New Zealand too reliant on tree planting to meet net zero emissions targets, experts warn
New Zealand’s heavy reliance on planting trees to offset carbon pollution threatens to torpedo the country’s ambitious plans to reach net zero emissions by 2050, according to warnings from the body advising the government on its climate policy direction.
The independent Climate Commission published draft guidance on Wednesday that – when finalised later this year – must be considered by New Zealand’s leaders as they draw up their next suite of plans to meet the country’s greenhouse gas reduction targets.
The provisional document sounded renewed alarm about the government’s inclusion of carbon offsets through forestry in its calculation of emissions reduction, and a lack of clarity on how much meeting climate goals should be made up of real cuts to high-polluting activities.
New Zealand’s government “needs to make a choice about how far it will go” in directly cutting polluting activities versus simply planting trees to remove carbon, the report said. If it did not, New Zealand would fail to reach net zero emissions by 2050, the writers added.
“Our current pathway of policies will not get us there,” the chair of the commission, Rod Carr, told reporters in Wellington on Wednesday.
His remarks struck a cautious note a year after New Zealand’s Labour government unveiled the most sweeping and ambitious plan to reduce emissions in the country’s history, with a policy programme that included dozens of proposed actions.
Jacinda Ardern, then New Zealand’s prime minister, said when she announced the plan – which was also based on the Commission’s advice – that the climate crisis was a matter of “life or death”. A law passed by her government enshrines in law the target of net zero emissions and a reduction in biogenic methane emissions by 24%-47% by 2050.
New Zealand has built a global brand through its presentation as a “clean, green” paradise. But while the agricultural country of 5 million’s share of global greenhouse gas emissions is small, its gross emissions per capita are high and it has been one of the world’s worst performers on emission increases.
Emissions in New Zealand rose 57% between 1990 and 2018 – the second-greatest increase of all industrialised countries.
Chris Hipkins, who replaced Ardern as prime minister in January, has also rolled back a raft of climate change policies as he focuses on “bread and butter issues” ahead of October’s general election.
The commission’s establishment under a cross-partisan agreement in New Zealand’s parliament in 2019 means that the government must, by law, consider its recommendations on climate policy direction, no matter which party is in power. The commission’s latest advice will guide what initiatives are chosen to achieve New Zealand’s 2026-2030 emissions targets.
“We need to pick up the pace and policy needs to be aligned with the statutory targets … that have already been put in place,” Carr said. The document was not an assessment of the government’s emission reduction efforts to date, which will be published in 2024, he added.
The law governing New Zealand’s greenhouse gas reduction targets does not limit how much carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere through planting trees can be relied upon to declare success in slashing emissions.
“A lack of clarity on the approach to achieve net zero … emissions by 2050 and beyond is likely to create ongoing policy uncertainty and impact decision-making in the public and private sectors,” the report said.
Any delay in beginning the work of true emissions reduction would make the transition to a lower-carbon economy more costly and disruptive, Carr said, and achieving a net reduction in emissions primarily through planting trees would be impossible to sustain in the long term. Forests could be destroyed though fire or extreme weather and they do not store carbon forever, he added.
Every time a tree was planted to offset pollution, he said, “we’re committing New Zealanders to maintaining that forest cover for a very long time.”
The government’s first emissions reduction plan pledged subsidies for electric vehicles; New Zealand has one of the oldest and dirtiest transport fleets in the developed world and the government plans to make zero-emissions vehicles 30% of the light vehicle fleet by 2035. It also vowed to end the country’s reliance on fossil fuels, lower agricultural emissions, and reduce waste going to landfill.
The commission is now seeking public consultation on its latest advice and will issue final guidance later this year.