On Saturday I attended the launch of the Green Growth Advisory Group’s report on ‘greening’ New Zealand’s growth. As well as being an interesting cultural experience in its own right, it was useful to hear first hand some of the ideas and expectations that flow from the document.
The Greens see a lot in the report that we can support, but there are also some serious issues or concerns that the report skirts around. (In his presentation Phil O’Reilly, one of the authors, did make clear that the Group worked to a quite specific terms of reference).
Mr O’Reilly also proposed in his speech that “Our target should not be to try to balance economic growth and environmental protection. It should be about enhancing both environmental protection and biodiversity and engendering economic growth as well as all the other things that we seek in society.”
I couldn’t agree more. I have long been suspicious of the language of ‘balance’, which has become a code for accepting a little more environmental degradation in exchange for a little more (invariably short term) economic benefit. That’s just a race to the bottom, and we should have no part of it.
The report correctly notes that “The concept of green growth is also based on the realisation that natural capital is finite and that all ecosystems have limits, and that sustaining growth will mean working within those limits.” We desperately need to be doing more to assess and report on the state of our natural capital and ecosystem services, and to embed those values into our economic strategy as firmly and as routinely as we address purely economic data.
Rather than simplistically measuring ‘growth’ as increases in production, consumption and exchange, we need to measure and incorporate indices of environmental and human wellbeing. Fortunately we do not need to break much new ground in this – such approaches have been adopted or trialled in a number of developing and developed countries.
One of my personal frustrations with the report is that some of its better recommendations propose doing things that people in business and the public sector were in fact doing at least five years ago, and in some cases much longer.
Recommendation three, for example, proposes the Government should support coordination and integration of programmes to build business capabilitywithin SMEs, while involving private and public sector stakeholders. Recommendation four encourages the government to facilitate businesses’ practical understanding of how to improve environmental performance and to take advantage of ‘green growth market trends’.
I know from my time as a sustainable business adviser that such programmes were gaining real traction and delivering measurable outcomes across a range of sectors, but sadly many of them took a hit and were scaled down or lost altogether when the government withdrew political and financial support soon after the 2008 election.
This report does provide some grounding for a better informed and engaged public debate about our future economic and environmental direction. To do so will however require a willingness to adopt some different and challenging assumptions about what constitutes ‘progress’ and ‘value’.