By Murray Hogarth

Global economies move in strange ways. From an environmental sustainability perspective, more and more observers are saying, Paul-Keating-like, that the current savage global economic downturn after a long boom is a recession we had to have.

So what is the green lining to this dark economic cloud? Three crucial things have happened in the past 12 months:

The recession sucked unsustainable momentum out of indiscriminate, environmentally-damaging global growth, at least for a while

The building of a green economy with new jobs, investment, innovation, technologies and even consumer behaviours emerged as a fundamental component of today’s prescriptions for economic stimulus and the longed-for recovery, and

The idea of a new green economy began morphing into a more far-reaching discussion about transforming the whole economy to deliver a low-carbon, low- eco-impact and sustainable society.

In Australia, for nearly two years the presumption of a Rudd Government national emissions trading regime has dominated sustainability thinking and debate. However, with Labor’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) delayed and hanging in the political balance, what happens if its falls through altogether? What do we do then?

Is there a realistic Plan B? If we don’t have the market setting a price on carbon pollution and helping entrepreneurs, inventors, and investors to get behind new-era solutions and closing down old infrastructure, then who or what will?

From energy to transport, water to waste, and buildings to broadband, the emerging green economy is much more than a single policy measure, even one as major as the CPRS.

As well as emissions trading or a carbon tax of some kind, a strategic approach to having a green economy should extend to the 20 per cent by 2020 Renewable Energy Target, Minimum Environmental Performance Standards, the current review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, the National Electricity Market, the tax system via the Henry Review, government agency structures, national environmental reporting, industry plans (such as car industry assistance), the national broadband network, energy efficiency, waste policy, product bans, regulation, grants, and state and local programs and policies.

We need a vibrant mainstream economic policy dialogue that engages the big institutions and policy-making forums including the Council of Australian Governments and leading economic agencies: How do we define the green economy? Who’s driving it? What’s working and what’s holding us back? And when can we expect real change, with or without the CPRS?

Already there are hopeful signs that Australia and the world are starting to claw their way out of the first global recession of the sustainability era. While for the first time in the history of world economic recoveries so-called green stimulus has become a powerful theme from Washington DC to Beijing, and from Canberra to local councils.

The early signs or green shoots are positive. Green investment, green innovation and green jobs are now part of a mainstream dialogue in business, trade unions and at every level of government – civic, state and national.

Some of the best brains in the nation and the world are focusing on serious dissections of what we can and should do, and how to break down the barriers to green change.

Yet no matter how inspiring it sounds, this new green economy just isn’t going to happen without a lot of nurturing. Far-reaching, market-shaping transformations like an emissions trading scheme are part of the picture. But only part! We must fast-track new infrastructure, both physical and social. New technologies and technology paths have to be tested and deployed, and existing ones retired or rethought.

Behaviour change at consumer, community and corporate levels also is a critical factor, and the whole paradigm of a fossil fuel-based global economy has to be overhauled and replaced.
Instead of band-aid, ad hoc or simplistic solutions, we need systemic ones that treat complex issues like energy, carbon, water, consumption, waste, mobility and communications as interrelated rather than disconnected, and as cultural as well as technological and financial.

Green Capital is engaging leading thinkers and doers from the public, private and community sectors to rate Australia’s progress and help to clear the path for change.

Murray Hogarth is a business environmentalist and senior adviser to Green Capital, the corporate sustainability program of the Total Environment Centre, which holding its ‘Emerging Green Economy’ events in Melbourne on August 27 and Sydney in September 10 (www.greencapital.org.au)