How Can One Billion Trees Be a Problem?

As part of New Zealand’s answer to meeting our climate change obligations is the crazy policy of one billion trees.

What this policy says, in essence, is that rather than cutting back on our carbon emissions in transport, farming and other sectors, instead, we will offset them, at least for the near future, through planting one billion trees – mostly radiata pine.

Trees and other plants, including in the sea, have always been natures way of capturing carbon from the atmosphere and either storing it in the body of the plant or through working with micro-organisms in the soil, holding it at various depths in the soil profile.

The quantity of carbon stored in the soil varies depending on climate and soil type. For instance, heavily leached (due to high rainfall) tropical rain forest soils contain very little carbon, with most of it that is present, held in the body of the tree. This lack of soil carbon is one reason why clear-felling the Amazon or other tropical rain forests is such a disaster.

All good so far. I seem to be refuting my opening statement that the one billion trees policy is simply nuts. Planting trees is absolutely essential to help take CO2 out of the atmosphere, especially in light of the latest research that indicates we may breach the 1.5 °C limit in temperature rise as early as 2024. So much for the 2016 Paris Agreement!

So, what is the problem with the one billion trees policy?

The problem is this, and it is indicative of something we see far too often in so many fields. That something is the lack of any holistic thinking lying behind policy creation.

This is how I imagine the policy was created. Some scientist somewhere did some excellent research that showed how much carbon could be taken out of the atmosphere by various species of trees at varying ages. This research would then have been modelled up to show how planting a bunch of trees (preferably the ones giving a quick but not long term fix, such as radiata pine), will get New Zealand off the climate change hook. A billion trees would about do.

Planting these trees allows us to kick the can requiring real change down the road for another decade or two. This policy of planting one billion trees has allowed the New Zealand government to avoid making hard decisions, and the lack of those decisions will inevitably cost us a great deal in future.

Holistic Viewpoint

Governments love grand but straightforward policies. They do not like dealing with complexity, nor do they have a great track record of anticipating unforeseen outcomes. In other words, they do not have much of a track record of taking a holistic viewpoint, as outlined below.

Was the social impact of the one billion trees policy considered? It would appear not as entire farms are being sold and planted in pine trees. There is now no employment. Schools close, services are wound back, houses are abandoned. What were once thriving communities are now landscapes of dull green monocultures.

Was the effect of this type of planting on water cycles considered? It would appear not. There is much research from overseas, indicating that planting monocultures like we are presently doing lowers the flow of streams and drops the water table.

Could we have gained increases in biodiversity and other positive environmental outcomes from this policy? It would appear not, as only a small percentage of the plantings are in diverse native species.

Will there be a positive economic outcome once the trees are harvested? It would appear not as early indications are that the owners of these new blocks of trees have no intention of harvesting them. Instead, they will walk away and abandon these forests once they stop being paid the carbon credits.

What is the Solution?

I believe the solution lies with taking a holistic view of the problem from various vantage points, including mitigating climate change, building resilient communities, encouraging biodiversity, and making economic sense.

Yes, we need to offset some of our CO2 emissions. Yes, we can do that with trees, but that does not mean we do not have to do some serious work on other changes required in our lifestyles.

If blanket style planting is planned to be undertaken, then local communities need to be a part of any decision making approving that. Rather than blanket planting, there are many, and I would say probably most, hill country farms in New Zealand, that could plant out some of their area in trees, especially if that resulted in another income stream for the farmer. If we dealt in detail, then it would be about the best tree for the appropriate location.

There are also possibilities in various forms of silviculture. An example of this could involve wide-spaced planting of specialist trees, such as nut trees or similar over the pasture, and retaining the grazing. Presently this type of planting is not eligible for carbon credits.

The suggestions above would require fine-tuning current legislation, and would no doubt be more expensive to administer. Still, to me, a landscape with vibrant communities of people, with diversity in what is growing on the land, with the possibility of widening an economic base, is far more preferable than the alternative of a monoculture of pine trees. A monoculture both devoid of people and wildlife.

The one billion trees policy can transform parts of our landscape for the better. Let’s use it for that.

Brian Megaw

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