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Last week the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton issued a report on climate policy. The report is well worth a read given the potential threat that climate change poses to our way of life and continued habitation on this planet.

In his report the Commissioner questions the framework New Zealand has previously adopted which enables emitters of carbon dioxide to use forestry planting to mitigate against their emissions without making any actual cuts to the amount of carbon dioxide they are producing.

The Commissioner proposes that instead tree-planting credits should be reserved for farmers to off-set the effects on the climate of methane and nitrous oxide – the biological gases produced by animals. In making this recommendation the Commissioner is taking note of the difference in longevity between carbon dioxide, which once released continues to persist in the atmosphere for centuries, compared to methane and nitrous oxide, which are relatively short-lived.

This is a significant issue for New Zealand given that methane and nitrous oxide make up a significant proportion of our emissions due to the prominence of our agricultural sector. It makes sense on many levels for gases relating to land use (farming) to be mitigated by conversion of land use to forestry.

In his report the Commissioner also makes valid points regarding the relative impermanence of forests compared to long-lived greenhouse gases and the risk of relying on trees as carbon sinks given their vulnerability to the effects of climate change such as increased fire hazards. We have seen this all too well in recent years here in Canterbury with the Port Hills fire and more recently in Nelson, and when trees burn the carbon they store is rapidly released back into the atmosphere.

While the Commissioner’s proposal for a new Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) framework that treats agricultural emissions separately from emissions produced by burning fossil fuels makes a lot of sense, it does also present some potential problems. One of these is that short-term costs for carbon dioxide emitters would likely be higher without the option of tree-planting. However, the Commissioner points out that in the long run if we do not focus on reducing real-world carbon emissions more quickly rather than relying solely on planting more trees, we will likely be counting the cost.

The Climate Change Minister James Shaw meanwhile has indicated that the Government intends to retain carbon sinks to offset carbon emissions for the sake of policy stability for emitters and the forestry sector.

There are no easy answers when it comes to climate change but the Commissioner’s report is valuable for drawing attention to the risk of lumping all gases and sinks together. For while this approach may enable the achievement of a net zero emissions target sooner, it may represent more of an achievement on paper than a real reduction in emissions.

It is critical that we continue to approach climate change with scientific evidence at the forefront of our decisions and also with due consideration to our unique emissions profile and the Commissioner’s report does both.

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