Envirologue by Dave Hansford


The Least We Can Do – New Zealand’s Cringeworthy Climate Target

In December, the world will meet in Paris to decide what is to be done about climate change. There’s a heavy expectation that nations will bring with them meaningful, binding emissions reductions targets, and be able to articulate the policies to make them happen. These pledges are known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC).

The EU announced back in March that it would reduce domestic EU greenhouse gas emissions by “at least 40 per cent” by 2030, against a 1990 baseline.

Last month China, the world’s sootiest nation, told Paris officials it means to reduce its carbon emissions by between 60 and 65 per cent by 2030 from 2005 levels. Barack Obama, meanwhile, has pledged to cut US emissions to between 26 and 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025.

So Tim Groser’s announcement yesterday – that New Zealand would agree to haul emissions back to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 – would seem to put us somewhere amid the play. “This is a significant increase on our current target of five per cent below 1990 emission levels by 2020,” claimed the Minister for Climate Change Issues. 

It’s nothing of the sort, as Prof. James Renwick of Victoria University quickly pointed out; “This target ... translates to about an 11 per cent reduction compared to 1990. This is in line with the previous target of five per cent by 2020, and 50 per cent by 2050, so there is no ‘strengthening’ of New Zealand’s position. This new target is as weak as previously-announced ones, and does not come close to what is required if New Zealand is serious about keeping warming to less than two degrees (as the Government have said we are).”

In fact, New Zealand had already floated a conditional target of between 10 and 20 per cent reductions by 2020. Against that, our pledge to Paris looks negligible.

Commentators have learned to pay close attention to Groser’s language, because in his asides and qualifications lie important clues to the policy position Cabinet has already decided upon, sham consultations notwithstanding. We knew a weak target was coming, telegraphed by these lines from him back in May: “Increasing our commitment after 2020 will be a big challenge ... The easy gains have already been made...”

This is the sort of apologist talk we’ve come to recognise as a reliable precursor to bathos, and it lurked in yesterday’s announcement too: “I think in 5-10 years we’ll be in a good position to reduce our emissions in both agriculture and transport.”

Using this ruse, Groser sets us up to expect nothing from this Government, despite a very clear and pressing need for urgent action. Groser talks as if Whanganui isn’t only now drying out after its worst flood on record. As though the weather didn’t cost New Zealand insurers $20m in May alone. As though farmers don’t have to contend with drought across much of the country, most summers and autumns. As if the sea isn’t starting to surge through Wellington. As though Cheviot didn’t experience 21.7ºC on June 1st (and Tara Hills didn’t get minus that on June 24th).

Said Groser yesterday; “...we are keen to make a fair and ambitious contribution to the international effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the most harmful effects of climate change.”

But as Renwick points out, the international science community has long understood that if we’re to stand any chance of averting the chaos of a two-degree increase in mean global temperatures; “...we need about a 40 per cent reduction by 2030, 90 per cent by 2050 (New Zealand’s 2050 target is 50 per cent), and 100 per cent by 2060 – and then negative emissions (removal of CO2 from the atmosphere) for the rest of the century.” 

Eleven per cent, then, doesn’t begin to come close. And five to 10 years’ time is far too late. “If all countries followed New Zealand’s lead, we would be in for very significant climate change impacts and catastrophic damage to the New Zealand and global economy,” concludes Renwick.

Motu’s Catherine Leining points out that the Government hasn’t even released an emissions budget to account for how we might achieve the cuts it proposes, much less any firm policy to decarbonise New Zealand sufficient to stop short of that two-degree limit.

Instead, the Government’s INDC hints at unquantified cuts supposedly won from conjectural advances sometime in the future: “Transformation of the transport and agriculture sectors will take longer than the 2021-2030 period covered by this INDC. New Zealand’s long-term emission pathway anticipates accelerated emission reductions post-2030, once agricultural mitigation technology becomes more widely applied and uptake of low-emission transport technology increases.”

It’s difficult to understand just how any cuts can be “anticipated” when there are woefully few policies or mechanisms in place to prepare any ground for them, but Groser insists the necessary steps will be taken. This is going to get interesting because for now, all we have is a $48m programme to reduce livestock emissions, a moribund emissions trading scheme, and airy predictions from Groser about electric and hybrid car uptake.

The Government continues to frame climate change as something we really must get round to in the coming decades. Talk of ‘transitions’, ‘innovation’, ‘long-term trajectories’, all are carefully contrived subliminal undertones calculated to convince people that there’s no need to rush – that we shouldn’t expect too much too soon.

The Ministry for the Environment declares that New Zealand’s 2020 climate target will be achieved with “no change to existing policy settings” and with “no additional costs on households, businesses or government.”

By this, they mean we’ll probably weasel out of our obligations by buying up “hot air” carbon credits and banking pine trees that have yet to be planted. In the past, hot air credits have been cheap as chips, but Treasury warned the Government last year that prices have since skyrocketed: should it try the same ploy again come 2030, the bill could run to $52b. That is a decidedly additional cost.

And as last month’s devastating floods showed us, as the damage from Mt Maunganui’s tornado graphically illustrates, as the Wellington storms proved, our shamefully cynical target will be met (or missed; it’s so inconsequential that it doesn’t really matter) at crippling cost.

 To the planet. To everybody.


Making a Killing – New Zealand Sea Lions on the Brink

 When is a protected species not protected? When it gets in the way of fishing industry profits.


Fishers call this frigid sweep of green SQU 6T. That’s because each summer, millions of southern arrow squid gather here, in the cold subantarctic deep off the Auckland Islands, to mate. In the blackness of 200 metres, they whirl in an orgiastic throng. This is urgent. Arrow squid live for just a single year: they have this one chance to pay their DNA forward.

And it’s dangerous. New Zealand sea lions swoop out of the gloom, snapping at the teeming tentacles. The darkness is no defence; the sea lions’ big black eyes can see right through it.

These female sea lions are hunting at the edge of anaerobic load – a single breath – and they’re on the very limits of their endurance. Some have already swum more than 150 km to feed here, and time/depth recorders have shown they routinely dive beyond 600m – the deepest forays of any sea lion anywhere – for four or five minutes at a time.

That’s because everything depends on this seasonal spree. The females have a hungry pup back on shore – they’ve timed their breeding to coincide precisely with that of the squid. What’s more, they already have next year’s pup forming inside them. They need every gram of squid protein they can catch.

But they have to compete for it. The fishing industry has noticed this cornucopia as well: each season, around a dozen vessels ply these grounds, setting vast trawl nets as squid rise from the bottom to breed. Over the last five years, they’ve caught an average of 13,000 tonnes a year.

Every so often – 5.6 times every 100 tows, according to Ministry of Fisheries (MFish) data averaged over 16 seasons – they also catch a sea lion.

A sea lion trapped in a net will drown. They’re protected by law, but fishers are allowed to kill a given number each season – by way of a “Fisheries-Related Mortality Limit” calculated by the Ministry of Fisheries. If and when that limit is reached – when 68 sea lions are dead – the Minister is obliged to close the fishery, whether the trawlers have caught their squid allowance or not.

Much of what we know about by-catch on the high seas comes from the accounts of MFish observers posted aboard squid trawlers. But observer coverage has historically been patchy at best: fewer than 40 per cent of tows were typically observed, although in the last two seasons observation coverage has risen dramatically.

Skippers can get a ‘discount rate’ on their kill quota if they opt to fit a Sea Lion Excluder Device, or SLED to their nets. A SLED is a sort of steel cage in the net, the bars of which are wide enough to allow squid to pass through, but narrow enough to stop a sea lion, then deflect it up and out through a covered hatch atop the main net.

On their introduction in 2002, it was assumed that SLEDS would eject at least 20 per cent of sea lions entering nets. Under MFish rules, that allowed fishers to catch 20 per cent more sea lions before exhausting their kill quota.

Over the 2010-2011, season, the estimated sea lion strike rate dropped to 3.5 per 100 tows. Despite enormous statistical uncertainty, and contrary findings from DOC and University of Otago scientists, then-Primary Industries Minister David Carter accepted MFish advice that the lull justified a hike: in 2013, he upped the discount rate to a staggering 82 per cent. That had the effect of stretching out the squid season in SQU 6T to 4700 permitted tows – a 140 per cent increase and more than had ever been permitted at any time in its history.

Such is the faith the Government puts in SLEDS, but in 2002, Massey University vets autopsied 21 sea lions, six of were known to have been ejected from a SLED.

Even the dispassionate language of the morgue can’t disguise the suffering; “traumatic lesions”, “amputations”, “penetrating wounds” and “fracture of limb bones”, “acute blunt trauma”, “contusions”, “haemorrhage”…

“The severe trauma described for many of the animals would likely have compromised their survival had they not asphyxiated,” reads the report, which makes repeated reference to the fact that many of the sea lions autopsied had regurgitated their last meal, a stress reflex with potentially fatal consequences. “Gastric reflux (vomit), if aspirated (inhaled into the lungs), can cause foreign-body pneumonia in animals that survive the initial impact.”

This is no way to talk about a critically endangered species, yet MPI and the fishing industry endlessly sing, in close harmony, the same songs of praise about SLEDS. Yet while net cameras show sea lions being ejected from nets, there is little evidence to prove they’re alive, let alone unharmed. 

New Zealand sea lions need this like… well, like a hole in the head: females on the Auckland Islands now produce around half the number of pups their forebears did in 1998. That could be down to any combination of pressures: since 2002, the Auckland Islands colony has been afflicted by a bacterial infection, Klebsiella pneumonia. That first year, the disease caused a 20 per cent crash in pup production and has suppressed numbers ever since.

Then there’s the plain fact that a number of sea lions drown in fishing nets every year. While incident rates – and observed deaths – have flattened off in the last five years, Forest & Bird nevertheless estimates that more than 700 sea lions have been killed in SQU 6T in the last decade – not including the pups ashore that starve when mothers do not return, nor the unborn those females were carrying.

But the smoking gun, some think, is that the fishers are simply not leaving the sea lions enough squid to get into breeding condition. Or if they do, they can’t keep pups fed.

Elsewhere, this fisheries-enforced deprivation is well-documented. Steller sea lions in the North Pacific and southern elephant seals in the Antarctic have both been shown to produce fewer young in the face of competition from trawlers.  

The fishing industry has remained silent about this. Instead, Seafood New Zealand chairman George Clement points the blame back at Klebsiella. “… this disease is a much bigger threat than fishing ever was.”

MFish consistently backs him: in a 2012 advice paper to Carter – the same one that called on him to raise the strike rate on sea lions – it said: “fishing is unlikely to be having a direct effect on the sea lion population that could be considered adverse.”

This is self-delusion. It is true that our sea lions face a whole raft of difficulties, but their numbers are now so low – their survival so tenuous (the Auckland Islands population could be extinct within 25 years) that any deleterious impact that can be mitigated damn well should be.

Last week, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) downgraded the status of our only endemic sea lion from threatened to outright endangered.

Under the Fisheries Act of 1996, the Crown is obliged to “avoid, remedy, or mitigate any adverse effects of fishing”. It is doing none of those things. If anything, the logic of kill quotas dictates instead that if it looks like being a bumper squid season, let’s just kill more sea lions.

Fishers could do the right thing. Trawling isn’t the only way to catch squid: in fact, it’s not even the accepted way. The vast bulk of arrow squid elsewhere – even around the New Zealand mainland – is caught instead by jigging, where squid are drawn near the surface by powerful lights, where they can then be hooked on lures dangled over the side of the vessel.

An observer report on non-target by-catch from squid jigging vessels off the New Zealand coast in 1999 recorded none: zip, nada, naff-all. The Ministry could easily stipulate that any Auckland Island fishing be done this way. But they won’t. The industry insists that the cost of converting their trawlers, or chartering purpose-built jiggers, is prohibitive.

That may be, but only because squid is actually an incidental bonus for the few New Zealand companies that trawl for it. It’s just a filler; a way to keep the trawlers working between the end of the hoki season, and the start of the southern blue whiting season (during which, incidentally, sea lions are also caught and killed. SLEDS were first deployed there in 2013 after a disastrous season). Factory trawlers cost a fortune to run, and even high-value hoki can’t keep them fed all year round.

It’s simple expediency. But in fact, both fishing effort and catches in SQU 6T have been declining in recent seasons, from just under 21,000 tonnes in 2010-11 to just 7400 in 2013-14. Much of it is down to economics and with Greece – once a major export market – no longer able to pay for delivery, is it really worth losing a species for the sake of such scant returns?

Sadly, when it comes to choosing between environmental stewardship and profits for export industries, we have a disgracefully venal record.


Swamp Monsters – the Looting of Northland’s Sunken Assets

For the purposes of profiteering, when is a kauri stump not a stump? According to Section Two of the Forest Act of 1949, it’s when there’s more trunk than stump: that’s to say the section of sawn timber cannot be longer than the base of the tree was wide. These semantics define the very legality of Northland’s “black gold rush” – the disinterment of long-buried kauri logs.

 For instance, when sawn lengths of swamp kauri are offered for sale on the website of Wisconsin-based furniture company Ancientwood that measure 12 metres in length, it means that, assuming someone has followed the letter of the law, they have exported timber from a tree more than twice the width of Te Matua Ngahere, the widest known living kauri at 5.2 metres across.

 OK; so when is a table not a table? Under the Act, sawn indigenous swamp timber can be exported if it is deemed to be a “finished product.” For companies cashing in on the buried boom, that means rough-sawn slabs are, to all intents and purposes, table tops – after all, the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI), which is responsible for scrutinising these exports, does not consider that a table should have legs.

 Round logs? No sir, those there are ‘temple poles’. What about this giant log with the lines scratched on it? That, you philistine, is a sculpture.

 Clearly, a great many swamp kauri exports are a scam, but the Government seems unwilling even to send for a tape measure. The Northland Environmental Protection Society (NEPS) has repeatedly pointed out that MPI’s own records show that it regularly rubber-stamps such improbable transactions.

 Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy insists “They are finished products, I have seen some fantastic-looking kauri swamp logs being carved and they’re going to be an amazing feature for our country and an international country that they’re destined for. So we manage it very, very closely.” Really? Documents obtained under the Official Information Act by the NEPS are claimed to show that in fact, mandatory information was missing from some 80 per cent of MPI intention-to-export notices processed in 2013.

 Yet Ancientwood director Robert Teisberg was able to insist to Radio New Zealand this week that the gargantuan slabs of swamp kauri he’s selling for up to US$100,000 a pop are entirely legal, because the export has been approved by MPI. “The exporters have used trickery, successfully duping officialdom while the Minister for Primary Industries, Nathan Guy, insanely suggests there is no loophole,” blustered Winston Peters. “Chiselled scribbles on ancient kauri logs cannot be accepted as artwork and finishing work - these exports are illegal.”

 Worse, they’re destroying one of our most vulnerable and depleted ecosystems – peat wetlands. Some “swamp kauri” is actually dug from farmland, but much of it comes from what was once a vast network of wetland systems that stretched across the far north. Most of it was drained, burnt and cleared for farmland, but one of the largest relict stretches survives as the Kaimaumau Swamp, between the Rangaunu Harbour and the Houhora Heads.

The largest protected peat wetland left in Northland, it is – or was – home to a variety of rare and threatened plants such as Thelymitra Ahipara, one of only two native sun orchids, and rare birds such as bittern and marsh crake.

 But when NEPS and Northland Forest and Bird staff went looking for sun orchids in Kaimaumau last September, all they found was destruction. Heavy machinery had been digging up the swamp, even though it’s supposedly protected as a scientific reserve. In their hoggish lust for profits, kauri miners have pillaged Kaimaumau and other protected wetlands.

Even swamps on privately-owned land are legally inviolate if they’re home to rare or vulnerable native plants and animals. Such is the critical state of wetland biodiversity nowadays that this realistically means most of them.

 Yet miners have posted videos to YouTube showing machinery ripping up wetlands. In 2013, Northland Regional Council brought charges against Raymond Bird and Gary Beckham after they illegally drained a protected swamp in 2010 to get at buried kauri logs. When they were issued with an abatement notice, they simply kept digging, says the Council, ignoring that Environment Court order, and a subsequent one directing them to remediate the damage they’d done.

As he was driving to court to testify against the pair, Council officer Mike Nager was waylaid. His assailant sprayed bleach into his eyes, slashed his face with a knife, punched him to the ground and told him to “stay the fuck away.”

Beckham denied involvement: “I personally think he did it himself.”

 In the end, the pair each were fined $50,000 and sentenced to 200 hours community service. But by then Bird’s business, Sovereign Station, had failed, owing creditors more than $5 million. Beckhams’ company, Mangonui Development and Civil Construction, had also closed, owing substantial debts. Bird was on the dole, which means that Northland District Council’s chances of recovering its costs were practically non-existent, even though a single swamp kauri log can be worth twice that fine.

 Nathan Guy insists that swamp kauri is an international showcase for New Zealand. All it has demonstrated to the world so far is cynical, venal exploitation – much of it illegal – and feeble, irresolute governance. That the Government appears comfortable to preside over the continuing destruction of our last few wetlands – after the country has already lost more than 90 per cent of them – in the name of rampant racketeering is a side of our national character I doubt the international community finds attractive.

 That one of the prominent speculators in this grey market in taonga happens to be David Wong-Tung, husband of National MP Judith Collins, should rightly raise eyebrows, along with suspicions that her involvement places the Government in an awkward spot – again. Wong-Tung is a director in Kauri Ruakaka Ltd, formerly Oravida Kauri, which has stockpiled an estimated 80,000 tonnes of logs.

When I enquired about buying swamp kauri through Chinese commerce site Alibaba, I was quoted US$3950 – NZ$5703 – a cubic metre (cut, incidentally, into six-metre lengths – longer still than any known kauri is wide). The value of Kauri Ruakaka’s holdings of logs has been estimated at $50 million.

 Maybe Wong-Tung and his business partner, multi-millionaire Deyi “Stone” Shi, really do intend to build a processing facility here in New Zealand, as has been hinted. Then again, maybe they understand full well that 50,000 year-old kauri logs are a very finite resource, and that all the easy ones may have been already taken. The time may not be far off when they can name their own price.

 In either case we might wonder why, when Northland is suffering deprivation and economic stagnation, Maraetai Drive millionaires are allowed to strip the province of its natural resources, tear up its wild places and reap outrageous profits while an apologist Government runs interference in the media.

 NEPS has given up trying to get MPI to abide by its own legislation. Along with the Far North Branch of Forest and Bird, it appealed yesterday to the Auditor General for a formal inquiry. It will come too late for the sun orchids of Kaimaumau.


Choose Wisely, Grasshopper: the Dilemma of James Shaw

The Greens are at a fork in the road. Their very future depends on the next choice they make.

 If, like me, you’re one of those morbid individuals who reads through air accident reports and the annals of search and rescue, you will detect the background hum of a consistent theme: disasters almost never happen because of one bad decision. Nine times out of ten, somebody made a fundamental error of logic early in the piece – seemingly innocuous and, on its own, nothing catastrophic. Often, they made it because they heeded bad information.

 But wrong turns on the decision tree can have a compounding effect – once you’ve committed to a line of action, you can find yourself out on a limb. Out here, you find yourself vulnerable to other contingencies you may not have anticipated. You sometimes end up forced into further decisions outside your realm of experience, or made under pressure.

 Most disasters, then, are the sum consequence of a train of bad decisions. Every time one got made, the wriggle room for redemption shrank.

Ask the German Greens, who in 1999, found themselves signing off a bombing campaign against Serbian forces in the Balkans. Almost 58 years to the day, the Luftwaffe was once again pounding Yugoslavia. The NATO bombardment killed civilians, and destroyed hospitals and schools in its wake. What should still be keeping the Greens awake at night is that they helped precipitate the very human calamity the action was supposed to forestall: sectarian massacre and rape. A tide of refugees.

Just a year earlier, the Greens had presented an election manifesto that declared an unbending opposition to military action of any kind – even peacekeeping. But they had since discovered that you must be very careful what you wish for. Naturally, they had long craved a place at the cabinet table. But when German voters finally put them there, they found themselves sharing it with Gerhard Schröder and his Social Democratic Party, who had already formulated their plan for military intervention in Yugoslavia.

What does any of this have to do with James Shaw? It highlights the perils of listening to a media that cannot or will not understand the essence of Green values. In Germany, commentators and editors consistently presented Green candidates – Leader Joschka Fischer, Cohn-Bendit and Hubert Kleinert – as ‘moderates’ or ‘realos’ – realists – a brand that assuredly helped the Greens into the Bundestag.

Since his election as co-leader over the weekend, and for long before it, Shaw has been similarly characterised by the commentariat as “modern and moderate” (as though the Greens had, until his emergence, been somehow obsolescent and intractable).

This is the usual right-wing proposition that Green politics are so hopelessly misaligned with reality that they need a good dash of centrism to become relevant. It’s one of those hoary old chestnuts that the likes of David Farrar and Matthew Hooton like to issue as backward complements in order to keep the Greens framed as a marginal force.

But the weekend’s result suggests their membership might be starting to believe it themselves, and that’s pretty bad information upon which to start making critical decisions. Worse, Shaw was even compared by Bryce Edwards to John Key – surely one of the silliest postulations yet – but which was inevitably given gravity by rote.

Right about now, if it isn’t already too late, the Greens may find themselves under pressure to accede to this media guile to turn right and start a sideways shuffle towards the centre. As their German counterparts found out, that can be a perilous path.

This whole argument is predicated upon a contention that the Greens are somehow failing in the first place. Yes, their vote collapsed yet again last election night. They shed more than 36,500 votes – a 14.8 per cent drop on 2011 – and one MP.

Pundits claim nearly a third of prospective voters say they considered voting Green, but were put off by the prospect of an economic policy influenced by people they still regarded as hippies. But that’s just another back-handed attempt to characterise them as untrustworthy, much like David Farrar’s sleight that: “Shaw has the ability to change the brand of the Greens as extremists and anti-business.” 

That “brand” is nothing but the expression of someone wilfully ignoring the altitude, strength-sapping metre by punishing metre, gained by Russel Norman in winning the Greens a new legitimacy as economic thinkers and shapers. To anyone concerned with social justice, there is nothing remotely extreme about responsible action on climate change. Nothing anti-business about insisting that polluters pay, or that speculators pay capital gains, or that those making a profit from a common resource pay an appropriate rental.

Yet some have tried to blame Norman for the 2014 result. That the country veered wildly off to the right last September is a matter of record, but on a night that saw Mana sink without trace, and Labour slump to its worst result in 80 years, the Greens held up the best of any on the left.

That speaks to the very different nature of the core Green voter who, more than any other, is characterised by a deep ethical, philosophical and political commitment. These are the ten per cent, and historically, they have punished parties they consider to have deserted their dogma.

In Japan, an offshoot of the conservative reformist Sakigake Party attempted to merge green and capitalist values. In 2004, the Environmental Green Political Assembly, or Midori no Kaigi, campaigned on a liberal platform while espousing conservative economic policy. Their support evaporated at the polls, and the party was dissolved.

In Germany, the Ökologisch-Demokratische Partei, or ÖDP, formed in 1982 by former Greens, has attempted to take environmental politics to the centre, particularly on social issues. Even though it has held to some core green policies, its share of the national vote languishes around 0.7 per cent. It has but a single MEP.

 Like Aesop’s fox, the capitalist commentariat is offering praise calculated to prompt a critical miscalculation. The German Greens saw themselves as a coalition partner that could effect: “small changes for the better” – a familiar chime. But once they repudiated their keystone peace policy, everything else was up for renegotiation. Following their capitulation over Yugoslavia, the Greens shed roughly a third of their membership.

They did, however, attract new supporters, who stayed loyal even as the Greens turned their back on the welfare state and embraced Schröder’s neoliberal Agenda 2010. They were complicit in the acquisition of public assets, bystanders to the suppression of wages, and the transfer of wealth from poor to rich. They abandoned their election promise of shutting down Germany’s nuclear power industry.

 It was a tragedy that began with a few bad choices. The New Zealand Greens have already taken one uncharacteristic risk by selecting James Shaw. They must now move very carefully, and be sure that subsequent decisions do not precipitate a disaster.


Fool me Once: Lessons on the TPPA from Free-Trade History

We should ask Canada and Mexico whether free trade deals are a good idea.


Last week, Barack Obama’s free-trade deal went from dead in the water to full steam ahead in the space of 24 hours, thanks to last-minute horse trading that saw thirteen Democrats break ranks with the Senate to side instead with Hollywood studies and big pharma.

 The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) is still not a fait accompli. It must yet survive a number of proposed amendments, including one by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren to strip out its most controversial language: that around so-called ‘investor state dispute settlement’ – provisions that would allow corporations to sue member governments should they pass any laws they consider harmful to their investments.

 Speculation is rife around the implications of the TPPA for our democracy, our sovereignty and our environment. But we don’t need to theorise: we simply have to look at the impacts of trade deals already done.

 Bill Clinton’s North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), enacted in 1994, was arguably the first to take square aim at regulations designed to protect agriculture, investment, energy, the environment, labour and food and consumer safety standards.

 Watchdog groups point out that NAFTA has allowed corporations to object to stringent environmental standards by citing them as non-tariff trade barriers. Conversely, they say, other countries’ weaker protection provisions – or lax enforcement – have lent them a competitive advantage by attracting foreign businesses to a weak regulatory regime.

 Last year, to mark NAFTA’s 20th anniversary, The Sierra Club reported on its environmental legacy. They concluded that the deal had:

  • Encouraged high-volume, export-oriented industrial farming, with a concomitant surge in the use of fossil fuels, pesticides and GMOs;
  • Encouraged an environmentally destructive mining boom in Mexico;
    • Kneecapped Canada in its bid to regulate tar sands drilling, and locked it into large-scale export of fossil fuels to the United States;
    • Failed to protect the environment against the soil, water and atmospheric consequences of increased economic activity; and
    • Undermined environmental protection by enabling corporations to challenge public interest policymaking.

     The report found that NAFTA inflicted the worst degradation on Mexico, where small landholders had been rolled by industrial agri-business. Desperate to achieve some kind of scale, many local farmers resorted to clearing forests, yet ultimately failed just the same.

     A 1999 study by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation noted that NAFTA rule changes had already altered trade and investment flows in agriculture, especially between the US and Mexico. To capitalise on new trade rules, agri-business consolidated cattle production in North America, sparking an exponential boom in industrial feedlotting, with all the environmental costs it inflicts.

     Mexico was left to languish. Between 1960 and 1980, Mexico's per capita GDP nearly doubled – a huge jump in living standards and one that, had it continued, would have by now granted Mexicans European living standards. But NAFTA, and a raft of neoliberal policy changes enforced by IMF debt relief, put an end to it.

     Mexico’s growth has stagnated below one per cent – less than half the regional average – since 2000. The national poverty rate – 52.3 per cent in 2012 – has not budged since NAFTA.

     In Canada, even as exports jumped more than 200 per cent between 1994 and 2008, wages remained static. Labour conditions worsened. An obligation to supply the US with oil compelled Canada to develop high-cost, climate-hostile tar sands in Alberta. Since NAFTA’s inception in 1994, North American greenhouse gas emissions rose from 7 billion tonnes to around 8.3 billion in 2005.

     Investor state disputes have been rife: in April 1997, after the Canadian Parliament tried to ban the import of gasoline additive MMT – a magnesium-based anti-knock additive considered to be a dangerous airborne toxin – the US Ethyl company filed a lawsuit, citing NAFTA rules. It sought restitution of US$251 million to cover losses resulting from the "expropriation" of both its MMT production plant and its "good reputation." Canada reversed the ban.

     In March 2014, a NAFTA panel ruled against the Nova Scotia and federal Governments after they turned down an application by US miner Bilcon to expand a basalt quarry in the Bay of Fundy in 2002.

     NAFTA rules allow Bilcon to pursue compensation, and it has sued the Canadian governments for US$300m in damages.

     In March this year, Canada was sued by oil giants ExxonMobil and Murphy Oil after a NAFTA tribunal ruled that the Canadian Government could not place conditions around exploration permits that required oil companies to spend more money in the local economy. Contributing to regional growth apparently breaches Article 1106 of the free-trade agreement.

     The NAFTA decision awarded $13.9 million plus interest to ExxonMobil and $3.4 million plus interest to Murphy.

     Meanwhile, the trans-Atlantic version of the TPPA, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the United States and the EU, has already thwarted attempts to regulate hormone-damaging chemicals linked to cancer and male infertility in Europe. Documents leaked last week show that aggressive lobbying by US trade officials forced EU regulators to shelve draft laws that would have banned 31 controversial pesticides across the bloc.

     Despite assurances, there is nothing to suggest the TPPA will be any different. If anything, the 2015 National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers, published by the US trade Representative’s Office last month, only hints at a strengthened multinational arm.

     The analysis clearly considers New Zealand’s biotech approval and labeling laws an impediment to free trade (p.277). It also calls out New Zealand’s foreign investment provisions, which presently screen any foreign bid for 25 per cent ownership or more in any “significant business assets,” beyond a NZ$100 million value threshold.

     Also singled out is our automatic screening of any investor pitching for 25 per cent or more of a fishing quota, or acquisitions of “sensitive” land such as foreshore, conservation land or farm spreads greater than five hectares. These all fall under the heading “Investment Barriers.”

     In fact, much of the report is devoted not to issues around free trade, but complaints about hurdles to multinational access and control. Laws seeking to protect the environment, labour conditions and guard against monopoly are framed as problematic. Intellectual property rights – and anti-piracy laws in particular – are obviously an issue of keen interest, and patent provisions are scrutinised heavily, country by country.

     What then, might the TPPA mean for us, and for our rights to regulate in our own interests? The Canadian experience of NAFTA shows that any environmental or public health initiative – be it chemical regulation, energy-efficiency, habitat protection, fisheries access, mining, fracking bans, climate change mitigation or pollution controls, will be subject to litigation by foreign multinationals should they consider their profits compromised.

     The draft TPPA environment chapter, published by Wikileaks, shows that 11 out of 12 agreement parties (Australia is the sole dissenter) have agreed to investor-state dispute provisions demanded by the United States.

     Under Procedural Matters, draft clause 3 states: “Each Party shall ensure that judicial, quasi-judicial, or administrative proceedings for the enforcement of its environmental laws are available under its law and are fair, equitable, transparent, and comply with due process of law (my emphasis). Any hearings in such proceedings shall be open to the public, except where the administration of justice otherwise requires, and in accordance with its applicable laws.”

     The zinger comes one par down, in clause 4: “Each Party shall ensure that persons with a recognized interest under its law in a particular matter have appropriate access to proceedings referred to in paragraph 3.”

     Using such language, it will be very easy to argue “unfairness,” at that, for instance, Monsanto has an interest in any moves to regulate pesticides. That ExxonMobil has an interest in any policy to restrict greenhouse emissions. That Peabody Energy has an interest in banning mining from sensitive habitats.

     That may well mean, for example, that the Government would be powerless to respect any public opposition to, say, seabed mining, or oil and gas exploration. We could well find ourselves unable to implement such basic benchlines as renewable energy targets, water quality standards, nitrogen caps or air pollution measures.

     Any acceptable future for New Zealand relies heavily on the uptake of clean tech, but the TPPA stands squarely in our way. We might find ourselves unable to pass any law promoting, for example, electric cars, or even feed-in tariffs for renewable energy. And be sure that any efforts to lock local manufacturing and employment into green initiatives would be cited as “protectionist” – a violation of trade rules.

     Just such a perversity saw Silfab – an Italian renewables startup that employed more than 31,000 people in Ontario – stripped of its investment in 2014 after challenges from Japan and the EU that accused Ontario’s buy-local provisions of being ‘anti-trade.’

    With Silfab disappeared Ontario’s renewable energy programme, widely lauded as “the most comprehensive renewable energy policy entered anywhere around the world.”[1]

     There is very little that is free or fair under investor state rules, penalties that have made Canada NAFTA’s most-sued nation. US corporations have brought 36 claims against it, at a cost of US$170m and 22 against Mexico, which cost it US$204m.

     The US, meanwhile, has never lost a NAFTA investor-state case. No wonder Obama thinks it’s such a great deal.

    [1] Jenny Yuen, “Gore Green with Envy,” Toronto Star, November 25, 2009