The Carbon Forest

By Bryan Walker 24/12/2010

The Carbon Forest: A New Zealand Guide to Forest Carbon Sinks for Investors, Farmers, Foresters and ConservationistsA suburban section has long been the limit of my landowning ambition and I’m too old now to start thinking of anything more, but the prospect opened up by a newly published small book had me imagining I could well become interested if I were younger.  The book is The Carbon Forest: A New Zealand guide to forest carbon sinks for investors, farmers, foresters and conservationists (publisher’s site here). The four authors themselves appear motivated by climate change but the detailed advice they offer is far from tied to that concern. People looking to engage in a forestry venture for any reason, including reasonable financial return, will find the book very useful.

It is not written to engage the idly interested reader, though I can report it reasonably accessible for such. The aim is to provide practical information for people wondering about establishing a forest carbon sink on land they either already own or buy for the purpose. The authors describe forest sinks as currently by far the most effective form of carbon sequestration that humans can initiate. In New Zealand the government has identified forestry as the primary tool for meeting our Kyoto target for emissions reduction and has accordingly provided financial incentives for afforestation and reforestation. The book explains the four different government schemes available, the kinds of afforestation each of them is likely to suit and the kinds of carbon credits each can earn. It also acknowledges the voluntary schemes which may be preferred by those who wish to offset their carbon emissions voluntarily, and schemes which avoid trading in carbon credits such as those initiated by people who are purely interested in offsetting their own carbon emissions.

The procedures involved in carbon trading, both statutory and voluntary, and the currency of the carbon credit are made clear. The statutory schemes have been designed to help NZ reach its Kyoto target, though the book notes that this target falls short of what the science recommends, and that the most effective way of achieving the extra reductions is through the voluntary market. However the vast majority of forest sink owners now choose to trade through the statutory schemes which are generally easier and cheaper to deal with.

The analysis of different forest types and their sequestration rates is interesting. It shows that over a one-hundred-year period exotic trees, particularly Pinus radiata, absorb more carbon dioxide than native trees, but over longer periods native trees absorb more than exotics. The two options are not mutually exclusive for forest sink projects and the book indicates ways in which they can be usefully combined, sometimes to suit different soils and aspects within one block of land. The kind of management strategies that are proposed for a sink are an important ingredient in making decisions, and the book sets out some of the costs and returns for both low and high management approaches.

Finding the right kind of land for forest sinks at the right kind of price takes time and careful research. High value pastoral or agricultural land is patently not on the cards, but there is often marginal farmland on existing farms that may provide better return to the farmer if livestock are cleared out, the gate closed, scrub left to grow, and carbon credits claimed. Additional benefits such as erosion control may well accrue. Lifestyle block owners may find that the less intensive management required for growing trees than for raising livestock is appealing, along with the environmental benefits. Small pine plantations that turn out to be of poor quality or are difficult to access may be more profitable farmed as carbon than milled. Urbanites with environmental concerns may find suitable blocks of land for sale, and venture on a carbon sink which will return enough in carbon credits to at least cover costs and provide some additional financial benefit. The writers see good value in any sink which can sequester carbon at a cost of less than $20 per tonne of CO2, especially since the price of carbon is forecast to rise considerably. However they warn that it would be illusory to regard forest sinks as get rich quick schemes. Owners need to have regard for environmental as well as financial returns.

The structure of ownership may be influenced by the degree of financial return sought from the forestry. Multiple options, particularly companies, trusts and incorporated societies, are canvassed and broadly explained with pointers to further information and a warning of the importance of obtaining good legal and business advice. The place of statutory covenants or forestry right in obtaining long-term protection for a forest sink  is discussed, along with the finance, tax, and insurance matters that need to be taken into account in establishing the sink.

For one who had no idea of what might be involved in establishing carbon sinks under the regime which now obtains in New Zealand it was an eye-opener to see the wide ramifications explored in this practical guide book. It was also very encouraging to think that there will probably be many in the country who are starting to think about entering the various schemes available and that we have reason to hope for a big increase in tree planting and growing. A late chapter of case studies of existing forest sinks was reassuring after immersion in all the complexities explored earlier in the book. The case studies cover quite a range: a sink of 600 hectares on a 1600-hectare Marlborough farm; a 157-hectare exotic forest sink in Wairarapa established on a previous hilly sheep and cattle farm; the 642-hectare Queen Charlotte Wilderness Park; a 49-hectare block in Golden Bay of originally marginal farmland; and a 7.6-hectare Wairarapa lifestyle block managed by a Wellington owner.

One of the book’s four authors, Jonathan Kennett, has several years of experience managing reforestation projects and helped initiate the Golden Bay project listed above. Another, Simon Johnson, is a trustee of a forest carbon sink project and has worked as a resource management consultant. A third, Paul Kennett, an author, editor and web-designer, is described as living on a budget of less than 1 tonne CO2-e per annum. Finally, Tom Bennion, who has written some guest posts for Hot Topic in recent months, is a lawyer specialising in environmental and Maori law. It looks like a happy mix of environmental concern and relevant experience that has produced this informative book to help forest projects develop and flourish in the New Zealand landscape.