Climate Action

It won’t solve the climate crisis. So why is Meridian doing it? By Mark Harris, Renewable Development Programme Manager for Meridian Energy

Two years ago, Meridian Energy announced Forever Forests, a plan to plant up to 1.5 million permanent native and hardwood trees across 1100ha of land in Fiordland, Canterbury, Wellington and other regions.

By the end of this year, over 150ha of non-arable land will have been forested and brought into the scheme, and the programme is set to scale up significantly in coming years. So far, plantings have taken place on Meridian-owned land at Manapōuri, Lake Benmore, Lake Aviemore and Makara, assisted by partner organisations around Christchurch.

The challenge of such a large scale planting project was more complex than many would imagine. It wasn't a case of just planting a tree and leaving it to grow.

To get the right tree in the right place at the right time, detailed planning and assessments are needed to make sure planting complements the unique ecology of each site.You are also making a long-term commitment to land protection, management and ongoing maintenance.

Everything has to be considered and undertaken carefully for the benefits to be fully realised. However, scientists have also warned we cannot "plant our way out" of the climate crisis.

So why is Meridian forging ahead with such a complex, ambitious project?

Because tree planting will be an essential part of tackling climate change – but only if we get it right. We are facing a biodiversity crisis on top of a climate crisis. Done properly, tree planting will help us mitigate and adapt to climate change, enhance biodiversity, and provide a wide range of other environmental and human benefits. It's one of many fronts we are battling on, along with reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, accelerating renewable energy, converting our transport fleet to electricity and more.

Forever Forests was established to offset Meridian's net carbon emissions to zero but, as a long-term project, it is also designed to create tangible benefits for generations, including positive air, water, wildlife and community outcomes.

The Tūī Corridor, part of the Forever Forests Programme and a partnership with The Christchurch Foundation, is one example of planting benefits above and beyond carbon reduction. Intensive planting of kōwhai and harakeke between the Port Hills and Christchurch City is slowly bringing tūī song back to the city, after a long absence.

Local people from all walks of life have been keen to pitch in – tree planting has an immediate community benefit, alongside the carbon and biodiversity objectives.

One valuable lesson we have learned, since kicking off the project in 2019, is the importance of locking in seedling orders as far in advance as possible. Everything hinges on the availability of seedlings – and we are now ordering up to two years ahead to make sure we can secure the right species at the right volumes. We source all our natives from local nurseries but some exotics require hundreds of thousands of seedlings, a real logistical challenge.

There have also been some surprising spin-off benefits from the programme. One project has involved planting cork oak, the bark from which can be harvested to provide sustainable and renewable timber and other products.On other land being used for planting, plans are under way for beekeeping and recreational cycle ways. Students in Manapōuri are using the planted land to conduct science experiments and learn more about the ecology of the local area.

If you plant carefully, with an open mind, almost anything is possible. Some land is suited to natives, while there is a good role for exotics to support new forest.Planting is not a cookie-cutter exercise, you need to be flexible, pragmatic and ready to adapt your thinking.The economics of carbon offsetting is a driving force behind the programme, but it's about much more than politics and policies, which are always shifting and evolving.

Forever Forests is as much about community and biodiversity outcomes as it is about climate mitigation.

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This article was originally published on NZHerald 9 June 2021.