12 April 2005
Guy Salmon, the long-serving campaigner for the environment, recently floated the idea that New Zealanders re-think their approach to environmental policy and trying being a bit more Nordic.
It's an interesting notion one that might make many people rather defensive to suggest that we are in some way less capable of environment stewardship than the Swedes, Fins and Norwegians. However few would disagree that the Nordic nations are consistently more successful in achieving their environmental policy objectives. New Zealand's performance has been patchy at best.
Salmon's central query, relating to the use of national targets and milestones, figured prominently at the recent Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand (EIANZ) conference and is likely to remain a key theme in the debate about New Zealand's performance on environment stewardship.
It is not my intention to advocate for one system over another simply to stress that there are myriad approaches to policy development and implementation. Ours might be the best. Or then again it might not be.
The Nordic countries set high level goals, with cross-party agreement, and hand over the implementation of an environmental policy to an independent board comprising some the countries most trusted citizens. They set the targets and milestones and implement the necessary policy initiatives. The Nordic countries all have these targets and milestones in place, but by and large New Zealand does not.
I have been reminded of the role of targets at a practical level through a waste minimisation project for tertiary education providers in Canterbury. All the of the Big Four providers - Lincoln University, University of Canterbury, the College of Education and the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology - are working on waste minimisation together.
It's an enormous task for the education sector, with a student population constantly on the move, and it makes you wonder what the Swedes and Danes would do. I would hazard a guess that they would spend little time on collecting, separating and sorting the torrent of wasted materials that comes out of a university or polytechnic and focus on designing waste out of the system, by requiring goods to be designed for reuse, disassembly, or for total recovery using Design-for-Environment (DFE) principles.
This would inevitably require some form of regulatory response. In the Nordic countries, which all have strong market-led economies, it's likely that a mandate against wasteful designing would be supported because of its direct connection with the country's high-level environmental goals. One can only wonder how this idea would be received by the wider business sector in New Zealand, but, as the Millennium Ecosystem Project has just described so vividly, time is not on our side.
Surely it's time to look above the minutiae of discretionary hearing timeframes and permitted activity lists, and consider the alternatives.
Environmental management and resource stewardship Zealand is full of economic complexities and behavioural issues, and the fear for companies and organisations is that their efforts could be a waste of time if there are no clear targets.
It's been shown time and again that companies who take the lead in environmental management reap dividends in many ways, through increased brand loyalty, reduced costs, improved staff productivity and acceptance in export markets. But how can this kind of leadership ever achieve the dramatic improvements that we need so urgently, when there is such a heavy dependence on voluntary compliance and the exercising of individual choices?
Too many businesses are clinging to business as usual , where environmental impacts rise with economic activity. The Government's sustainability blueprint, the Sustainable Development Plan of Action, urges businesses to de-couple economic growth from environmental costs. If the Government is serious about this strategy, then there should be some assistance in the form of design standards. All it would take is a directive from Government that the business sector must provide products that deliver safety, functionality, environmental sustainability and aesthetics and in that order of priority. In other words, nothing should be designed, manufactured and sold until such standards have been reached.
If that could be achieved, we might also see a major shift in the way products are designed and promoted and the type of attitudes that prevail regarding environmental impacts. Products that depend on near-term replacement, wastefulness or disposability would no longer be acceptable.
Environmental responsibility depends on so many drivers from product design, to responsible consumption, effective targets and the setting of behavioural norms through the content of television programmes beamed into our homes.
Canterbury's tertiary institutions are demonstrating their natural inclination towards what environmental policy people and Nordic folk refer to long-termism thinking about how our activities today will impact on people in the future - and swinging into action together to scale a mountain of solid waste.
One can only hope that other sectors will start thinking differently too, and set their sights considerably higher than the soft waste targets and non targets in our current national policy framework.
Ian Spellerberg is Professor of Nature Conservation at Lincoln University and a founder of the New Zealand chapter of the Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand