Forestry commentary: Nature calling, carbon sink needed

By: Patrick Cox, Photography by: Patrick Cox

It appears that to achieve NZ's carbon targets, forestry will play the biggest part, says Deals on Wheels' Pat Cox

By the time we get to print, summer will be nearly over and autumn—that colourful time of year—will be just around the corner, the changing of the colour warning us that winter is on the way.

The draft climate change policy has been released by the government and I’ve done a bit of research to find out what’s this going to do to change the face of forestry over the next hundred years.

At the beginning of this government’s term in 2017, the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) and plant a billion-tree programme was introduced. According to me, this has proved to be a total failure and on further inspection looked like nothing more than a money-making scheme for a few in claiming carbon credits. The PGF has been dropped and the two billion dollars can be better spent on implementing New Zealand carbon neutrality by 2050.

It appears that to achieve our carbon targets, forestry will play the biggest part
It appears that to achieve our carbon targets, forestry will play the biggest part

The target should not be taken lightly, because if we do not meet our obligation under the Paris Accord, it will cost the country billions in fines. I am not sure what they will do with the money or where it goes, but it would be better if it stayed on our shores. 

The Climate Change Commission’s list of changes makes for interesting reading. My only concern is the Commission is made up of academics, who’ve done a great job of putting the document together, but as I see things, would it not make sense to have a couple of older hands-on people to ensure it would all work from a practical viewpoint?

It would appear, to achieve our carbon targets, forestry will play the biggest part. There’s a strong emphasis on planting more native forestry. This type of forestry has a bigger potential to store carbon over hundreds of years. Our exotic plantations are short-term solutions; they store carbon quickly, but because of their short cycle and subsequent breakdown for domestic use, they also release carbon back into the atmosphere quickly. Planting native should start now.

Another option is to allow selective logging in our native forest, particularly with Kauri
die-back. These trees need to be removed and can be processed for construction and housing. If kept in board form, they will not release as much carbon and there will be less chance of leaky houses and buildings will last longer. This would also keep our forest healthy as only a healthy forest will store carbon.

The first hurdle would be convincing those who have a tendency to be green that this is the right thing to do. It’s no different to our border controls on COVID-19. To stop the spread of the disease, you have to remove the problem.

The style of logging native is completely opposite to logging exotic, due to the size. Modern-day machines would not cope, and sawmills have all been set up for exotic trees. Milling native means a change of pitch on saws from chainsaws to sawmills due to high silica content.

Because of their short cycle and subsequent breakdown for domestic use, exotic plantations release carbon back into the atmosphere quickly
Because of their short cycle and subsequent breakdown for domestic use, exotic plantations release carbon back into the atmosphere quickly

No matter what way you look at it, the whole world has this problem. A rise in temperature in British Columbia has seen a plague of tiny pine beetles. These are no bigger than a grain of rice and have destroyed 15 years of log supplies. They have spread through forest in Alberta and the Pacific Northwest.

Joining the feast are spruce beetles, attacking forest in North America and other pests joining the dinner table in Europe, creating a glut of dead and dying logs.

The housing crises will continue to put pressure on our timber supplies, so are we falling on our sword? Demand often outstrips supply, so we cut trees at a younger age. Young timber is less durable, and if we’re not careful, it will we create another leaky house problem.

Without subsidising our building material with native timber, we might struggle to get ahead of the game of increasing our forest stocks. Also, by removing trees at an immature age, they will not have had time to act as a carbon sink and so the carbon cycle is reduced.

This problem is huge when you start to open it up and look inside. Japan has been experimenting with the extraction of drinkable alcohol from trees. Trees also release methane gas during the decomposition process.

If we leave a native forest to live naturally, every tree that falls to the ground and rots will release all its stored carbon and methane back into the environment. Some will be absorbed into the ground, but the rest will go back into the atmosphere. Methane has a shorter absorption period whereas carbon remains for hundreds of years. 

The proposed planting plan has merits, with the initial planting of 25,000 hectares of native on marginal land. This volume expected to grow over time. Exotic forest has a tendency to kill all the undergrowth and can be barren of life. Native forest over time builds its own ecosystem. That’s more in line with what we’re trying to achieve.

As New Zealand plays such a small part in global warming, the concern would be if other countries around the world do not live up to their climate accord agreements by establishing their own native carbon sink with managed forests, then the temperatures will continue to rise. This will make it harder for New Zealand to manage protection of our native forest from possible bug infestations that are currently happening in the Northern Hemisphere.

Ironically, our future depends on the quality of our loggers to plant and protect our forests so our next generations can live in harmony with the land. Looking after our environment starts with each individual. What you throw out today, you will swim in tomorrow. Park the car and walk to the shop on occasion; every little bit helps when you’re looking at your own carbon footprint.

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