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Time for green growth to take centre stage

Green growth is gaining traction in Europe, and it's time New Zealand followed suit, Auckland University's head of economics says.

Speaking at the Talking Science panel last night, Professor Basil Sharp said the UN, OECD, and World Bank were increasingly focusing on green growth strategies and had ongoing programmes to measure progress.

While GDP functions as a measure of economic growth, Sharp says it fails to capture environmental degradation and depletion of natural resources. Being green is about more than just low greenhouse emissions – it's about working within ecological constraints.

"The challenge is to add value through knowledge-packed innovations while sustaining the functioning and quality of our ecosystems."

So what is green growth, exactly? Sharp says it is about both GDP growth and sustainability. But economic realities mean private companies are failing to innovate, despite the fact that those with good IP are enjoying better returns.

"Some people in the industry say it's moving so fast, it's a race to get stuff out to the market. It's like being on a treadmill."

Universities and research organisations can help fill that gap.

"The role of science is pivotal to the future," he says. Kiwis are well educated in the sciences and we have 63 researchers per 1000 workers in New Zealand, compared to the OECD average of 44. We also produce more than our share of the world's scientific publications, particularly in environmental, agricultural and biological sciences.

But Sharp warns there's no step change and no silver bullet, and net emissions are due to increase in coming years due to harvesting of forests.

While Professor Stuart Bradley is sceptical about achieving the government's goal of 90 percent renewable energy by 2020, he says wind energy can certainly step up to the plate and could potentially generate 20 percent of that, up from the 4 percent it is currently sitting at. Strides are being made in the form of larger turbines, real-time control mechanisms and remote sensing, and other small but not necessarily rich countries like Denmark and Portugal are doing wind well.

Professor Grant Covic, involved in the development of inductive power transfer technology, says the best efficiencies can be found in electric and renewable forms of electricity. Good growing conditions also make the development of biofuels an attractive opportunity.

According to associate professor James Wright, green chemistry is another area of sustainable technology that's coming into its own. That would be products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances, for example, pesticides (see Greentide story in the latest Idealog). 

And as he says, ultimately that's good for companies' PR and reduces their potential liabilities.