New Zealand relies too heavily on tree planting to meet net-zero emissions goals, experts warn

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New Zealand’s heavy reliance on tree planting to offset carbon pollution threatens to torpedo the country’s ambitious plans to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, according to warnings from the body advising the government on its climate policy direction .

The Independent Climate Commission released draft guidance on Wednesday that, once finalized later this year, will need to be considered by New Zealand’s leaders as they craft their next set of plans to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets of the country.

The interim paper has sounded renewed alarm about the government’s inclusion of carbon offsets through forestry in its calculation of emissions reductions and a lack of clarity about how much achieving climate targets should consist of real cuts to highly pollutants.

The New Zealand 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. Otherwise, New Zealand would fail to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, the authors added.

“Our current policy path will not get us there,” committee chair Rod Carr told reporters in Wellington on Wednesday.

Related: New Zealand scraps transport emissions reform to fund welfare boost

His remarks struck a cautious note a year after New Zealand’s Labor government unveiled the largest and most ambitious plan to cut emissions in the country’s history, with a policy agenda including dozens of proposed actions.

Jacinda Ardern, then New Zealand’s prime minister, said the climate crisis was a matter of “life and death” when she announced the plan – also based on advice from the Commission. A law passed by her government enshrines the goal of net zero emissions and a reduction in biogenic methane emissions of 24%-47% by 2050.

New Zealand has built a global brand through its presentation as a ‘clean, green’ paradise. But while the agricultural country with a 5 million share of global greenhouse gas emissions is small, its gross per capita emissions are high and it has been one of the world’s worst performers in terms of rising emissions.

Emissions in New Zealand increased by 57% between 1990 and 2018, the second largest increase of all industrialized countries.

Chris Hipkins, who replaced Ardern as prime minister in January, has also withdrawn a number of climate change policies as he focuses on “bread and butter issues” ahead of the general election in October.

Livestock on the shore of Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand.

Livestock on the shore of Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand. The farming country of 5 million has one of the world’s highest rates of greenhouse gas emissions per capita. Photography: David Clapp/Getty Images

The commission’s establishment under an inter-party agreement in the New Zealand parliament in 2019 means that the government must, by law, take its recommendations on the direction of climate policy into consideration, regardless of the party in power. The commission’s latest council will lead the initiatives chosen to meet New Zealand’s 2026-2030 emissions targets.

“We need to pick up the pace and the policy needs to be aligned with the statutory goals…that have already been put in place,” Carr said. The paper was not an assessment of the government’s emissions-cutting efforts to date, due for release in 2024, he added.

The law governing New Zealand’s greenhouse gas reduction targets does not limit the amount of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere through planting trees that can be relied upon to claim success in reducing emissions.

“The lack of clarity on the approach to achieving 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.

Related: Is driving on the left preventing New Zealand from meeting its climate goals? | Henry Cooke

Any delay in starting real emissions reduction work would make the transition to a low-carbon economy more expensive and disruptive, Carr said, and achieving net emissions reductions primarily through tree planting would be impossible to sustain. long-term. Forests could be destroyed by fire or extreme weather, and they don’t store carbon forever, he added.

Every time a tree was planted to offset the 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 promised 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 30% of the light vehicle fleet carbon neutral by 2035. It has also promised to end the country’s reliance on fossil fuels, lower agricultural emissions, and reduce waste going to landfill.

The commission is now seeking a public consultation on its latest advice and will issue final guidance later this year.

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