Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse: 2010, in review

2010 was all about one question: how, exactly, does one balance economic opportunities with environmental responsibilities? It was a 'politic, cautious' year

In 2010, we heard a lot about ‘balancing economic opportunities with environmental responsibilities’. Also, 'doing our fair share'. The government did not much, cautiously. Sometimes that worked well for conservation. Other times, it didn't.

2010 began with one farce, at Copenhagen, and ended with another, at Cancun, where last year's 'achievements' seem to have been accidentally reannounced. Eighteen years on from the Rio ‘Earth Summit’, about climate change and biodiversity loss, the UN confirmed none of the biodiversity targets had been met.

So, it was another year in which we failed to save ourselves, or the whales. In the end, the thing most likely to save the whales may be a simple commercial decision, that Japanese whaling is not viable any more.

Carbon trading and sequestration were openly doubted by activists, who want, well, some actual action, not the evasive kind. Fossil carbon ought to be left in the ground, they said. Copenhagen pledges are inadequate: the political commitment is less than the science requires, at the low end, not that different from business-as-usual. Loopholes in the rules are also large enough to emit business-as-usual.

Climate change was only the biggest symptom of our other growth-based challenges. Peak oil. Biodiversity loss. How, in short, may we live within the laws of nature and mathematics.

Thank heaven for the global financial crisis. Whatever its evils, it helps. 2011 will be about which party has economic and social security policies for a world challenged by growth.

Some visionaries came to see us, and told us their ideas: David Suzuki, Tim Flannery, Nicholas Stern. Next year brings James Hansen, and his own ‘tax switch’.

The Green Party told us some of theirs. Kennedy Graham's Member's Bill, in the ballot, would see reporting on environmental indicators written into the Public Finance Act. He would put them, in other words, at the heart of the budget and policy process annually; the government would give them to the PCE, five-yearly. The Greens tried to debate sustainable economy.

And, in reply, the government trotted out its mantra: ‘balancing economic opportunities with environmental responsibilities’.

Here, by the way, is the new overseas investment policy: “The Government’s overall policy approach to overseas investment in sensitive New Zealand assets is to achieve a balance between ensuring those assets are adequately protected while facilitating overseas investment that provides benefits to New Zealand.”

In 2011, after 3 years' government, is it too much to expect something less trite? To ask: what’s the plan, for this century, not the last one? Alan Bollard and Jeremy Moon, among others, scoffed at catching Australia. Minerals like Australia, oil like Saudi Arabia, rare earths like China. What’s the plan for New Zealand?

In 2010 I wrote serial tributes to Jeanette Fitzsimons, who retired from Parliament in February. One of my posts could have been a lot shorter, three words would have done: ‘I MISS JEANETTE’.

I celebrated organics. Everyone wants the 'grassroots' cachet: the Greens though have managed a tough process of transition, since 2005, and survived.

But there are questions for them in 2011, too.

At their economic policy conference, there was talk of putting the environment first, in setting economic and social policy: ‘strong sustainability’, it was called. But, faced with the GST conundrum (a consumption, thus pollution, tax, as well as a regressive tax), they treated it like a straight choice, not a policy design problem. They complained bitterly about regressive effect, with no mention of good parts to it. 

They did so, arguably, with good political and policy reasons, even if some (ie, me) did not agree with them. Nonetheless, if the Greens choose to talk 'strong sustainability' next year, are they ready to practise it themselves, when they write their own policies, and vote on others'? 

Conservation Director-General Al Morrison gave a speech about the conservation business. His department’s statement of intent emerged quite different-looking, with a list of commercial priorities. Tim Groser was replaced by Kate Wilkinson as Conservation Minister, proving you should be careful what you wish for. It seemed the intrinsic value of conservation was a blindspot for this government.

David Cunliffe and Phil Goff were not blind to it.

Conservationists flocked to Twizel, and the Mokihinui River gorge. I wrote to George Monbiot, and he wrote back. Nick Smith called the Mackenzie 'iconic' and 'fragile', requiring the government to step in and protect it -- later, he changed his mind. We learned a bit more about how SOE Meridian does its business.

The BANANA (‘build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone‘) backlash against Meridian taught us: when it's the view from our window, even renewable energy -- especially renewable energy -- is not cost-free.

We ruminated over housing cows -- housing them in bad weather, or 8 months of the year, on "extraordinary scale" in the Mackenzie country. We moved away from pig confinement: sow crates will be phased out and banned. On sustainability and welfare issues, Fonterra was all mouth and no trousers: calf induction, their Chinese operations, water quality, palm kernel.

The Environment Minister said primary production is trumps for the economic future of New Zealand. 

We liked our national parks too much for that -- and Gerry Brownlee's flagellation isn't finished yet. In the heady fumes of diesel self-sufficiency, lignite seemed almost sexy: not just dirty coal, better left in the ground.

Pledges by Ministers Smith and Groser, to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees, were not matched by their colleagues' fossil-fuel based draft Energy Strategy, and some other strategies.

For example, we planted lots of trees, to offset Kyoto liability. But Bill English defended palm kernel imports, from an industry devastating rainforest in Indonesia, and the government voted down a Green unsustainable rainforest logging Customs and Excise Bill, leaving the public information campaign to others.

There were fine words, too, about defending consumers from the ETS, by halving its costs -- the same consumers who are also taxpayers, on to whom polluter subsidies were shifted.

I have not been a friend to Gerry Brownlee, on this blog this year. But in the end, I wonder if he is the only man among them with the balls, if you'll pardon me, to stand up for what he believes in, and say so, consistently.

The irony there, however, is: it was his more circumspect colleagues, that whittled the Schedule 4 proposals down. And further irony, that they cannot or will not perceive: their very economic caution and intransigence may be among our greatest economic, as well as environmental, risks.

So here, in four lines, is my last lament for 2010: 

Politic, cautious and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous --
Almost, at times, the Fool.
-- T S Eliot, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock