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Why not rabbit farming?

Howard Moore, New Zealand Tree Grower November 2017.

In his useful article Nick Ledgard thoughtfully defines wilding conifers and gives a wide-ranging review of the arguments for and against. He writes with authority, and manages a forest of these species with first-hand experience of their performance and control. Sitting in Wellington and without that background, I have a different perspective. Call me naïve, but I think rabbit farming is not all that stupid.

A year ago, I became involved in spin-off work from the review of the Emissions Trading Scheme. At that time, the Paris Agreement on climate change was only a year old. Under the Paris Agreement the New Zealand carbon budget for 2021 to 2030 is around 610 million tonnes, but we are on track to emit 840 million tonnes. The government plans to meet its obligations by buying around 230 million carbon credits. MFAT officials have been looking for countries who might sell them to us and while this is allowed under the Paris Agreement no-one has worked out the rules, and there is no talk yet about prices.

Happily, officials seem relaxed that international carbon prices will remain low until 2030, making the cost to New Zealand acceptable. Carbon News of 10 February this year said −

New Zealand cannot rely on international carbon credits to meet its emissions reductions targets after 2030, officials have told the Government, warning that credits could be expensive and in short supply...

I also note that despite several independent reports arguing for another million hectares of forests to sequester carbon, the government has no plan for planting trees, nor is it asking the industry to do so. The conclusion is that it believes buying offshore credits will be more cost effective than afforestation. Consistent with this, in the ETS review it is suggesting auctioning credits to manage supply and demand and therefore control the carbon price.

Given that, the decision on whether or not to plant more trees rests solely with individuals and the industry officials hope to make the market more efficient For example, this can be by reducing ETS compliance costs and harvest liabilities in the expectation that this will encourage more forests where they are appropriate. But it will be over to land owners to decide whether they plant, or sell their land for planting.

The market is not encouraging commercial foresters. Land suitable for production forestry is expensive. It is hard to get approvals for overseas investment, and at $18 for a New Zealand Unit, carbon prices are not sufficiently high to overcome these hurdles. In a forward scenario of managed carbon prices farmers have incentive to plant a million hectares of new forests. What has this to do with wilding conifers?

  • A deficit of 230 million tonnes of carbon dioxide is huge − apart from agriculture our 100 biggest emitters produce about 14 million tonnes a year.
  • If the government is right and carbon prices stay flat, the likely cost of making up the deficit will be around $4 billion, spent offshore with no local benefits, and may be higher.
  • Officials believe that that money could not be better spent here.
  • Right or wrong, as a taxpayer I am concerned at the risk of buying these offshore credits. I would rather we did all we could to get our emissions under control now, even at a perceived higher cost.
  • Wilding conifers offer a risk management strategy. For them, we do not need foreign investment as we already own the land, do not need nurseries and do not have to plant and tend the trees.

This would mean the loss of grassland to forests, with all of the environmental implications of species displacement and water yield. However, climate change is already nasty and becoming worse. We can expect more severe floods, droughts, pests and diseases, wildfres, landslides, coastal erosion, species loss, refugees and immigration. Our landscapes, lifestyles and wellbeing are heading downhill. In that perspective, the managed loss of grassland to forests looks pretty benign.

Nick’s colleague suggested that the idea of growing wildings for carbon storage was ‘a bit like saying that farming rabbits is a solution to improving our export earnings.’ If rabbit farming is better than your existing land use, why not? Rather than looking at wilding conifers as a problem perhaps we should be looking at them as part of the solution. Some of that $4 billion might be better spent on developing a really strong ‘rabbit-proof fence’ to contain them – not killing them as pests.

Howard Moore is a Wellington business analyst. He closely follows climate change in relation to forestry and is a member of the Forest Investment Action Group of the NZFFA.


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