Interview

Q+A: Peg Putt on ‘decoupling’ economic growth to save the climate

If “green growth” is an oxymoron, what are the solutions?
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JAKARTA, Indonesia (12 May 2014) — The concept of “green growth” is an oxymoron, said a delegate involved in discussions about how Asia might best shift to a green economy at the Forests Asia Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia.

We must decouple economic growth from material consumption and the use and abuse of natural resources, urged Peg Putt, a former parliamentarian and Green Party leader in the Australian state of Tasmania, speaking at a session titled “Green Growth in Southeast Asia“.

“Escalating demands on the planet’s limited resources are obviously going to end in tears — we’re already seeing very bad effects all over the world — the presumption that we can continue to have our lifestyles and fix it all with technology is a massive assumption to make and I don’t know if it’s correct,” she said.

Putt, currently chief executive of the anti-logging group Markets for Change, discussed her views on the sidelines of the conference, which attracted more than 2,300 delegates from around the world, organizers said, including Indonesia’s outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, government officials, representatives from non-governmental organizations and top forestry experts.

Q: When Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), spoke to the delegation he underpinned the urgency of addressing issues surrounding climate change. You have said the concept of green growth is an oxymoron, but what then is the solution?

A: Climate change is the result of a massive failure in terms of the way our economy is working and that’s one of the key things we have to rectify. Obviously, we have to green up what we do — we have to become more efficient. To that extent, obviously green growth is really important. It’s the issue of consumption that I wanted to make a point of — and wildly inappropriate overconsumption happening in developed countries and for that matter in the emerging middle classes across a lot of large Asian cities, this is also something to be tackled, you can’t just do it all from the supply side, you have to think about how you can work on demand.

Q: Why are people discussing green growth and green economy now?

A: There’s been a dawning awareness that it’s “all hands on deck” and that’s partly to do with the latest IPCC report. It’s also to do with agitation in the marketplace by environmental groups and the effects that’s had in relation to company brand and reputation. Also — very importantly — people in business are people. They have families, and they have grandchildren and they live in places that they care about. They’ve influenced companies to want to do things differently simply because it’s the right thing to do — because it’s ethical or because it’s going to make for a better planet for their children. People are speaking like this here — there are companies that are making such moves. It’s good for business. People will remember the names of the early movers who get the accolades. They’re the ones who are going to do well in he markets, those who are laggards are going to get a bad reputation.

Q: How do you create a green economy?

A: We need to reverse the presumption that you get money for removing things — like chopping down trees and digging up a place and taking resources away. We need to find a way to deliver money for keeping the ecosystem there — learning to value environmental services because they are real and they actually do have real monetary value, for example.

Q: Is there a role for “green bonds” as Mark Burrows, Credit Suisse Group’s vice-chairman of investment banking across the Asia Pacific, suggested during his speech?

A: Green bonds are absolutely a good idea — one of the big problems that we have is that governments cannot generate enough money to deal with climate and environmental issues. We need to get that finance scaled up urgently so that we can begin to seriously and rapidly address these problems – it has to be generated in the private sector and that is one pretty good tool for doing that.

Q: Burrows also said that we need the private sector to drive government policy, we need to set a minimum wage to eliminate poverty, and that the free market must drive this exercise. Do the poor benefit from such an approach?

A: Can the business community design this in such a way that ordinary people can invest in bonds and know they are making a contribution?  Can they at the same time be careful of social and ecological considerations that we haven’t routinely thought of as primary goals? (Burrows) seemed to have a coherent vision of how it would work. A lot of what he said was compelling — the truth is going to be in trying to implement and seeing where we go. We need to further explore, just what he said and how that might work.

Q: How do you lessen greenhouse gas emissions, but provide market incentives and enable a framework for the private sector? How do you encourage private investors to invest in the U.N.-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) and other forestry initiatives?

A: The Peruvian Minister for the Environment, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal (who will serve as host and president of the 2014 U.N. climate talks in Lima, Peru) said that we’ve thought about the land as a mechanism. He said we haven’t really thought about precise objectives in relation to where we want to go to with land in a climate agreement. That has to change because 25 percent of emissions occurring at the moment are coming out of the land sector. Essentially, what I heard him to be saying is that we have to act across all sectors and have objectives and see the land in that context. That means that we have to pull in money in various ways. There might be a REDD+ mechanism but there also needs to be delivery of funds that’s not simply about offsetting — it’s just about doing the job in the place to reduce emissions, often by keeping a particular ecosystem intact.

We do need to account for what we’re doing. Keeping the carbon there is the objective (to keep global warming in check). Building up carbon in degraded areas is also the objective. How much harvested wood ends up in solid products that actually endure for any period of time? There’s some there and that’s good, but there’s an awful lot more that just ends up in the atmosphere fairly rapidly and the processes that have begun by the incursions of those ecosystems or the release of soil carbon can go on for a very long time even when trees are growing back. When we are looking at peat land systems it’s absolutely catastrophic.

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Topic(s) :   Peruvian Amazon