Robyn Parker and Rob Stokes

By Tina Perinotto

20 September 2012 – Audience members at the Total Environment Centre’s Green Capital forum last Thursday morning in Sydney had a wake up call on the diversity of opinion on environmental issues starting to come through from the O’Farrell Government in NSW.

While pro mining and confusing –  if not outright dubious coastal planning policies – were announced by one side of government early in the week, Treasurer Mike Baird, Environment Minister Robyn Parker and Parliamentary Secretary for Renewable Energy Rob Stokes, showed a different face.

It comprised a sophisticated and intelligent understanding of the issues behind the subject of the forum, Where to for the Green Economy?

NSW Treasurer Mike Baird set the positive tone.

The week before the state government had released the Renewable Energy Action Plan with an estimated 6000 new jobs for NSW, especially in regional areas.

“What state treasurers wouldn’t be interested in pursuing that?” Baird said.

There was also Bloomberg’s estimate of $36 billion of clean energy investment possible by 2020.

Mike Baird

“That’s an amazing figure and one you would welcome with both arms,” he said.

“We want to play a sign role in capturing some of that investment and some of those jobs and some of the renewable future.”

Environment Minister Robyn Parker has already signalled to the sustainable property industry that she is on side and she re-iterated her support for more energy efficient buildings. NABERS was an important tool in this, she said.

On a definition of a green economy, Parker said her view was that it was one that delivers improvements in social equity, environmental risks and ecological scarcity.

The green economy was “low carbon – it’s resource efficient and it’s socially inclusive,” Parker said.

But she gently but firmly rejected the suggestion that hers was a conservative government.

“I challenge Jeff [Angel, chief executive of the TEC) calling us a conservative government. We don’t see ourselves as conservative, we see ourselves as reformist. But we do very clearly see ourselves in the space of the triple bottom line.”

Parker said that extended to embracing some of the programs from the former Labor government.

“We’re building on some of the things that the last government in my space initiated.

“We do, in the political space, beat each other up frequently for past mistakes.

“But I must say there are some programs commenced in the last government that I am excited to be taking on and championing. And they are the programs that look at getting that balance right and getting good outcomes.”

This included programs for business sustainability, energy efficiency programs to support small businesses and support for aged care and range of other business support.

Stokes picked up the cue on the politics of green.

He was worried, he said, by how conservatives are assumed to be anti environmental and that The Greens have assumed a mandate on environmental issues.

“In relation to conservative, that’s not a word we seek to apply to ourselves,” he said.

“Words get captured and words get politicised.

“I think it’s a problem that someone concerned about the environment is therefore a Green voter.

“I think it’s unfair of The Greens that they claimed this space and non-one else can talk about it.

“The concern is that it’s become a battleground to support or oppose rather than a common issue we all have to address.”

Stokes questioned also questioned the concept of a green economy and of sustainable products.

“A green economy is largely tautological because any economic system is comprised of the inputs that go into it and that comprises natural resources and people,” he said.

“The challenge is we’re using resource in a way that by the time we finished using them there is less of them and even sustainable products are generally created using power generated unsustainably.”

And that’s a problem, he said, because the concept of economically sustainable development is “more a vision of where we want to be and not a reflection of what we are capable of achieving right at the moment”.

Do any of us particularly want to change the way we live?

Probably not, he said. And this was “inherently unfair on future generations because they won’t have the same opportunity”.

Finally, on the panel, was Miriam Lyons, executive director, Centre for Policy Development and NSW chief scientist and engineer Mary O’Kane.

Lyons said we needed to look at a green economy as one that livede within its means.

“It’s one that flourishes within the boundaries set with nature, not drawing down from on natural capital but living on the income from it.”

O’Kane, in the news recently for her newly released report examining the previous Labor Government’s sea level rise benchmarks for the state, was of the view that the way forward was incremental projects rather than big flagship projects.

“Flagship projects are great but we need to look more to incremental change where yo do b hybrid and brown energy,” she said.

Geothermal heat was another idea that was expensive to set up but could be ideal in the longer term for large projects and precincts.

Lyons commented: “Climate change is really breathing down our necks and we’re getting close to an irreversible tipping point.”

If we achieved all our targets world wide right now we would get to not much below business as usual. “That puts us on a path to 4 degrees warming and that’s the gateway to runaway climate change.”

We need to be thinking of the most rapid transition possible, Lyons said.

“Technologically we have what it takes. It is physically realistic.

“We don’t need to wait for any technical ingenuity to be able to do this.”

The transition was already on the path to being much cheaper than what we have expected in the past.

Summing up, Ben Waters director, ecomagination, GE Australia and New Zealand, said he was continually surprised by the negativity. And the tone of the discussion in relation to climate change.

“Let’s get more optimistic and talk it up, not just harp on about the threats and the costs,” Waters said.

“High environmental standards are good for business.”