-face: from opposing our membership of the Kyoto Protocol to welcoming it. (I was intrigued also to observe how some of my colleagues’ views on anthropogenic climate change quickly adapted to mirror their expected benefits! There is still a strong group of “flat-earthers” but they are becoming less vocal).

Since the election, New Zealand and the forestry entrepreneurs have lost irreplaceable credibility among those investors.

A handful of more enterprising forest owners and consultants thought that they would reverse the current downturn in the sector by promoting the idea of carbon sinks. (You may have seen the adverts on TV). They were pleased and surprised by the enthusiasm of overseas investors – it is no exaggeration to say that international contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars were involved, with the potential to expand this by ten times. Some of those advancing the money were impressed by New Zealand’s ETS legislation and by the speeches our ex-Prime Minister and others had given at international fora. (Which is not to say that John Key was mistaken in his argument that Labour’s record had been all talk and no action). Since the election and the announced intention to repeal the ETS, New Zealand and the forestry entrepreneurs have lost irreplaceable credibility among those investors.

So the forest sector is, once again, in the doldrums. You should understand several factors that rankle: forestry is at its lowest ebb in its entire history. It’s enormous contribution to GDP, overseas earnings, and employment go largely unrecognised by politicians or by the public. For example, the wool trade or the wine industry are trivial by comparison. Furthermore, forestry has consistently played a vital role in environmental support; many of New Zealand’s slopes are so steep that that only a tree cover can stop massive erosion; the immaculate water quality that flows in New Zealand rivers owes its purity to forested catchments; and as for biodiversity – the tuis and bellbirds in my isolated Golden Bay property fly over kilometres of native forest to reach my poplar and eucalypt tree: they don’t share the nationalistic prejudice of many of the human inhabitants of Aotearoa.

The thing is: forestry has never been given credit for any of its environmental values. Indeed, just the opposite. Our national psyche is linked to farming, not to forestry, and forestry has been penalised at every opportunity. Lake Taupo is becoming polluted due to farming? Solution: pass legislation to stop foresters converting their forests. Farmers want more water from Canterbury rivers? Ban forest establishment in the headwaters. New Zealand facing a carbon deficit? Make it horrendously expensive to deforest land. And so on. It’s like someone discovering a goose that lays golden eggs, and rather than feeding it well and cherishing it, they beat it with a stick to get it to lay more.

Perhaps ten thousand New Zealanders own a patch of exotic forest. Maybe they just wanted a low-maintenance sure-fire superannuation package, rather than growing grass. But as soon as you plant trees the land ceases in some subtle mysterious way to become your private property. The public are used to communally owned forests, and believe they have a right to ride their trail bikes on the fire-breaks, hunt in it, and even dump their rubbish in it.

I was the person who first suggested – back in the 1990s – that forestry credits could be worth a lot to New Zealand on the international market. But the politicians and officials ran with this statement, without reading the second line: that this would depend on maintaining our rate of new-land planting at 50,000 ha per year. New Zealand has sufficient marginal land that desperately needs a forest cover to continue doing this for 100 years, by which time we should have found technological solutions to the problem of climate change, or else we’re all doomed.

The task is now to stimulate forestry, not with sticks but with carrots. It requires a sea-change in our agriculturally based public attitude, but this can happen over time. We need to repair the enormous damage that the sector has incurred from unwise political announcements of recent weeks. We need to understand that wood is just stored solar energy, and that New Zealand could be self-sufficient in transport fuels and in heat merely by adapting this resource.

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2 thoughts on “Woodman, spare that tree (foresters attitudes to the ETS)”

  1. I think this comment is a little unfair:
    New Zealand facing a carbon deficit? Make it horrendously expensive to deforest land.

    As you well know that deforesting land and coverting it to dairy farms is a very significant cause of increasing national emissions. The ‘making it horrendously expensive’ approach simply takes the liability for that emissions increase off the taxpayer and onto those with control over the land use decisions. It isn’t unfair, so long as other sources of emissions are treated equitably and so long as the valuable sequestration process of growing trees is rewarded.

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