NZ carbon emission rise lags economic growth, but forestry carbon sink shrinking
By Pattrick Smellie
Feb. 27 (BusinessDesk) - New Zealand's carbon emissions continue to rise, but new figures from Statistics New Zealand show the increase is slower than growth in the economy for most of the last 25 years, suggesting a relative improvement in resource use.
However, the newly minted environmental-economic accounts, published for the first time today, also warn that forests are about to start shrinking as large-scale plantings in the 1990s come to harvest. Rates of forest plantation since the 1990s have failed to keep up with the rate at which forests will now be harvested and the total area of native forest has shrunk slightly between 1995 and 2016.
That spells difficulty for New Zealand in meeting its Paris climate change accord obligations by 2030, given that plantation forests are currently the country's main fallback for offsetting rising national emissions.
The accounts are far from complete but are an important input to the Treasury's annual Investment Statement, which will be published next month and is attempting to take a more sophisticated approach to measuring the country's natural capital, as well as the traditional economic measures that go into calculating gross domestic product.
Greenhouse gas emissions measures between 1990 and 2015, the latest year for which figures are available, show emissions increased from 61 million tonnes a year to 76 million tonnes, with a peak in 2005, decline until 2009, and a moderate rate of increase since then.
"The rate of increase in GHG emissions, however, including carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels and methane from agriculture, was slower than the rate of increase in GDP, leading to a decline in GHG intensity," Stats NZ's senior manager for environmental-economic statistics, Michele Lloyd, said in a statement.
Economic growth in real terms averaged 3.1 percent a year over the 1990-2015 period, whereas CO2-equivalent emissions rose on average 0.9 percent a year.
"New Zealand's producing more greenhouse gases, but becoming more efficient in doing so."
Agriculture and other primary industries accounted for 57.1 percent of C02-equivalent emissions in 2015. Goods-producing industries accounted for 24.8 percent, service industries 11.1 percent and households accounted for 6.9 percent.
The accounts show both a dramatic rise in the total carbon sequestration occurring in maturing plantation forests and a dramatic drop in new planting from a peak at the start of the period of around 100,000 hectares a year to well under 20,000 hectares annually since 2005. That's in spite of the recognition throughout that period that plantation forests acting as carbon 'sinks' represent one of New Zealand's best opportunities to avoid the costs of meeting its commitments to act against global climate change.
"As cultivated timber reaches maturity over the next decade, GDP for the forestry and logging industry is expected to rise while carbon sequestration (change in forest biomass) services provided by forestry is expected to fall," Stats NZ said.
The government is now ramping up a so-called "billion trees" planting programme over the next decade. The initiative seeks to supplement half a billion privately planted trees with another half-billion funded by the state, much of it from the $3 billion to be spent over the next three years from the Provincial Growth Fund, the first details of which were announced last week.
While total cultivated timber resources increased by 90 percent between 1990 and 2015 because of high 1990s planting, total resources in 2016 shrank slightly, by 0.2 percent as harvest rates started ramping up.
The new accounts also record a 35 percent reduction between 1996 and 2014 in the estimated volume of ice in New Zealand's glaciers, with potential to affect "renewable hydroelectricity resources and surrounding eco-systems".