Relentless pursuit of growth puts green agenda off the planet

GORD STEWART
Last updated 13:14 19/10/2012

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Green growth is all the rage these days. While it aims to bridge the economy-environment divide and certainly has its merits, I admit to longing for the good old days when "sustainable development" was the goal.

I'm all for a green economy - or just trying to green the economy. It's the growth bit I struggle with.

Sustainable development recognises there are limits. It's called the Earth's "carrying capacity" and there is robust science to tell us how we are doing in this regard. There is little mention of limits in green-growth strategy and practice.

Oh sure, there is talk of cleantech and moves to a low-carbon economy and using "less energy per unit of output" and all efforts in this area are laudable.

But when we stack it up against statistics on the likes of threatened species, biodiversity loss and declining water quality, the picture is not so rosy.

Bottom line is there is one Planet Earth and we're all in it together. In the mid-80s we began to overshoot the ability of the planet to provide the resources we use and absorb the wastes we generate. We have carried on our merry way, now require 1 planets to provide for us, and are en route to needing more than two planets by 2030. Environmental degradation is the result.

So we need to acknowledge our ecological limits and incorporate them into green-economy goals and strategies. We need to fully decouple growth from resource use and stop degrading the environment.

A tall order, and our own Government had an opportunity to take a stab at it when convening its Green Growth Advisory Group. If it was looking for innovation and fresh thinking, it should have given the advisory group a clean slate and then got out of its way.

But it wasn't to be. The terms of reference noted the group was to "evaluate and advise on opportunities to contribute to an increased rate of economic growth for New Zealand" and, in preparing recommendations, "be mindful of the Government's goals as expressed through the Economic Growth Agenda work".

They were also told they "should not investigate fiscal policy such as green taxes" and they "should not evaluate existing Government programmes or existing reviews". It was a recipe for lost opportunities.

To their credit, the advisory group's recommendations in its Greening New Zealand's Growth report included many good initiatives - small steps in the sustainability journey.

The group also offered words of caution relating to exploitation of oil and gas reserves, which remains an important part of the Government growth agenda in spite of its high emissions.

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Of particular interest now is the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Bill which will establish an environmental permitting regime for exploration and drilling in this broad marine area off our coastline.

The Environmental Defence Society in an earlier press release noted: "The purpose of the bill continues to seek to achieve a so-called ‘balance' between protection of the environment and economic development. This purpose is flawed as it doesn't recognise that, in some especially sensitive ocean environments, there are environmental limits which should not be breached, irrespective of the short-term economic benefits."

Thanks to the submission process, there is now a purpose clause in the bill that mimics the one in the Resource Management Act. It removes the "balance" concept and replaces it with sustainable management.

"It's a good step," notes the society. "But further improvements are necessary as the bill still does not provide an environmental bottom line."

For best environmental outcomes, our Government leaders need actively to seek advice from the Parliamentary commissioner for the environment and groups such as the society in the early stage of projects - and then heed it.

For unrestricted fresh ideas on greening the economy, they should consult New Zealand's Position in the Green Race, a recent report commissioned by Pure Advantage, the not-for-profit entity founded by a group of noted business leaders. They can download the report for free.

Finally, our Government should check out the likes of Sweden, Norway and Finland to see how they're responding to the green-race stakes. We're losing ground fast, but it doesn't have to be that way.

Gord Stewart is an environmental sustainability consultant. He does project work for government, industry and non-profit organisations.

- Nelson

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