Another green growth report

By Bill Kaye-Blake 14/11/2012

The industry advocacy group Pure Advantage has released another report. When I tried to download the report or the executive summary, it insisted on an email address. This seemed a bit strange, a bit controlling, frankly.

The report runs to about 300 pages. I have not read it, and doubt that I will. Long reports are generally silly wastes of time. Very few people read them, the key messages get lost in verbiage, and they are difficult to make consistent.

I am, however, a little jealous. My rule of thumb is that it costs $800 to $1,000 per page to do a piece of research. A $40,000 project typically results in a 40-ish-page final report. A 300-page report? You do the math. And who got the assignment? Vivid Economics, a London-based consultancy. Sigh.

I did, however, read the executive summary. Here are a few observations, in no particular order and with no real coherence:

  • They recommend that New Zealand increase its science spending. This has been recommended for years. What isn’t in the exec summ is that the government is basically contributing near the OECD average. The real weakness is business expenditure on R&D (BERD). The businesspeople who are trustees of Pure Advantage should look to the private sector first, rather than lobbying the government for more money.
  • The recommendations for agriculture aren’t all that novel. The CRIs are, in fact, working on the issues of greenhouse gases, energy efficiency, and water efficiency. These are difficult problems. More money would help, yes, but that’s true about everything.
  • The recommendation for aquaculture is similarly too little and too late. The Government is already working on it, and getting assistance from the research sector. The problem — as vividly shown in the NZ King Salmon hearing, in which I was involved — is that economic growth is in conflict with other values. Some people want to live in a tranquil, waterfront property without an aquaculture farm nearby. Should they? What’s it worth to them? What’s it worth to the rest of us? These trade-offs need to be discussed and resolved.
  • They suggest that green growth can be good for the environment and good for business. That argument always takes me to the question, ‘why hasn’t it happened already?’
  • Overall, the idea of the clean, green image (CGI) for New Zealand is highly contested. Opinions differ on whether it is really valuable, how fragile it is, and whether it represents anything ‘true’. When we talk about CGI, we are entering the realm of the symbolic, of semiotics and language, and how it relates to economic decisions. I would love — LOVE — to do that research. Wait, no, I have been trying to get that sort of research funded in New Zealand for close to ten years.

Bottom line: the report seems to be a re-tread of well-known issues with a recommendation to spend more public money to help private businesses. When it comes to really difficult issues — what trade-offs are we willing to make? how do consumers symbolise environmental values through economic transactions? — it seem to fall silent. Maybe somewhere in those 300 pages they grapple with the hard stuff. If so, Pure Advantage will have gotten its money’s worth.