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Trade, biodiversity and climate change

Sustainable NZ

Trade, biodiversity and climate change

By Stephen Knight
6 January 2006

Success in trade and attempts to be sustainable make for an uncomfortable partnership. By Stephen Knight.

Stripped to the bone, the public face of climate change, biodiversity management and trade issues go something like this.

Climate change is a natural phenomenon. It is made a worrisome thing by humans transferring carbon stored in the earth into the atmosphere at a rate much, much greater than would occur otherwise. Associated climate change is likely to be equally unnaturally rapid. We need low carbon-intensity economies.

The biological diversity of the planet is changing. This has always been so, but again the concern is the rate of change, the fact that it is in one direction (overall species diversity loss) and that the transplantation of species between continents and islands is creating a dangerous amount of homogenisation. Rapid climate change worsens these problems.

In terms of trade, taking a narrow focus, success in reducing farm export subsidies or import tariff duties protecting producers in other countries will benefit countries such as New Zealand. The December Hong Kong meeting of the World Trade Organisation’s Doha Development Agenda was the latest in this round. Consequent success will be a strong driver to boost primary productivity and create clever agricultural value-added goods.

Frustratingly, freeing up global trade also increases the risk of increasing rates of climate change and further reductions in global and local biodiversity. To avoid this risk, the three need to be tied together during decision-making. To a limited extent they are at a research and analysis level, such as with investment in sustainable farming. But such knowledge is poorly presented in public discussions over how to manage the closely related issues of productivity, land use, biodiversity and global climate change. Consequently, there is limited political pressure to take this research and analysis and create incentives for it to be taken up more broadly.

It is true that we are collectively getting better at producing things using fewer resources. Unfortunately, such skills tend to go out the window in good economic times. More primary productivity resulting from freer trade means New Zealand will increase its rate of energy and resource consumption per unit of GDP. New Zealand may be heading into a bit of recessionary period, at which time bottom lines will benefit from the need to be less profligate with energy and resources generally. But once the economy cranks up again, so will waste.

Most countries operate this way, as there are few direct incentives to do otherwise. A measure of this is eco-efficiency, the ratio of economic performance (real net output) to the input of ecological services such as raw material input and waste needing to be absorbed. In a comparison of 44 nations by Andreas Sturm, Mathis Wackernagel and Kaspar Muller, France came out as the most ecologically-efficient country and New Zealand as moderately poor (an eco-efficiency laggard). The comparisons are a bit out of date – the data was collected during the 1990s – but the message remains relevant. New Zealand, with its relatively low population, still has a lot of nature to play with but needs it, because we are inefficient resource-users. France, on the other hand, was very efficient at using what land it had, helped greatly by its relatively large nuclear power industry.

Such studies have major failings, such as not measuring the extent to which one country’s efficiency is dependent upon cross-subsidies from ecosystems and economies in other countries. But they do demonstrate one thing: countries that are eco-efficient – better at living within their ecological capacity – are also likely to be more competitive in the long term. In addition, failure to de-couple productivity from increasing energy use will continue to make a disproportionate impact per unit of GDP on climate change risk.

A key measure of ecological health and integrity is biodiversity. Government-sponsored reports since the late 1990s repeatedly show that if New Zealand wants to reach the goals in its 2000 Biodiversity Strategy, it must manage public and private property together, as part of the same ecological systems. This meant integrating so-called working environments – commercial, industrial and residential areas in rural and urban zones – with the conservation estate. Again, this has happened to an extent, as with sub-divisions incorporating native plantings and using natural water systems, or farmers using native plantings as part of their integrated pest management regime. But it is unco-ordinated and relatively ineffectual beyond the developments in question.

What is needed is a fillip to extend these attempts in such a way that they are integrated into an overall land management system that compliments current economic productivity needs. Part of the equation is producing a guide for land users and local government on how this could be done.

Such a guide could be the draft biodiversity National Policy Statement (formulated under the Resource Management Act and aimed at helping achieve the goals of the Strategy) that went to Cabinet mid-2005, was held over till after the October election, and should appear for public comment sometime in mid 2006.

In terms of tools to realise the goals of such a guide, recent technological advances (e.g. Land Environments NZ (LENZ) have allowed for a greater ability to identify land with a high native biodiversity risk. This could be used to create a multi-use land use pattern aimed at achieving a better mix of ecological, social and economic goals. This information could be incorporated into the extension of schemes such as Lincoln University-Heinz Wattie’s Kowhai Farm ( or Landcare’s Emissions/Biodiversity Exchange project. Recent Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment publications ( also canvass a range of mechanisms and schemes. So the concepts and tools exist. What is needed are incentives, such as through better designed carbon taxes that are part of a package shifting the economy towards rewarding good behaviour and imposing costs on inefficient activities.

The danger in the Doha success lies in the further entrenching of one-dimensional land use patterns. These make us very competitive from a profit-per-hectare viewpoint, but keep us low on the eco-efficiency scale.

Good policy and implementation would allow pundits to link trade negotiations with climate change and land and water biodiversity, in the same they currently calculate the assumed economic benefits of trade liberalization. This could highlight how the negative effects of climate change resulting from inefficient economic growth could swamp the benefits of boosted global trade; and the extent to which local resources are being used sustainably by measuring shifts in biodiversity. Biodiversity measures would not be limited to native biodiversity, given exotics also perform a range of needed ecological services.

The tools exist for such calculations. The Biodiversity NPS offers an opportunity to use such tools to improve our ecological sustainability.


Stephen Knight is an environmental scientist based in Wellington.

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