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Nature-based solutions as the centrepiece of New Zealand’s climate change response.

Posted by Gael Ogilvie on
Nature-based solutions as the centrepiece of New Zealand’s climate change response.

New Zealand’s draft Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP) describes the pathway to achieve our climate change targets, but the document largely ignores nature-based solutions.    

We are potentially missing a significant opportunity to accelerate restoration of our degraded  natural ecosystems in  ways that sequester carbon and build resilience to future changes in climate.   Nature based solutions to the climate crisis would, at the same time, help ameliorate our generally lesser known nature crisis.  From a te ao Māori perspective we are part of, not separate to, nature.  As kiwi’s, our  sense of identity is inextricably linked to nature.  Our primary sector fuels a significant chunk of our GDP and our international reputation is based on stunningly beautiful ecologically healthy landscapes.  In this setting New Zealand should be leading the world developing and implementing nature-based solutions to climate change.

The draft ERP closed for public submissions last week.  The document contains substantively- analysed proposals to help reach our climate goals through changes to our transport, energy, building and waste systems.  There is some generic references to a bio-economy and a narrow evaluation of how our Forestry and Agricultural sectors need to change.

Throughout the 128 page 47,851 page document the word nature appears 10 times.  One of these mentions is out of context – i.e., “Projections are by their nature uncertain” .  A further three mentions refer to the existing Jobs for Nature programme that provides employment in nature restoration projects.  The remaining six mentions are vague references to supporting  the general principles of nature-based solutions.  There is no detail provided.

In July this year Minister James Shaw proposed five principles for guiding the country’s Emissions Reduction Plan.  These were

  1. A just transition
  2. A science-led response
  3. Enhancing the role of nature based solutions
  4. Genuine partnership with Māori
  5. A clear, ambitious, and affordable path –

Nature-based solutions for climate change harness the power of nature to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build resilience to the impacts of climate change, while helping to  reverse the current and accelerating degradation of our natural ecosystems  These benefits are all critically important for our future economy and wellbeing.  The World Economic Forum warns that we ignore the importance of healthy ecosystems at our peril.  They estimate that more than half of the world’s GDP is dependent on healthy natural environments https://www.weforum.org/press/2020/01/half-of-world-s-gdp-moderately-or-highly-dependent-on-nature-says-new-report/

The Nature Conservancy estimates that worldwide nature-based solutions can provide up to 37 percent of the emission reductions needed by 2030 to keep global temperature increases under 2°C.   Nature Conservancy paper.  In New Zealand this percentage contribution is likely to be even greater. 

New Zealand’s  draft ERP states that the current focus is on immediate high priority areas only.  Maybe this is the reason nature -based solutions are not included? Given the extent to which New Zealand as a nation is linked with nature, the stated minister direction and the multiple benefits of nature-based solutions, this initial focus on other immediate priorities is misguided and short-sighted. 

Nature based solutions could stem from restored native forests, regenerative agricultural practices, coastal wetland, peatland and mangrove ecosystem restoration and our extensive marine environment.

We are already  familiar with tree planting as a way to sequester carbon emissions.  Helpfully  Tane’s Trust have just released an excellent report demonstrating that there is less difference than we have thought between the ability of our native species to sequester carbon vs exotics like Pinus radiata. https://pureadvantage.org/carbon-sequestration-by-native-forest-setting-the-record-straight/.  This type of analysis may help slow down current widespread planting of exotic monoculture plantations which sequester lots of carbon but destroy the native forest ecosystems. 

Regenerative agriculture is becoming more known and widespread.  Building healthy soil ecosystems comprising bacteria, fungi, nematodes and, protozoa improves nutrient recycling which in turn increases carbon sequestration and  improves soil stability.  Farms using regenerative agriculture practices commonly enjoy better financial returns through healthier livestock, less spend on fertilisers, fungicides and pesticides and, in some cases,  product premiums.  In September this year global dairy giant Nestle  announce plans to meet its’ ambitious climate change commitments by 2030 by requiring their suppliers to use regenerative agricultural practices.   https://www.nestle.co.nz/media/support-transition-regenerative-food-system.  Nestle is one of Fonterra’s main customers. 

Wetlands, peatlands and mangrove ecosystems are known to sequester carbon more effectively than tropical rainforests.  Forest and Bird have estimated that “Coastal wetlands can trap carbon 35-57 times faster than tropical forestshttps://www.forestandbird.org.nz/resources/  Peat wetlands in particular are super carbon sinks. A recent UNEP report concluded that peatlands cover 3% of the world’s land but hold nearly 30% of the world’s stored soil carbon.  https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/five-ecosystems-where-nature-based-solutions-can-deliver-huge-benefits .  Sadly, most of New Zealand’s peatlands have been drained over the last century and the previously permanently stored carbon is emitted to the atmosphere.  Dried peat wetlands account for about 6% of our large agricultural carbon footprint. 

Our marine environment already sequesters carbon and this could be enhanced.  New Zealand’s marine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is over 4 million square kms or 15 time the land area of the country. Our EEZ is the 9th largest in the world yet our country size is the 76th largest in the world.  There is clearly great potential for us to punch above our weight harnessing what is now being referred to as “blue carbon”.  Recent research has highlighted the role of macroalgae (kelps) in sequestering carbon due to their high net primary production and ability to create vast quantities of organic carbon detritus which, if it is sequestered into deep ocean waters (greater than 1000 m), has the potential to remain locked away from the atmosphere for hundreds and possibly thousands of years.  New Zealand’s offshore waters feature canyons leading to deep trenches which may be the perfect topography for locking in marine carbon sinks.

As a small country largely reliant on our primary sector and recognised internationally as a leader in environmentally responsible  practices, we have a significant opportunity to achieve multiple positive outcomes by putting nature at the heart of our country’s response to the climate crisis.  The time to act is now, not after we have implemented what seems to be viewed as the more immediate priorities in other sectors.  We need to urgently develop ways to incentivise nature-based climate change solutions that accelerate restoration of our native forest, soils, wetland, peatland, mangrove, freshwater and marine ecosystems.  Without inextricably linking this high priority work to our climate change response we are risking our future economic and personal wellbeing. 

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