Dr Ton Bührs
As in many other countries, climate change has become a ‘first order’ issue on the Government’s agenda. This can be attributed in part to the effectiveness of scientists in communicating their concerns and also to the depiction of climate change as a major economic threat (such as in the Stern Report). Arguably, climate change has now become the most prominent environmental issue of our time, internationally as well as nationally.
Whilst this rise to prominence can be seen as a positive development, triggering policy responses in areas such as energy, transport and agriculture, it also poses risks. It is not just that climate change tends to ‘crowd out’ other environmental issues, but that it becomes the defining issue for what the environmental problematique is about. The response to climate change, as New Zealand has illustrated thus far, is leading to a redefinition of the environmental problematique based on a narrow, analycentric view, interpreting environmental issues largely in technical and monetary economic terms. This diverts attention from the broader socio-cultural and political-economic factors and questions that underlie most if not all environmental problems, including climate change.
The notion of sustainable development - vague, contested and abused as it is - has led to considerable debate at the national and international level about the ecological, social and economic dimensions or aspects of development. The debate centres on how these aspects can and should be translated and combined into strategies at all levels in all areas of government and governance. Sustainable development strategies have the potential to provide broad and very specific guidance to the kind of development a community or country wishes to pursue. They can provide a positive basis, especially if there is public and institutional support, for the ‘greening’ of all policy areas and sectors of activity in society. As such, they can function as a means for defining the ‘national interest’ of a country.
Cabinet papers and discussion documents on climate change released by the New Zealand Government refer to protecting and advancing the ‘national interest’ as a core principle in the context of the development and adoption of climate change policies, in particular at the international level. However, what New Zealand’s ‘national interest’ is, or how it is to be defined, are questions not explicitly discussed, although some references suggest that national interest can be expressed mainly in economic terms. Similarly, at the national level, the discussion of options and measures to combat climate change frequently refer to economic criteria (cost-effectiveness, least-cost, competitiveness, the financial burden on sectors and industries) that indicate that the development of climate change policy is primarily seen as an economic challenge, to be met by economically advantageous policy instruments.
Although New Zealand’s position on climate change talks about a whole-of-government approach, and mentions a wide range of important policy areas, issues and initiatives, it hardly refers to sustainable development. Where it does, such references seem to suggest that the main challenge now lies in reducing and absorbing greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, virtually no reference is made to the Government’s very modest sustainable development strategy, the Programme of Action. The Programme is mentioned only alongside the various other strategies that have been adopted (energy efficiency, transport etc) and not as an overarching framework, within which climate change policy needs to be embedded. Instead, New Zealand’s response appears to reduce the notion of sustainability to a very narrow task - the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions - and in a way that is in New Zealand’s economically defined ‘national interest’.
Interpreting and defining the climate change issue in this way is unlikely to address, let alone eliminate, the underlying factors and developments that generate environmental problems, not only climate change. Climate change is just a symptom of unsustainable development that accumulates a raft of environmental pressures and problems. A number of these pressures may be approaching a tipping point, not only with regard to the world’s climate but also in the degradation of ecosystems, biodiversity, the availability and quality of fresh water, and access to global oil supplies.
Addressing climate change requires embedding climate change policy within an overarching national sustainable development strategy, linked to strategies at all levels and in all areas of government and governance. Such a strategy needs to address the factors and driving forces behind these pressures and to offer positive guidance towards a sustainable world, not just the protection of narrowly defined ‘national interest’.
Dr Ton Bührs is Senior Lecturer in Environmental Policy at Lincoln University