What could our national budgets look like if we took the serious threats of energy and material resource use as seriously as Covid? Jack Santa Barbara has a number of ideas. 

Which of the following diagnoses would receive most of your attention: a seriously broken ankle that could potentially impact your activities for many years, or a bout of cancer that will significantly shorten your life if dramatic steps are not taken swiftly to stop its spread? 

By analogy, both kinds of diagnoses have been made according to our planetary doctors, our scientists. The dual diagnosis is analogous to the situation we are now dealing with regarding both the Covid epidemic (the ankle part) and a series of related existential threats (the cancer part) that have longer-term but no less certain disastrous outcomes. 

New Zealand has handled the broken ankle scenario extremely well. There is very little Covid-19 in the community and life here is much more free and relaxed than almost anywhere else. But with respect to the more serious cancer scenario, not so good.

There are several existential threats increasing daily that we are not taking as seriously as the broken ankle diagnosis. There are two overarching steps required to make the dramatic interventions necessary to ensure these threats do not risk the continuance of our complex human civilisation: dramatic reductions in both energy and material resource use.

Both energy and material resource use have grown exponentially over the past few decades. Both levels of consumption exceed sustainable levels by wide margins. New Zealand is one of the highest per capita consumers of energy globally, and the same is true regarding our consumption of both renewable and non-renewable material resources. Climate change is the most prominent of these existential threats, caused by our very high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, largely due to our transportation and agricultural practices.

The evil twins of energy and material resource overshoot are closely related. Without the almost magical powers derived from fossil fuels we would not be able to consume so much in material resources. We are heading into an era where less use of fossil fuels is essential to avoid climate disaster. But we are assuming we can more or less continue using up natural resources with renewable energy technologies. 

Disturbingly, many of our proposed solutions to the climate crisis involve massive use of natural resources. For example, converting the global vehicle fleet to EVs. The mining required for the materials to make this transition would require the use of so much fossil fuel it would push the climate beyond the safe operating space of no more than a 1.5C degree increase in global temperature. Replacing the global vehicle fleet will significantly contribute to both types of overshoot.

Governments and the public are beginning to grasp the necessity of moving away from fossil fuels. But there seems to be little recognition of the equal necessity of planning to reduce overall natural material use as well. In fact, some of the proposed climate solutions will make the material overshoot worse, as mentioned above.

What would the Budget look like if our Government took the cancer analogy seriously?

Here are just some of the needed high-level criteria of what a national budget could do to deal with the serious risks of continuing on a business as usual path.

Sustainability Commission: Establishing a Sustainability Commission or Parliamentary Committee to identify the risks and opportunities for New Zealand to reduce energy and material resource use would be an important step in beginning the process of taking the existential threats seriously. Such a commission or committee might eventually integrate the current Climate Change Commission, as climate change is clearly one of the serious threats we face.  It would also integrate an intergenerational perspective, as well as the rights of other species.

Government transparency and accountability: Setting clear targets regarding how we deal with the existential threats that we face is important, as is achieving them. Systematic reporting and public accountability for targets is critical for dealing with serious risks, as we have learned from the Covid experience.

Public education: High priority could be given to investing in public knowledge of the facts regarding our energy and material overshoot. The science is clear but not widely known. Our increasingly unsustainable practices are even more of a threat to our wellbeing than the Covid epidemic and more public education is essential to support the multi-layered transition required to approach genuine ecological sustainability.  Being satisfied with simply making things less unsustainable is no longer acceptable given the urgency and irreversibility of the risks we face.

Public participation in decision-making: The kinds of dramatic interventions needed to deal with the evil overshoot twins must go beyond party politics and special interests. No one has all the answers to how to deal with the unprecedented threats we face. Genuine widespread participation is likely to do much better than leaving it solely to elected officials or public servants.  Citizens’ Assemblies are one method of encouraging genuine dialogue and achieving consensus based on common interests and hard evidence. Government funding of Citizens Assemblies around New Zealand would be a very constructive way of engaging citizens in planning for the dramatic interventions needed.

Reduced energy demand: A similar high-priority item is reducing energy demand across all sectors. Since we are one of the highest per capita energy users in the world the necessity of reducing fossil fuels as much and as soon as possible is a high priority. The fact we waste enormous amounts of energy engaging in activities that do not directly contribute to human wellbeing (e.g. driving when we can walk or cycle) provide an opportunity to innovate ways of meeting our needs without overshoot. We need to be thinking of how much wellbeing we can generate from every unit of energy consumed. 

Transitioning to renewable energy systems is part of this approach. But renewables have their own limitations we need to acquaint ourselves with. Otherwise we will make the mistake of assuming renewables can simply be substituted for fossil fuels and nothing else much needs to change. This assumption is common but dead wrong. Funding research to understand the limitations of renewables in this country is critical to inform government, business and community investments in renewable technologies. Left to the private sector, new energy technologies will be based on profit opportunities, and as we know from the history of fossil fuels this is not the same as investing in ecologically sustainable technologies.

Reduced natural resource use: Given New Zealand’s per capita consumption of natural resources is way beyond sustainable levels, we need a wide range of innovations to meet basic human needs with less and less material resources. Government support of research and development focused on both energy and material use reduction should be a big ticket item.

A related expenditure approach is to stop funding projects that consume large amounts of energy and/or materials that are not essential to human wellbeing (see Treasury’s Living Standards Framework for inspiration). More highway construction comes to mind, as does airport expansion, as examples of areas for reduced funding. The New Zealand Upgrade Programme could redirect road funding to redesigning our urban areas to promote active transport as a priority, as well as facilitating the uptake of truly convenient public transport. Expanding rail and coastal shipping also makes sense.

Community housing: Funding for a major building programme for community housing on government-owned land, with buildings designed to be passive solar where possible, would go a long way to dealing with both the housing and child poverty crises. These homes should be attractive, modest, comfortable, durable, and widely available. Many nations provide large-scale government rental programmes to ensure citizens have adequate and well-maintained housing. Such a project is an example of getting the most wellbeing from energy and material use.

Population issues: Our overall impact on nature is determined by how much we consume. Obviously, if we have a limit to how much material and energy we can consume without destroying nature’s operating systems, there is a relationship between the number of people doing the consuming and the amount of per capita consumption each of us can enjoy. Investment should be made to determine the optimal population for New Zealand and how we get there.

The Wellbeing Budget: New Zealand is exemplary in that it has begun a wellbeing approach to national budgets, something only a few progressive nations have done. Society wellbeing has long been the aim of budgets developed to ensure economic growth, a rather indirect approach to wellbeing. We are now increasingly aware that a more direct wellbeing focus for budget decisions will allow us to more efficiently achieve wellbeing without some of the costly consequences of a focus solely on economic growth per se. We need growth in wellbeing, without growth in energy or material consumption. Such a future is possible if we are clever enough.

Many of these changes will not be easy. But hey, what’s life without some meaningful challenges?

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