Trees are not just carbon receptacles

New Zealand’s climate policy remains fickle and ineffective. This month the Climate Change Commission released its report 2023 Draft advice to inform the strategic direction of the Government’s second emissions reduction plan. We are drifting in the right direction but examining our progress over the last decade reveals climate policy still grounded in reductionist thinking.

We have had foreign money flowing into the country to plant monocultural pine plantations solely for the purpose of sequestering carbon. The government has stopped that now and the Climate Commission is cautioning about planting new forests (that we can assume to be plantation forests).

A path that relies heavily on planting new forests to achieve net zero would increase exposure to risks such as fires, pests, and diseases. This could mean carbon is released back into the atmosphere and carbon storage is lost (page 8)

There are many good things about this report. It encourages a focus on gross emissions reductions rather than over-reliance on offsetting and outlines good strategies to achieve it. But it repeats the massive blind spot of earlier reports and makes it all about greenhouse gas emissions.

I haven’t read the entire 220 page report, but a word search reveals the focus. Here are some examples.

Word or phraseNumber of occurrences
pest control
soil carbon

The climate crisis is a product of industrialisation and consumerism manifested from Western thinking. We are using reductive Western thinking to diagnose the crisis and prescribe the cure and landed on greenhouse gasses as the major cause. This has been identified as carbon tunnel vision. How is that working for us?

It’s not just carbon!

Trees and all other vegetation use carbon in the miracle that is photosynthesis, use it as a basic building block of life and trade it for water and nutrients with the soil biome. In the processes of photosynthesis and transpiration vegetation cools the environment. Jimi Sol’s video summarises this nicely.

Further benefits include providing food, timber, botanicals, fibres, and beauty, and supporting biodiversity.

A wider menu to engage more people in mitigation

The climate crisis is one of several interrelated crises that some call a meta-crisis. The diagram above suggests that healthy ecosystems can help mitigate many of the crises we are facing. This makes sense given that we have destroyed about half of the planet’s vegetation. Referring back to the table above, notice how limited the Climate Commission’s thinking is. Here are some examples. (Remember, emissions are mentioned 1,989 times).

  • Biodiversity is mentioned 14 times, but it appears to be associated with other environmental values such as water quality. Pest control just gets one mention, but if we were to achieve Predator Free 2050 we would be sequestering a lot more carbon in healthier native forests, and have enhanced biodiversity. Thousands of people in Aotearoa are working to eradicate exotic predators. Their work contributes to climate mitigation too.
  • There is as much carbon in the world’s soils as there is in vegetation and the atmosphere together. Yet there is no mention of soil carbon in the document (based on my word search – carbon in organic soils (peat) is mentioned). Encouraging landowners to increase soil carbon stocks would include a whole lot more people in mitigation activity.

These are just a few ways that our climate mitigation menu can be expanded and more people can feel that they are making a contribution.

Perhaps the Climate Commission focuses on emissions reductions because that is its mandate? But it is no time to be staying in your lane when facing a crisis. It would be good to see the Climate Commission show some courage and ask a wider question, such as “what are our best options for mitigating climate change?” rather than “how do we reduce emissions?”.

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