THOUGHT LEADER : Building on New Zealand’s Natural Capital

If there is one publication that should be compulsory reading for all global citizens it is the World Wide Fund for Nature’s “Living Planet Report”. Published every two years, it measures humanity’s ecological footprint from everyday living and compares it with the Earth’s bio capacity to sustain that activity.
The 2008 report concluded that the average human footprint was the equivalent of 2.7 hectares per capita compared to the Earth’s available bio capacity of only 2.1 hectares. This means we already require 1.3 planets to sustain current population and current lifestyles without compromising the human habitat for future generations.
The underlying message from this statistic becomes more alarming when the global numbers are broken down by country. USA citizens with their high standard of living, for example, have footprint of more than nine hectares per capita whereas for India the figure is less than single hectare.
A significant element of this footprint differential between developed countries and emerging economies is carbon emissions.
Looking ahead to 2050, Planet Earth faces rapidly increasing sustainability challenge if we are to absorb the expected explosion in global population from six billion to nine billion and the inevitable rise of living standards in emerging economies such as China and India.
The World Business Council for Sustainable Development identified two key elements of this sustainability challenge when it projected the global vehicle fleet to increase threefold in the first half of this century and that global demand for electricity generation would also triple. Unfortunately for Planet Earth, the car and electricity industries are not only two of the biggest global industries, they are also two of the most carbon intensive.
To reverse the inexorable rise in greenhouse gas emissions will now require worldwide cooperation on an unprecedented scale, with the upcoming conference in Copenhagen looming as the most important international gathering of the decade, potentially even, the most important of the century.
How New Zealand fits within this renewed global focus on sustainability represents both challenge and an opportunity. Although our per capita ecological footprint is nearly three times bigger than the global average, we are one of the few countries in the world with surplus bio capacity – thanks mainly to low population relative to our natural capital. This surplus natural capital will become increasingly valuable as the world becomes ever more populated and polluted and, with sensible strategies, can form the foundation of successful 21st century economy for New Zealand.
Up until now we have not placed enough future value on this surplus bio capacity and, for example, in the period 1990 to 2006 New Zealand’s carbon emissions increased by more than 70 percent – the highest increase in the OECD and more than double the global average. Much of that deterioration was caused by national vehicle fleet that is not only bigger than the country can afford, but is arguably the oldest and dirtiest vehicle fleet in the OECD.
We currently have more than 600 cars for every 1000 people – more than most countries with double our GDP per capita – and we have funded that indulgence with personal debt at levels that are the highest in the OECD with the exception of Iceland. Based on affordability, our car fleet should shrink by around 25 percent over the next decade and if, in that process, we can retire our oldest and least fuel-efficient cars then it will make valuable contribution to achieving low carbon vehicle fleet.
But the biggest opportunity for the New Zealand motor industry is the rapidly growing global interest in electric vehicles. Whilst the rest of the world will have to plug their cars into electricity grids dominated by fossil fuel power generation, New Zealanders will have the unique opportunity of plugging into largely renewable electricity sector.
In fact the progressive electrification of our national vehicle fleet has the potential to transform our vehicle emissions per capita from one of the highest in the world to the outright lowest.
For the past century Kiwi motorists have been major cause of our high carbon footprint, but they are now poised to play critical future role in reducing that footprint – providing sustainable supply chain credibility for our exports, meeting our international emission targets and generally helping to preserve the country’s valuable bio capacity.

Bob Field is chair of Toyota New Zealand.

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