The New York Times article points out a 2010 study which ranks us as the 18th worst country in the world for environmental damage, citing forest and other natural habitat loss, our carbon emissions and water pollution as major contributors. These factors all remain in the firing line as the National Government’s tries to squeeze all the economic growth it can out of our resources. The Government’s response is to sweep them all under the carpet by instructing the Ministry for the Environment to cease publishing its State of the Environment Report. Let’s quickly look at each of the issues in turn.
Forest habitat for native species was offered a reprieve under the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), and offshoots like the Permanent Forest Sink Initiative (PFSI) which aimed to encourage native forest regeneration. Now that the global financial crisis and Government tinkering have torpedoed the ETS, there is no real incentive for investment in forestry. In fact those poor mugs who opted into the PFSI, planting native forests for their value as carbon sinks are stuck paying bills on a native forest that is now worthless.
Next, National has opted to walk away from Kyoto and has thrown in its lot with the major polluting countries like China, the US and Russia. Our emissions are among the highest in the world and without any credible policies to restrain them our Government’s commitments to reduce emissions are nothing but hollow promises – as the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has highlighted. Incredibly we are now behind coal-chugging Australia in climate change action.
On water pollution we are nearing a crucial moment. Regional Councils like Horizons in the Manawatu are trying to set pollution limits to modestly reduce the degradation of our rivers, and work out rational ways of sharing the water in the rivers amongst different users. The Land and Water Forum has got everyone in the tent for a lot of talking and hui but now the time has come for do-ey. The question is will the Government support setting environmental standards that can save our rivers, or will they water down the whole concept in favour of chasing economic growth? This will become clear in coming months, but from what we have seen it points to them okaying increased degradation as a means for economic development.
Sir Paul Callaghan said it best back in 2009,
We believe that we have a clean economy and a clean green image, and do not see the lack of honesty which surrounds this branding. We are merely a small population spread over a large area which provides an impression of clean and green.
The economic problem we face is a competition with Australia. Mining is driving their boom and it is difficult to compete with. It is a relatively lucrative yet low-skilled undertaking, and as a result Western Australia is attracting people from all over the world. The only way for Key and Co to keep up with Australia during their short political tenure is also by extracting the most they can from our limited resources; not just minerals but also our waterways and land. The difference is that Australia’s land is inert, it has no value other than minerals in its dry crust. New Zealand is not in that position as our land is full of life, and degradation is all the more marked here.
Are there alternatives? Yes, but it takes hard decisions, investment, and time – nothing that a Government wanting to be returned in 2 years will want to hear, particularly not one that holds natural capital as being of questionable value. Adjusting to an economy that’s health doesn’t depend on greater and greater environmental degradation is overdue in New Zealand We are not a poor country, we’re three times richer than we were in 1960, and given the economic storm in Europe we have recently recovered a lot of lost ground compared to other nations. We live in times of great prosperity – at least measured via conventional means such as GDP or national income per capita. Income per head is three times what it was fifty years ago in 1960, which is progress for sure even though we’re down to about 30th in the world, having been steadily overtaken on that measure by other countries over recent decades.
Thankfully the leadership vacuum in Government is being filled by the business community. Pure Advantage, a grouping of some NZ business leaders that has released their plan for “Green Growth”. The plan is by no means perfect, but it provides a lot more flesh on the bones of the sort of waffly ideas that the Greens and Labour have been touting in recent years. Pure Advantage has finally provided these parties a tangible offering with solid business backing. You might think this has National worried – although the actions of a cabal of its senior Ministers to accelerate the rate of environmental deprecation would give lie to such a thought.
Realistically, clean tech and other green growth initiatives aren’t going to light up the New Zealand economy overnight. We have to pursue a combination of doing what we do now better, as well as finding new innovations and industries to grow.
No change comes cheaply – ask a farmer what it actually costs for them to mitigate the environmental impact of their activity – nutrient recycling technologies for instance. However, over time with innovation and investment we can stay at the cutting edge of clean and green farming, and enhance our position as premium food producers. But to make these long term investments we need policy certainty – something that the Government has deliberately set out of late to undermine not just by blatantly resisting change and trotting off down a low value commodity route, but by threatening to change laws like the RMA to make environmental degradation easier.
Conservation and ecological sustainability is a mainstream issue, no longer the preserve of a narrow, myopic sector of interest. The mainstream of New Zealand, I suggest, is crying out: give us a suite of green growth policies that are credible and “make NZ a place”, as Sir Paul said, “where talent wants to live”. Come on, at the moment the only thing that is green about our growth is the algae collecting in our rivers.