Simon Upton, methane and forestry

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton says there are good reasons to allow forestry offsets for methane rather than for fossil fuels

Simon Upton, in his role as Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, has produced a new ‘Note’ for Parliament exploring the possibilities of using carbon sequestration from forestry to offset methane emissions. It is an interesting and some might say provocative paper. Here I present and discuss just some of the big issues that he raises.

First, some explanation about Simon Upton and where he fits into the parliamentary scene.

Simon Upton was a Member of Parliament for close on 20 years and a Minister in the Bolger and Shipley Cabinets, including more than six years as Minister for the Environment. Then he headed overseas working for the OECD. Then in 2017 he was appointed in the last year of the National Government to an initial five-year term as Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

In that current role, Upton reports to Parliament itself and not to any Minister. This distinction is important because his role is intended to be non-political. In this role, he has the freedom to roam widely, exploring issues he thinks are of fundamental importance, without ministerial direction.

The first audience for his reports is the Members of Parliament of all political parties.  This means there is a need to write for people who have no science training but who, one hopes, are keen to get to the essence of issues that are important to New Zealand’s future.

This particular ‘note’ (as he calls it) makes no recommendations. Instead, the focus is on educating people as to the issues. The terminology of a ‘note’ is purposeful and relates to the idea that it is intended to inform and generate debate rather than to make specific recommendations. Despite the terminology suggesting it might be a short document, it is still 49 pages long and it is not an easy read.

There is also a shorter version of nine pages, but readers of the short version should be cautious of thinking they have the issues nailed down.

I have a particular interest in this note in that I was one of three people who were invited to review an earlier draft. As external reviewers, our task was to identify weaknesses and make constructive suggestions for improvement, and our names are publicly acknowledged at the start of the note. But none of us had responsibility for the final content. It is Upton’s paper, supported by his internal professional team.

Here I start by quoting the first two introductory paragraphs where Upton puts forward a fundamental philosophical issue that others have failed to address.

New Zealand’s emissions reduction targets for 2050 were enshrined in legislation in 2019. When setting these targets, the Government decided that forestry offsets would be counted towards the target for fossil carbon dioxide and other long-lived greenhouse gases (net zero by 2050), but not the emissions reduction targets for biogenic methane (a 10% reduction by 2030 and a 24–47% reduction by 2050, relative to the 2017 level). The rationale behind the important and far-reaching decision to have a net target for long-lived greenhouse gases but a gross target for biogenic methane was never satisfactorily explained.”

“Why should emitters of carbon dioxide in the fossil-fuel-based economy have access to New Zealand’s limited supply of forestry offsets to assist them in meeting their emissions reduction target, but not emitters of livestock methane in the land-based economy?”

A key point here is that the 2050 net zero for carbon dioxide still allows a large volume of carbon dioxide emissions to be emitted.   Further on in the report (p19), Upton points out that: “In the Climate Change Commission’s ‘current policy reference’ scenario, gross carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by 11% by 2030 and 37% by 2050.”

This illustrates that the ‘net zero’ figure bandied about so much by various politicians and the media for carbon dioxide only sounds impressive because sequestration from forests is assumed to offset all of the very substantial remaining carbon dioxide emissions, primarily from the energy and transport sectors. In contrast, the lack of offsets available for methane makes the methane figure look bad in comparison.

 The alternative perspective that Upton has been putting forward, both here and previously in 2019 in a 189-page report called ‘Farms, forestry and fossil fuels’, is that the land-based economy should be considered as an entity. Given that forestry and farming compete for the same land, there is a logic to that. In contrast, it seems unreasonable that the rest of the community should be able to offset its emissions by singling out forestry from the overall land-based economy, to make it look good in relative terms.

Upton then writes in the note about the contribution of New Zealand agricultural emissions to global warming. He makes the point that the best estimates – which, I add here, does not necessarily mean they are correct, because there are lots of uncertainties – are that New Zealand’s historical agricultural emissions have added 0.0015 degrees Centigrade to the current global climate.

At one level this figure seems totally trivial, but that is influenced by the world being big but New Zealand being small. New Zealand also makes up less than 0.1% of the world’s population, and on a per capita basis our emissions are certainly not small.  

Upton then points out that even if methane emissions decrease, with this leading in time to a reduction in the level of agriculturally-sourced methane in the atmosphere, there would still be ongoing warming effects due to lags in the temperature response function. 

In the second part of the paper, Upton explores how much forestry would be needed to take the total emissions from the land-based sector, from both short-term and long-term gases, down to net zero. The answers are daunting. But before discussing that, it is important to acknowledge an assumption made by Upton that all of the new forests will be approximately 28-year production forests. I will return to that assumption later.

Upton looks at the net-zero question using two different metrics, both focusing on 2050 as the initial target date. The first is the GWP100 measure of emissions which is the official international method used for comparing short and long-lived gases. The second measure focuses on the amount of further warming, which is not the same as the level of emissions, to ensure that the land-based sector is not adding to warming after 2050. That second analysis uses the principles that underpin the alternative GWP* metric.

Using the GWP100 measure, Upton reports that New Zealand would need to plant approximately four million hectares of new pine forests progressively over the next 100 years to balance current methane emissions. Using a warming metric based on principles set out in the alternative GWP* metric, then New Zealand would need to plant slightly less at 3.9 million hectares, but with all of this occurring by 2050 and none thereafter.

Not surprisingly, Upton then concludes in his final paragraph as follows: “This work shows that very large areas of forest would need to be planted to make any significant dent in the marginal warming effect of New Zealand’s livestock methane emissions. For that reason, if forest planting were to be used to offset livestock methane, it would have to be in addition to – not instead of – reducing national gross emissions of biogenic methane by 24–47% by 2050. We cannot simply plant our way out of this problem.

My own conclusion is somewhat different. This is because Upton’s starting point has been to assume production forestry with approximately 28-year rotations, for which the average sequestration over multiple cycles is equivalent to only 16 years of initial growth. This short-rotation assumption leads inevitably to his results and conclusion.

The conclusion would be different using long-rotation forests or so-called permanent exotic forests, possibly transitioning eventually to native forests.  For example, with permanent forests the sequestered carbon can be five times that of the average under short-rotation forests. Accordingly, his conclusion should have been that we cannot plant our way out of this problem with short-rotation forests.

My second conclusion reflects Upton’s long-held perspective that there is a logic associated with using forestry to balance emissions within the land-based sector instead of as a get-out-of-jail card for the energy and transport sectors. If we accept that proposition, which has considerable merit and is worthy of consideration, then there is a lot more analysis needed as to alternative pathways forward and their effects on all sectors of the economy. I hope that Simon Upton takes up those challenges.

In seeking out those alternative pathways, we should never forget that more than 80 percent of New Zealand’s merchandise exports derive from the primary industries, and approximately half of those total exports derive from methane-emitting ruminants. Without vibrant export industries, as a nation we are in big trouble.

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About Keith Woodford

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant, based in New Zealand, who works internationally on agri-food systems and rural development projects. He holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University, New Zealand, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington.
This entry was posted in carbon farming, forestry, greenhouse gases, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Simon Upton, methane and forestry

  1. Hugh Jorgan says:

    Good report – that last comment:

    “never forget that more than 80 percent of New Zealand’s merchandise exports derive from the primary industries, and approximately half of those total exports derive from methane-emitting ruminants. Without vibrant export industries, as a nation we are in big trouble.”

    What are your thoughts on consumption emissions? Should these end-buyers contribute to the emissions they create through their demand?

  2. Jason Barrier says:

    Good distillation of the Upton report Keith, along with your own interesting take on his conclusions. I would love to see a broader analysis done – one which includes the regional, social, environmental and economic cost to NZ of planting 4M ha of our productive export-generating farmland into pine forestry.

  3. graybae4567 says:

    Can only hope that the Politicians absorb the fact why should NZ ‘s farmland be claimed by the petrochemical industries etc wherever they may reside to offset their own emissions.Without agricultural exports we are stuffed.

  4. Keith Woodford says:

    Hugh
    In theory it would be good if the emissions could be sheeted home to the consumers rather than the producers. That would work very well for NZ agriculture. But following those emissions through the supply chains would need to be done internationally on a global basis. Somewhat complicated.
    KeithW

  5. Mark Belton says:

    Excellent

    I fully agree… NZ farming sector must be enabled to ulilise offsets to offset CH4

    By the way… I met with Shaw, Nash, O’Connor 3 weeks ago

    From recent announcements seems we have got traction in permanent forests with introduced tree species

    Tragic though Govt proposed new regime start 2025

    If Radiata tsunami continues till then… it will be political suicide, an incinerent on land prices and farm conversions without LUC protection or other best practice requirements to protect good farmlands

    Mark

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    • waimata says:

      Mark permanent exotic forests do not need to be just pine, and many farms would benefit from inaccessible and low performing areas planted into permanent forests of exotic trees that can increase farm production. Poplars and Alders are a good example, both will protect from erosion, increase soil fertility, and allow winter sunshine to allow grass growth. Planted on marginal hillsides at wider ETS eligible spacings and grazed these forests can still produce almost as much pasture as the hillsides did without trees. There is a necessity to commit to keeping these forests either forever or until the carbon price drops enough to buy back the credit and exit, but this is no hardship on sites that should always be in trees for environmental reasons.

      In my part of the country pines create a huge fire risk and kill everything around and under them, so this kind of permanent forest seems an extremely bad idea. Exotic hardwoods can produce almost as much carbon, but improve the environment, and many species are fire retardant.

      I know of several farmers who have exceeded $1 million in carbon sales this year. ETS permanent forest category should be something farmers look at using to our advantage rather than only seeing the downside of commercial permanent pine forests.

      Ben Waimata

      • Keith Woodford says:

        I also know farmers getting those sorts of income from carbon. As one farmer said to me when we met recently, he could not understand why more farmers were not doing it.And I know that Mark Belton also shares that same perspective that we have.
        Keith

      • David Janett says:

        Hi Ben

        more and more farmers are realizing the opportunity. We have many 100s on our books and we are over whelmed with demand – especially from Dairy farmers who are very business focused. The issue is once they go into it and start to plant some trees they get some heavy abuse from others – this is becoming a serious issue in some places. Its nuts as what they find is they solve water issues, soil erosion issues, shade, shelter and succession issues. Pines wont poison the soil and permanent exotics of all types offer the greatest benefit to farmers – take your pick. Funny a few farmers have openly told me they are reconsidering who they will vote for as they realize who has given them this once in a life time opportunity to completely transform their business, lifestyle and family all for the good.
        As one older farmer said to me “they can see the trees and abuse me but they cant see my bank balance”
        The problem is no one will stand up and say this good for us as they get shot. I imagine even Keith gets a bit of pushback for his views.
        They all just quietly keep their heads down and carry on – HWEN is no problem just an opportunity for these folk.
        Farmers need to be very careful what they wish for.

  6. Dr Mike Joy says:

    Keith your last point: “Without vibrant export industries, as a nation we are in big trouble.” I would note that we are in even bigger trouble if we don’t reduce emissions, and GHG emissions are far from the only environmental impact of how we farm. We all drastically reduce emissions or we are all screwed so using maintaining income as a reason to keep doing harmful things will only get us deeper in shite.

    • Keith Woodford says:

      Mike,
      But it is a good reason to seek environmental solutions that do not destroy the industries. And that is where I am spending quite some time.
      Keith

  7. jandade10c765f1 says:

    Hi Keith.
    Another informative article, cheers.
    With the latest 2 emails re new legislation starting 1/1/2023, I’m a bit lost with regard to
    “Permanent forests”.
    My wife and I own a 43 hectare forest an hour north of gisborne.
    Currently a “saw tooth forest “, is there any benefit registering as a permanent first?
    Kind regards, John

    • Keith Woodford says:

      John,
      I would need a lot more info about the forest before I could respond in any meaningful way.
      Keith

      • jandade10c765f1 says:

        Hi Keith.
        Happy to give more details in this public forum, if you think it would raise awareness.
        What more information about our forest do you need? Cheers John

    • David Janett says:

      Hi John
      Sawtooth is the same as permanent system and you are probably best to stay in that as it has more flexibility. Just need to be aware that if you sell the carbon there are obligations to get the new adverse event cover (loss of forest) in terms of reporting and timing etc. so you dont have to pay it back if the forest is lost. Think of it as the terms of your insurance policy – you need to do things by the book and it comes with obligations. Its not simple but not hard if you know and follow the rules – that sounds silly sorry but know the rules and follow them.
      You will need to work out the best route for you – in some cases carbon is, in other timber harvest will be.
      Dave Janett

      • jandade10c765f1 says:

        Thanks David, very informative and helpful. I had considered insurance several years ago but was staggered by the cost. If it is now compulsory, I’ll have to bite the bullet. Could you point me the right direction to get a competitive quote… currently I wouldn’t have a clue.
        Thanks again.
        Best wishes John.

    • David Janett says:

      The insurance is provided by the Crown from 1 January 2023. Its FREE!! BUT you have to abide by the rules to make sure you don’t lose it. The final regulations only came out last week and I wont try to explain it here. My advice would be to get some good advice from a forestry person who understands the ETS – not many Im afraid. I would volunteer but Im so snowed under I cant breath!! Tell me where you live and I can suggest a few names for you to contact.

      • jandade10c765f1 says:

        We live in Orewa 37kms north of Auckland. The forest is on the east coast, 1 hour north of Gisborne. Your help is much appreciated.
        Cheers John

  8. Paul says:

    Hi Keith.
    I have three main points to raise on this PCE piece.

    1) the focus on ‘marginal warming’ which is interesting, but not surprising to see given one of the contributor reviewers.

    2) the amount of production forestry area (28yr rotation) to offset a perpetual type of livestock I believe is overstated by a factor of 2x. If a hectare of land is planted in trees for this purpose it must have been of current pastoral use. Therefore the 0.6ha of a dairy cow, 0.4ha beef cow & the 0.08ha for the sheep has actually reduced that animal as well as offsetting another one perpetually.
    – that bit of practical logic has been over looked.
    Added to that there is another 1/t of CO2e as N2O and CO2 that is also reduced per hectare on top of the methane for such an area of land.

    3. The note set out to speak to using such offsetting for methane vs currently only being able to do such for Long lived GHGs, particularly fossil CO2.
    The graph that went with the release forgot yo show a comparison to such a thing. I have done the numbers and will be sending through to PCE office.
    For a passenger car – 1.1ha forestry per car*
    For an annual return trip to London – 1.7ha forestry*

    *note for the livestock the numbers are one off planting amount. For these two fossil CO2 comparisons it is only for 100yrs.

    Paul

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