James Hoban takes a close look at the links between carbon accounting and biodiversity protection, and asks who pays and who benefits.

W hether protected or managed, indigenous biodiversity on farms should be an asset. Protecting or creating areas of well-managed native vegetation has always offered a multitude of benefits – water quality, erosion management, shelter, aesthetics, ease of management, habitat provision and the deep satisfaction that comes with often multi-generational stewardship. This work comes at financial cost and for many involves inevitable baggage and trust issues concerning interested authorities and external parties. Debate around biodiversity and carbon accounting complicate the picture and there is potential for environmental stewardship to become a rod for farmers’ backs.

The idea that sheep and beef farming is a comparatively carbon responsible sector because of the areas of native and exotic bush and forestry on mostly more extensive farms is gaining currency. The appeal of this message is obvious when a receptive audience already has a grudge against what they perceive to be intensive farming and a more favourable view of stereotypical farming families on hill country.

Through its environment strategy launched in 2018, Beef+Lamb NZ has stated a goal of achieving carbon neutrality as a sector by 2050. This target has been followed with public revelations around the amount of native vegetation remaining on sheep and beef properties – 2.7 million hectares or 24% of New Zealand’s total native habitat. From a biodiversity perspective, protected native areas on sheep and beef farms offer a good news story. The ensuing question is; who should own the credit for these assets? The need to find a clear answer has suddenly become pressing, with biodiverse native areas now also offering a valuable carbon offset in some situations.

‘If nutrients from all types of farms end up in the same receiving river or lake, the extensive farmers are capped to pay for the impacts of the intensive land users.’

There are at least three conflicting approaches to accounting for protected native areas.

One would follow the grandparenting nutrient allocation model, in a perverse reversal that has potential to bite sheep and beef farmers. In various areas, grandparenting of nutrients has seen those farmers who emit the least nutrient into the environment, generally because of relatively extensive farming, capped at relatively low levels, to allow for the existing and in some cases future development of higher nutrient emitters. The latter group is generally made up of irrigated farms. If nutrients from all types of farms end up in the same receiving river or lake, the extensive farmers are capped to pay for the impacts of the intensive land users. Depending on catchment-specific clawback provisions, this prevents further degradation and appeases the intensive group.

Now biodiversity potentially offers a new scary form of grandparenting – ironically biting many of the same farmers who have been hammered in nutrient allocation – where protection of native areas on extensive farms, where most of them occur, is prioritised. Intensive farms have comparatively clearer land and recreating biodiversity havens from scratch is expensive. If the hill country farmers keep their bush, the intensive farmers can carry on with the scorched earth approach they have inherited and overall the catchment, region or country has a reasonable area of protected biodiversity. What is more, it has a carbon offset, as well as a biodiversity asset, that is used to balance the wider area’s carbon footprint. With farming sectors using the same pool of resources, damage done to the intensive sector under this approach is minimised.

A second approach would see sectors balancing their footprint individually. While the approach above sees the hill country balancing the lack of biodiversity on the plains, this second option creates sector-specific competition. Sheep and beef farmers, be they intensive finishers or breeders on steeper country, claim a relatively tidy carbon and biodiversity position as a sector. Team dairy, arable and anyone else outside the sheep and beef sector would need to work on getting their own house in order. For a sheep and beef farmer, on balance this seems a fairer approach than the reverse grandparenting model. This appears to be the line of attack Beef+Lamb NZ is taking with its environment strategy, biodiversity marketing and carbon neutral goal. It seems reasonable for most sheep and beef farmers.

Scenario three attributes ownership of biodiversity, protected areas and carbon offsets to the person, family or business that creates them. In scenarios one or two, someone’s good work and foresight is being used as a convenient policy bargaining chip by others, whether they are within or outside of the same farming sector.

Consider a high-country farmer who runs a tourism business from their property. They farm sheep and cattle, pay their compulsory levies and have protected large areas of native bush, allowing targeted regeneration and actively enhancing some zones. It is worth noting that the levy payments are generated by animals run on their farmed land. Should a levy body have any interest in the parts of the farm which do not run animals? In the first two scenarios above, this farmer’s good work is attributed either to the farming sector as a whole, or specifically to their own sheep and beef sector. The carbon asset on the farm can only be accounted for once. If the industry or sector has claimed it then there is no ability for the farmer to use it to offset their own farming or tourism business footprint. They might sleep easier knowing the industry has been credited for the good work on their property, but when it comes to offsetting their carbon footprint in their tourism business, or any other business they may operate, they will need to find another way to do it.

Which approach encourages and incentivises protection of special areas? Like any environmental debate, the answer will vary depending on what people have to lose, or gain, from any of the approaches outlined.