Just two in 10 New Zealand forest growers are taking direct measures to adapt to climate change.
That is despite 60% of foresters being aware of climate-driven risks – from new pests and outbreaks of diseases to extreme weather, wind and fire.
Scion produced the first-of-its-kind study and explored how the New Zealand forest industry was addressing climate adaptation.
The findings, published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, found that forestry and wood processing are best positioned for all industries to meet NZ’s net-zero emission targets by 2050.
However, according to study leader Dr Grace Villamor, most climate-related research has focused on how forestry can lower net emissions rather than adapt to the changing climate.
According to Dr Villamor, who spoke to the NZ Herald, “Preparing for the effects of climate change is an important part of making our forests more resilient, and so we were interested to know more about what forest managers are doing.”
The study is part of Scion’s Resilient Forests Research Programme, developed in 2019 to mitigate any market uncertainty and future-proof planted Pinus radiata forests from the effects of climate change.
Over three months in late 2021, Scion surveyed 60 growers from organisations that manage more than 70 per cent of New Zealand’s plantation forests.
Roundwood forest products are New Zealand’s third-largest export commodity market behind dairy, with growers answering the following questions:
- What are the forest growers’ views on the local effects of climate change on their forestry assets and management practices?
- Are forest growers adapting? What factors influence their actual adaptation decisions?
- What barriers may hinder the implementation of climate change adaptation?
Almost 60 per cent of respondents thought it would worsen the impact of pests and diseases while making fires more frequent.
Asked about barriers to adaptation, most disagreed that ability, resources or motivation were factors.
Dr Villamor said most respondents agreed that more research needs to be undertaken to improve adaptive capacity, “and a majority agreed that better climate-related information from the government would improve their capacity to adapt.”
Still, fewer than half thought climate change would affect their forest growing – and just 21 per cent were taking direct adaptation measures.
“Preparing for the effects of climate change is an important part of making our forests more resilient,” Dr Villamor says.
“If we look at all measures that forest managers are taking – which will include… part of other forest management activity,” Dr Villamor said, “the number is getting close to 50 per cent.”
“Of course, that means that of the forest managers we surveyed, more than half aren’t taking any measures to adapt to climate change, so it’s worth working to understand why that might be.”
She explained that once a forest was established, there weren’t many direct management changes that forest managers could make.
“Because some adaptation measures can only be taken after harvest when you have a chance to reset,” Dr Villmor said, “it would not be too surprising if those forest managers with trees past thinning age don’t think there is much more they can do to adapt for the next 15 years or so.”
“Most forest managers also have good risk management in place already, for instance, to manage the fire risk.”
According to the research, frequently reported measures include silvicultural activities, planting mix and use of resistant tree species, training, information, and preparedness.
Measures specific to particular risks included market diversification for addressing market risk and biosecurity surveillance for managing pest and disease outbreaks.
“While some of those risks will certainly increase with climate change, the survey respondents may be confident that existing risk management measures will be sufficient.”
Of interest, forest managers with more experience appeared more likely to adopt measures to adapt to climate change than managers with less experience.
Dr Villamor said that carrying out more surveys in the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle will be important to see if major climate events have shifted managers’ awareness of climate risks.
As reported by Wood Central, Cyclone Gabrielle saw “trees snapped in half” and led the New Zealand government to commission a wide-reaching “Outrage to Optimism” report guiding future forestry policy.
“Post-Gabrielle responses may have differed – at least for those managing forests on steep erodible slopes.”
Forest Owners Association president Grant Dodson said that while the impacts of extreme weather have made climate change a prominent topic, foresters already had a good awareness of the potential effects.
“And we’ve known that the risk of things like that has generally been increasing,” Dodson said.
“Adapting to these risks came gradually, in step with harvesting, re-planting and upgrading infrastructure like roads.”
“It takes 25 or 30 years to build that resilience in your forestry estate gradually, but by and large, forests in New Zealand are well managed.”
The report follows a two-day conference hosted by Scion last month, where leading academics across New Zealand reported on the industry’s climate change readiness.
Scion’s research focuses on three key areas:
- managing risk and uncertainty,
- enhanced productivity and quality, and
- improved resilience to the impact of pine needle diseases
According to Principal scientist and programme lead Peter Clinton, the industry is concerned about its future under climate change and general market volatility.”
“Trees that will be harvested by 2050 are already in the ground, so they want to know what the future hold for those trees,” Clinton said.
“What’s clear is that taking a business-as-usual approach to managing New Zealand’s planted forests is no guarantee of success in an uncertain world.”
Forest Growers’ Research chief executive Paul Adams says the Resilient Forests Programme is a key investment in the industry’s research and development portfolio.
“It’s about developing core research that enhances and protects the future of the P. radiata estate in New Zealand – resilience.”