Landscape approach to climate policy

A report released by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, explores an alternative approach to Aotearoa New Zealand’s long-term climate change targets and policies.

The report proposes dealing with agricultural greenhouse gases and carbon uptake by forests together, with a separate target for carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. It also proposes taking a landscape approach to managing the country’s climate and environmental issues. This approach integrates climate policy with other environmental and social objectives (such as water quality, soil erosion, biodiversity and resilient rural communities) at a local level. For example, riparian planting can reduce nutrient run-off, improve biodiversity and prevent soil erosion, in addition to removing carbon from the atmosphere. By managing forest sinks and biological emissions together with other environmental issues, a landscape approach would focus on giving those who live in a landscape the incentives and means to address multiple objectives at the same time.

“It focuses on dealing with our agricultural greenhouse gases and forest sinks together, while dealing with fossil carbon dioxide emissions separately,” Upton said.

“We could store carbon in forests over large areas of New Zealand and score a net zero accounting triumph around mid-century; or adopt a more ambitious approach to reducing fossil emissions and make a clear statement about how far biological emissions should be reduced.”

The risk of the current approach is that, while New Zealand might achieve net zero emissions, delayed action on gross fossil emissions could mean they are still running at around half today’s level. New Zealand would need more time – and land – to offset the balance well into the second half of the century.

Dr David Whitehead, plant and soil scientist, Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research and New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre, said New Zealand needs to commit to more stringent actions to meet expected international obligations to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

"This report addresses these issues with the fresh perspective of how we can change land use at large spatial scales larger than on individual farms. Such changes could also transform our farming systems to increase resilience to adverse climate events and improve community wellbeing. The overall benefit to enhancing other ecosystem services is much more than reducing greenhouse emissions,” Whitehead said.  

"Treating biological and fossil emissions separately is a very sensible approach. Forestry expansion remains a predominant way to offset emissions but the report clearly identifies the long-term risks. Opportunities and willingness to introduce more diverse farming systems at landscape scales, incorporating trees, need to be encouraged, involving less intensive land use, fewer animals and reduced water and fertiliser inputs. The report addresses the conundrum of increasing soil carbon stocks and, sensibly, concludes that there is yet insufficient certainty from scientific studies to support inclusion of changes in soil carbon to meet emissions reduction targets.”


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