A positive way to an eco future

Federated Farmers is adamant: food, a necessary of life, must not be in the greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme (ETS). John Key and his Minister of Agriculture, David Carter, are adamant it must be in.

When the National party and Federated Farmers are openly at odds on a major issue, that is serious politics.

There was a time when a Federated Farmers meeting in the sticks could double as a meeting of the local National party, so entwined were they. Those days are long past. But farmers still expect National will in some sense represent farmers’ interests in Parliament.

Moreover, the economy has been sucking on the cow’s teat. The Feds’ president Don Nicholson declared to their conference last week that agriculture is so important to the economy that “every New Zealander is a farmer”.

“From the cabby who got you here,” he told his flock, “to the hotel staff helping run this event to the media covering our conference, they all depend on what we do. That makes them farmers … of us.”

Nicholson thinks agriculture’s economically critical export cashflow requires national adoption of farmers’ priorities, including exemption from the ETS.

Key demurred. He asked the Feds if keeping agriculture out of the ETS would actually serve farmers’ interests. What if New Zealand got a poor reputation abroad on climate change and consumers, retail chains and governments put up barriers to New Zealand products?

(He had a point. The ETS bill which passed the United States House of Representatives on June 26 included provision for tariffs on imports from countries deemed backsliders on climate change.)

In the event there was such climate protectionism, Key asked the Feds, would he be helping or hindering farmers’ longer-term interests if he left agriculture out of our ETS?

Note the word “helping”. Key prefers “do’s” to “don’ts”.

Farmers are “do” people rather than “don’t” people. So are all businesspeople. They respond better to opportunities, preferably with profit attached, than to prohibitions.

Relate that to climate change: if a farmer or a business can see a buck to be made, that resonates. Growing numbers abroad (including Australia) have seen where bucks can be made — to the point where one commentator has claimed to be witnessing the emergence in the United States of a “climate-industrial complex” similar to the old “military-industrial complex” which hooked up with politicians to nudge policy and spending in ways that made its industrialists stacks of money.

Business New Zealand chief executive Phil O’Reilly, fresh back from London, says the word from top business organisations there is that green business is going to be an integral part of post-recession world economic growth. The OECD’s business advisory group took the same “green growth” line last month.

“It will be more and more critical to business success over the next 10 years and beyond,” O’Reilly says.

The message: if big international business demands greener suppliers, New Zealand producers will need to respond — down through the supply-chain to small-medium enterprises (SMEs).

That is, all parts of the supply-chain will need to meet international green standards for the lifecycle of the product or service. Getting the “eco-verification” to meet these standards is complex and difficult and practicable only for bigger New Zealand businesses.

How to get SMEs, which don’t even instal one-year-payback energy-saving measures, wise to this? Not with a big stick. By making it easy and by focusing on a better bottom line.

O’Reilly is keen on a new web-based tool developed inside the Ministry of Economic Development. This enables small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to easily assess their environmental performance on a standardised scorecard, work out how to do better and link to people who can help them.

SMEs and the companies they supply could agree a score and then over time refine and lift it, eventually to meet the international certification standards. They could thereby make money out of environment- and climate-friendliness — and indirectly help knit up the country’s fraying clean-green brand.

It is cost-free and imposes no obligations. It is an opportunity, not a regulated necessity. It is bottom-up “green” policy with a difference: friend, not foe.

Sectors could apply it. The tourism sector is close to adding a carbon calculator to its Qualmark scheme. Tourism needs to be able to live up to its “100 per cent pure” slogan (but doesn’t).

The eco-verification tool has been test-driven with business organisations around the country recently. It is to be publicly launched next week by Commerce Minister Simon Power. Fifty selected SMEs are to pilot it. Power likes it because it is a “value proposition to help business”.

The aim is to get it operating very widely.

Which, obviously, could include farmers. They are SMEs. They are in international supply-chains. And they like “do’s” more than “don’ts”. Or do they?