Not cleaning up on clean-tech

This month, if he sticks to plan, Environment Minister Nick Smith will announce a working group on clean-tech, modelled loosely on the tax working group. He started talking about it in February.

Back in June Singapore, roughly New Zealand’s economic and population size, announced a $US700 million (around $NZ1 billion) programme of research into clean technologies. New Zealand’s commitments so far are at most a fiftieth of that.

And Singapore is small beer. South Korea, not the cleanest-greenest place, announced midyear $US85 billion of loans to companies for strategic development, focusing on green growth. And that’s small beer beside badly polluted China’s massive renewable energy programmes.

This is a league New Zealand is not in. John Key has habitually talked of “balance”, which implies a zero-sum calculation that more environment equals less economic growth and vice-versa.

It’s not quite as simple as that.

As Minister of Tourism, Key has been getting a message that wholesalers are insisting on operators here meeting some environmental standards.

Too much dairying polluting too many waterways will discourage tourists who come here for trout fishing or to celebrate a “100 per cent pure”, “clean-green” place. Damming rivers to irrigate more dry land for cows will reduce the number of wild rivers for kayaking tourists.

Trout fishers and kayakers are high-revenue tourists: they represent economic growth by lifting value. Chinese in buses and Australians on a cheap stay with relatives are low-revenue tourists: economic growth by expanding volume.

For real-wage-lifting tourism growth more water for more dairy farms has to come in ways that do not deplete waterways and groundwater or lead to their pollution.

Agriculture Minister David Carter is generally on farmers’ side, having been one. But he has also given farmers blunt messages of their need for far stronger action to cut waterways pollution.

Carter knows, and Key understands — he did, after all, back Smith in resisting heavy pressure from Business New Zealand and Federated Farmers to delay the emissions trading scheme — that, as some put it, “the new regulators are the big retail chains”.

Unilever gets that. It has a sustainability programme which it claims has over 15 years cut carbon emissions in its factories by 40 per cent, water by 65 per cent and total waste by 73 per cent for each tonne of output. It aims to double its output while reducing overall environmental impact. It has published a 76-page “sustainable agriculture code”.

Dairy farmers who don’t get the message will at some point fall behind the game. Forestry companies are getting to know they have to meet tough international standards to make premium sales. There is now a world water alliance of big companies and NGOs.

Smith understands this. In the 1990s National cabinet he and Simon Upton were lone environmentalist voices. In 2002 the Blue Greens National ginger group Smith championed was a minor strand, with three MP members. Now it has 18 MPs and attracts a sizable annual conference.

But it has yet to seriously influence core government policy.

One reason is the primacy the government gives, including in research funding, to economic growth and economic growth lobbies generally see clean-tech more as cost than opportunity. A second is that Bill English is sceptical and has a tight grip on state finances that could fund research and joint projects.

New Zealand Trade and Enterprise’s clean-tech arm is not lavishly funded. The Conservation Department has set up a business development division under Blue Green founder Rob Fenwick but DoC is on the periphery of government policy.

The message so far: if clean-tech is to take off in New Zealand the private sector will have to get there pretty much on its own — or in cahoots with foreigners who see an opportunity to piggy-back on the 100 per cent pure brand.

Turning that message round is the job for Smith’s working group. It’s a big job.