Simon Day discovers how the voluntary carbon market allows both individuals and companies to offset their emissions at the same time as investing in native forest regeneration.
When Celia Wade-Brown sold her first batch of carbon credits earned from the native forest on her Wairarapa farm, she had two customers: Z Energy picked up 7,500 credits and her hairdresser, Scout, bought eight. Scout wanted to be as sustainable as possible so it had its annual emissions analysed and measured at 7.5 tonnes of CO2. So Wade-Brown sold it eight credits to offset the business’s environmental impact.
Wade-Brown and her husband bought Duntulm Farm, a former sheep and beef farm in the Mangatārere Valley, in 1987. For the first 20 years, their investment in the regeneration of the native bush was relatively passive and its growth was on the back of the regional council’s pest control. In 2012 they covenanted 99ha of regenerating forest for carbon sequestering. It was when they relocated permanently to the farm in 2017, after Wade-Brown’s tenure as Wellington mayor, that the couple actively invested in the development of the 250 ha block of regenerated native forest and its true potential as a carbon sink and an economic resource.
“We have traps of various sorts to catch rats and mustelids [and] we have started propagating plants that are good for birds. We’ve been on trapping classes,” says Wade-Brown, who was late to our phone call because she’d been out clearing her traps (two rats and a mouse).
So far they have removed nearly a thousand predators. By increasing the biodiversity and protecting the birdlife, the hungry kererū spread the seed and the forest grows. Previously pastoral land is now dense with young kahikatea, totara, mānuka, kānuka hebe, and tarata, replenished by the good patch of unlogged forest on the property as a seed source.
“It’s astoundingly different to thirty years ago. It’s all indigenous. The birds and lizards love it. We’re overgrowing the weeds,” says Wade-Brown.
Grown after 1989, the 99ha of regenerating forest qualifies for carbon credits under the government’s permanent forestry scheme, creating units that can be sold on the voluntary market. Administered by MPI, the permanent forestry programme is a contract, with a covenant registered on the title that binds future owners, between the landowner and the crown.
That contract says that the landowner agrees to establish and maintain a forest for the long term, and in return, the government will issue units. The owner forgoes the right to clear the land to harvest the trees. And that commitment means those units generate a premium price.
“As the price goes up it will encourage people to look at marginal land. Instead of killing off mānuka, farmers might see value in it,” says Wade-Brown.
Carbon sequestering consultancy Permanent Forests NZ specialises in the promotion and protection of forests. It helps landowners realise the environmental value of their land and buyers to find credits they can trust. While the compliance market has been criticised for the opaqueness of its credits – sourced from pine forests that might be milled the next day, for example – permanent forestry is a celebration of the provenance of its units and is a commitment to the regeneration of New Zealand’s native forest. While native bush might not suck up carbon as fast as pine, the programme is about recognising the environmental value of the bush beyond just its ability to absorb CO2.
“It’s very important to have the connection between the unit that comes in and the project it comes from,” says Ollie Belton, partner at Permanent Forests NZ who facilitated Wade-Brown’s sale of credits to Z Energy.
“We have serial numbers to provide knowledge of where the credits come from. Our contracts have conditions where the buyer can visit the project and see the trees. If you’re going that additional mile and selling a premium credit from a permanent forest you could be getting up to 25% more than the ETS compliance market.”
Voluntary offsetting sits outside of the regulatory framework of the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Where the ETS legally requires its participants to offset their emissions, on the voluntary market people and companies choose to purchase units to offset their emissions under their own volition, and proactively account for their environmental footprint.
The units in a voluntary market get cancelled and that means they are effectively taken out of circulation. They can’t be sold again and can’t be double-counted and the government can’t use the units to meet an international obligation. It’s only for the benefit of the environment.
Offsetting emissions while you purchase plane tickets is a familiar option for individuals. But businesses like Scout and Z Energy can audit and offset the carbon associated with its company operations (distinct from the fuel it sells in the case of Z).
Since 2018, Z Energy has been purchasing permanent forestry carbon units to voluntarily offset its operational emissions, over and above its ETS obligations. So far the programme has protected 4,000 hectares of permanent forest with 93,000 tonnes of carbon captured.
Z acknowledges climate change requires emissions reductions and a move away from fossil fuels. However, our society remains deeply reliant on the car and offsetting can be an important tool to address emissions that can’t be avoided both in-house and for its customers.
“Climate change requires immediate action. After straight-out reduction of our fossil fuel use, which should be priority number one, supporting carbon sinks that ‘suck up’ carbon via offsetting is the next best thing we can all do to get to carbon zero,” says Andy Baird, GM retail for Z.
In February, Z Energy launched the Carbon Count via its app, allowing New Zealanders to voluntarily offset the emissions of their fuel when they fill up. It’s estimated to cost around $4.30 to offset 50 litres of fuel. Carbon Count’s units are sourced from Permanent Forests NZ and so far, 140 permanent units from native forests have been purchased and cancelled.
“Carbon Count is about helping customers understand the impact of their fuel emissions. As a business, we understand that often you need to measure something before you can take the most effective action. By providing our customers with a snapshot of the carbon cost of their fuel we’re saying: ‘this is what the numbers look like and here is a tool we can offer you to do your bit to help reduce the impact of these numbers’,” says Baird.
The forests that generate the units – including Duntulm Farm – are usually on marginal land that a landowner has chosen to lock up as part of the government’s permanent forestry plan. It’s an investment not just in compensating for the company’s emissions and those created by its customers, but also in New Zealand’s biodiversity.
“We know that natives can improve soil and waterways and are great news for supporting our native wildlife,” says Baird.
“When we ask ourselves what it means to be ‘a Kiwi company’, New Zealand’s outdoors comes up a lot. That’s another reason why we support the work that goes on to protect that as much as possible via the relationships we have with the likes of Permanent Forests NZ and Duntulm Farm.”
Now, as locals set out to explore their country as the government pushes for more domestic tourism, it’s an opportunity to reimagine the environmental impact of that exploration. By using tools like Carbon Count, New Zealanders can take into account and offset the environmental effects of the great Kiwi road trip as they experience the wonders of the country with new eyes.
This content was created in paid partnership with Z Energy. Learn more about our partnerships here.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.