True or False? N.Zealand a climate slacker?

Land-use emissions expert Jason Funk writes from Washington

New Zealand has always been environmentally progressive, but it got slammed this week when it offered up a range of emissions reduction targets for a global climate deal. Some groups practically called NZ a slacker for offering to cut 10% to 20% below 1990 levels. They wanted targets of 25% to 40% below 1990 levels, what the IPCC calls for from industrial countries. So, is it true? Is NZ becoming a climate slacker?

Let’s look at some facts. New Zealand is between a rock and a hard place when it comes to controlling emissions over the next 5-10 years. To understand why, just look at NZ’s national emissions inventory: it is dominated by the land-use sector.

New Zealand sectoral emissions 2003

About 50% of emissions come from agriculture, and a big portion of that comes from methane produced by livestock – 50 million cows and sheep live in NZ versus a human population of about 4 million.

The other component of the agriculture sector is forestry, and forestry in New Zealand has a unique history. During certain periods, New Zealand has engaged in forest planting on a massive scale.



Now, NZ is facing a scenario the Kiwis call the “Wall of Wood” – mature forest plantations are ready for harvest. The “Wall of Wood” is more like a series of hills in a roller coaster ride, and New Zealand is now at the top of a very big hill. In the next 5-10 years, they’ll plunge into forest harvesting and emissions will rise as carbon dioxide “removals” from the atmosphere drop steeply. Here’s how the situation looked at the end of 2003:



As NZ harvests a big part of its forest carbon sink over the next 5-10 years, it will need much deeper cuts in other sectors just to keep overall emissions constant. So a commitment to reduce 10% to 20% below 1990 levels may be harder for NZ than for most industrial emitters — it means NZ will have to change its business-as-usual plan to harvest forests, raise sheep, and grow the overall economy.

As one climate delegate told me, there are two ways to meet targets below 1990 levels: NZ can either let the trees fall over and lose the value of the huge asset they’ve invested in, or they can slaughter a few million sheep and wreck their agricultural economy.

So for NZ, the target they’ve put on the table represents a more ambitious commitment than the numbers suggest. And the level of effort they must make to meet this target will depend heavily on how the rules for land-use, land-use change, and forestry (LULUCF) play out in Copenhagen.

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