Helen Clark Report: Ignores Forests Role in NZ Prosperity

New Zealand's forest economy is poised to play a major role in the push for biofuels and plastic-substitute products.

Fri 26 Apr 24


The New Zealand forest industry has criticised a report prepared by the Helen Clark Foundation, claiming it underplays forest products’ role in the country’s future prosperity.

Published by the Foundation earlier this month, Pathways to Prosperity was co-authored by the NZ Institute of Economic Research and focused on New Zealand’s future opportunities in food and fibre products – focusing on greater investment in processing, strategic collaboration to create scale and larger investment pools to drive the agricultural industry.

However, Dr Elizabeth Heeg, CEO of the NZ Forest Owners Association, said the report has largely ignored the role that timber and forest-based products play in driving the global green switch.

“It is disappointing that the Helen Clark Foundation and NZIER are exacerbating misconceptions about forestry and missing a major productivity opportunity for New Zealand and its bioeconomy,” she said.

Earlier this month, Helen Clark hosted a webinar talking about the new report. Footage courtesy of @TheHelenClarkFoundation.

Speaking to the NZ-based Farmers Weekly, Dr Heeg said the report ignored the worldwide demand for timber to replace concrete and steel but also ignored “the demand for wood-based biofuels and other plastic-substitute products.”

According to the NZ Product Accelerator – a research hub focused on greener materials running out of the University of Auckland – the wood-based fuel and chemical extraction industry could grow to NZ $25 billion per year in the coming years.

As it stands, more than 85% of Chinese mega ports are jammed with NZ-based radiata pine raw logs, with the Helen Clark Foundation report flagging concerns over the industry’s long-term sustainability – which now exports 89% of its raw logs to China.

The report warns that this overreliance on China and its “monocultural and log-focus” add to long-term concerns over erosion, residue, and slash. It, however, does not specify any value-added aspects for forestry, including hydrocarbon replacements for chemicals, higher-value wood products (like mass timber), or biofuel opportunities.

View of wood logs on a dock ready to be shipped for export in the Port of Napier on Hawke Bay in the North Island of New Zealand. New Zealand is China's most important market for raw log imports. (Photo Credit: Stock Photo ID: 1437051494 via Shutterstock Images)
New Zealand is China’s most important market for raw log imports – with 89% of logs leaving New Zealand ending up at Chinese ports. (Photo Credit: Stock Photo ID: 1437051494 via Shutterstock Images)

Responding to the report, Ms Heeg challenged its bias against forestry’s impact on a social level, citing a 2020 PWC report that found forestry generated twice the number of jobs per hectare compared to hill country farming.

“That’s way outside any margin of error,” she said, adding that the report didn’t detail the value of forestry in generating cash flow from carbon sequestration.

“New Zealand’s production forest estate is arguably also the only tool our country has available to meet its 2050 climate change targets. Our trees offset more than half the nation’s total carbon emissions,” according to Ms Heeg. 

“These plantation forests have been solely responsible for reducing gross emissions from 76.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to 55.7 million tonnes.”

Dr Heeg said the report emphasised popular misconceptions about forestry and downplayed its role in maintaining a healthy environment. New research shows the importance of trees and root systems in stabilising land, slowing slip movement and water runoff.

“Both forestry and pastoral farming hold important roles in maintaining a mosaic of land uses,” Dr Heeg said, adding that “both are increasingly planting native vegetation along riparian strips, including sites too steep to plant trees or farm animals.”

The Helen Clark Foundation is a policy think tank set up by Helen Clark in 2019, New Zealand’s Prime Minister from 1999-2008 and operates out of the Auckland University of Technology. 

After retiring from New Zealand politics, Ms Clarke became the United Nations Development Program administrator in 2009 and the Chair of the United Nations Development Group—the first woman to assume all three positions before standing down in April 2017.


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