Science - Time for a rethink

By: Ralph Cooney

Covid-19 has provided humanity with a pause to consider the status quo and hopefully to make both short-term and longer-term adjustments for a better and brighter future.

The most obvious learning from Covid-19 and the earlier SARS and MERS pandemics is that these events are likely to recur regularly (perhaps every decade) in the future. Many Governments have had to develop urgent pandemic management strategies under duress. This Covid-19 pandemic will have taught the international community a great deal about managing similar future pandemic events. The New Zealand Government has received plaudits from many international sources for its leadership and, specifically, for the clarity of its strategy and consistent communication during the crisis. There is an urgent need now to restore the economy of New Zealand and to minimise the damage to organisations caused by the unavoidable strangulation of cashflow during Covid-19.

There is an ongoing need for both short-term and long-term strategies to start on a new track towards more sustainable development, especially regarding climate change. The temporary reduction of atmospheric pollutants in the European Union, caused by reduced combustion of fossil fuels associated with reduced road and air travel during Covid-19, demonstrates what is possible in the short term. These improvements should confirm to the global community that with strong motivation, key climate change factors can be minimised relatively quickly.

There are some grounds for some longer-term optimism regarding sustainability and climate change. The advent of electric vehicles, electric planes and electric vessels over the coming two decades will contribute substantially and positively to an improved climate change status. At the same time, a reduction in coal power is evident in many countries, including even the USA under the current administration. This encouraging trend is offset by the increased use of thermal coal in the industrial development of China and India. The other difficult global challenge is the projected increase in the population of the planet from about 7 billion at present to about 11 billion in 2100, with this growth being mainly in Africa and Asia. This population increase raises the serious question of growth limits for a planet of finite resources, and where already 40 per cent of its population live in extreme poverty.

This is a good time to address the question of best practice models for future sustainable economic development in New Zealand. Many New Zealand companies already promote higher sustainability practice. We now need to think beyond our leading trading partners – China, Australia and the USA. Circumstances are right for New Zealand to explore new dimensions of sustainable economic development, inspired by the most innovative countries, with a special focus on smaller countries with populations similar to New Zealand. The Scandinavian countries (Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden) as well as some of our Asia-Pacific neighbours (Singapore and Taiwan) have much to offer us in terms of new economic ideas and high environmental values.  

Emeritus Professor Ralph Cooney


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