Mainstreaming eco-services for economic gain

John Key and Russel Norman have done a deal. It’s no big deal but it gives Key a green tinge. But is a tinge his limit?

The policy preoccupation, through this big downturn and beyond, is with saving, then growing, jobs and material welfare. Rich country leaders are drafting the next generation’s earnings (that is, borrowing) to buy jobs now.

The Greens would say both rich and developing country leaders have also been drafting the next generation’s ecosystem resources to prop up incomes now. That is a deep difference between them and National.

But maybe there is scope for convergence. There is money in them-there ecosystems if you know where and how to look.

The natural lean on the right, including the centre-seeking right, has been to see environmental conservation (nice) as opposed to economic growth (necessary). The natural lean among eco-advocates has been to see economic growth (questionable) as opposed to maintaining our ecosystems (critical to wellbeing).

Small wonder that centrists talk “balance”, implying a balance of competing opposites. Key says “balance” a lot, aiming to pacify both sides.

But there is another word: “marry” — put the two apparent opposites together and you might get offspring carrying genes from both sides. Key said “marry” once last year before retreating.

Biodiversity has economic value. So building biodiversity by skilful management of ecosystem services can create economic value, that is, jobs and income. The point is to mainstream conservation of biodiversity instead of marginalising it — that is, as a United Nations paper suggests, move on from biodiversity as a goal in itself (saving kiwi and kakapo, for example) to managing the services that biodiversity underpins.

One senior government figure puts it this way: ecosystem management links to our major industry, it goes to branding (is there “integrity in the supply chain”?) and there are science-based economic pluses (tussock’s water-absorptive capacity and slow release of stored water can obviate the need for storage in concrete).

Stretch this a bit and imagine an ultra-fine merino clothing brand carrying an iconic conservation estate name and locked into pristine alpine imagery — and fetching high prices in world capitals.

You can feel the shudder run through conservationists who for years have fought against and sometimes fought off rapacious developers. But turn that round and put a price on water and ecosystems such as wetlands, now “free” to farmers but at a price to the country as a whole. The shudder runs through the other side.

Now factor in climate change. Last year’s bold talk in the United States and Australia is rapidly turning to a whisper as jobs evaporate. Few expect a substantial global post-2012 greenhouse gas emissions-cutting agreement this year.

But something will come sometime and for now there is the Kyoto protocol. For “integrity in the supply chain” New Zealand exports will need lower national and sectoral emissions and/or local offsets.

While measurement and thus verification are complex, biodiversity projects can be useful offsets — that is, they save money which would otherwise go on foreign offsets. And if New Zealanders want more dams, coal, tourists and farm income, which most do, building biodiversity can make them “clean”.

Furthermore, if the result is a net gain in biodiversity, that will go down well during next year’s United Nations “year of biodiversity” (which aims, modestly, to reduce the rate of loss of biodiversity, not reverse it). Sure, the United Nations is known for earnest papers, fine rhetoric and the gross hypocrisy of most of its members. But we have a fragile clean-green brand to maintain.

How to mainstream ecosystem services? The United States has set up an office and a board to advise on incentives. The state of Victoria has a pricing and incentives system for private operators which some think could be a model for this country. New Zealand could develop ecosystems services systems and sell the intellectual property abroad (besides building the brand).

And the science of biodiversity, while limited, is developing. Nature magazine in February, citing Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of Louisiana in 2005 as proof, noted that it can be cheaper in the long run to maintain ecosystems than live without them. “Destroying ecosystems for short-term economic benefit is like killing the cow for its meat when one might keep from starving by drinking its milk for years to come.”

Now factor in Key’s deliberate choice for Minister of Conservation someone with an economic and international trade background: Tim Groser. Ecosystem economic opportunities are very much in Groser’s mind.

Milk and commodity tourism aren’t going to catapult us up the wealth ladder. Offering help to fridge makers is 1950s-70s thinking. Mainstreaming investment in jobs in smart ecosystems services might be an ingredient in a 2010s economy. Which is the economy Key says he wants to run.