Is the cabinet going green? Read the big print

Is the cabinet going green? You might think so when Finance Minister Bill English drops into the National party’s Bluegreens ginger group conference to make the announcement that there is to be a green growth advisory group.

Does that mean Environment Minister Nick Smith, who first proposed this group a year ago, has slipped sandals on the dour Southlander? And look whose name was with English’s and Smith’s on the press release? Dig-it-all-up-quick Gerry Brownlee, Economic Development Minister.

All they all tree-huggers now? Who’s minding the shop?

Then note what else was announced at Saturday’s Bluegreens conference: a draft national policy statement on biodiversity, which the Clark government, claiming to be greener than National, couldn’t produce in its nine years.

Add three new marine reserves surrounding sub-Antarctic islands where “recent research shows that diversity compares with … the Galapagos islands” — Labour stalled on marine reserves. Next, in a day featuring more bigwigs than the usual tokenism at a Bluegreens show, a restated 2050 target of 50 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions.

Then, to cap it off: new air quality regulations.

Oops. That last one actually dilutes existing law. Not so green so fast.

Smith says the existing deadlines are unachievable, except at unacceptably heavy cost to industry and so to government revenue and the general standard of living.

So instead of all places having to ensure by 2013 no more than one day a year exceeding pollution limits, medium polluting areas will have until 2016 and bad ones until 2020.

That means, Labour’s Charles Chauvel reckons, “635 avoidable deaths, 505 unnecessary hospital admissions and over 1 million extra sick days”. That is, of course, an economic cost besides a cost to affected individuals.

Smith prefers dollar calculations: the economic cost drops from $867 million to $196 million and health benefits fall “slightly from $1911 million to $1746 million”.

Chauvel’s and Smith’s numbers are impressively fine-tuned: 635, not 640, $196 million, not $195 million. Public service forecast-modellers are coming along well under Rodney Hide’s drive for cost-benefit precision.

Smith has also come up with an economic instrument: a mandatory offset regime for new industrial consents in polluted areas — to add to pollution a firm will have to pay to have someone else to reduce theirs, especially households, which do 60 per cent of the polluting.

Behind this is the notion of “balance”. So the biodiversity statement — which notes that this country’s unusual and unique ecosystems have “been described as the closest scientists will come to studying life on another planet” (except that we have been studiously extinguishing species fast for 700 years) — aims to “help decision-makers appropriately balance the protection of biodiversity, the interests and values of tangata whenua, the rights and responsibilities of landowners and the broader national interests that may be at stake in future resource management decision-making”.

What is to be balanced? The environment and the economy. Iwi have economic development as well as spiritual interests, landowners have property rights and economic development interests besides stewardship inclinations and the nation wants to be rich as well as unique.

The national policy statement, its preamble says, “is intended to be weighed along with other considerations”.

So the “environment-or-the-economy” blue is there alongside the “environment-and-the-economy” green (“hand-in-hand” is Smith’s formulation). Bluegreen is distinct from Labour and lightyears from Green co-leader Russel Norman’s “smart economics” speech on Sunday. National’s economic policy is “bludging off our grandkids”, he said, insisting that “when we look after our environment” (with market signals and regulation), “we look after our economy”.

Ah, but, there is the green growth advisory group. It is not the working group or taskforce Smith flagged a year ago. But its establishment suggests a step towards an environment-and-economy line. The focus, English said, is “to build a faster growing economy” by leveraging the clean-green brand, developing clean technology and moving to a lower-carbon economy.

But it will report in December, seven months after the big OECD green growth report, so it will trail, not lead, international thinking. And it: must not evaluate government programmes or reviews; must not get involved in the detail of issues with “other venues”, such as water; must not duplicate any work by the government or other advisory groups or forums (such as the emissions trading scheme and waste); and must not investigate “fiscal policy interventions” such as green taxes.

And it will report to Brownlee and Smith, not English.

Bluegreen is still safely more blue than green. But, with Business New Zealand’s Phil O’Reilly chairing, some high in the cabinet think the group might get momentum. You might call that green growth.