Carbon farming: fighting New Zealand’s agricultural emissions
Agriculture accounts for almost half of greenhouse gas emissions in New Zealand. It’s one reason the government is encouraging farmers to grow trees for carbon credits, which can then be sold, mainly to large companies looking to offset their emissions
Produced by Alpha Grid
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Selwyn Gorge, in Canterbury, on New Zealand's South Island, is a beautiful part of the country, and this particular piece of it belongs to farmer Warwick James.
Hi, Juliet. Nice to meet you.
Good to meet you.
Warwick's primarily a sheep and beef farmer, but he's also a carbon farmer. Agriculture accounts for almost half of greenhouse gas emissions in New Zealand. It's one reason the government encourages growing trees for carbon credits. Warwick's got about 520 hectares of forest on what I'm now seeing as a large and varied property.
Well, this is obviously all part of it.
Yes, we're at the far end of my property, and the neighbouring property's just up there. We've got 1,300 hectares on this property here.
The government gives eligible landowners credits for carbon dioxide absorbed by the trees. One carbon unit equals 1 tonne, and they can be sold on New Zealand's Emissions Trading Scheme, mainly to large companies looking to offset their emissions. It's one of 31 trading schemes in operation around the world.
Sheep and beef was our ultimate business, but the trees had another side, diversification, which is very important. And the sheep and beef operation have something else going on, but to just to take out the ups and downs of that industry, so the trees serve that.
Prices on the market have fluctuated in the 10 years Warwick's owned the land, but recently they've hit record highs. Warwick sells his credits through a broker.
Ollie's a carbon broker. He sells carbon for us. It's a very simple phone call. He finds a buyer, and it's done.
As well as being a broker, Ollie Belton is a carbon expert. He's come here to measure the trees' biomass and figure out the amount of CO2 sequestered in them. Ollie.
Hey, how's it going?
Nice to meet you.
Every five years we have to come out and measure the carbon stocks to validate how much growth there's been. We measure a sample of trees at GPS locations, and we measure the diameter at breast height. This is a diameter tape, and we put those around and measure the diameter. This is a big tree.
The trees on Warwick's farm sequester something like 50 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year. So calculating the carbon content in trees like Ollie's doing here is actually a pretty time consuming process. For a plot like this of around 600 hectares, it takes a team of two around a week and a half.
The next day, I head to Banks Peninsula, about an hour's drive away. Matt, hi. How are you?
Hi, how are you? Good to meet you.
Nice to meet you.
Matt Iremonger joined the trading programme just over one year ago. With about 60 hectares currently included in the scheme, Matt is counting on his forest to generate a passive income and plans to expand his participation to 200 hectares.
What's the overall strategy for forestry on the farm?
We've got the native planting and the exotic planting that's for carbon sequestration. We try and select areas for the carbon sequestration trees that are least productive for agricultural purposes, and we can repurpose that land into forestry. And then for the native plantings we're looking for areas where we can improve the biodiversity, protect streams, and visually enhance the farm.
But carbon farming requires a specialist's help. Consultant Sam Mander helps farmers identify low-yield land and implement tree planting that can boost its productivity and value.
Carbon farming is not about converting large areas of forestry. It's about hill country farmers recognising the low-end product of bits of land and optimising their farms by adding a form of forestry, and it can be integrated with natives, exotics. And at the end of the day, the result of that is strengthened farm systems.
Planting numbers nationwide aren't huge, but they are growing. The government says in 2016, 2,000 hectares of farmland was converted to forestry, 6,000 hectares in 2017 and '18, and 22,000 in 2019. While Matt prepares more of his land for trees, Sam gets busy assessing the farm's potential for further planting.
We actually use drones for landscape mapping and modelling. It defeats satellite imagery by tenfold. And drones have an integrated GPS system, so we can get spatially accurate maps.
Matt's using a chopper to clear this hill of gorse. He'll then use the space to add to his carbon stocks. There are about 12.1m hectares of farmland in New Zealand compared to some 1.7m hectares of forest. By 2028, the government says it wants to increase the amount of forestry land to 2m hectares by planting 1bn trees, and realising that target is getting closer one tree at a time.