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Clarky's Comment - April 2010

Another devastating earthquake in Western China and disruption to European air traffic from the Iceland volcano are further reminders that Earth is a dynamic and living planet. Unfortunately we only have one Earth. If we are to respect the needs of our children and their children we must take the view that we are short term custodians on the planet and have a duty of care to hand it over to our children in good shape.

That concept is well understood by those charged with brokering a new international agreement on climate change, but has little relevance to a Chinese or African peasant trying to feed his/her family. Political realities and lobbying by interest groups opposed to any change to the status quo are at present stalling meaningful transition to a lower carbon-emitting world. This is despite the inescapable fact that on-going reliance on fossil fuels for 80% of all our energy needs is not only unsustainable from a fossil fuel supply perspective, but also makes the task for reversing atmospheric green house gas concentrations more difficult as time goes by.

So what is the relevance of this to us in New Zealand and to forest owners in particular?

Nothing we do inside New Zealand can have any meaningful effect on global green house gas concentrations. But if we can develop the science and land-use policies to show that we can produce much needed food and wood fibre, without degrading our soils and water resources, while also reducing CO2, N2O and even potentially Methane emissions, we could have a big impact on agricultural-based emissions world-wide. Forests also have an important part to play in both steep-land soil protection, clean streams and absorption of atmospheric CO2.

In this regard the government's initiative to facilitate global cooperation on researching solutions to agricultural emissions and sustainable farming is appropriate and should be supported by all New Zealanders. The development of a National Environmental Standard covering land-use and the current focus on national policies affecting water use and quality is also appropriate.

What is disappointing is that Horizons Regional Council appears to be backing off their One Plan in the face of farmer lobbying to maintain the status quo. The One Plan sought to overlay soil and water protection issues into land-use practices in the Region. The initiative followed the 2004 floods that clearly illustrated the environmental and financial costs of the status quo land-use practices.

Most farmers are acutely aware of the need to manage fertiliser application and stocking to minimise environmental risks, and many are actively managing at-risk catchments with retirement or tree planting. With adequate communication, those using best practice on land that is capable of being grazed sustainably should not feel threatened by the Horizons' initiatives.

If some of the land cannot be sustainably farmed, and/or damage to waterways is material, then clearly we will not be handing NZ's land and water resources over to our children in good shape, and something needs to be done to address that.

What's important from a New Zealand Inc. perspective is that land users are regulated equally for environmental impacts under the RMA and Council Plans. The recent focus of regional councils on sedimentation during the harvesting of plantation forests is indicative of the increasing environmental awareness and values being placed on land users by society. Pastoral farming faces important challenges in this area and those farmers that acknowledge and address this reality will be best placed to survive as environmental standards for land-use demand new practices.

Tree planting can help get the land-use balance right. With carbon credits now having value, it is much more financially attractive to plant commercial forests than before the introduction of the Emissions Trading Scheme.

To its credit, Horizons Regional Council has sought to encourage tree planting. It has signalled the intent to make forestry, including harvesting, a permitted use provided that the NZ Forest Owners Association Environmental Code of Practice is followed, along with other non-regulatory measures. The question is, will this be enough to encourage afforestation of sensitive and highly erodible landscapes?