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  • CarbonCrop Team

What is pre-1990 vs post-1989 forest land?

Updated: Jun 21, 2022

Learn about pre-90 and post-89 forest status and whether your forest is eligible for ETS carbon credits.

If you’re looking to register your land and start earning carbon credits, you may have heard the terms pre-1990 and post-1989 forest land. But what do they mean and why do they matter?

In this post we’ll explain these crucial terms and help you understand why pre-90 or post-89 forest status makes such a difference to your eligibility for carbon credits under New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme – known as the ETS.


To find out whether your land is eligible for carbon credits, get our free land assessment.


Not all forests earn carbon credits

Let’s start with a bit of background. Forests help to address climate change by taking carbon out of the atmosphere, in a process termed ‘carbon sequestration’. In New Zealand, the Emissions Trading Scheme (known as the ETS) uses carbon credits to incentivise landholders to grow and protect forest. These carbon credits are called NZU’s (New Zealand Units) and can be sold or traded - we’ll explain more about this in future posts.

To qualify for carbon credits, an area of forest must meet all the requirements laid out by the ETS, which includes things like area, height, width, canopy cover and tree species. But arguably the most important factor is the date that it became forest land.

This is why landholders with existing forests are on a mission to discover whether their forests are categorised as Pre-1990 or Post-1989.

Why Post-1989 and Pre-1990?

The Pre90/Post89 divide may seem a little arbitrary, so where did it come from?

The Kyoto Protocol, which extended the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), chose January 1st 1990 as the international baseline for net emissions. As New Zealand’s targets for emissions reductions are calculated from this date, the ETS focuses on incentivising forests established from 1990 onwards - i.e. ‘post-1989 forest.

Forests established before 1990 are not eligible for carbon credits

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but only Post-1989 forest land is eligible for carbon credits under the ETS.

To determine eligibility for carbon credits, the ETS classifies forests as either Pre-1990 or Post-1989. Some people shorten this to Pre90 and Post89.

What is Pre-1990 forest?

  • Land which meets the forest land definition is considered Pre90 if it was established prior to December 31st 1989.

What is Post-1989 forest?

  • Land which meets the forest land definition is considered Post89 if it was established after December 31st 1989.

If your land was already forested or regenerating prior to 1990, you are unlikely to be able to claim carbon credits. On the other hand, if your trees grew in the nineties or more recently, you have a much better chance of being eligible.

Unfortunately, this date is non-negotiable. If you planted trees in December 1989 they would not qualify for credits, yet if you planted those same trees in January 1990 they could well be eligible. Naturally, few landholders plant trees in peak summer, but you get the point!

This rule can be hard to swallow, especially if your forest is clearly growing and will continue to sequester carbon for many years to come.


Important note: If your forest seems ineligible, don’t give up just yet! The ETS is complex and there are some exceptions to this rule, so we strongly recommend getting our free land assessment to double-check your eligibility. You may also qualify for alternative types of carbon credits, outside the New Zealand ETS, which we can also tell you about.


What constitutes forest land in 1989?

When classifying forest as pre-90 or post-89, it isn’t always easy to determine the precise moment when the land became forested.

Let’s look at some examples to bring this to life:

  • Picture an old indigenous forest with a thick canopy and towering totara trees, rich in birdlife and fungi. The forest was clearly established long before 1990. Technically, native forest established prior to 1990 is neither labelled ‘pre-90’ nor ‘post-89’ under the ETS, but it gets treated as Pre-90 forest and sadly won’t be eligible for carbon credits.

  • At the other end of the spectrum, imagine a plot of open pasture that was grazed throughout the 1980 and 1990s, before being planted with eucalyptus trees in the year 2000. In this case we would all agree that the land became forested in 2000. It will be classified as Post-89 forest land and earn carbon credits, assuming the forest meets the other ETS requirements.

Other cases are less straight-forward. For instance, early-stage native regeneration can also be classified as forest land:

  • Imagine an area of native bush on your property. Back in 1989 it was just a scrubby field covered in gorse, with some sheep grazing amongst the vegetation. It certainly didn’t look like a forest! Yet if this land is judged to be regenerating in the 1980s, it may be classified Pre-1990 forest land under the ETS. On the other hand, if regeneration started in the 1990s or later, it can be classified as Post-89 forest and earn carbon credits.

Forest doesn’t need to be mature in 1989 to be considered Pre-90 forest land, it just needs to be on track to become forest under the existing land management practices.

Let's be clear: Gorse alone isn’t considered forest. However, once a certain density of tree species are present, the ETS considers it to be regenerating. It can be pretty hard to tell whether or not tree saplings were established under the gorse back in 1989, but carbon credit eligibility often hinges on it.

This can be a real head-scratcher, and a source of frustration for landholders whose land started regenerating close to 1990.

There are other exceptions too. For instance, if land is forested in 1989, then deforested for a period of a time before being reforested, it may also meet the definition of Post-1989 forest land. Another interesting case occurs in plantation forestry when trees are harvested in the late 1980s and replanted after 1989. Even though the area was unstocked in December 1989, the ETS considers it to be forest land between rotations.

Proving that your land is genuine Post-89 forest

In order to register forest successfully under the ETS, applicants must make their case to the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).

The onus is on the landholder to provide evidence for each area, showing that it was not forested back in 1989 and has since become forest land through planting or regeneration.

At CarbonCrop we have a growing repository of remote sensing data, including current and historical aerial and satellite imagery from across New Zealand, which we enhance using our in-house technologies. This evidence, dating from the 1980s to the present day, enables us to construct a compelling timeline of vegetation and forest growth. We also supplement aerial imagery with other forms of supporting evidence, such as clearing records and landowner photos, to prove that the land was not forested or regenerating in the late 1980s.

Of course we also need to provide evidence that the land currently meets the forest land definition, such as width, tree species, canopy cover and so forth. More on this another time!

How can I find out whether my forest is Pre-90 or Post-89?

If you’re a landholder in New Zealand, we offer a free Land Assessment to help you find out whether areas of your site qualify for carbon credits. We conduct our initial assessments remotely, primarily using aerial imagery.

If you’re considering planting trees, we can also check whether the land was forested prior to 1990, as this may affect the eligibility of future forest.

Our land assessment is completely free of charge and available for properties right across New Zealand, from large farms to small lifestyle blocks. We have received over 1000 assessment requests within the past six months.


About CarbonCrop

We’re a tech-enabled forestry company that helps Kiwi landholders to access carbon credits. Our cutting-edge technology is backed-up by a friendly team of carbon advisors who can tailor your assessment and talk you through the wonderful world of carbon credits. If you decide to sign up with CarbonCrop we take care of your land registration and ongoing carbon management, in exchange for a small percentage of the credits.

Our initial assessment is completely free of charge and while we hope you’ll love our service, there’s no obligation to proceed to registration.

Where to start? Find your land

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