A “green” economy is the only realistic way to reverse environmental damage while improving living standards, says a visiting public policy expert.
Professor Daniel Fiorino, a leading writer on environmental and public policy issues at the American University in Washington, DC, was in New Zealand as the second Sir Frank Holmes Visiting Fellow. The fellowship is run by the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies.
In his lecture, Fiorino said a green economy allowed people to achieve their aspirations while respecting “the finite limits of ecosystems”. It was a “creative middle ground” between the traditional oppositions of environmentalism that argued for no or reduced growth, and the view that environmental limits could be continually expanded.
Research indicated that if just 2% of world GDP was invested in green growth, it would be enough to create an economy in which growth was achieved within ecological limits, Fiorino said. A green economy could, if done right, create more and better jobs than the traditional “brown” economy.
The key points of a green economy included valuing “natural capital” and the “services” it provides, such as the water purifying carried out by freshwater eco-systems; integrating the economy and the environment in decision-making; and ensuring environmental considerations entered into “all aspects” of human and economic life.
Fiorino said a green economy recognised that many parts of the natural world had great economic value: for instance, the global value of insect pollinators, such as bees, was estimated at US$200 billion.
Claims made for the green economy did possess a “have your cake and eat it too” quality, he admitted, which made some people doubt its validity.
It was often criticised for being too human-centric and valuing nature only when it benefitted humans economically, rather than for its intrinsic worth. It could also been seen, from the left of politics, as legitimising capitalism and a way to avoid radical change – or even as a kind of “greenwash”.
It was also “derided” by some on the right of politics because it implied a more active government, and – by embracing some form of economic growth – took away the right’s ability to claim that environmentalists opposed progress.
But in fact, it was “the only realistic path to reversing eco-system degradation” while allowing some kind of growth, Fiorino said.
A more radical “de-growth” agenda, while suitable for some environmental issues, was not “politically feasible”, in the United States at least. In contrast, a “relative decoupling” of the environment and the economy would allow for policies like carbon taxes, energy efficiency standards, removing subsidies for activities like irrigation, emission and effluent trading, and incorporating social harm into the cost of resources.
“This strategy of relative decoupling is absolutely essential if we are to live a good life on a finite planet.”
Fiorino added that he was encouraged by recent US poll results showing more people were seeking a life “in which being wealthy is no longer the sole measure” of success.