Opinion: We have one chance to rebuild our economy sustainably

  • 02/04/2020
Opinion: We have one chance to rebuild our economy sustainably
Photo credit: Getty.

By Phil Vine

Opinion: Since 23:59 pm last Wednesday, there's been a lot of talk about what constitutes an essential service.

Is a bakery an essential service? What if it just makes cupcakes? What about coal mining? Solar panel installers? Grape picking? Breeding racehorses? Discretionary air travel? Everyone will have a different opinion.

What about fresh air, clean water? Are they luxuries or essentials?

It's disconcerting. It's unsettling. It goes right to the centre of the human condition - what do we consider important?  What is vital to our existence? 

Spending decisions that the Ardern Government makes over the coming weeks and months will carry these same crucial value judgements. Which industries should it support and by how much? How essential are they? 

This judgement call will shape our communities, the country, and the world our children and grandchildren get to grow up in. 

It's important to acknowledge the human suffering going on right now, and our immediate priority must be to ensure people's good health and wellbeing.  At the same time - however difficult and painful it is - we need to be able to telescope ahead to a post-pandemic world. 

The way things are going we will be looking at a considerable rebuild. What do we want as the foundations for this reconstruction? One of the biggest mistakes we could make would be to overlook or undervalue the essentials that nature provides to us. 

Freshwater, clean air, healthy oceans, a stable climate, a diverse world full of different plants and animals. Essential services if you like. These basics, often taken for granted, are our starting point, the building blocks of life.

Just hold your breath for more than a minute and consider the importance of fresh air. Likewise freshwater. While we might argue about bakeries and whiteware, we can probably all agree New Zealanders require clean water to drink. For now, it comes that way out of the tap. But public health officials warn that nitrates from intensive dairying and synthetic fertilisers are creating a looming public health crisis.

Nature is also our safety net. The oceans of the world quietly and calmly delaying climate breakdown by absorbing gigatonnes of carbon. Deep-sea hydrothermal vents providing us with a microbial enzyme, an enzyme which helped develop the test for COVID-19. 

If we don't safeguard nature's essential services, we leave ourselves open to multiple threats in the future. Imagine experiencing a pandemic with climate breakdown causing drought and food shortages, or coping with COVID while suffering from asthma and other health impacts of poor air quality.

We're way past fighting for these basics out of some romantic hippy notion of protecting the whales, flowers and butterflies. We need to do it for our survival. This isn't a radical idea, it's common sense.  In case you didn't get the memo - we are all part of nature. 

After seeing pictures of the crystal clear canals of Venice, and the surprise blue skies above Beijing, many would love to believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has solved our environmental woes. Hey look, nature is fighting back. Awesome.

These beneficial impacts are likely to be short-lived if the cogs of business and finance are allowed to start turning in the same way again. They're already talking about something called "revenge pollution" in the countries coming out the other side - dispensation to push emissions beyond Government limits to make up for lost time.

So we have some important choices ahead of us. Do we want our Government to keep supporting old fashioned polluting businesses that will propel us into the next incipient crisis, or do we want to support the economy by investing in things which will make us more stable and resilient?

There will be more challenges ahead. That is certain. Another certainty is that every industry out there, even those pushing us towards climate breakdown, will be making a case for how essential they are. How vital they are to the country. In some cases, they will be looking to roll back environmental protections to make things easier for them.

We can't afford to be that short-sighted. We must look to the future if we are to have one. We must be seeking to create jobs and wealth in new sustainable industries, rather than recreate the exact same economic model that got us here.

This week, Greenpeace has prepared a Government briefing called the Green COVID Response.

We are encouraging Government Ministers and indeed all New Zealanders to think differently about the next tranche of stimulus spending. Not only should it keep the economy going - we need to be more ambitious than that - but our aim should be to build back better.

Bailouts and stimulus funds need to be tied to social benefits – if we're paying for companies to provide continued employment, make that a clause in the contract. And where there is potential demand for transport, energy or other goods, let's fill the gaps by supporting companies that can provide low-carbon solutions that solve two problems for the price of one.

While we're building houses, let's make them zero-carbon houses, equipped with solar panels and batteries.

While we design government schemes to get laid-off workers back into work, let's give them decent jobs with a real future in factories, farms and offices that are designed to be sustainable in our carbon-constrained reality. And, importantly, let's give them jobs that won't need a second bailout to cope with tightening restrictions on climate pollution.

While we've got the cheque book out,  let's get agriculture on the road to a better future by spending a billion dollars on transitioning the sector to regenerative methods of farming that are easier on the rivers, safer for the climate.

As we spend and spend, we must appreciate that this is a multi-generational decision. Our children and grandchildren - they are the ones who'll have to pay for it.  Fiscally and otherwise. They'll be the ones to benefit if we get it right, and those who'll get it in the neck if we fail. 

If we are looking to remortgage the future of our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, we damn well better build them a decent house.

Phil Vine is a journalist working for Greenpeace.