What’s green & what’s greenwash?

How do we know what’s green and what’s greenwash?

The green mantra is reduce, reuse and recycle.

It ought to be safe to claim reducing our use of limited resources and our impact on the environment is green.

Reusing and recycling aren’t so clear-cut.

Reusing some things can be better for the environment than chucking them in the rubbish – providing whatever needs to be done to make them reusable has a lower environmental footprint than dumping.

But that isn’t always the case.

Take reusable shopping bags and the so-called single use plastic ones for example.

 It’s counterintuitive, but  are far more energy efficient than any of the other options. Paper’s out – it causes seven times more global warming than a plastic bag reused as a bin liner. A cotton bag would have to be used 327 times to break even with plastic, and trendy “organic” cloth bags are hopelessly inefficient.


You also have to take into account what people use in place of the single-use plastic bags.

. . .The supermarket chains can’t believe their luck. The overseas experience suggests they’re about to receive a massive boost in the sale of bin liners, which they essentially gave away for free all these years, and come out of the whole thing looking like heroes, despite potentially making global warming worse. . . 

However, it’s not that simple. An environmental footprint takes into account more than the energy and emissions used to produce and dispose of it.

What happens to the bags when they’re no long wanted also has an impact as the number of plastic bags littering land and sea show.

If you dispose of plastic bags properly you’re probably treading more gently on the environment than using reusable ones. But does that counteract the damage done by people who don’t dispose of them carefully so they pollute oceans and endanger sea life?

Then we come to recycling.

If the whole pathway of recycling which includes transport to and from processing as well as the processing itself is taken into account then it isn’t always as green as it’s painted and might have a higher environmental cost than dumping in an environmentally safe landfill.


Energy use in transport as well as the potential for air and water pollution from processing can more than counter the benefit of less rubbish being sent to landfills.

Supermarkets are full of products claiming to be eco-friendly but it’s very difficult for consumers to know whether their claims are empty, if they do have a lesser impact on the environment or if they do more harm than alternatives which don’t make any claims.

It is much easier to see the greenwash in the government’s ban on off-shore oil exploration. As Taranaki MP Jonathan Young says:

. . . The Government may think they have attacked the problem, but unfortunately, they have attacked the solution.

As National’s Energy and Resources spokesperson I would support a transfer of knowledge, skills and investment into the greening of the petroleum industry rather than ending it.

Apart from 50 per cent of all oil produced being for environmentally benign purposes, we should continue to pursue the goal of utilising hydrocarbons as feedstock for ultra-low or zero emission fuels. 

Research is already underway for this, such as methanol, and hydrogen. There is a tremendous amount of research taking place on improving engine and fuel efficiency. The petroleum sector has some of the smartest people in the country when it comes to understanding carbon and molecules. Utilising their knowledge and skills here and collaborating with other industry-based research is the smart thing to do.

The Ardern-Peters Government has made a significant misstep in their approach. New Zealand has 10 years of known gas supply lefts. We haven’t had a gas discovery for eight years. With existing exploration hoping to make a discovery, it has a 10-15% chance of success.

When a discovery is made, it will take a further ten years of development before gas is available for market. Just do the math, without considering any chilling effect on investment the Government’s decision has created, we should get ready for a gasless future. 

With every fifth day of our electricity generated from fossil fuels, mostly gas – we have a problem. When electricity demand increases because of the growth of electric vehicles in New Zealand, we have a compounded problem. Wind and solar energy might contribute, but both are intermittent. This will require overbuild and capacity charging, leading to higher electricity prices. With gas possibly gone, and any shortfall in renewables, we’re left with coal to keep our lights on. Emissions will likely rise rather than fall. 

In a contest between energy security and the environment, the need to keep lights on will win.

Considering New Zealand’s contribution to world Green House Gas emissions is 0.17% of the total, our energy emissions (including electricity generation and transport) is 40 per cent of that 0.17 per cent. 

If the petroleum industry was to completely disappear tomorrow, then our emissions profile will remain unchanged as we import crude for all our liquid fuels. What we sell overseas will be sold by someone else, as supply exceeds demand. No change here both domestically or globally.

If we were able to replace half of our liquid fuel fleet with zero emission electric vehicles, we’d be down to 0.136 per cent of the world’s emissions. The sobering truth is our reductions will get swallowed up by the massive increase of emissions in a growing and developing Asia. So, while we work hard to do our essential bit, world emissions increase for some time yet.

We ought to be realistic about being “world leaders” as James Shaw wants. Norway are world leaders, but they do that through giving all electric vehicles free electricity for life, free parking and exemption from any congestion taxes, arguably afforded through their wealth derived from oil production. 

World emissions are set to increase for a while yet, which is why I think we must take a global and rational approach. We should find more gas and export it to Asia. We should encourage the industry rather than close it down. It’s counter-intuitive, but it works!

Gas replacing coal is one of the key reasons why energy emissions stalled in their growth in 2014, 2015 and 2016 according to the International Energy Agency. . . 

The ban on future exploration will have no affect on demand for fossil fuels here or anywhere else.

It will almost certainly add to our emissions and to the cost of fuel not just for private cars which the eco-warriors hate but for heat, light and industry, including food production.

There’s nothing green about the exploration ban. It’s quite clearly greenwash.


2 Responses to What’s green & what’s greenwash?

  1. Andrei says:

    Supermarket plastic bags are very useful – like for putting your dirty underwear in when you are traveling for example

    The other day the liver I had bought at the supermarket leaked in the bag – plastic bag no big deal – cloth bag would have required going through the washing machine and maybe the dryer before reuse or we could risk food poisoning by just ignoring it and contaminating the brussels sprouts we bought on the next trip

    Despite the rhetoric plastic bags do breakdown in the environment – it takes a while but they do

    BTW China sent a shipload of American trash sent to China for recycling back to America the other day said the USA needs to deal with its owm garbage 🙂


  2. Will says:


    Don’t know if this is accurate. There is a perverse self-importance to New Zealanders behind this weird self-flagellation we indulge in.


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