A new project which will replant and restore at least 2.1 million hectares of NZ’s native forest is gaining momentum less than two weeks out from the National Election.
The Recloaking Papatūānuku project has won the attention of government ministers, with NZ Labour’s ‘climate manifesto’ committing NZ $30 million from pollution levies to plant, protect and restore indigenous forests.
However, project supporters believe the commitment is only a fraction of what could be achieved in public and private lands.
Speaking to Radio NZ, Rob Morrison said that the project’s ultimate aim “was to restore 5 million hectares – almost one-fifth of the country – to healthy forest.”
Mr Morrison is Chair of Pure Advantage, one of two groups supporting the scheme, and said, “Planting a new mix of seedlings, regenerated scrubland, and better protecting old-growth forests” will greatly assist the country in meeting its climate commitments.
Last month, Wood Central revealed that NZ needs “700,000 hectares of new forests right now,” Environmental Minister David Parker reveals that the Hipkins Government is exploring whether the Recloaking Papatūānuku project can help the government meet the targets.
The concept started in Tai Rāwhiti after devastating storms saw slash from plantation pines destroy homes and bridges. That same region was devastated by Cyclone Bola in the 1980s, and iwi and other residents now want to protect their slopes from slips urgently.
According to Mr Morrison, research showed New Zealand’s temperate forest was some of the world’s densest carbon per hectare.
Instead of buying carbon credits, he said it could be more cost-competitive to nurture New Zealand’s native forest instead.
Both major parties are committed to meeting New Zealand’s target, cutting emissions by 50% in net terms off 2005’s gross total under the Paris Agreement.
Last month, the IMF warned that NZ will only meet its climate commitments if it accelerates carbon abatement through additional tree planting.
The IMF expects the country’s net emissions will peak next year with “a sharp decline from 2030 as recently planted forests matured and started to absorb more carbon from the atmosphere.”
It, however, estimates that the country will miss its 2030 commitment “by emitting 17 million tonnes of net emissions more than it had agreed to emit that year.”
According to Mr Morrison, decades of slow action on transport, industry and farming has left the government with a $3b carbon balloon from 2030 and a need to secure 100 million tonnes of carbon from outsourced projects.
And whilst both parties have committed to spending the money inside New Zealand, Climate Change Commission modelling suggests that would be more expensive than buying credits offshore.
Morrison said planting native species was costlier than planting pine, but it was worth it for flood protection, biodiversity and other benefits.
The groups were not ready to release their modelling, but he said early estimates suggested it could be cost-competitive with buying into overseas projects and better for the environment.
New Zealand is currently losing native vegetation at a rate of half the size of Abel Tasman National Park over a 12-year period, according to Forest and Bird CEO Nicola Toki.
However, she said if a blitz on introduced pests backed planting and restoration, New Zealand would only be sinking taxpayer dollars into making a buffet for tree-eating mammals.
Mr Morrison said reforesting would have multiple benefits besides absorbing carbon dioxide, such as making homes for native birds, catching rain in upper catchments, and protecting the land downstream from severe floods.
In June, Scion researchers found that forests act as nature’s sponges during significant rain events, absorbing nearly 60% of rainfall.
This absorption process prevents immediate water flow across the terrain and into waterways, significantly reducing potential downstream flooding.
Backed by the NZ Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), the project deploys over 1,700 sensors across ten national forests to capture data at five-minute intervals, offering unprecedented insights into forest hydrology.
It found that forests absorb rainwater and slow downstream runoff, including slash, during significant weather events.
One open question was how much reforesting could absorb towards the 2030 climate target during the next seven years.
Morrison expected to have more estimates available in the next couple of weeks.