How green should we be?

Reputation is everything.

New Zealand's reputation as a clean, green country could be damaged by the "laggard and impudent" approach of the Government to managing the effects of climate change.

And it is the industries that are being given a free environmental ride that have the most to lose from New Zealand's loss of face.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says emissions need to be reduced by 25 to 40 per cent (from 1990 to 2020), to keep the global temperature increase to 2°C, the widely accepted definition of intolerably dangerous climate change.

The New Zealand Government is committed to reducing its emissions by 10 to 20 per cent, a target labelled as "fair" given New Zealand's "national circumstance".

The Opposition argues this is not good enough and the National Government is unwilling to do its fair share to combat climate change.

"We are expecting the rest of the world to carry the burden. This is breathtakingly impudent," said Dr Kennedy Graham, the Green Party spokesman for climate change.

As the first period of the Kyoto protocol, the binding international agreement on emissions reductions, comes to an end this year, the Government is yet to commit to further reductions under the agreement.

It is instead considering following the United States and China and making non-binding pledges under the United Nations Convention on Climate Change.

The ongoing weakening of New Zealand's emissions trading scheme (ETS) raises further questions over the Government's commitment to its climate change obligations.

The ETS is New Zealand's major mechanism for combating emissions. It was designed to put a price on emissions to incentivise businesses and consumers to a lower their carbon footprint.

But the scheme has been choked, crushed by the twin forces of coalition partner Act, whose confidence and supply agreement included gutting the ETS, and an agriculture industry that produces around 50 per cent of New Zealand's exports and greenhouse gas emissions.

Proposed changes to the scheme, which passed a second reading in Parliament last month (including indefinitely leaving agriculture out), have left the ETS "a shadow of its former self", according to Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright.

Wright fears New Zealand is not just shirking its responsibility to combating climate change, but also damaging the New Zealand brand.

"Putting climate change aside, there are real risks to New Zealand's reputation," she says. "Our special environment is our competitive advantage."

And it is agriculture that benefits from this advantage.

Last week a report by UK agricultural research organisation CGIAR praised the environmental benefits of New Zealand's lamb, suggesting British consumers should buy Kiwi meat for the sake of the environment.

It comes at the same time as Alliance Group's ability to provide organic lamb won it an exclusive contract to supply high-end UK supermarket Marks and Spencer.

This type of "value enhancement" is the best way to increase the profitability of a small, remote country, says Tim Hazledine, an economics professor at Auckland University.

"Our motto for our land-based industries is that we should be clean, green and expensive," he said.

In the emerging Asian market New Zealand's reputation is vital to its success.

Food safety, integrity and luxury are the growing focus of the Chinese upper-middle class.

"China sees New Zealand as a haven for food safety and believes that New Zealand can be trusted," said Grant Guilford, dean of science at Auckland University.

Guilford recently travelled to China to speak about how better health outcomes for Chinese consumers can result in added value for New Zealand producers.

This has seen companies like Fonterra build a strong reputation in China based on quality and integrity.

And despite cows being one of the country's largest emitters, Fonterra has profited from New Zealand's environmental reputation, including a belief in New Zealand's ethics and sustainability, Guilford said.

"From a science perspective, this comes back to brand NZ. If we don't manage that well, the advantage will be eroded."

The Marianas Group has established itself in China to be the "brand guardian" for high-end New Zealand products that rely on a reputation for purity and quality.

"We can compete through our story," said Alex Worker, the company's Beijing-based director.

"This story is founded on trust - food safety, quality standards, naturalness, delicious product, natural and pure ingredients, our environment."

The New Zealand story is seeing products like Marlborough sauvignon blanc compete with established old world wines in China. But New Zealand is not doing enough to live up to the brand's positioning, says the Sustainability Council of New Zealand.

Agriculture's involvement in a response to climate change would have a number of benefits, said Simon Terry, the council's executive director, including a demonstration the country was acting on climate change, in turn reinforcing the New Zealand brand.

New Zealand producers need to begin leading the reduction of emissions or face losing their advantage in a world increasingly concerned with sustainability, he said.

"New Zealand has to step to meet market requirements, even if it does not believe there is a moral duty to reduce emissions," Terry said.

Meanwhile, New Zealand has the 11th highest level of emissions per capita in the world and an emissions reduction scheme rendered redundant.

"Climate change is everyone's responsibility - every nation, every business, every farm, every household, every individual.

"But New Zealand is one of the highest emitters in the world, per person, so we actually have a special responsibility," Terry said.

And our reputation relies on it.

Sunday Star Times