22 May 2024

Someone must front cost of land-use changes to protect environment, report warns

4:04 pm on 22 May 2024
Pine trees are harvested on a hillside in southern Hawke's Bay

The unrestricted use of forestry as an emissions offset is "removing different land use options from future generations", a report says. Photo: RNZ / Kate Newton

Someone will have to front the cost of land-use changes necessary to protect the environment, a new report from the government's top environmental advisor warns.

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton has released two reports addressing the problem of responding to the challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss and water quality.

The first report, titled Going with the grain: Changing land uses to fit a changing landscape, said paying for land use change could be "eye-wateringly expensive", but "if no one will, the environment will continue to pay".

"What costs should lie with landowners? When should public subsidy be available to facilitate land use change, and how should that public subsidy be funded? We have raised several options in this paper, but ultimately these are political questions."

The report found improving land management would be enough to meet environmental bottom lines in some places, but wholesale land use change would be necessary in others.

Climate change itself would compel land use changes in some regions.

The current policy, regulatory and funding landscape was complex and fragmented, the report found, with many of the environmental impacts of land use difficult to measure and irrespective of property boundaries, making attribution difficult.

Simon Upton, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton. Photo: Supplied.

Upton said a catchment-wide focus was needed - that is, a focus on specific land areas, rather than one-size-fits-all national regulation - and the roles of central government, regional councils and communities in decision-making needed to be reassessed.

"Market-based mechanisms" could be used to put a price on resources that came with environmental cost to "provide incentives to change behaviour".

"People can choose how they change their land management or use, or can even decide not to change behaviour and pay the price instead."

That could include pricing the commercial use of water, and biogenic methane (emissions from living organisms like plants and animals).

Upton criticised the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) for acting "as a barrier to effective land use".

"The current unrestricted use of forestry as an offset is removing different land use options from future generations", the report said, and "afforestation should not be incentivised by treating it as a cheap way to offset fossil fuel emissions".

It reiterated a previous recommendation to progressively remove forestry from the scheme, and suggested creating a separate scheme to manage biogenic methane emissions.

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