Forests as climate change and economic stabilisers

Forests are worth their weight in gold

The attention we pay to forests now could make or break how we fare in the future.

NZ Plantation data (2020) and Native (2021) data and estimates


Carbon graphic 2

Critical for mitigating climate change

Forests are nature’s most effective carbon pumps. They act as critical buffers, helping to limit the severity of climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Trees capture carbon through photosynthesis, which is stored in the tree and transferred to the soil. This diagram shows how the carbon is distributed into the wood, roots and soil. New Zealand native forest annually stores 337 tonnes of carbon per hectare and planted forests approximately 214 Tonnes per hectare.

In plantation forests, the overall CO2 capture ratio is leaves, trunk and branches 42.3%, dead wood 2.3%, debris and litter 3.3%, tree roots 9% and soil organic matter 43%.

Additionally, for New Zealand native forests, the overall capture ratio is leaves, trunk and branches 42.8%, dead wood 13.1%, debris and litter 6.6%, tree roots 10% and soil organic matter 27.3%.

Carbon sequestration

Carbon annually sequestered in New Zealand forests is greater than all the transport emissions of the country.


More carbon sequestered than the transport sector produced


Tonnes of CO2 emitted by transport in New Zealand in 2020


Tonnes of CO2 sequestered by New Zealand's forests in 2020

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Lees Seymour, Independent Chair, FWP ITP Advisory Group, 2022

“The forestry and wood processing sector is the best positioned of all industries in Aotearoa New Zealand to take advantage of the opportunities that climate change presents.”

Forests are of major economic significance

Forests will help to catalyse New Zealand’s much-needed transition towards a new, more sustainable bio-economy that is not subject to the global instability of finite fossil fuels and their associated greenhouse gas emissions.

The forest sector exports earnt $6.7 billion in 2021, and forestry and wood processing form New Zealand’s forth largest primary industry, employing 40,000 people.

“Forests are Aotearoa New Zealand’s largest renewable resource and are vital in our move toward a more circular, zero-emissions economy. The materials, energy, and wood products that the sector produces are at the heart of the emerging bio-economy,” Industry Transformation Plan 2022.

Image source: MPI and the Forestry and Wood Processing Industry Transformation Plan (2022)

New Zealand plantation forests have a standing volume of 530 million m3 an average tree age of 18 years, and a harvest of 34 million m3 per annum. 90% of the forest is Pinus Radiata with an average harvest age of 28.7 years, 6% is Douglas Fir (mostly in Otago and Southland with a harvest age of 40.4 years) and modest amounts of other softwoods, cypress and eucalyptus.

Forests also provide a large number of other environmental advantages in preventing surface erosion, providing fresh air, improving freshwater quality, providing wildlife habitats and supporting ecosystem health.

Harnessing the whole tree wins all round

The materials, energy, and wood products that the sector produces are at the heart of the emerging bio-economy.

Different forest management procedures are used to produce useful wood products. The illustration shows production from a representative pinus radiata tree from a typical thinned and pruned forest harvested at 35m height. Most value (50%) is from the clear timber used for its consistency, high quality and excellent appearance. 

Trees planted for structural applications have 60% sawn logs by volume with a much larger 80% value proportion and 20% industrial logs. These forests are thinned after around 10 years but are not pruned. Timber Unlimited is largely focused on increasing the efficient use of sawn timber in high-quality applications to replace high-emission materials.

There are many initiatives underway to efficiently use the final 4% of the tree for renewable energy, such as wood pellets and biofuels. Research has shown the potential for a large range of biochemicals, bioplastics, pharmaceuticals and other products that will replace those that use fossil fuels.

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Harvesting trees is important for sustainability

In early maturity, trees absorb the most carbon. Harvesting the tree when it is mature and using the timber in long-term applications makes good, sustainable use of forest land and stores a large amount of carbon.

The forest sector is essential in supporting our economic growth, regional development, and environmental sustainability, but this requires careful management. Of the 1.13m ha of managed plantation forest, 1.12m ha is FSC certified and 0.54m ha also PEFC certified.