Not the more roads, more cows and more drilling approach, thanks

Alarmed at the New Zealand Minister for the Environment Hon. Amy Adams inability to succinctly outline for the country what our policies on sustainable development are, aside from her Government’s approach of more roads, more cows and more drilling (One News Sunday 24 June 2012), I set about to uncover what exactly the government is doing on sustainable development and to set this against the backdrop of the closed Rio +20 discussions.  (I was less alarmed by One News citing actresses as a source of authority on the state of the planet).

In short The Future We Want, the final outcome document of months of meetings reaffirms the majority of international environmental agreements, states that the world is in a grim predicament when it comes to  our natural resources, creates a global panel on sustainability, and enhances the powers of UNEP (a bit).  It reads more like a dire state of the world address, which many organisations put out annually, so it feels a bit trite to commend the UN on the report, when many of its branches are supposed to have been addressing this anyway.  The only consoling factor is that some people might actually be learning about this for the first time and that might shock them into some course of action.  For the rest of us, we’ve heard it all before.  What would have been useful is a set of commitments to actually deal with the numerous highlighted problems admitted in the document and that would force global leaders to act to make the necessary changes we need.  Perhaps that would make me feel like it turns towards the future we want, rather than just restating the past that we’ve destroyed.  Binding commitments would at least lead to some top down trickle effect, one we haven’t seen for quite some time.  Such an approach might have assisted national governments, who, judging by New Zealand’s statements, are clearly over rating the document.

When asked, most people, even experts, stall, stammer and try to collect their thoughts on what sustainable development really is – a subjectivity that transcends borders and international interpretations.  A recent summary from the Report of the United Nations Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Sustainable Development, “Resilient People, Resilient Planet” tries to pin it down to being all about: “recognizing, understanding and acting on interconnections – above all those between the economy, society and the natural environment.  (It is) about seeing the whole picture – such as the critical links between food, water, land, and energy. And it is about ensuring that our actions today are consistent with where we want to go tomorrow.” (Para 21:). (Another misleading title – there is nothing in that report that addresses resilience, more than discussing sustainability, and the two are separate concepts).

In the NZ context the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) comes to mind. But I cannot help but feel a bit despondent about the way sustainable development has evolved as a concept in our court systems.  As  Rio +20 ended, I started reflecting on how the RMA fares 20 years on, now with two decades of judicial interpretation of sustainable development related terms embedded in our planning frameworks.  But is this jurisprudence in New Zealand largely driven by subdivision developers and retired folk forming residence societies? Or can we see clear decisions that would come close to what the Global Panel on Sustainable Development would consider to be in line with what sustainable development needs to be to address our global environmental, social, and economic challenges?

After reflecting on this I have realized that the RMA alone will simply never be enough.  We need this concept to transcend all laws from a top down approach in order to see the whole picture, the critical links between food, water, land, and energy, and also to see the interconnections between our economy, society, and the natural environment.  This is the approach Norway sort of takes as it integrates sustainable development into the annual budget as a way of implementing its National Strategy for Sustainable Development . Bear in mind Norway is also a big oil producing country, but manages to set aside much of its profits from this specifically for social and environmental benefits.

So what do we have in Aotearoa, aside from the RMA in terms of this approach? Not much, really. The Ministry for the Environment documents I could locate turned out to be at least dating back to 2008.  Statements such as “The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has sought to evaluate the Sustainable Development Programme of Action (SDPOA) now that it has reached the end of its initial period” (written in March 2008), suggest an outdated and probably sidelined aspect of not only the website maintenance but also the policies themselves. These refer to previous reports like Creating Our Future: Sustainable Development (2002) and later the summary of the Implications of the Sustainable Development Plan of Action (2006).

The only things that suggest progress in this field are the assessments of a Green Economy for New Zealand. “Greening New Zealand’s Growth – Report of the Green Growth Advisory Group” (December 2011), outlines recommendations for New Zealand’s Green Economy. The terms of reference makes it steer clear of strong wording and recommendations that would really innovate New Zealand and does not let the authors address issues such as the ETS or waste policy. It was also not allowed to consider fiscal policies such as green taxes. So, with a light scope, and polite suggestions, it points a lot towards technology solutions (enhancing R&D), enhancing environmental standards and management, reducing emissions, enhancing energy efficiency, including demand side management, all of which could mean some progressive and technocratic environmental solutions start to occur.  Interesting also is the part on merging the extraction industries, like offshore drilling, with environmental and social concerns. One suggestion is to use royalties from this for conservation and biodiversity protection. And it uses Norway as a good example for this.

There are, however, some constructive recommendations, whether or not these will be followed is another matter.

So in an absence of clear national documents on sustainable development and no guarantee that the recommendations in the Green Growth report will be followed, I thought I’d help the Minister by outlining some alternatives to her suggested growth pattern for our country, one that we have been on for 30 years and that it is now time to diversify from to ensure we are internationally competitive and respected over the next 30 years.

More roads: While the investment in infrastructure is one way to spur the economy on in a recession, authors on the topic of the green economy were more likely to have in mind sustainable transport initiatives such as light rail, bike paths, and smarter infrastructure buildings (such as retrofitting housing to be more energy efficient) or new builds to be climate neutral and smart.  The US Green Building Council predicts that in the US alone, retrofits could create a million jobs, with cold damp houses throughout the country, there is plenty of work to be done.

More cows: Hon. Adams did not read The Future We Want too well – it called for sustainable agriculture and options for food security, not increasing the size and intensity of agricultural production at the expense of our water supplies and quality. Interestingly, Hon. Adams noted that freshwater was a top priority for the government. If she took an interconnected view of the issue it would be quite easy to join those dots and ask the likes of Fonterra to jump on board with alternative farming options, some more organics, splicing up our urban food systems to make our cities more resilient, and encouraging small scale farmers not to sell out to large conglomerates.

More drilling: While it might be good we do not subsidize drilling for oil in NZ, I suspect this is actually because we cannot actually afford to subsidize it.  I further suspect that our complaints against other countries doing so are driven largely by a trade protection undercurrent, rather than environmental goodwill. What would be great would be to instead subsidize renewable energy options (like Denmark and Sweden) and some simple green taxes imposed, which could hopefully tear ourselves away from our oil dependency. I would quite like to see some stronger commitments to renewables, if this is really what the government intends to use to counter its thirst for oil extraction.

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