Study: Australians can be sustainable without sacrificing lifestyle or economy

Steve Hatfield-Dodds, CSIRO

A sustainable Australia is possible – but we have to choose it. That’s the finding of a paper published today in Nature.

The paper is the result of a larger project to deliver the first Australian National Outlook report, more than two years in the making, which CSIRO is also releasing today.

As part of this analysis we looked at whether achieving sustainability will require a shift in our values, such as rejecting consumerism. We also looked at the contributions of choices made by individuals (such as consuming less water or energy) and of choices made collectively by society (such as policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions).

We found that collective policy choices are crucial, and that Australia could make great progress to sustainability without any changes in social values.

Competing views

Few topics generate more heat, and less light, than debates over economic growth and sustainability.

At one end of the spectrum, “technological optimists” suggest that the marvellous invisible hand will take care of everything, with market-driven improvements in technology automatically protecting essential natural resources while also improving living standards.

Unfortunately, there is no real evidence to back this, particularly in protecting unpriced natural resources such as ocean fisheries, or the services provided by a stable climate. Instead the evidence suggests we are already crossing important planetary boundaries.

Other the other end of the spectrum, people argue that achieving sustainability will require a rejection of economic growth, or a shift in values away from consumerism and towards a more ecologically attuned lifestyles. We refer to this group as advocating “communitarian limits”.

A third “institutional reform” approach argues that policy reform can reconcile economic and ecological goals – and is attacked from one side as anti-business alarmism, and from the other as indulging in pro-growth greenwash.

Income up, environmental pressures down

My colleagues and I have spent much of the past two years developing a new framework to explore how Australia can decouple economic growth from multiple environmental pressures – including greenhouse emissions, water stress, and the loss of native habitat.

We use nine linked models to assess interactions between energy, water and food (and links to ecosystem services) in the context of climate change.

The National Outlook focuses on the intersection of water, energy and food.
National Outlook Report, CSIRO

The project provides projections for more than 20 scenarios, exploring different potential trends for consumption and working hours; energy and resource efficiency; agricultural productivity; new land-sector markets for energy feedstocks and ecosystem services; national and global abatement efforts, climate, and global economic growth.

While our major focus is on Australia, at the national scale, we also model what might happen globally, and at more detailed state and local scales within Australia.

We find economic growth and environmental impacts can be decoupled − in the right circumstances. National income per person increases by 12-15% per decade from now to 2050, while the value of economic activity almost triples.

In stark contrast to income, which rises across all scenarios, environmental performance varies widely. Key environmental indicators such as greenhouse gas emissions, water stress, and native habitat and biodiversity are projected to more than double, stabilise, or fall across different scenarios to 2050.

As shown in the chart below, we find that energy rises in all scenarios, but that greenhouse emissions can fall at the same time – with the right choices and technologies. Water use can also rise without increasing extractions from already stressed catchments. Food output (here indicated by protein) can increase, while native habitat is restored.

Hatfield-Dodds et al (2015)

Many of the 20 scenarios explored would represent substantial progress towards sustainable prosperity.

Indeed, we find that Australia could begin to repair past damage: restoring significant areas of native habitat and achieving negative emissions (net sequestration) of greenhouse gasses.

Growth of what?

We use the normal definition of economic growth as measured by increase in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – the value of goods and services produced in an economy – consistent with the national accounts framework.

Some authors use a different definition, most notably Herman Daly a leading advocate for a steady state economy. Daly defines growth as an increase in physical economic scale, such as resource extraction, and goes on to argue that indefinite (material) economic growth is not possible.

While this may be true, for his definition, it can be confusing for people that do not realise he is not referring to GDP growth. Indeed, Daly recently acknowledged that economic (GDP) growth is possible with finite resources and steady material throughput.

These definitions matter: we project growth (GDP – measured in real dollars, adjusted for inflation) increases by more than 160% in scenarios where domestic material extractions and throughput (measured in tonnes) decreases by around 40%.

Choosing a sustainable future

But here is the real crunch: we find these substantial steps toward sustainability could build on policy approaches that are already in place in Australia or other countries. This implies Australia could make enormous progress towards a more sustainable future without a major change in what we value.

We can be confident that a values shift is not required to achieve these outcomes – at least before 2050 – because none of the scenarios we modelled assume change in values or a new social or environmental ethic.

Instead, we show that people will make choices to change their behaviour to make the best of particular policy settings. These choices shape production and consumption.

For instance, we consider increasing Australia’s climate effort in line with other countries would be consistent with Australian public opinion and assessments of Australia’s national interest in limiting the rise in average global temperature to 2°C. So we do not interpret this as implying a change in values.

But we find collective choices are crucial. For example, individual choices about whether to drive or catch a train to work are strongly shaped by prior collective choices about transport infrastructure. Collective choices are often, but not always implemented through changes in government policy, legislation, and programs.

We find collective choices explain around 50-90% of differences in environmental performance and resource use across the scenarios we model. Consistent with the institutional reform approach, we find top-down collective choices are particularly important in shaping “public good” outcomes – accounting for at least 83% of the difference between scenarios for greenhouse gas emissions.

Bottom-up individual choices play a greater role when private and public benefits are aligned. For instance individual choices account for up to half of the difference between scenarios for energy use (33–47%) and non-agricultural water consumption (16–53%).

While individual choices are important, we find decisions we make as a society are likely to shape Australia’s future sustainability more than the decisions we make as businesses and households.

Sustainable prosperity is possible, but not predestined. Australia is free to choose.

Steve will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 9:30 and 10:30am AEDT on Friday, November 6, 2015. Post your questions in the comments section below.

The Conversation

Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Chief Scientist, Integration science and public policy, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Microbes: the tiny sentinels that can help us diagnose sick oceans

Katherine Dafforn, UNSW Australia; Emma Johnston, UNSW Australia; Inke Falkner, and Melanie Sun, UNSW Australia

Microbes – bacteria and other single-celled organisms – may be tiny, but they come in huge numbers and we rely on them for clean water, the air we breathe and the food we eat.

They are nature’s powerhouses but they have often been ignored. We previously lacked the capacity to appreciate truly their diversity, from micro-scales right up to entire oceans.

Recent advancements in genetic sequencing have revealed this diversity, and our research, published in Frontiers in Aquatic Microbiology this week, shows how we can use this information to understand human impacts on an unseen world – making microbes the new sentinels of the sea.

A sea of microbes

The great majority of bacteria and other microbes are extremely beneficial, performing vital roles such as recycling nutrients.

The number of bacteria on Earth is estimated at 5×10³⁰ (or 5 nonillion, if you prefer), and many of them live in the ocean. There are 5 million bacteria in every teaspoon of seawater, and more bacteria in the ocean than stars in the known universe.

Guess how many microbes?
Victor Morozov/Wikimedia Commons, FAL

There are yet more bacteria in the world’s soils and sediments, with estimates of between 100 million and 1 billion bacteria per teaspoon. These sediments are vital for recycling nitrogen, particularly in coastal sediments closest to human populations. Without bacteria and other microbes, sediments would turn into unsightly, pungent piles of waste.

Microbial services are not limited to recycling. Many microbes, including cyanobacteria, function like tiny plants by using sunlight to produce oxygen and sugars. Due to their extraordinary number in the world’s oceans, the amount of oxygen these organisms produce is equal to that of all plants on land.

Marine sentinels

Until recently, finding out just how many different types of microbes there are was relatively difficult. How do you identify and study millions of different organisms that are not visible to the naked eye?

Bacteria, for example, had to be grown in the laboratory in large colonies to be seen. But only 1-3% of bacteria can be cultured successfully.

Advances in genetics together with the development of molecular tools have allowed researchers to investigate marine bacteria in their natural environment. Microbial communities can now be grouped by the role they play in ecosystems and how these groups respond to environmental gradients.

We can use these new tools to measure ecosystem health, which is crucial to managing human impacts on our coastlines, particularly in estuaries. Early studies have found shifts in bacterial community composition to be good indicators of contaminants

Different areas of harbours, such as Sydney Harbour, have distinct bacterial communities. These patterns may be driven by circulation. The outer harbour, which is flushed with seawater on every tidal cycle, is dominated by photosynthetic cyanobacteria. The upper harbour, with less flushing and more runoff, is dominated by soil-related bacteria and those adapted to nutrient-rich environments.

In our waterways, pollutants such as metals bind to fine particles and settle as sediment. This exposes sediment-dwelling organisms to a multitude of toxic products. What effect do these toxic substances have on sediment microbes?

Recent evidence from a large survey of eight estuaries suggests that microbes are far more sensitive to contaminants than larger animals and plants. This survey also revealed that toxic substances were linked to changes in community structure and a reduction in community diversity. This is especially alarming given that a diversity of microbes is essential to nutrient recycling.

Diagnosing wounded seas

It would be great if we could use particular microbes to diagnose human impacts. For instance, certain microbes can indicate water quality.

A technique called metagenomics is revealing the true depth of microbial diversity by pooling DNA sequences from all the species in a sample. It then works backwards to construct a genetic overview of the entire community.

However, while metagenomics can give us important information about the identity of microbes in a community, it can’t tell us what they are doing or how their functions change in response to environmental stressors and human activities.

Metatranscriptomics takes the sequencing approach one step further and characterises gene expression in a microbial community, which can be linked to crucial ecosystem services such as nutrient cycling.

Similar to their use for diagnosis of ailments in humans, molecular tools are being used to diagnose human impacts on earth by observing changes in microbes across polluted and unpolluted environments. They can even detect very small amounts of toxic substances. Because of their diversity, they can potentially be used to detect a wide range of human impacts.

This allows us to identify environmental impacts early, potentially limiting greater loss in larger organisms.

With the new tools to “see” microbes and their importance, we are now perfectly poised to advance our understanding of how microbes are responding to environmental change. They are sentinels of our increasingly human-affected waterways.

The Conversation

Katherine Dafforn, Senior Research Associate in Marine Ecology, UNSW Australia; Emma Johnston, Professor of Marine Ecology and Ecotoxicology, Director Sydney Harbour Research Program, UNSW Australia; Inke Falkner, Community Outreach Coordinator for Sydney Harbour Research Program, Sydney Institute of Marine Science, and Melanie Sun, PhD Candidate – Environmental Research, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.