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One year ago I released the Our Forest Future report for Pure Advantage. It identified that New Zealand was facing a trend of net forest loss – and argued that we needed to turn this trend around. I called for 1.3 million hectares of new forest to reduce New Zealand’s forward liabilities for degraded natural assets and foreign carbon offsets. Our future forest, I argued, was an essential element in getting New Zealand on track to net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

This issue was largely off the public radar then – but how things change. Since last year, there have been some crucial shifts in government rhetoric, as well as a blossoming of forest-related initiatives throughout the country (more on these below). The need for net forest gain was also reinforced and refined by last month’s Vivid Economics’ report, Net Zero in New Zealand, prepared for the cross-party parliamentary group GLOBE-NZ. This report took a cross-sectoral approach, exploring not only forestry and land use, but also the potential for emissions reductions in energy, industry, waste and agriculture; and how all these elements hang together.

The Vivid Economics report explored three potential pathways to reduce New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions: Off Track, Innovative and Resourceful. Crucially, all these scenarios anticipate substantial new forest planting over the coming decades.

The Resourceful scenario boosts forest area by 2.3 million hectares by 2050, about one-third of this in native regeneration. Innovative aims for 1.5 million hectares of new forest, about one-quarter native regeneration. It also de-intensifies agriculture by converting 1.5 million hectares of pasture to horticulture. Along with changes in other sectors, both of these scenarios put us on track to meet our Paris Agreement promise of net zero emissions by the second-half of this century.

Even the less ambitious Off Track scenario, which only keeps our net emissions a tad below their current levels, requires us to add 388,000 hectares of plantation forest. Under this scenario, we would still need to expand our net stocked forest area by 9,300 hectares annually until 2070. Yet the reality is that, over the last ten years, our plantation forests are shrinking at an equivalent rate – from 1.81 million hectares in 2005 to 1.72 million hectares in 2015. Most of this deforested land was intended for dairy conversion.

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So we need to turn things around – and fast. The question, as always, is how? Unfortunately, the Vivid Economics report doesn’t help us much here, except for its call for a stable, meaningful carbon price. This is a shortcoming of the Vivid Economics report, but it is also simply the nature of scenario planning. The purpose is to capture high-level trade-offs at the expense of localised detail.

As yet, the government also lacks a concrete strategy. (This hasn’t stopped the forestry sector from forging on without government with its own Forest Policy Project, however, due for release later this year.) The Afforestation Grant Scheme, which will subsidise 15,000 hectares of new forest between 2015 and 2020, is a far cry from Vivid’s projections  of between 9,300 and 38,000 hectares annually. The Ministry for the Environment is also reviewing its Emissions Trading Scheme but, as I’ve already argued here, the ETS is an instrument, not a strategy. The ETS needs to be linked to strategic outcomes or outputs, such as domestic emissions caps or price corridors; otherwise it will continue to generate uncertainty for forestry and other sectors. (The proposed Zero Carbon Act is one way to create certainty.) The increased carbon price, currently wobbling around the $17 mark, might incentivise new forest planting – but it is too early to say with much confidence and, in any case, this won’t necessarily reverse the lingering distrust among many foresters and landowners toward the ETS. Once bitten by a collapse in the carbon price, twice shy.

Nevertheless – from a forest perspective – there are signs for hope. This time last year, when Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett signed the Paris Agreement, she endorsed the prevailing view that New Zealand should buy millions of foreign carbon credits at an unknown future price to offset our excess emissions. Six months later, however, at the 2016 Climate Change & Business Conference in Auckland, she acknowledged that we could avoid these future liabilities by creating domestic carbon sinks, including new forests. “Forestry is so important because it’s currently our most important source of domestic emission removals,” she said. “It can deliver at scale and is likely to cost less than purchasing international emissions reductions.” This was an important shift in language and a victory for the common-sense view that we shouldn’t leave expensive problems to our children and grandchildren when we can intervene cheaply now. Minister Bennett has also supported the GLOBE-NZ initiative, as well as established expert working groups on climate issues, including a Climate Change Forestry Reference Group.

Recognition of the important role for trees has been reinforced elsewhere. An October 2016 report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment emphasised the opportunities for farm forestry and native regeneration to offset agricultural emissions. A March 2017 report by NZIER illuminated the economic and environmental value of plantation forestry, noting that forestry created $31 million of environmental benefits annually while dairying created -$18 million in environmental damage annually. Last week’s report on freshwater quality by the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor also highlights the role of land use on water quality, particularly the higher sediment runoff levels from pastoral land than forest land. It notes that forested riparian buffers can help to reduce the impacts of agriculture, commercial forest clearing and urban development. By getting trees in the ground, we make headway on at least two wicked problems: freshwater deterioration and climate change.

Moreover, government is operating various contestable research funds, such as the Freshwater Improvement Fund or the Sustainable Land Management & Climate Change Research Programme, which could increase planting. This research could someday produce the sorts of technological breakthroughs that will support Vivid Economics’ Innovative scenario. But what we shouldn’t do is treat this research as a substitute for making tough decisions about land use. The danger is, as public science experts like Roger Pielke Jr. and Daniel Sarewitz have long argued, that: “For politicians, research itself serve[s] as action”. In other words, politicians gladly support further research and consultation exercises, because this has the appearance of doing something without actually tackling the electorally perilous tradeoffs that climate change and water quality issues involve. Research is good – but we also need action, even when we don’t know everything that we could know about the problem at hand.

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So, the real cause for hope are the many initiatives around the country that actually get their gumboots dirty.

One such project is Trees That Count, which was launched recently by Project Crimson in partnership with The Tindall Foundation, the Department of Conservation and Pure Advantage. It emerged from ideas in the Our Forest Future report: if we know how many native trees we’re already planting, we can commit to planting even more in future. Trees That Count counted 3.1 million natives trees in 2016, so the goal this year is 4.7 million trees: one tree for every New Zealander. Already, more than 500,000 trees have been pledged, with a big push planned for this year’s Arbor Day (June 5th) to get New Zealand over the line. While this won’t solve, it will get people engaged, reminding every tree planter that they can make a real difference.

By capturing this sense of national scale, New Zealanders can see how local initiatives add up to something transformational. It has been estimated that there are over 600 community conservation groups around New Zealand who do crucial work defending and enhancing our environment, often underappreciated. Other more high-profile initiatives are also doing great work, such as the longstanding Trees for Survival project, the ever-expanding Million Metres Streams Project, and Sustainable Coastlines which has already planted over 45,000 trees to support cleaner beaches. Other projects are working to get off the ground, such as the energetic Avon-Ōtākaro Forest Park initiative in Christchurch which aims to “green the red zone”.

Some local councils are also taking a proactive approach to support these efforts. Christchurch City Council is currently developing its Christchurch Tree and Urban Forest Plan. In Auckland, Mayor Phil Goff made an electoral pledge to plant one million trees in his first term. Pundits saw this a crowd pleaser, but if done strategically, these new plantings could help to ease the pressure on Auckland’s wastewater system, because of trees’ proven capacity to reduce rainwater runoff.

There are also some intriguing technical developments. For example, Māori forestry initiative group, Toitu Te Waonui, recently launched a fascinating online tool, dNITRO, which provides landowners in the Rotorua area an easy way to assess their land use options, including the economic potential for plantation forestry and native regeneration. It makes you wonder: what other tools and apps can we create to help landowners make responsible land use decisions?

I’ve also recently undertaken research, supported by the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, on how social investment-style thinking might translate into the environmental context, especially for permanent forest planting. I’ve proposed a Permanent Forest Bond, based on the social impact bond model, to access upfront capital for tree planting. The first bond of this kind was issued in September 2016 by DC Water, which successfully raised private capital to fund green infrastructure to relieve stormwater pressures on Washington DC’s sewer system. Perhaps a similar bond could be issued in New Zealand to access finance for establishing forest on 1.1 million hectares of highly erosion prone land throughout the country?

These are the parts of a greater puzzle that we – as a nation – still need to piece together. While I called for a national forest strategy this time last year, I’ve come to realise that what we need is a national land use strategy – which takes seriously the inter-relationships between land, water and atmosphere. This is one of the most fascinating and urgent policy issues in New Zealand today – and it’s exciting to be involved.

Dr David Hall

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