Care of environment could be good for jobs

When the Greens announced Labour as their preferred partner for any post-election negotiations John Key was quick with the accusation that the Greens in government would mean environmental policies would have precedence, that jobs would be sold down the river and that economic growth would be on the backburner.

It is not the purpose of this column to argue the respective merits of political parties, but the claim that economic growth trumps care of the environment needs to be challenged, wherever it appears. Economic growth has been phenomenal since humans unlocked the energy of fossil fuels in the industrial revolution which began over two centuries ago.  In that short time the human population of the globe has increased six-fold, life expectancy has more than doubled and technologies have advanced at previously unimaginable rates. 

We have known for some time that environmental damage was being done along the way, and efforts have been made to repair some of it, sometimes tolerably successfully.  But it is only in the past ten or fifteen years that the greatest unsuspected environmental damage has begun to reveal itself to the investigations of scientists. The burning of fossil fuels which has powered our growth has been changing the composition of the atmosphere to produce a rapidly increasing level of global warming unprecedented in human history. It is profoundly altering the ecosystems to which we belong and on which we depend. It is of a magnitude which threatens the whole structure of human civilisation and mass extinction of other species.

That is the verdict of science, and it would be sheer folly for us to think that economic growth dependent on energy from fossil fuels can remain unaffected by this discovery. It would also be a betrayal of upcoming generations, for it would condemn them to severely diminished lives.

Some environmental concerns may be able to be postponed for a time and dealt with later, but not this one. Glaciers and polar ice caps once melted are unlikely to be reconstituted by any action we can take. Metres of sea level rise can’t be lowered. Desertification is not easily reversed. The acidification of the ocean is a colossal phenomenon.

No one who has absorbed the scientific findings can consider them somehow outweighed by current economic models. Addressing climate change is an imperative, and the economy must be fashioned accordingly so that greenhouse gas emissions are are severely cut over the next forty years.

Does that put economic growth on the back burner?  It may in fact mean a very lively economy. There is enormous potential for growth in renewable energy technology and the infrastructure to support it. A whole industry will be needed for the sustainable design, building and retro-fitting of housing and commercial buildings.  Manufacturing which is based on continual recycling rather than resources ending in landfill will produce expanded employment opportunities. Human ingenuity will find inumerable opportunities for productive enterprise within the new boundaries.

However it will be a differently based economy and the change may well involve pain for some industries as they give way to sustainable alternatives. Farming may have to alter some of its ways.  We may have to live on a more modest scale than we are presently encouraged to aspire to and the frenetic consumption which undergirds the present economy may subside. But none of these factors signify economic collapse.

Environmental collapse is the real threat. Our economy must be reshaped and politicians of all colours should be getting on with that task, not offering delusory hopes that business as usual is a viable option.

This column first appeared in the Waikato Times, Nov 11, 2008

41 thoughts on “Care of environment could be good for jobs”

  1. Jonno, I’m probably guilty as charged. I first heard the term steady state economy from an economist friend way back in 1972 by the way. But all honour to Herman Daly. I see his first book on the subject appeared in 1977.

  2. I don’t think you are guility of anything, I wasn’t trying to accuse you of anything. Now I read my comment again, I see why you take it that way. I should have wrote:

    This is great, this is what we need. The only way forward is a steady sate economy… and Herman Daly is a legend. I am glad there is a journalist out there that is promting these ideas.

    Sorry if I came across as belitting this article, it was the exact opposite of what I meant and think. I am total agree with it!

  3. Nothing to be sorry for Jonno – I took you as you intended. My response was meant to be a lighthearted recognition that there are plenty of others out there for whom steady state economy advocacy is suspicious activity. Now I’m sorry for the impression I gave you!

  4. The rising standard of living may depend on the extent to which we’re already in overdraft to the environment and have debts to catch up on. A declining population worldwide seems to be some way off yet, barring catastrophic events – which one hopes we may yet avoid. I liked Jeffrey Sachs’ section on the demographic challenge in his recent Commonwealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet. He presents a hopeful and humane analysis of how fertility rates in poorer countries can fall voluntarily as a range of appropriate measures are applied, and finishes with the hope that the rich world won’t move to pro-natalist policies in the mistaken belief that declining population levels are a threat to the economy.

  5. ‘The rising standard of living may depend on the extent to which we’re already in overdraft to the environment and have debts to catch up on. A declining population worldwide seems to be some way off yet, barring catastrophic events – which one hopes we may yet avoid.”

    There will be a catastrophic event. The question is ‘which one?’

  6. Absolutely will have positive economic effects. However it would represent a change of thinking, taking into account the true environmental cost will require a lot of retooling for established industries, Dairy for example in a NZ context.
    It’s too easy to stall, cloud the debate than make the changes.

  7. John the Californian report, which I’ve had a quick look at, is certainly very positive. Thanks for drawing attention to it. One sentence which stood out: “Had the state not embarked on its ambitious path to reduce emissions over three decades ago, the California economy would be in a significantly more vulnerable position today.” It’s sad to see NZ still prevaricating and arguing about how to even get started. Tim’s comment about stalling and clouding the debate was illustrated again this morning when our leading newspaper gave prime position to the iterations of a prominent denier whose main purpose is clearly to delay any government action which might impinge on the current economic model.

  8. Interested in your views on this attempt then Bryan: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10544985

    Where the UK is taxing international air travellers leaving the UK, with the rates set to reflect least to most environmental damage. I note a few things not picked up by the Herald:
    – the UK is not responsible under Kyoto for emissions from international travel, no matter what carrier, or the nationality/departure/destination of passengers
    – long haul flights are considerably more fuel efficient than short haul flights
    – elasticities probably mean the tax will have no effect on business travel, but knock tourism, just when the domestic tourism industry is declining
    – that NZ tourists might decide to spend less time in the UK, or not visit it at all as a result
    To me, it’s just a greenwashed tax grab, but maybe a small step in the right direction given these emissions are not accounted for under Kyoto at all at the moment

  9. Password1: I’m not sufficiently up with the play on the UK’s air passenger duty tax to have any opinion worth sharing. The declared environmental intention behind it is welcome even though it may well have an element of greenwash as you point out. But it seems apparent New Zealand has to prepare for the possibility of profound effects on tourism in the light of climate change mitigation measures, whether we think the measures are reasonable or not. I’ve seen some creative suggestions as to how the industry could adapt and survive, and they generally propose much more sustainable activity both within the industry and the country as a whole which the tourists are visiting. But I have no familiarity with the question. John Key as Minister may find his hands full – and perhaps it will paradoxically help him find a better focus on the primacy of environmental issues.

  10. Dewhurst – yours is a simpletons view. It’s actually linked to the other tax changes, commented on by IS here: http://norightturn.blogspot.com/2008/11/compare-and-contrast.html

    Bryan – International air travel (including freight) has zero environmental sustainability. Options for improvement were explored by George Monbiot in ‘Heat’ and essentially discarded. I agree with you: NZ tourism needs prepare for changes in our markets – and I think the industry body has been focusing on the nearer Asian markets for some time. I find it interesting how all the media, and John Key, is commenting on is the tourist trade from the UK – that’s a very small, but not inconsequential, subset of the range of issues.

    I would approve more of the tax measure if the revenues were to be recycled to (aviation) energy efficiency research and improvements.

  11. Re NZ tourism: I suggested in the book that tourism was one of NZ’s big vulnerabilities. If long haul travel becomes more expensive (tax, fuel cost etc), or (worse) unfashionable, then NZ will feel the impact in its collective pocket.

    This is why Air NZ is very keen on biofuels – experimenting with jatropha-derived avgas [Herald, Technology Review backgrounder], and has at least considered offsetting passenger emissions in the conservation estate. You take the long haul guilt away… Doing that will increase costs, however, so that would suggest that the top-end of the market would do best (the wealthy being less likely to notice the cost increase). The other end of the market – backpackers, long stay low-budget types – could also be less affected, but there’s much less money in them.

  12. >When the Greens announced Labour as their preferred partner for any post-election negotiations John Key was quick with the accusation that the Greens in government would mean environmental policies would have precedence, that jobs would be sold down the river and that economic growth would be on the backburner.

    Genetic Fitz may be a greenie at heart but Bradford, Locke and Norman are hardline leftists. When Genetic Fitz goes the party will be led by Norman and either Bradford or Locke. The thin green rind of the watermelon will scraped even thinner. Those three joined the greens because they saw it as a handy vehicle for political advancement in a society which will not vote hard left, not because of any love for green causes. Who could imagine that Bradford, a rent-a-mob thug, would give a damn about the environment? The best thing the greens could do for their long term survival would be to rid themselves of the hard left and stick to middle of the political spectrum green issues.

  13. I used to visit NZ almost every year on business (mostly) from 1987 through 2000, and always had great times. In the early 1990s, I kept hearing complaints from NZ government folks that it was harder shipping lamb to the UK, and kept telling them:

    a) If NZ wants to stay a first-world economy, you have to keep doing high value-add.
    b) It’s cheaper to ship bits than things, and you have some good software people.
    c) You have great scenery & potential for movie-making, which creates local jobs, and exports bits, not things. [this was before Hercules & Xena].
    d) You have great scenery, great tourist potential, and most Americans don’t know where you are or why they should visit.

    [I mostly got back: we can’t do that, and we’re too far away.]

    Over the years, I often visited a little Wellington company named Weta Digital [to help sell SGI workstations and servers], so I was very pleased that LOTR managed to help all of the above. For example, Weta has created some absolutely world-class software. They even let me see some footage a year before FotR release, although I had to sign a ferocious Non-Disclosure Agreement, and was warned that if I talked about it, Weta would send its special half-breed orc-lawyers after me, a dire threat only they could make.

    In light of all this, I was also quite amused to see Helen Clark on the Travel Channel, extolling “LOTR tours”, or something like that.

    BUT: tourism is going to get more expensive, and Peak Oil says that NZ is going to get “further away” in terms of cost. Fossil fuels are a 300-year, one-time inheritance of “energy capital”. If NZ doesn’t try very hard to invest that capital into energy-revenue-producing facilities (i.e., sustainable), ahead of the downslope on oil+gas, NZ will be hurt very badly. People’s great-grandchildren in 2100 will face an economy more like that of 1900, although at least with some electricity & Internet. Although global warming effects will hit later than in some other places, I think you will have some issues there as well, and you won’t have (much) fossil fuel left to help do things like rebuilding sea-level infrastructure uphill. At least the ocean keeps the climate fairly mild, but I’d worry a little about the energy needs of buildings on the South Island in particular. If NZ isn’t already worrying about that, the time to start is *now*, as it takes a long time for building stock to turnover. Likewise, every infrastructure investment needs to be scrutinized carefully to make sure it doesn’t become a “stranded asset”. I’d think real hard about major airport expansions.

    Put another way, if a company needs to change its business model, the time to do it is when it has the capital to invest, not when it’s spent its capital partying. Some changes (like efficiency improvements) are really cheap if introduced early, and give vehicle fleets and building stocks time.

    It’s not yet obvious to me how the current “airplanes are busses with wings” mass air travel will survive, unless somebody gets real breakthroughs in biofuels, algae, Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics, etc. Maybe dirigibles with solar assist.

    Anyway, ignoring climate, and speaking as a friend to NZ, if NZ doesn’t work very hard on investing in energy efficiency and sustainable energy supplies, it’s hard to see how NZ will stay a first-world economy in 2100, especially given its size and geography. That would be sad.

  14. >It is not the purpose of this column to argue the respective merits of political parties, but the claim that economic growth trumps care of the environment needs to be challenged, wherever it appears.

    Who has claimed that?

    I certainly do not think that economic growth trumps the environment. We live in the environment and the quality of the environment determines the quality of our lives. Our environment is being degraded because, principally, there are too many people in it.

    Many think that regulation is the panacea. It is not. Regulation leads to costs that simply waste money that could be spent on environmental improvement.

    Here is an example. It is one among many.

    The Western Bay of Plenty District Council (WBOPDC) recently wished to
    increase its water resources and embarked upon a groundwater
    investigation.

    At this point I wish to point out that this is my area of expertise. I
    worked for ten years in Australia in the mineral industry and supervised
    a very considerable amount of drilling of various types. On one project
    alone (The Beverley Uranium Project at Lake Frome) I supervised the
    drilling of some 90,000 metres of open hole, some core drilling and the
    interpretation of some 130,000 metres of electric log. Prior to my
    retirement I was a consultant in the field of groundwater and
    environmental geology in New Zealand.

    The WBOPDC farms out its engineering and water supply work to Duffill
    Watts and King (DWAK), civil engineers of Dunedin. DWAK apparently
    having no suitable staff farmed out the groundwater investigation to
    Beca Carter (BC) of Auckland. BC engaged Drillwell of Auckland to do
    the investigative drilling. However BC required the investigation holes
    to be diamond (core) drilled. As Drillwell are not equipped to carry
    out diamond drilling the work was then farmed out to Alton Drilling who
    are specialist drillers working mainly for mineral explorers.

    The investigation drilling had been largely completed before I moved to
    Kati Kati and became aware of what was going on.

    All the water well drillers rely on open hole drilling. That is right
    and proper because open hole drilling is about an order of magnitude
    cheaper than core drilling and generates all the information needed at
    the time. The driller can see when he is drilling through productive
    strata. However there should be, in case of public water supplies at
    least, on site supervision by a suitably experienced geologist.

    BC elected to core drill at greatly increased cost to the ratepayer and
    to dispense with on site supervision. About weekly, I am led to
    believe, BC would send down a technician to log the core. The drillers
    simply drilled to predetermined depths at locations selected, I presume,
    off a map in Auckland. With no on site supervision holes could not be
    stopped on the geological evidence. In the mineral industry where
    subsurface information is vital all drilling is supervised on site by a
    geologist as a matter of principle. In my consulting work I supervised
    all drilling on site, examining drill cuttings as they come out of the
    hole and interacting with the driller at all times. That is how it
    should be done.

    BC had a shipping container a couple of kilometres west of Katikati in
    which the core was stored. I saw and photographed the contents of this
    container. In it was more core than we recovered in the course of
    proving two uranium orebodies at Lake Frome and probably as much as
    would be obtained in proving the reserves of reasonably sized gold mine.

    That is the sort of nonsense that happens when geological work is
    delegated to civil engineers two hundred kilometres away.

    Of course all companies and consultants collected their percentage and
    the total cost to the ratepayer ran into several million dollars. In
    reality the WBOPDC would have got a better result at a fraction of the
    cost by simply engaging one of the two local well drilling contractors.
    Ideally the council should have engaged a groundwater geologist to
    supervise the drilling and to conduct well tests. The latter should not
    be left to well drillers.

    Of course everybody from the CEO of the WBOPDC downwards were able to
    wash their hands of responsibility. The CEO of WBOPDC is paid, I
    understand, more than the Prime Minister.

  15. When Genetic Fitz goes the party will be led by Norman and either Bradford or Locke

    Actually, the Greens require that both co-leaders are of a different sex. There will be a vote by members when the time comes, so could be Kedgely, Bradford or Meteira Turei. People are a little fixated on Bradford for some reason…

  16. >I am unsure how you are linking this to regs Roger? isn’t just a matter of poor decision making of the consultants?

    It is all part of the council staff covering their arses at the expense of the ratepayer. When I enquired about adding a garage the builder told me the paperwork required would be as thick as a small paperback. The plans for the house amounted to little more than an A3 sized page.

  17. >Actually, the Greens require that both co-leaders are of a different sex. There will be a vote by members when the time comes, so could be Kedgely, Bradford or Meteira Turei. People are a little fixated on Bradford for some reason…

    I forgot their feminist slant!!!!!!!!!! It will have to be Bradford because the hard left has the party stitched up.

  18. “It is all part of the council staff covering their arses at the expense of the ratepayer. When I enquired about adding a garage the builder told me the paperwork required would be as thick as a small paperback. The plans for the house amounted to little more than an A3 sized page.”

    A little bit paronoid to make the link here Roger…

  19. John Mashey:
    Thanks for your input and your friendliness towards our country. The energy-efficiency first steps are striking some problems here, even on as simple a matter as light bulbs! But there are some hopeful signs. A report a couple of years ago from the Energy Panel of the Royal Society of New Zealand http://www.royalsociety.org.nz/Site/About/Our_structure/advisory/energy/default.aspx provided detailed evidence from a selection of our best energy experts from academia and business that New Zealand could move within a relatively short space of time to a low or zero-carbon basis for energy and transportation. My sense of excitement in reading it has admittedly been tempered since by lack of evidence that the government paid it much attention, but it’s there, and it seems feasible enough technically – the problem as always is probably whether it’s feasible politically. A good lead from the US if Obama means what he says may well change the way all this is viewed by politicians and business leaders here. Over to you!

  20. Roger Dewhurst:
    You ask who has claimed that economic growth trumps care of the environment. The Prime Minister did, which is why I wrote the column. Those weren’t his words, which I reported in the first paragraph of the column, but I think they convey his import. His stance was repeated during the campaign. I heard him specifically say that the environment was on the page but it wasn’t at the top of the page – that position was reserved for economic growth.

  21. “The energy-efficiency first steps”

    Don’t forget the energy conservation steps as well. Turn off that light as well as bulb an eco blub.

    Let’s deal with demand before supply!

  22. Late Carboniferous to Early Permian time (315 mya – 270 mya) is the only time
    period in the last 600 million years
    when both atmospheric CO2 and temperatures were as low as they are today
    (Quaternary Period).
    Temperature after C.R. Scotese. CO2 after R.A. Bernier, 2001 (GEOCARB III).

    I can sent the graph to anyone who wants it.

  23. Here’s a graph of CO2 levels over the last 600 million years (the Phanerozoic). To make Roger’s claim, you have accept the results of several different geochemical models, some of which do not show hugely higher CO2 in the deep past.

    So tell me Roger, why is possible to accept the results of a complex model stretching back over 100 millions of years, riddled with great uncertainties, but dismiss complex climate models? Interesting how you make your choices…

    Earlier climates are not necessarily good comparisons with today. Continental drift changes the ocean/land distribution and changes climate, plus the biosphere would have been markedly different. But the fact remains that current CO2 levels are the highest of the last 650,000 years (ice core record), and the temperature is rising.

  24. Gareth

    I have just downloaded the GEOCARB III paper and have the following points.
    Although the model does not have resolution below 10 My the model does show a long term correlation between CO2 concentrations and temperature. This result would seem to indicate that increasing CO2 concentrations will result in increasing atmos temps. No surprises there then.

    The GEOCARB III model uses the outputs of a GCM to provide inputs of the “values of GEOG(t), the greenhouse and solar response factors G and Ws, and the river runoff factor RUN can be obtained from the application of general circulation models (GCM) to paleo-environments.” In this case the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) Community Climate Model, version 3 (CCM-3).

    I thought GCM models had no value. So why is Mr Dewhurst touting a model that uses a GCM for some of the inputs?

    This model does not have a resolution of less than 10 My and while geologists may be comfortable with that level of resolution us life forms work on much shorter time frames.

    It is easy to be sanguine when from your POV species are something that come and go in the blink of an eye, but when you are a member of one of those species and you rely on lots of other species for your quality of life it is a little harder to be so philosophical.
    for a first estimate see:
    http://planet.botany.uwc.ac.za/nisl/Climate_change/Karen%20PDF's/South%20Africa/Thomas%20et%20al.%202004.pdf

    Just as an aside this reminds me of the wonderful short story by Roger Zelazny “The Great Slow Kings” .
    Doug

  25. The first organic carbon to be laid down in sediments would have been Cambrian in age. There are limestones of every age since then. Limestones and related rocks represent a vast reservoir of organic carbon. The major coal deposits are of course Carboniferous in age but there is much coal that is younger. Oil and gas are primarily Tertiary in age. All these rocks and hydrocarbons have pulled their carbon out of the atmosphere. No wonder that there is not much left now. Indeed if we do not put some back into the atmosphere much of the little that there is will finish up as limestone and there will be little left for the plants. That event will just about extinguish life on this planet if we have not managed to do that with nuclear weapons somewhat earlier.

  26. Yes, after the prominence the Herald gave to Owen McShane’s extraordinary denialist piece on Monday it was a relief to see an editorial finding its way, however tortuously, to a “no more delay” position. And the Listener has had some very shaky editorial statements on climate change issues in the past. Maybe there is a flow of public opinion starting to get some momentum. Maybe John Key will reconsider his priorities. One election promise I wouldn’t mind him breaking was to put the economy ahead of the environment.

  27. “How’s the hearing going, Andrew?”

    Good, I think. Thanks for asking. But, then again, it’s easy to be confident when you have only heard your own side of the argument.

    Today has been a site visit for the commissioners and tomorrow we will get to hear from the opponents.

    And to bring this back to the topic at hand I would certainly agree that a distributed, renewable energy future will be good for jobs and our wind farm will be a good start for the region.

    Our opponents seem to have a divergent opinion on whether this constitutes ‘care for the environment’.

    Andrew

  28. Indeed if we do not put some back into the atmosphere much of the little that there is will finish up as limestone and there will be little left for the plants.

    Limestone’s not a dead-end in the carbon cycle. Not much worry of running out of atmospheric CO2 altogether for as long as plate tectonics remain active.

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