« Greenness », a mere marketing asset ?

I know this is going to sound nerdy, but hey, I don’t care : I am a huge fan of Tolkien’s novels and I was thrilled to hear they were about to start shooting a pair of epic fantasy movies based on “The Hobbit”. To be even more accurate, these movies are currently shot in New Zealand at the exact same place where the « Lord of The Rings » Trilogy was shot. Because I am also a business student with an interest in « serious » economic issues, I did a bit of research on that, and found out that those films did a great deal to promote New Zealand as a must-see ecotourism destination and spur the country’s tourism trade (Air New Zealand even branded itself the “airline to Middle Earth”), fitting nicely with the country ’s “100% Pure New Zealand” marketing slogan, first used a couple of years earlier. And then I began to wonder : all that money spent on advertising on how green a country New Zealand is, basically, is dedicated to build up a mass tourism industry, which is not exactly renowned for its eco-friendliness. So is this all for the show ? The image New Zealand attempted to show the world attempts to hide a far dirtier reality, including the world’s third-highest rate of car ownership , and methane-belching cows that help to push agricultural emissions to almost half the country’s total. When tackled on these claims by an Australian reporter, New Zealand’s prime minister John Key angrily dismissed them as “bollocks”, pointing to his country’s efforts to tackle its emissions by energetically planting trees that would re-absorb them. But local papers took up the theme. “New Zealand: 100 per cent pure hype” ironically claimed the New Zealand Herald. “We are clean and green, but only relatively speaking and by accident rather than conscious effort.” The ruggedness of much of New Zealand’s terrain may have protected its film-friendly uplands, but at lower elevations farming has stripped away forests, eroded hills and clogged rivers with silt and fertiliser run-off. When considering the efforts New Zealand towards a more balanced growth pattern, some actual good policies are to be noted : In 2007 an “Environmental Performance Review of New Zealand” by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) noted a series of improvements over the past ten years: better approaches to recycling and water treatment; reforestation of pasture to prevent erosion; strengthened efforts to preserve endangered species; the removal of agricultural and fishing subsidies; and, by OECD standards, a high use of renewable energy sources, at 30% of supply. However, the report also pointed to new environmental pressures, such as growing demand for electricity that was leading to greater use of fossil fuels for power generation, and climbing car ownership that failed to be matched by measures such as road pricing.

On previous occasions New Zealand has been able to see off threats to its green image. When concerns about “food miles” started to be widely voiced a few years ago, New Zealand’s agricultural exports—40% of its total exports—looked at risk. The government argued that Europe’s concerns were actually fueled by its unwillingness to see the emergence of a foreign, non-subsidised competition rather than by concerns over the environmen,  based on a study conducted by New Zealand’s Lincoln University which showed that the country’s agricultural exports were relatively efficient in terms of energy use, by comparison to agricultural production in Europe, even when shipping was taken into account. Mr Key’s centre-right government, elected in 2008, although less green-oriented than the previous Labour-led coalition, has taken some environmental action. Just before last year’s Copenhagen summit, it enacted an emissions-trading scheme, while Australian attempts at doing the same resulted in a failure. At Copenhagen, Tim Groser, the minister for climate-change negotiations and a pragmatic former trade diplomat, pushed strongly for a “global alliance” to research ways of reducing agricultural greenhouse-gas emissions. From an environmentalist’s perspective, though, these positives are outweighed by much larger negatives. Last November, in his “Greenwash” column for the Gardian , environmental journalist Fred Pearce pointed out that New Zealand’s greenhouse-gas emissions had risen 22% since 1990 (its commitment under the Kyoto Protocol was to keep them level) and were now 60% greater per head than Britain’s. In February, the government revealed it was considering opening some of the country’s pristine public land up for mining—an activity to which the dwarves in The Hobbit are much fond of, but which is not popular with more elvish sensibilities. Energetic lobbying by environmental groups forced it to reduce the amount of land under consideration, but on March 22nd it announced that it still intended to open 7,000 hectares of conservation land to mining, with other conservation areas to be surveyed for their mineral potential.

Things, of course, are complicated. New Zealand, along with all the other rich countries in the world, is facing the development dilemma —how to conciliate economic growth with the need to address environmental degradation. But it is particularly acute in a country so dependent on the export of commodities and landscape-driven tourism. No doubt New Zealand will soon make a choice between communicating on how green it is, and actually taking the actions to be greeen.