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Brand-building by goat slaughter

Knocking off goats could lead to greater gains in carbon sequestration.

If everyone claims cleanness and greenness, there’s not much brand differentiation to be had.

Pattrick SmellieBack about five years ago, in another life, the power company I was working for got a sudden rush of blood to the head about climate change. It didn’t last long, mainly because we had to admit that every other power company was on the same bandwagon and that instead of being rewarded for being environmental innovators, we were more likely to be ignored.

It’s also one of the unfortunate realities about corporate cleanness and greenness: if everyone else is doing it, then there’s not much brand differentiation to be had.

These days, for the most part, big companies pursue environmental initiatives because they have to, whether or not they want to. Being seen to be a good environmental steward has very quickly become a non-negotiable ‘business as usual’ requirement, especially for resource and energy companies.

Just a few years ago, in the mid-2000s, that insight hadn’t dawned. That’s how a brief flowering of enthusiasm for wacky ideas occurred at my old employer. One of the wackier ideas was to pay for clearing feral goats out of the Whanganui River catchment.

True, possums were a bigger problem, but no-one was suicidal enough to suggest linking the company brand to the use of 1080 poison. It didn’t matter that the science shows 1080 works a treat. It was all too easy to imagine the flood of angry customer letters such a campaign would provoke. Power companies already had plenty of angry customers, thank you very much.

Goats, however, seemed less loveable than Kaimanawa horses, and the destruction they cause to native flora is simply mind-boggling.

The theory was that slaughtering these voracious ruminant pests would dramatically improve native bush recovery, leading to much greater sequestration of carbon in native forests. As a by-product, the bush would be more habitable again for birds and other native species.

In principle, everyone was keen, including DoC.

Right from the get-go, though, the plan had a few problems. What would it cost to kill that many goats? And what would be the impact on the brand if a goat hunter shot a member of the public? As noted above, power companies were unpopular enough without adding shooting people to their list of crimes.

Even if we could solve that conundrum, there was an even bigger problem. No-one had any idea how to measure the impact of such efforts on the target: combating climate change. The state of knowledge about carbon sequestration in native forests was embryonic then, and remains fairly fluid today.

All anyone can really be sure about is that native forests grow slowly and sequester less carbon than plantation pine forests, hectare for hectare.

Yet the germ of our goat-slaughtering scheme not only lives on, but has found expression in the recently published report of the Green Growth Advisory Group.

While most media reports focused on the group’s uncomfortable efforts to squeeze oil, gas and other mineral extraction into the ‘green growth’ rubric, the report contained a total of 26 recommendations, of which Recommendation 17 has received almost no attention.

Perhaps it should.

It proposes that New Zealand create a “nationally consistent bio-diversity offsetting regime that will facilitate projects for economic growth and, at the same time, deliver net gains to New Zealand’s bio-diversity and environmental quality”.

In particular, it should target particular New Zealand needs, such as “ongoing, active pest management if biodiversity assets are to survive in the long term”. It doesn’t actually mention goats by name, but they’re definitely in the frame.

To avoid the inevitable cries of quackery and greenwash, such a scheme would have to be based on “widely understood and accepted principles of equity, efficiency, and transparency”.

Crucially, such a biodiversity offsetting scheme would also have to conform to that clunky climate change concept of ‘additionality’ – whatever was achieved should be over and above what was going to happen anyway. If the country was already going to be carpet-bombed with 1080-laced carrots, that wouldn’t count. But if it’s a new carpet-bombing caused by this scheme, it would qualify.

To make it work, the scheme would also require “rigorous processes that are supported by the best available environmental science and monitoring” and governance arrangements that increased the likelihood that people would actually believe the results.

As noted, there’s the rub.

Still, to see this concept supported suggests the capacity both to measure and to plan such interventions is improving, and that the application of resources to accelerating it could be a win-win both for the environment and for the economy.

Just ask the guys at Goodnature, whose new-age pest traps are exciting interest not only here but around the world.

The Green Growth report also gingerly proposes one further objective.

That is to create a trading scheme based on the measurable environmental goods produced by mass goat, possum and other pest animal deaths, thereby raising the programme’s status from the realms of either sponsored or subsidised activity to a way to make money.

Unfortunately, if not surprisingly, there’s no detailed thinking to accompany Recommendation 17. Who knows? Perhaps it was the pet project of one of the advisory group’s members and only made the cut to keep them quiet.

For those with misgivings about turning every facet of human endeavour into a medium of monetary exchange, this extension of the concept may seem a little Faustian.

But it drives in the same direction as everything else that seeks to change human behaviour quickly enough to make a difference to the environmental degradation happening on so many fronts: put a price on a thing, and you’ll soon see a response.

Pattrick Smellie is a Wellington journalist and founder of the BusinessDesk news service.