NZ’s environmental watchdog challenges climate policy on farm emissions and forestry offsets



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The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has warned that afforestation is a risky approach to combatting climate change.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-SA

Ivan Diaz-Rainey, University of Otago

The greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide, from burping and urinating livestock, account for about half of New Zealand’s total emissions. These agricultural emissions have been the elephant in the room of New Zealand climate policy for some time.

A report released by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) this week suggests New Zealand should treat biological emissions differently from carbon dioxide emissions. It also says afforestation is a risky approach to combating climate change if planting trees is used to offset carbon emissions.

The report threatens to turn environmental policy and its principal policy tool, the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS), on its head.




Read more:
A new approach to emissions trading in a post-Paris climate


Emissions trading in New Zealand

New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme, established by Helen Clark’s Labour administration in 2008, was meant to be a bold first in the world. It was going to cover all greenhouse-gases and all sectors and include forestry as an emissions sink. Critically, it was to include agriculture and the related biological emissions.

But the election of John Key’s National administration in 2009, with their rural electorate, meant agriculture never entered the scheme and was therefore “given a free ride” in the decade or so since. To put this “free ride” into context, the rest of the economy could buy cheap, and in some cases dubious, international carbon units for the bulk of that period.

After international trading was stopped, they could buy relatively cheap domestic forestry units. In truth, it was never much of a free ride for agriculture since no one was working particularly hard to mitigate anyhow.

The PCE report challenges the scheme’s architecture. It makes a number of recommendations. First, it suggests that biological emission should be treated differently to carbon dioxide emissions, with a zero target on carbon dioxide and a much lower but unspecified target for biological emissions.

The second recommendation is to no longer allow forestry sinks to be used to offset carbon dioxide emission, but to continue using them to offset biological emission.

This shifts the burden of mitigation away from biological emissions in agriculture towards carbon dioxide emissions from energy use and transport.

The PCE’s recommendations

The report provides an alternative vision to the “all gasses and all sectors” flexibility envisioned for the original NZ ETS. It differentiates between carbon dioxide and biological emissions since carbon dioxide is a long-lived greenhouse gas, but biological emissions include the long-lived nitrous oxide and the shorter-lived but potent methane.

The recommendation that afforestation sinks should no longer be used to offset carbon dioxide emissions represent a radical departure. It is likely to be opposed by foresters and those not wanting to create too much uncertainty in the NZ ETS. These are fair points that must be balanced against the logic behind the recommendation.

Using afforestation to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions is risky because forests may burn down (especially in a warming world) and release the carbon again. Commercial plantation forests only hold the carbon until the next harvesting cycle, and ultimately the land available for tree planting is limited and may crowd out other land uses.

Using afforestation to tackle carbon dioxide reductions also means we do not work hard enough to decarbonise the economy in more fundamental ways, including switching to electric vehicles, building houses for passive solar heating and making process heat renewable.

The search for cross-party consensus

Overall, the report signals a fundamentally different approach to climate policy from that envisioned for the NZ ETS over a decade ago. Differentiating carbon and biological emissions is sensible both from a science and a political expediency perspective.

The latter is particularly important if we are to have a political consensus behind the proposed Zero Carbon Act. Ultimately, the opposition National party will not back anything that unduly affects its agricultural electorate. Reducing reliance on carbon sinks also seems sensible as it pushes the cost of mitigation into the future, imposing it on future generations.




Read more:
A fresh start for climate change mitigation in New Zealand


Does this mean a free ride for agriculture once more? Probably not, but the devil will be in the detail. What the reduction targets for biological emissions should be is not clear. The report cites a range of between 22% to 48% by 2050 as potentially feasible with investment in research and development.

The degree to which afforestation can be used to offset agricultural emissions also needs to be thought about. Unlimited forestry offsets could lead to landscapes that are either planted in trees or relatively intensive dairy farming, with little else in between. This is undesirable as it could lead to changes in biological diversity and water quality and ultimately damage New Zealand’s green and clean brand.

Clearly, there needs to be strong incentives to reduce biological emissions beyond the offset option that push towards more sustainable forms of farming. There is a strong case to limit offsets for agriculture as well, but this might depress the forestry sector.

Finally, to remove the carbon offset option from the market immediately or in the next few years would be unfair to foresters and companies that have been planning to use offsets based on the current architecture. A transition period would be needed to lessen the regulatory shock.The Conversation

Ivan Diaz-Rainey, Associate Professor of Finance & Director, Climate and Energy Finance Group, University of Otago

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Australia doesn’t ‘get’ the environmental challenges faced by Pacific Islanders



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Environmental threats in the Pacific Islands can be cultural as well as physical.
Christopher Johnson/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Steven Cork, Australian National University and Kate Auty, University of Melbourne

What actions are required to implement nature-based solutions to Oceania’s most pressing sustainability challenges? That’s the question addressed by the recently released Brisbane Declaration on ecosystem services and sustainability in Oceania.

Compiled following a forum earlier this year in Brisbane, featuring researchers, politicians and community leaders, the declaration suggests that Australia can help Pacific Island communities in a much wider range of ways than simply responding to disasters such as tropical cyclones.

Many of the insights offered at the forum were shocking, especially for Australians. Over the past few years, many articles, including several on The Conversation, have highlighted the losses of beaches, villages and whole islands in the region, including in the Solomons, Catarets, Takuu Atoll and Torres Strait, as sea level has risen. But the forum in Brisbane highlighted how little many Australians understand about the implications of these events.

Over the past decade, Australia has experienced a range of extreme weather events, including Tropical Cyclone Debbie, which hit Queensland in the very week that the forum was in progress. People who have been directly affected by these events can understand the deep emotional trauma that accompanies damage to life and property.

At the forum, people from several Pacific nations spoke personally about how the tragedy of sea-level rise is impacting life, culture and nature for Pacific Islanders.

One story, which has become the focus of the play Mama’s Bones, told of the deep emotional suffering that results when islanders are forced to move from the land that holds their ancestors’ remains.

The forum also featured a screening of the film There Once Was an Island, which documents people living on the remote Takuu Atoll as they attempt to deal with the impact of rising seas on their 600-strong island community. Released in 2011, it shows how Pacific Islanders are already struggling with the pressure to relocate, the perils of moving to new homes far away, and the potentially painful fragmentation of families and community that will result.

There Once Was an Island.

Their culture is demonstrably under threat, yet many of the people featured in the film said they receive little government or international help in facing these upheavals. Australia’s foreign aid budgets have since shrunk even further.

As Stella Miria-Robinson, representing the Pacific Islands Council of Queensland, reminded participants at the forum, the losses faced by Pacific Islanders are at least partly due to the emissions-intensive lifestyles enjoyed by people in developed countries.

Australia’s role

What can Australians do to help? Obviously, encouraging informed debate about aid and immigration policies is an important first step. As public policy researchers Susan Nicholls and Leanne Glenny have noted,
in relation to the 2003 Canberra bushfires, Australians understand so-called “hard hat” responses to crises (such as fixing the electricity, phones, water, roads and other infrastructure) much better than “soft hat” responses such as supporting the psychological recovery of those affected.

Similarly, participants in the Brisbane forum noted that Australian aid to Pacific nations is typically tied to hard-hat advice from consultants based in Australia. This means that soft-hat issues – like providing islanders with education and culturally appropriate psychological services – are under-supported.

The Brisbane Declaration calls on governments, aid agencies, academics and international development organisations to do better. Among a series of recommendations aimed at preserving Pacific Island communities and ecosystems, it calls for the agencies to “actively incorporate indigenous and local knowledge” in their plans.

At the heart of the recommendations is the need to establish mechanisms for ongoing conversations among Oceanic nations, to improve not only understanding of each others’ cultures but of people’s relationships with the environment. Key to these conversations is the development of a common language about the social and cultural, as well as economic, meaning of the natural environment to people, and the building of capacity among all nations to engage in productive dialogue (that is, both speaking and listening).

This capacity involves not only training in relevant skills, but also establishing relevant networks, collecting and sharing appropriate information, and acknowledging the importance of indigenous and local knowledge.

Apart from the recognition that Australians have some way to go to put themselves in the shoes of our Pacific neighbours, it is very clear that these neighbours, through the challenges they have already faced, have many valuable insights that can help Australia develop policies, governance arrangements and management approaches in our quest to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.


The ConversationThis article was co-written by Simone Maynard, Forum Coordinator and Ecosystem Services Thematic Group Lead, IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management.

Steven Cork, Adjunct Associate Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Kate Auty, Vice Chancellor’s Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.