The North Island's picturesque East Coast is set to become a testing ground for a nationwide model that could potentially establish hundreds of thousands of hectares of new native forest, combat climate change and improve our waterways.
A new study, to run over three years, will look at the potential for erosion-prone, Maori-owned land on the coast to be used for native forest regeneration for carbon farming.
"With the manuka honey industry taking off and the Paris Agreement causing carbon prices to increase, earning an income from native trees may become lucrative," said Panapa Ehau, managing director of Ruatoria-based charitable company Hikurangi Enterprises, which is working with local Maori landowners.
"These days, converting Maori land to native forest carbon farming is a serious business opportunity worthy of study.
"Converting some Maori land to native forest carbon farming can offer financial benefits as well as environmental and cultural co-benefits for landowners and carbon emitters alike."
Also behind the project, funded through a Ministry for Primary Industries grant, are Wellington's Victoria University and Motu Economic and Public Policy Research.
While Hikurangi Enterprises and Ruatoria-based researcher Pia Pohatu will work with landowners, Motu experts will work with emitters interested in carbon credit deals.
The research team will first look at how one sheep and cattle farm near Tokomaru Bay, Nuhiti Q, has taken the approach through a partnership with Gull New Zealand.
The farm, which entered the Emissions Trading Scheme in 2012, has been running a native regeneration scheme that has retired stock, and fenced and planted land with 70ha of permanent forest.
Income received through the ETS, along with profit from honey, oil and nut products, meant no money was lost from retiring the grazing land.
Under an initial two-year agreement with Gull, the company has bought 12,000
units of Nuhiti's carbon credit, totalling just over $220,000, which will be put toward fencing repairs and planting more manuka.
The researchers say this deal will be used as a case study for other Maori land owners and carbon emitters.
"The aim of the project is to provide insights on how communities and landowners can efficiently use carbon markets to encourage profitable native forest regeneration," said David Fleming Munoz, a research fellow at Motu.
His colleague, Dr Suzi Kerr, said there was a good case for more native forests, which act as long-term carbon stores that help stabilise the climate.
Niwa scientists say our forests and other land areas may be sucking up to 60 per cent more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than previously thought - and we could likely thank our native trees for much of it.
Another recent report led by Kerr found establishing native forests is an environmentally and economically attractive way to decrease the risk for those high-emitting companies, who could face a carbon market where prices soar as high as $270 per unit.
Yet, only 8 per cent of the forest land registered in the ETS was native - and only 500ha of new native forest had been established and registered since 2008.
Planting just 10,000ha of native forest could sequester 65,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases annually - which would be eligible to earn 65,000 NZUs per year under the ETS - and there was scope to create more than 1 million ha, putting the country on track to a net-zero greenhouse gas future.
Kerr said native trees also supported biodiversity, protected watersheds from erosion, improved water quality and made the landscape more attractive.
"This kind of thing also provides local jobs given the fencing, and pest and weed control work needed."
New Zealand and climate change
• Under present projections, the sea level around New Zealand is expected to rise between 30cm and 100cm this century, while temperatures could also increase by several degrees by 2100.
• Climate change would bring more floods (about two-thirds of Kiwis live in areas prone to flooding); make our freshwater problems worse and put more pressure on rivers and lakes; acidify our oceans; put even more species at risk and bring problems from the rest of the world.
• New Zealand has pledged to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent from 2005 levels and 11 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030.
• While the Ministry for the Environment's latest Greenhouse Gas Inventory showed gross New Zealand emissions were 0.1 per cent lower in 2014 than 2015, emissions had increased 24.1 per cent from 1990.