Bangkok 2012 – Forests: The make or break for New Zealand and Kyoto II

By Tierney Smith 

Decisions on forestry could be make or break for New Zealand’s climate change obligations, making it the key issue for the country heading into the Bangkok talks later his week.

A 2011 report from the World Bank put the total area of forested land in New Zealand at 31% in 2010. This includes 7% of land that is managed forest – 1.751 million hectares – and another 6.5 million hectares of indigenous forests.

Forestry is big business for New Zealand – responsible for 3% of the country’s GDP and employing 20,000 people – and is also a key part of the country’s climate mitigation plans.

Forestry is big business for New Zealand contributing 3% of the country's GDP

Back in May, countries were supposed to notify the UN on whether or not they were going to sign-up to a second commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol. However, New Zealand and Australia, both tipped to make new commitments, missed the deadline.

In a document published on the UN website, New Zealand said they wanted “full clarity” on the rules before signing up to a new commitment.

The country said: “We look forward to a clearer picture emerging from the outcome of the UNFCCC sessions leading up to Doha.”

They also added: “New Zealand is still assessing the domestic implications of the agreed forestry rules, and we await certainty on the issue of carry-over of surplus AAUs.”

AAUs are essentially the so-called ‘pollution credits’ given to each country under the Kyoto Protocol setting out the quota of carbon they can emit each year of their commitment.

New Zealand also wants to see pledges made by countries under the Copenhagen Accord – both from developing countries and Annex 1 countries not under the Kyoto Protocol – set out in a “balancing agreement.”

Forestry and Kyoto

Under the Kyoto Protocol afforestation, reforestation and deforestation that has occurred since 1990 can be used to meet emissions targets of participating countries.

This means countries which have planted forests can use them to meet their emissions reduction targets, while countries who have chopped down forests will be penalized for doing so.

New Zealand’s forestry has given the country a huge boost towards their own Kyoto commitment leading to the end of 2012 – to reduce emissions to 1990 levels.

With many of the managed forests being scheduled for harvesting at the end of the decade and beginning of the next, however, any new commitments could be hampered under current rules.

“Forests currently provide a net sink and the major forest planting that took place in the 1990s is the only reason New Zealand will meet its modest Kyoto obligation,” says Peter Hardstaff, climate change programme manager at WWF New Zealand.

“Despite an increase in gross emissions since 1990, New Zealand will end commitment period one with a surplus. However, these forests are due to be harvested beginning later this decade and into the 2020s.”

The country is currently considering its second commitment period and have said they would consider a target of between 10 and 20% below 1990 levels by 2020.

How carbon stored in forests is accounted for could make or break New Zealand's commitments (Source: jdub_dub/Creative Commons)

What target they set will depend on a few key issues still to be discussed.

Firstly the country may try to renegotiate how emissions are calculated – particularly regarding forestry – to limit the spike they expect to see later in the decade when they begin to harvest their woodland.

Secondly is the issue of surplus AAUs. New Zealand will end the period with a surplus, and if they are allowed to carry these over, a second commitment would be much easier to hit.

Finally, still undecided is how a country’s QELRO (Quantified Emissions Limitation/Reduction Obligation) is calculated.  This is essentially how much they are allowed to pollute each year over the period of the commitment and still make their target.

While some countries want their newest targets to be based on their end commitment target under the first Kyoto period – whether or not they have been met –New Zealand wants it to be based on a country’s emissions at the end of 2012.

It is important to mention here that New Zealand’s gross emissions have actually risen since 1990 – which means if they were to begin their latest targets from their first period commitment (and not their emissions at the end of this year) their target would be much harder to hit.

“Under current policies and current greenhouse gas emissions accounting rules, New Zealand’s gross emission and net emissions are both projected to steadily increase towards 2020,” says Hardstaff. “Beyond 2020, gross emissions are projected to continue rising steadily while net emissions increase significantly due to major forest harvesting.”

New Zealand will not be the only country concerned with these issues – 13 billion surplus AAUs will be available by the end of 2012.

As countries begin to develop the conditions of a Kyoto Protocol II, NGOs warn that unless countries are willing to show ambition and unless a high percentage of these allowances are discarded – up to 95% – the second commitment period but it could be rendered entirely ineffective as countries are able to continue business-as-usual.

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