Well known conservative commentator Thomas Friedman contends that destroying our biodiversity to fuel unregulated economic growth is like burning the Mona Lisa to cook dinner.
The issue of how we should treat natural capital in our economy resurfaced today. A new NZIER report on environmental priorities notes that using up natural capital can be irreversible and impossible to replace, which means ‘it becomes more valuable to protect it in its natural state to sustain the benefits it provides for future generations’.
Russel Norman’s response was:
I’m pleased to see mainstream economists recognising that it is not sustainable to trade natural capital away.
Applying natural capital theory to pollution and overuse of water, the rush to mine our conservation lands, and the threat to species and ecosystems from habitat loss, we can see that strong environmental protection rules and standards are crucial.
But beyond that step in the right direction from the think-tank, Russel pulled no punches on their reductionist ideas of separating environmental issues out and picking winners.
The report, Sustainable Development: Have we got our priorities right?, applies a theoretical cost-benefit analysis to some of the environmental issues facing New Zealand. It concludes that air quality and biodiversity should be top priorities, while waste and greenhouse gas reduction should be low priorities. It got plenty of comment on Morning Report this morning.
Russel criticised the failure to connect the dots (as does The Standard): first, between climate change obligations and actually reducing emissions:
It is nonsense to think that we can prioritise meeting international climate change obligations without reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. We cannot pull the wool over the world’s eyes, pretending to be a team player without contributing to the team effort. The world will see through that and our economy will suffer when emission reductions are forced on us in future.
Second, the dots between a low carbon economy and an economy at all:
The report overlooks the economic opportunities of moving to a low-carbon economy, and the dire economic consequences if we don’t do that quickly and deliberately. A fair and effective Emissions Trading Scheme would help, as would Government leadership on low-cost emission reduction opportunities – but unfortunately the National Government is dragging its feet on both.
Third, between reducing emissions and solving other environmental problems at the same time:
The report also fails to see the links between environmental problems and their solutions. Suggesting that New Zealand should prioritise air quality and biodiversity at the expense of greenhouse gas emissions reductions overlooks the fact that:
• climate change is the biggest long-term threat to our biodiversity;
• home insulation and vehicle standards improve air quality and reduce emissions, as do more buses, trains, cycling and walking;
• lower-intensity dairy farming reduces emissions and water pollution; and
• pest control to protect ecosystems can capture climate change emissions.
And fourth, between Kiwis’ mucking-in give-it-a-go willingness to be part of the solution:
The report also fails to account for New Zealanders’ love of doing their bit: the popularity of individual environmental action like recycling, planting trees, and using cars less. It is disrespectful to dismiss these useful contributions to creating a healthier planet.
When will our Government understand the fundamental connection of the natural environment to our economic livelihood, and pursue policies that protect it rather than cash it in for short-term profit?
Addendum: The PCE has just put out a statement calling the report muddled and superficial: “I couldn’t agree less that climate change should be considered New Zealand’s least important environmental issue”, she said.