Burning the Mona Lisa to cook dinner

An odd Flikr photo from 'Dead Scene'

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.

11 Comments Posted

  1. As usual the quality of the questioning from our leading morning radio interviewer is shallow to say the least, to be capped off by his parting shot, ‘you’re getting on a bit of a rant there, & we’re out of time’ to the Greenpeace Rep.. ‘We’re out of time’ must be the most overused & weak excuse to cut off debate. Surely time is one thing we must give to intelligent debate or we’re lost.

    Of course the Govt. uses it still to curtail debate by resorting to ‘urgency’ when they know they may lose the argument even though they may have the numbers to push through idiotic legislation which is ill-thought out, clumsy, & retrograde.

    In the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ such tactics are rarely used, but are sometimes under the ‘three-line-whip’ procedure which requires all members to be present (under threat of Party Discipline) for a vote, but still allows proper debate before & after committee stages and usually wide public debate through various means such as newspapers, TV & Radio, & of course submissions to Committees. It’s called Democratic Government under the Westminster Model.

  2. Gerrit wrote:

    “It is quite ironic that the Green party is…
    …not averse to using up the future generation cash earning capacity to fund low taxation and high demand cashflow now.”

    I seem to recall that the Green Party was the only party that did not advocate for net tax cuts in 2005 when the government was temporarily running surpluses due to being at the top of an economic cycle.

    running surpluses at the top of an economic cycle and deficits at the bottom is a responsible thing for a government to do, but currently our deficits are bigger than they would otherwise be ebcause of those tax cuts (and a number of extra government spending programmes introduced by the last government, some of which the Green Party supports and some of which it does not support).

    “The Mona Lisa intrinsic value is the parchment, wooden frame and the paint on the surface and as such is only good for heating up lunch.”

    so? the intrinsic value of money is nothing, but we still recognise it for its extrinsic value.

  3. It is quite ironic that the Green party is against

    using up natural capital can be irreversible and impossible to replace,

    but is not averse to using up the future generation cash earning capacity to fund low taxation and high demand cashflow now.

    While it is not OK to utilise any coal for todays generation (irrespective of climate change) it is OK to borrow money from future generations.

    I hope the Greens make an issue out of unsustainable capaital borrowing by this generation from the next three.

    And that todays generation lives within its means.

    The Mona Lisa intrinsic value is the parchment, wooden frame and the paint on the surface and as such is only good for heating up lunch.

  4. I agree that the attitude of the current National Govt. is appalling on many fronts, not least Climate Change, but also am appalled at the general feeling I encounter from ‘ordinary’ Kiwis.

    I have found a general denial attitude toward pollution in general & climate change in particular, so it’s no wonder that the Government reflects this. My take is that the Green’s campaign on all of these critical issues is generally seen as fringe politics. Look at the election results.

    I feel that there is general support for the govt. position, despite ‘storm in a teacup’ demos, activism, & endless parliamentary speeches. The attitude of the media reinforces these attitudes (talk radio is a good case in point).

    This is possibly also reinforced by a general feeling or belief in the, ‘New Zealand perfectly Green Mythical Image’, & ‘The God Zone Myth’, generally held to be true in New Zealand.

    If even some of these assertions are true, it seems to me that there is little hope of a change of heart in New Zealand in the near term.

  5. Re wilding conifers from another thread, Green Conservation policy treats this as a biodiversity issue and states:

    New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity has already been severely diminished. Besides the impact of deliberate habitat destruction by humans, there is an on-going negative impact from introduced plants and animals. The Green Party seeks to eradicate wherever possible, and to control them where eradication is not possible.

    And I am advised:

    Basically, they’re a weed – a plant in the wrong place at the time – that needs control. And because they are high risk – spread fast and threaten ecosystems and landscapes on a massive scale – they are a priority to control. The cost of eradication and control is not small, but the cost is magnified many times over the longer it is left. Currently, they’re being eradicated from some places, controlled in some places, and the spread is being curbed in others; but many places they’re still out of control.

    We therefore agree with the PCE’s recommendations for Govt priority to invest in eradication and control now, and fixing the ETS to stop the incentive to let them keep spreading.

    We’d like to find extra solutions, like replacing them with non-wilding forest in suitable places (to replace the carbon); using the wood resource where possible; and in some places we may allow the wildings to grow if there is no further spread risk, no ecosystem threat and no better landuse option.

    The next Green New Deal package will contain a summary of the problem, the evidence, the solutions, and the Green proposal.

  6. Dispatch from Barcelona

    “Then in the afternoon, the chair of the meeting to discuss developed country targets told countries to not restate their targets (eg – like New Zealand’s nothing- 20% target) but to talk about how they could increase those targets. In other words, current proposed targets are well below what’s needed.

    The request from the chair of the negotiations was met with complete silence from developed countries for around five minutes before South Africa finally said they were disappointed no developed country was willing to speak. From then on a walk-out was inevitable.”


  7. I think the major logical fallacy which can be seen throughout the report is that it takes an incredibly short-termed view, and doesn’t look at long-term implications at all.

    Examples of short-term thinking in the report:
    * The claim we don’t need to worry about waste, because we have lots of land to put landfills on. Of course, once that land is polluted, it is useless for many purposes, and it never ‘heals’. This means that creating landfill is not a sustainable activity. It is therefore an issue long-term, and we still need to anticipate that and address it in the short-term.
    * The failure to identify that waste minimisation is not just about reducing what goes to the landfill, but also about reducing how much of the earth’s finite resources are coming out of the ground. Peak everything (including fossil fuels, and many metals and minerals), and the damage caused by unnecessary mining is also a good reason to reuse resources, and the report completely ignores this.
    * The report invokes the ‘drop in the bucket’ argument about greenhouse gas emissions, saying we don’t need to do anything, because New Zealand is so small on the world scale. But this neglects to take into account the effect that New Zealand’s actions will have on influencing what the rest of the world does. If we set a good example and impose tariffs on others who don’t, others will follow. If we do nothing, others will use us to justify doing nothing. Once again, a breakdown in long-term thinking.
    * As Russell noted, it doesn’t take into account the downstream effects of not handling one threat on the other threats. Once again short-term thinking.

    Clearly, the authors of this report need to start thinking a bit further into the future, and then they will come to the conclusion that we need to put more resources into all the issues they bring up, especially climate change, waste management, and water quality. Many of the others, like urban air quality, will follow from the same measures anyway.

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