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Kyoto disaster predicted

9 June 2005

Kyoto disaster predicted

New Zealand is highly likely to miss its Kyoto targets, at great cost to taxpayers and consumers, says the Forest Owners Association. In the last three years there has been a dramatic decline in new forest plantings, says association president Peter Berg. "If it continues, New Zealand won't have the 33 million tonnes of surplus carbon dioxide credits the government hopes to trade on international markets.

"The government justified ratifying the Kyoto protocol on both environmental and fiscal grounds. It even said that failure to ratify would be tantamount to setting fire to a very large cheque.

"It's now looking like there may be no cheque and no benefit to the economy. Indeed, the end result of the government's Kyoto policies may be huge disruption to the economy and a big greenhouse gas bill." Mr Berg says the average new rate of new forest planting for the last 30 years has been 44,900 hectares a year. In 2002, it dropped to 22,000 ha and last year to 10,600 ha, with forward orders placed at tree nurseries indicating a further decline this year. Meanwhile, the gap between the area harvested and area replanted has grown, with increasing areas of harvested forest being converted to dairying and other livestock.

"These trends will have a huge impact if they continue, because the government is relying on young growing trees to soak up the country's increased output of greenhouse gases, especially methane from dairy cows," Mr Berg says. "Growing trees do this very effectively. About half the weight of wood is carbon, derived from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere."

When the government signed the Kyoto Protocol, it committed New Zealand to reducing its net greenhouse gas output to 1990 levels by 2012. Although the gross output of greenhouse gases was projected by the Climate Change Office to increase by 30 per cent in the period * assuming 'business as usual', the government figured it could meet its Kyoto target and more.

The carbon tax and other government initiatives, like the promotion of wind power, were expected to reduce the potential increase by a third. However the bulk of the offset was to come from new forest plantings which, at the time the Protocol was drafted in 1997, stood at 64,000 ha a year. Last year the Climate Change Office reviewed New Zealand's ability to meet its Kyoto obligations.

The office noted that its previous forecasts had not allowed for any deforestation, and had assumed new plantings of 30,000 ha year. "In each of the last three years, at least 10 per cent of the country's harvested forest area has not been replanted. In addition, an unknown but substantial area of immature forest was cut to waste or sprayed with herbicide by land owners converting to livestock," Mr Berg says. "If this continues, deforestation alone will remove at least 21 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the government's projected 33 million tonne CO2 cheque.

If new planting rates also remain at around the current low of 10,000 ha, officials estimate the CO2 balance will fall by a further 10.3 million tonnes." Mr Berg says this calculation only takes into account the loss of carbon sequestration by forestry. "If allowance is also made for increased greenhouse gas emissions from livestock occupying formerly forested land, New Zealand will have a negative carbon balance in the first Kyoto commitment period from 2008-2012.

The cost to the taxpayer will depend on the price of carbon emission units at the time, but is likely to be many millions of dollars. "Worse still, we are only talking about the first Kyoto commitment period from 2008-2012. Beyond that, because of the age structure of our plantation forests, officials predict there will be periods when future governments will face net liabilities from Kyoto forests." Trees grow very well in New Zealand, probably as well as anywhere in the world. "It's therefore logical we should use forestry as one of the tools to achieve our Kyoto and climate change goals. But to do this we need the government to adopt much more encouraging and even-handed policies," Mr Berg says.


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