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The problem with trickle-down sustainability

Dr Julie MacArthur

· Auckland Climathon

As Climathon approaches, it is timely to consider how the popular buzzword “sustainability”, as with “freedom” or “innovation”, can mask conflicting meanings. For some, the term is synonymous with “green” or environmentally friendly, while for others the focus is environmentally-efficient economic growth. Vague definitions and misunderstandings come back to bite citizens and policymakers alike as they struggle to improve how we operate in the world.

Current public and policy discussions about sustainability tend to focus on new technologies and how to fund them. They focus far less on issues of justice, representation, or power, assuming that an elite-led transition to electric vehicles or solar rooftops will eventually “trickle-down” to the masses. This political blind spot has significant consequences for the likelihood and durability of a widespread green transition for New Zealand.

Textbook definitions of sustainability usually refer to three key pillars: environmental, economic, and social. While Venn diagrams show these with equal weight, in reality the third pillar – social – is most often neglected. However, it is this neglected social pillar that enables policy change in the other two that lasts beyond an electoral cycle.

Commentators neglect the social sustainability element because issues of inequality, inclusion and diversity seem to stray into the fraught area of politics and ideology, rather than the safer territory of technical feasibility or affordability. It is easier (but by no means easy) to work out quantifiable technical details and leave the messy social issues to one side for someone else to sort out. There is broad consensus that we need to reduce New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions, which have increased sharply since 1990 particularly in transport and agriculture. The persistent challenge is how the social and economic institutions required to get us there will do it. Current policy approaches aren’t working.

Governments internationally are facing increases in populism, which affects the acceptability and durability of strong climate policies. It is driven sometimes by xenophobia, but also by distrust of economic and social elites, and frustration over the distribution of benefits in society. Research demonstrates that policies to price carbon, support electric vehicle uptake, or develop new renewable energy technologies like solar and wind, must be designed to address, not exacerbate, social problems. These populist movements illustrate the risks to sustainability advocates of ignoring the concerns of large segments of the population, and of not communicating complex issues clearly enough.

A green “trickle down” approach in the current context of deep inequality and social tensions is likely to galvanise opposition to green policies from those who could be allies.

Taking social sustainability seriously means ensuring, for example, that indigenous communities are centrally involved in new energy developments and not left behind the green energy revolution. It means ensuring that we don’t create policies that further privilege wealthy homeowners able to access insulation subsidies over increasingly left-behind renters. It means that we need to look to projects like RePower London and Brixton Energy in the UK, where tenants in social housing are trained in installing and benefit directly from new solar power installations.

Our research shows that there are many mechanisms to re-embed social sustainability in our policies and programmes. Fundamentally, we must ask questions about control – not just consultation – by women, by Māori, by renters and beneficiaries. Where are these groups placed in our sustainable green futures? Governance designs that enable benefits to be shared by a wide range of affected people bring with them enhanced legitimacy, trust and uptake.

In Canada, for example, the province of Ontario provided an extra financial subsidy for solar, wind and hydro power developments owned by First Nations communities. Farmers in Denmark and Germany have leveraged policies and developed local and collectively owned energy projects as part of a move toward energy democracy.

Few people know that in New Zealand more than 100 projects exist where citizens are generating, distributing and managing their own energy resources. The profits from these projects flow back to the community at large, in the form of energy trust dividend cheques, employment and local reinvestment in other community initiatives. Important questions are being asked about how and where these projects can best contribute to maximise their benefit and serve disadvantaged Kiwis. Still, these existing “community energy” projects illustrate that collective local ownership can and does work here.

These projects move us away from a focus on individual shareholders and profitability, to organisational designs that serve social as well as environmental and economic needs. We need to know so much more than we do, and are just beginning to understand the various models and participants, and how what we do in New Zealand compares with other countries.

Sustainable transitions are political and economic transitions. A green “trickle down” approach in the current context of deep inequality and social tensions is likely to galvanise opposition to green policies from those who could be allies. Citizens already insecure in our current system will be further disadvantaged compared to those with the social and financial resources to take part in the green shift. There’s a better way, but it can’t wait until after the projects are built and the policies are set.

Dr Julie MacArthur is a senior lecturer in politics and international relations in the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Arts. She specialises in environmental politics and energy policy.

This article first appeared on
Newsroom, an independent, New Zealand-based news and current affairs site.

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