Not So Pure

Gareth MorganEnvironment

Water polloution in the Wairarapa

Water poloution in the Wairarapa

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.

On the inter-generationally measured Happy Planet Index, which measures happy life years per ecological footprint we slip to 28th in the rankings.  South American and Caribbean people live the longest, happiest, and most sustainable lives. We lose because of the resource & environmental depletion of the stuff we produce, consume and export.

The finger can be pointed at us as well-off, environmental pariahs clinging to resource-depleting practices and failures in the transition to sustainable economic development.

Against this backdrop just what is “100% Pure New Zealand” supposed to mean? Our economy boasts the 5th highest per capita carbon emissions in the 34 member OECD, we’ve always been high, and there is no evidence of any transition from that. According to the Commissioner of the Environment, NZ is on track for emissions by 2020 of 30% above 1990 levels, despite making an international commitment at Copenhagen just last year, to reduce them by at least 10% by that time. Hypocrisy seems to rule.

As Sir Paul Callaghan said back in 2009,

[quote style=”1″]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.[/quote]

Thankfully the pressure on the government to abandon environmental hypocrisy is building. The recent spat between Stephen Joyce, Minister of Economic Development and Pure Advantage, a grouping of some NZ business leaders who have made a commitment to “Green Growth”, is a cameo of Kiwi environmental contradiction.

The government has extended assistance to emitters – retaining the right to further delay agriculture’s entry to the ETS from 2014 if technologies don’t exist by then to reduce agricultural emissions and/or if competitors aren’t taking action; it is slowing the phase-out of the two-for-one deal on credits; and it is extending the $25 fixed price for credits a further 2 years and maintaining the right to further delay the recommended $5 pa price rise.  Taken together you can see that we are resisting as much as possible the actions necessary to reach the government’s declaration at Copenhagen to reduce emissions by at least 10% from 1990 levels.

Pure Advantage has noted this by pointing out that relying upon mitigating the damage from our fossil fuel-based economy is likely to fail; rather, developing green growth or cleantech industries will be needed. Further it says that both State and private funding, as well as regulation, needs to be used. The group feels the private market alone won’t pull it off.

We need to recognize that conservation and ecological sustainability is a mainstream issue, no longer the preserve of a narrow, myopic sector of interest.
What’s the Minister’s reaction to this suggestion? He lashed out, accusing the group of calling for subsidies for their pet projects. Of course the government’s concern is that such a change will drive our incomes down. We know we have built our economy on carbon-intense, environmentally degrading, resource-depleting industries – guilty as charged.

To purport cleantech as anything more than part of the mix, would be pure speculation. But it doesn’t follow that economic growth and environmental sustainability for us are actually incompatible. If we add to our high carbon footprint and the environmental degradation from land- and water-intensive industries like dairying, forestry and mining, it doesn’t take long before you appreciate the mountain NZ has to climb to meet its environmental and emissions goals.  It’s not impossible, but it is a mountain.

Realistically NZ will have to pursue a combination of

  • Emission mitigations of existing production processes
  • Policies and practices that encourage environmental improvement, and
  • Greentech

None of these come cheaply – ask a farmer what it actually costs for them to mitigate the environmental impact of their activity – nutrient recycling technologies for instance don’t come cheap.

The point being made is that we’re not making any material inroads, that in fact we are now blatantly resisting change – or at least the political process is – and as a consequence, we’re failing.

There is a need for greater urgency to align environmental protection with economic and social progress. We’re cruising, not really caring to change our carbon-intense, resource-exploiting ways – and no doubt this is where the politicians are feeling the heat.  Bold moves are not the currency of comfortable and long political tenure.

Despite this political intransigence there is no doubt that industry and consumers are changing the practices that impart environmental damage and/or expand their carbon footprint. Whether it is the construction, airline, agricultural production, manufacturing or services sector, more and more of us see merit in pursing and being seen to pursue carbon-lite, or environmental-enhancing practices. But lest our self-congratulation on these anecdotal trends seduce us, don’t forget our emissions are growing, our biodiversity decreasing, rates of species extinctions are hitting new peaks, and environmental degradation is getting worse.

There was a time NZ was tops in Environmental Performance as per the UN Millennium Goals, we now sit at 14th, while successive OECD reports demonstrate declining performance in environmental monitoring, emissions, water quality and allocation.

The NZ balance sheet simply tells us we are in environmental and carbon deficit and those deficits are getting larger.  Yes there could be a technological windfall that lands in our laps and saves us all from having to think – but that’s a long shot, and international tolerance of such a gamble – in the form of sustained tourism and foreign consumer accreditation of our products – cannot be expected to be infinite.

There have been big step changes in the conservation or environmental space that have raised the behavioral norms before – the QMS was one.  We need and we are undertaking more, some contemporary examples are;

  • The ocean is open to all (which means it gets trashed by all) and consents are allocated on a first come first served basis. There is no way for ocean space to be traded so that it is used for its highest good. All ocean users oppose protection mechanisms so we are left with 0.4% of our ocean in marine reserves. Ocean users make no contribution to looking after the ocean, so it continues to degrade. We need to zone the ocean, allocate space (including setting up marine reserves) and allow tradable rights between users. If these uses really have an economic benefit then they should be able to pay rates, so we can look after the ocean and compensate those who have lost out from zoning (e.g. lobster fishers from setting up marine reserves).  Closing the commons comes at a cost, but we have to face that otherwise our heavily used ocean areas will start collapsing.
  • Marine Protection Areas – these are not just a measure to protect the marine environment but the evidence tells us they enhance the fishing for tens of kms from their boundary.  We know adults in reserves have twice the biomass, a larger size, and greater fecundity with over half of the offspring being exported to fished areas. It’s a no brainer, those recreational and commercial fishing lobbyists who oppose them are amusingly getting tangled in the lines of their own arguments. For the sake of the resilience of our marine life we need to lift our MPA’s from 0.4% of our EEZ to 10% of our EEZ – and the spatial distribution matters. At government level the problem is the Minister of Fisheries who is too much under the influence of the myopic fishing industry and recreational short-termism rather than predicating his decisions on a whole of ecology, science-based approach to the economics of fishing.
  • Internal waterways – at the moment consents are on a first-come first-served basis, and most parts of the country only penalise the most blatant discharge of nutrients into rivers. The environment is getting trashed, and it isn’t producing the best economic results either because there is no way for water users to trade. We should look at a system which allocates water rights as a % of the available flow above a set environmental level. We also need to set nutrient limits in catchments and could use nutrient markets as a way to work out the best way to change production so those limits are met.

Quite apart from the scope for policy providing some brake on environmental destruction, there do exist steps we individually and as communities can take to both satisfy our desire for a better environment for ourselves and our progeny, as well as to offset the reputational damage our government’s hollow undertakings of recent years have threatened.

  • A predator-free NZ – this is yet another big picture ambition that would, in the words of Sir Paul Callaghan, make NZ a place where talent wants to live
  • The Te Awaroa project – a science-based project, working with foresters, farmers and communities to bring back bush buffers to all of NZ’s rivers and waterways – 1,000 rivers in a 100 years is the cry
  • Restricting our buying to consumer accredited products only that carry the marks of environmental sustainability
  • The mainstreaming of conservationism and its integration into the daily lives and decisions of New Zealanders

In conclusion, yes we have raised our standard of living enormously and yes it is clear the environmental damage has been considerable, but there is a burgeoning desire to pay far more heed to the health, not just of our immediate surroundings, but of the planet as a whole. That requires courage, risk-taking and a preparedness to change direction. The politicians can only move as fast as we are prepared to show resolve.  There’s the challenge for us.

We need to recognize that conservation and ecological sustainability is a mainstream issue, no longer the preserve of a narrow, myopic sector of interest. That means the Green Party needs be able to form a coalition with either the centre-left of or the centre-right of NZ politics. So long as it remains of the view that National are too “right wing” to be contemplated, the Greens are doing sustainability a disservice.

But just as alarming, the difference between the actions of National on sustainability and the rhetoric it trots out on the international stage – is embarrassing. It is a dangerous contradiction for New Zealand to sustain, and one that paints us into a corner of being a carbon-intensive society that pays lip service to sustainability, while subsidizing the activities of emitters and stepping up resource exploitation.

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.

Not So Pure was last modified: December 15th, 2015 by Gareth Morgan
About the Author

Gareth Morgan

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Gareth Morgan is a New Zealand economist and commentator on public policy who in previous lives has been in business as an economic consultant, funds manager, and professional company director. He is also a motorcycle adventurer and philanthropist. Gareth and his wife Joanne have a charitable foundation, the Morgan Foundation, which has three main stands of philanthropic endeavour – public interest research, conservation and social investment.