Phillip Mills: Show leadership in the greening of New Zealand

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The long-term damage to New Zealand's brand may come from a failure to shift to low-carbon industries. Photo / Thinkstock
The long-term damage to New Zealand's brand may come from a failure to shift to low-carbon industries. Photo / Thinkstock

Invest in emerging low-carbon industry to secure our livelihood, says Phillip Mills, trustee of Pure Advantage.

We've seen during the past two months what this country is capable of when we all pull together. In this election, we should demand of our politicians that the same level of strategy, planning and commitment be given to our economic future.

New Zealand's environmental reputation continues to be tested with our response to the Rena saga, followed by a second fossil fuel-related blow with the Vector natural gas pipe rupture. There is growing public unease about how prepared we are to manage New Zealand's green brand.

A 2008 study showed that a 5 per cent reputational loss in primary products and international tourism will cost the New Zealand economy more than 22,000 jobs, annual direct losses of $455 million in primary product sales and $155 million in international tourism sales.

However, the long-term damage to New Zealand's brand will not come from Rena, or even the risks of a tanker accident or deep-water drilling disaster should we decide to go down that track, but from a failure to take up the opportunities we have to shift more of our resources and talent pool into the low-carbon industries that will drive the future global economy.

Rather than risking our environment and reputation by opening marginally accessible petroleum reserves to foreign oil corporations, the emphasis should be on investing in those industries that can provide us with an advantage in rapidly emerging markets such as renewable energy and the businesses that spin off that, from electric vehicles to cloud computing.

This is an important time to protect our global reputation as responsible stewards for one of the world's best-kept environments, and the value that reputation adds to our primary products and tourism. A recent Business Council for Sustainable Development poll underscored its importance to exporters, with 86 per cent saying our 100 per cent Pure image was important to help ensure market access and give New Zealand a marketing edge. The poll also showed that only 2 per cent of New Zealanders believe the country lives up to its 100 per cent Pure image.

It is also a time for exploiting our comparative advantages in global "sunrise" industries.

We can capitalise on world-leading expertise in geothermal power and the microbial conversion of pollution from industrial plants to fuel. There are also research, trials and early commercial production in progress around conversion of forestry and dairy waste into products such as transport biofuels. Sixty per cent of our energy comes from fossil fuels with an annual import cost of $6 billion a year. Developing alternatives will ultimately create exports, make us energy independent and prevent thousands of tonnes of carbon from being released into the environment.

We also have expertise in areas such as water management, forestry, low-energy farming and sustainable fisheries that are becoming more important in a world of 7 billion people.

Our leaders need listen to the results of the 3 News Reid Research poll that rated the environment as the number one issue among voters and to become far more aspirational.

There are few countries on Earth that have the opportunities and advantages that we do. We need to diversify from our commodity export-based economic strategy.

There is little doubt that our farmers will benefit from increasing global demand for protein during global up-cycles, but relying too heavily on this leaves us vulnerable to the ever-present threat of lower cost competition, and the swings and roundabouts of a global economy likely to become increasingly volatile.

There is overwhelming evidence that economies that actively align governance, policies and funding to secure environmental performance targets enjoy significant economic benefits as a result.

New Zealand's environmental credentials and economic prosperity can be simultaneously improved through a strategy whereby government commits to R&D, investment incentives and the development of a workforce skilled in the jobs required for low-carbon industry.

The Pure Advantage Trust has recently commissioned a group of world-leading economists to review New Zealand's green growth opportunities and make recommendations as to how we can build a greener, wealthier nation. We plan to release the group's findings early next year.

With a level of resolve and commitment similar to that shown by this country around the Rugby World Cup, New Zealand can create an economic future in which we are a leading exporter of high-value produce, renewable energy-based products and services and other environmentally conscious goods, with a top-tier in-bound tourism industry and a pristine environment that sits comfortably alongside growth and our national cultural values.

The time for change is now and we call on New Zealand's politicians to show bold leadership.

Phillip Mills is a trustee of Pure Advantage, a group of business leaders promoting green growth strategies for New Zealand. Other trustees include Rob Morrison, Lloyd Morrison, Sir Stephen Tindall, Joan Withers, Prof Sir Paul Callaghan, Jeremy Moon, Rob Fyfe, Chris Liddell, Sir George Fistonich, Geoff Ross and Justine Smyth.

- NZ Herald

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