Anne Salmond: Is the ETS an environmental ponzi scheme?

Treasury needs to conduct a value chain analysis of forestry companies and our Emission Trading Scheme to ensure they meet international sustainability standards, writes Anne Salmond

Opinion: Colin Jacobs, general manager for forestry company Drylandcarbon, writes in the NZ Herald : “In terms of government policy, the refusal to listen to rural communities and prohibit so-called ‘permanent’ pine forests is another potential long-term mistake.”

He adds, “There is inadequate science to reliably inform us as to how ‘permanent’ pine forests will behave when the trees all reach the end of their lives at roughly the same time. The notion that they will gradually transition to native forest is more hope than fact. Not to mention the value of the timber is foregone.”

That is fair comment. For all these reasons, rewarding carbon farming with pine trees is a long-term mistake. Not only is there inadequate science to tell us what will happen when all the trees in a pine plantation age and die at once, there is no guarantee that they will last that long in conditions of climate change, as the risks of fire, disease, intense rainfall and wind throw increase – as we’ve seen during Cyclone Gabrielle.

At the same time, Jacobs claims in the Herald article that “Exotic forests absorb carbon more than five-times faster than native forests. In the absence of dramatic gross emissions reductions, we are, rightly or wrongly, dependent on carbon sequestration from exotic forests to deliver against our commitments.”

Here he is mistaken, however. While pine plantations may sequester carbon rapidly while they are growing, a life cycle analysis of the emissions from propagating the plants to site preparation, planting, trimming, spraying, harvesting, preparing the logs, shipping them, and the life expectancy of the products is likely to show that about twice as much carbon is emitted as is sequestered during the life of the trees, if international studies are to be believed.

Why does this matter? Internationally, this kind of ‘value chain’ analysis is increasingly being deployed to combat ‘greenwashing,’ in global trade deals as well as in national policies, in the EU for instance. Domestically, Toitū Envirocare, the government’s own sustainability certification programme (a subsidiary of Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research), insists that a value chain analysis is compulsory before it will certify a company as climate positive.

Logically, given the claims they make about carbon sequestration, forestry companies operating in New Zealand should have to meet such a test. It should also be applied to New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme itself, to ensure that it meets international standards for overall emissions reductions.

Unfortunately, given the huge financial privilege it gives to industrial forestry, a value chain analysis is likely to show that the ETS is currently rewarding carbon emissions far in excess of the carbon sequestered by the pine trees while they are growing. This is precisely the opposite of what it should be doing, for New Zealand, for the climate and for the planet.

Surprisingly, in its recent release of draft advice to the government, the Climate Commission missed this basic point. The incentives given by the ETS to industrial forestry are even more perverse than they suppose.

As a first step in its current review of the ETS, Treasury needs to conduct a value chain analysis of forestry companies operating in New Zealand, and of the ETS itself, to ensure that they meet international standards for sustainability. Or perhaps it could ask Toitū to carry out such an analysis, on behalf of New Zealand investors and taxpayers.

Treasury should also be costing schemes such as Pure Advantage’s Recloaking Papatuānuku, and restricting the ‘Permanent Forest’ category in the ETS to native forests, especially on highly erodible land across the country. Sooner rather than later, as value chain analyses kick in, this is likely to become the only internationally acceptable way to offset carbon emissions.

We have to be sure that the Emissions Trading Scheme is not an environmental Ponzi scheme, based on unfounded claims about its overall impact on the climate. That would be prohibitively costly for the New Zealand economy, for the country’s international reputation, and for our children and grandchildren.






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