Māori futures a political football

Māori futures a political football in ETS debate

For the few New Zealanders that give it any thought at all, the Emissions Trading Scheme review is something of an intellectual exercise: an opportunity to pursue an ideological agenda or a chance for Wellington technocrats to shift some numbers along whatever scale pleases their political masters. 

For Māori, it could not be more real. The immediate economic consequences of the review have already amounted to a destruction of value with few parallels.

In the weeks since the Climate Change Minister James Shaw announced the review, the ETS has completely collapsed, with the value of carbon units plunging from over $85 each to below $35. That crash has taken the balance sheets of Māori trusts and farmers with it, carving billions of dollars out of land values, forestry assets, and the value of Māori Treaty settlements across the motu.

On the ground, I’m being told by angry Māori landowners and foresters that the Government’s actions feel like “yet another punch in the face”. Many just don’t understand why the Government has chosen this path, after years of encouraging and supporting forestry investment. And, as this year’s round of AGMs approach, they are struggling to find a justification for the tens of millions wiped off the balance sheets of individual Iwi Trusts, to people who are relying on this money to help transform the lives of future generations.

Remember, the forests, farms and coasts are our homes. Māori have a vested interest in the protection of our forest estate, and our downstream communities. For the land we have left to us that is good enough for commercial forestry, this means careful management of the harvest process. For the remainder, the carbon economy has been an opportunity to develop permanent forests – areas which will never create the pressures associated with harvesting – and advance the active management regime required to transition them to natives.

There are some who argue that the massive upheaval Māori now face is the price we need to pay for the planet. They provide a myriad of academic rationale to justify the impact. They say it is important to align with other countries and focus only on gross emissions reductions. They suggest native forests are the only possible solution. They have fallen for the rural lobby’s spin that farmland, which takes up 50% of New Zealand’s total land area, is somehow at risk of being overwhelmed by forestry, which takes up around 5%. And they wish to avoid being shown up in front of their colleagues in the international green movement, who may decide Aotearoa is guilty of ‘greenwashing’ by the very act of growing trees.

But the point is, they are not paying the price in their ivory towers. Māori and those on the land are.

In its ETS review, the Government has acknowledged this point. The consultation document described how the proposed options “will adversely affect Māori forest owners or those who own land that is suitable for afforestation.” It also highlighted that “Increasing the cost of emissions will have implications across the economy, with flow-on effects for households and communities. Māori are disproportionately represented in lower income groups with the most limited ability to absorb cost increases.”

What is the justification for this enormous cost to Māori? So New Zealand doesn’t plant too many exotic trees.

At the heart of the argument made by Climate Change Minister James Shaw, and championed by the Climate Change Commissioner Rod Carr, is a bold assertion. They contend that – based on their modelling – that in our current climate emergency, it might be possible to produce too many forestry carbon units. How is it possible in a global climate emergency that we could ever sequester too much carbon?  We know the “model” used to forecast this apparent oversupply of units in last years’ consultation documents was designed to deliver the desired political outcome by grossly overstating supply, extrapolating New Zealand’s highest ever planting season into the future. The politically expedient answer the model duly churned out was that in a decade’s time, New Zealand “might” face an oversupply of trees.

And why should we avoid this oversupply? To protect and increase the price of carbon – the irony of which appears to be lost on the Minister, whose announcement of the ETS review collapsed confidence in the carbon market and the Government’s long-term intentions, bringing that imagined crash into reality, 10 years ahead of apparent schedule.

We’re told by the Climate Commissioner that to shore up New Zealand’s international credibility, we need to move our emissions settings to a focus on gross rather than net emissions. This will supposedly help us protect the value of our overseas exports and allow New Zealand to hold its head up in the community of nations. Yet there is one significant flaw in this argument. New Zealand’s largest polluting industry is farming. Farming is responsible for 50 per cent of the country’s emissions and, despite being reliant on those export markets and our international reputation, makes no contribution for its emissions. Nor it is there a plan to any time soon.

This glaring omission exposes the whole argument for what it really is: intellectual dishonesty propping up an ideological agenda.

This is underscored by the recognition from Government that, despite the threatened oversupply of trees creating too many carbon units, New Zealand will still fall far short of its international climate commitments. According to Treasury, this will require us to send up to $23.7 billion of taxpayer money offshore to buy international credits.  Money we should be using to improve pay to teachers, nurses, doctors, emergency services, the list goes on.

And how will those credits offshore be generated? By growing trees!

The Government and the Climate Commission is seeking to restrict opportunities for Māori, local farmers and landowners to earn money from planting trees to sequester carbon. They are doing this in order to make it more expensive to emit (while exempting our largest polluting sector from paying for their emissions). This will force up energy, fuel and other prices, inelastic costs they acknowledge will be disproportionately borne by our most vulnerable communities, including Māori. And to make up for the shortfall of climate action this plan creates, they are preparing to send billions offshore, to pay someone else to plant trees for New Zealand to restrict us from doing the same. 

It would be scarcely believable, if Māori weren’t already experiencing the painful, frustrating and far-reaching impacts of this whole ridiculous exercise.

Māori are tired. We are tired of being ignored by our Treaty partner. Tired of being treated like a political football in a game designed for other’s ideological agendas. Tired of being told how we should use what little land not stolen from us to suit someone else’s view of how to get re-elected and maybe save the planet.

And we are angry. Angry at this unnecessary waste. Angry that we are having to bear the enormous costs of self-centred tinkering of bureaucrats. And angry at the scant concern being paid to what this means for the future of Māori and the sustainable development of our land through forestry.

It is time for it to stop. The Government should withdraw this misguided consultation. It should listen to Māori voices – once reasonable and now increasingly strident. And it should return to the table, to work in true partnership as it agreed to do, in the codesign of a climate resilient landscape for Aotearoa with our people and our forests at its heart.

Named the New Zealand Forester of the Year for 2023, Te Kapunga Dewes is Chair of Ngā Pou a Tāne, the National Māori Forestry Association, and CEO of both Interpine Innovation and Whenua Oho Limited. 



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