Climate Change Minister thanks environment watchdog for his ‘landscape’ emissions report

Climate Change Minister James Shaw has thanked the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment for his latest report examining an alternative approach to dealing with long-term climate change targets and policies.

AgScience had not found a link to the report when preparing this post.

But according to RNZ, the report says New Zealand must focus on reducing carbon dioxide emissions rather than relying on forestry to absorb an increasing amount of greenhouse gases.

The report by Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton, Farms, Forests and Fossil Fuels: The Next Great Landscape Debate, concluded the planting of trees could only buy a little more time and would not fix the problem in the long run.

New Zealand – despite committing in the 1992 Kyoto Protocol to reducing them – has continued emitting greenhouse gases at growing volumes, with 35 percent more CO2 produced in 2016 compared to 2010.

The country’s strategy was to offset emissions by investing in overseas reductions schemes and by planting trees, which absorb CO2 as they grow.”

Mr Upton’s report applauded tree planting, but said that on its own it was insufficient.

“The current approach runs the risk that we will achieve net zero emissions with gross fossil emissions still running at around half today’s level and still need more time and land to offset the balance well into the second half of the century,” it said.

“Ultimately there is no avoiding a move to zero gross fossil emissions, since halting runaway climate change at any temperature level requires no further injections of fossil carbon to the atmosphere.”

The report highlighted risks of using forests as a carbon sink, warning that CO2 had a warming effect lasting hundreds or thousands of years, while carbon stored in trees could be quickly released back into the atmosphere in the event of fires, pests or other disturbances.

“Storing the waste from fossil emissions in forest sinks is simply delaying the inevitable,” it said.

“While forests can be long-lived, they cannot be regarded as permanent … their increasing exposure to climate change impacts through fire, pests, pathogens and erosion further underscores their impermanence.

“Continuing to emit fossil carbon dioxide on the basis that an equivalent amount of carbon is being sequestered by biological sinks therefore carries significant risks.”

Mr Upton’s report estimated a reduced requirement for forest cover, saying the current strategy of converting about 5,400,000ha farmland – a fifth of the country’s total land area – to forest could be reduced to between 1,600,000ha and 3,900,000ha.

“Removing access to forest sinks for fossil emitters would be prudent recognition that we do not know how to manage the risks of maintaining impermanent sinks over the timescales needed to match the long-term warming associated with fossil carbon dioxide emissions.”

In another positive note for New Zealand farmers, according to the RNZ news item, the report also said biological emissions such as methane were not as long lasting and should be treated differently from carbon dioxide.

In his press statement, Mr Shaw said Mr Upton, has provided a thought-provoking document.   The Government welcomes it as part of its overall consideration of climate strategies.

Mr Shaw acknowldged the report questions some of the fundamental design principles of the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme.

“However, for the sake of providing policy stability and predictability for emitters and the forestry sector, the Government is committed to retaining the use of forestry off-sets for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.

“As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report says, there is a narrowing window of opportunity to stay within 1.5o Celsius of global warming. It is because that window is so narrow that planting trees to offset emissions is a necessity; at least in the coming decades.”

“Nevertheless, Commissioner Upton is correct that trees only retain sequestered carbon for the life of the tree whereas emitted CO2 remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.”

Mr Shaw agrees the priority must be actual gross reductions in emissions.

“The NZ ETS reforms we consulted on last year, and which we will introduce this year, will provide necessary incentives to bring down domestic emissions.

“The ETS reforms being introduced are the result of consultation, review, and decisions made over the past five years.

“The Government believes those sets of reforms are the best range of policies available at this time.

“Fundamental changes, such as those proposed by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, would need to go through the same processes that have brought us to where we are now with the current ETS reforms being put in place,” Mr Shaw says.

The Minister’s statement is accompanied by a set of questions and answers:

Will you incorporate any of what the PCE is suggesting into climate change policy?

The Government is on a path that provides a practical mix of policy that it believes will achieve the necessary changes to New Zealand’s emissions profile and meet our Paris Agreement obligations.

Why not follow the PCE’s advice?

This report will not affect the decisions the Government has consulted on and signalled over the course of the last 12 months regarding the Zero Carbon Bill and reforms to the NZ Emissions Trading Scheme.

People are already making investment decisions based on the signals they’re picking up.

But PCE is saying we can’t wait.

He makes valid points, including that we must bring down domestic emissions in long lived gases.

The choice of policy instruments you use to do that is really where the debate lies here.

Can we really address global warming if we don’t do what the PCE suggests?

Most people have only ever said planting forests is a stop gap measure while you bring down emissions.

There is more urgency in the wake of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report which warns that our timeframe is shorter than previously thought.

It’s because of that urgency that trees are even more important now.

Future technology may provide other options but, until then, trees are our best option, alongside emissions reductions.

The Government plans on doing both.

So what are we doing to get emissions down?

The NZ ETS is the big tool, and the big change with the ETS this year will be a cap on total allowable emissions. That cap will be a sinking lid – lowering every five years.

What examples exist of companies switching to lower emissions production?

Synlait provides an example.

The company’s next milk powder plant will use driers powered with electricity.

Right now that’s more expensive than coal or gas-fired milk powder production. But Synlait knows that, within the lifetime of its plant, the cost will flip and it will be much more expensive to burn fossil fuels than use renewable electricity.

So people are already making investment decisions based on expected future prices, and that’s already driving investment into cleaner alternatives


Author: Bob Edlin

Editor of AgScience Magazine and Editor of the AgScience Blog

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