IN TOUCH : A challenge to Kiwi resourcefulness

New Zealand needs to get on the front foot in terms of verifying its clean, green image with some solid, measurable progress toward sustainable development – because branding alone won’t cut it in more carbon-conscious world, says United Kingdom sustainability expert Tim Jackson.
“You need to know where your carbon footprint is and use it in the marketing process,” he told business audience in Auckland recently. Chair of the Economics Steering Group on the UK Sustainable Development Commission and professor at the Centre for Environment Strategy at the University of Surrey, Jackson says that while there’s more awareness of the need to respond to climate change issues here, it lacks government direction.
“I’ve been surprised by the almost complete lack of government in relationship to these issues and the sense particularly within the business community that government intervention isn’t necessary or required.
“The reality is that as result there are no reasonable regulations in relation to things as basic as energy efficiency, no reliable or comprehensive environmental reporting or statistics – so you don’t really know where you are. Also there’s no decent public transport structure, which makes you heavily reliant on cars and planes.”
The lack of such “fundamental” steps will make meeting carbon targets more difficult. Declarations from the Prime Minister that this will be the first truly sustainable country may be the tipping point for transition – but not unless they’re backed by clear strategy on sustainable consumption and production, says Jackson.
“The voice I’ve heard here is that we don’t want regulation and we don’t want fiscal instruments. We’d just like few voluntary initiatives if we decide what’s in them. This stuff is never going to deliver sustainability. It’s just wishful thinking.”
Research carried out with businesses and consumers in the UK as to what works in terms of shifting buyers from unsustainable to sustainable products shows you can’t put the burden of change on green consumers, says Jackson.
“Voluntary initiatives – which is the favoured response here – move things forward bit but rarely lead the transition.”
Information is okay, says Jackson, but doesn’t really move things forward. Labelling allows some editing of choices but doesn’t in itself work. Fiscal incentives only work if they close the price gap between sustainable and unsustainable products.
“What we found is that the minimum thing that will make the difference is form of well-articulated progressive regulation to remove unsustainable products from the market and deliver more efficient services to the market.”
Jackson also believes economies have to wean themselves away from using GDP as any measure of real progress. That’s not easy because it plays what he describes as “powerful mythical role” in most western societies as proxy for wellbeing and progress.
“But we know that isn’t the case. GDP goes on rising but measures of wellbeing all tend to be flat or declining.”
He makes strong case that GDP is not doing the job we want it to do in either an economic, social or environmental sense. But it’s very much part of what he calls “plan A”.
“That’s what almost every government in the western world sees as its development path – grow the economy to meet rising aspirations. And any attempt to not do that is seen as dangerous because an economy that is not growing is not static but collapsing.
“So ‘plan A’ is based on GDP growth, population growth. But there’s growing realisation that there are environmental limits coming down the line that make plan unsustainable. My question is what is ‘plan B’? Because you don’t really see it yet.”
What is starting to happen is that people are beginning to use resources more efficiently and there’s plenty of room for improvement there. There’s also shift in attitude in that people still want growth – but not at any cost, says Jackson.
“What makes me hopeful is that we do know what the solutions are in technical terms. The things that make it difficult are institutional roadblocks, adverse public reactions, the shortness of electoral cycles and the locked-in-ness of politicians, business and consumers to existing structures.”
One of the things we have to face with the costs of climate change is that there is an historical debt we’ve already incurred and we know will bite some time in the future and we have no provision for it.
“So the idea we should in some sense be provisioning on the basis of what’s happened in the past for costs that we know are coming down the line in the future is pretty sensible one.”
The challenge for sustainable enterprise is to be part of society that is living well and also living within environmental limits. That is not trivial task, says Jackson – but it’s “a creative place to go”. And New Zealanders with their No 8 wire resourcefulness may have exactly what’s needed to meet the challenge.

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