After the 2008 global financial crisis, Green New Deals were proposed in various countries as a way to pick up the pieces of the economy. The general idea is to create jobs while rebuilding societies, by targeting environmental innovation as the key to economic recovery.
We’re in the midst of another global financial crisis that’s infinitely more crippling than in 2008, and the global pandemic that brought it on shows no signs of easing. So is now really the right time to, yet again, advocate for a Green New Deal?
In his speech to the National Press Club last week, national Greens leader Adam Bandt reiterated his push for the deal. He lambasted the Morrison government’s economic response to COVID-19 in the federal budget, which largely shunned renewable energy investment, calling it “criminal”.
The Greens’ proposal echoes Labor, business, unions and environmental groups, and even some conservatives, who think green policies are vital to strengthen the economy post-pandemic.
And they’re right, the Green New Deal is explicitly designed to assist recovery after a crisis. With many countries already taking on similar ideas, the Coalition government’s steadfast investment in fossil fuels will only hold Australia back.
What is a Green New Deal?
The Green New Deal is an environmental version of economic stimulus, modelled upon US President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of massive public spending to create jobs after the 1930s depression.
It couples climate action with social action, creating jobs while reducing emissions, and reducing energy costs by adopting renewables. It’d come at a cost, however, to the fossil fuel industry.
The Greens want Australia to quit coal by 2030, and have an independent authority, Renew Australia, to manage a just transition for workers, create jobs and see no one left behind in the transition to 100% renewable energy.
Even the International Monetary Fund sees a global green fiscal stimulus, with investment in climate change action and transitioning to a low carbon economy, as the right response to the COVID crisis.
Green New Deals around the world
In the socially democratic Scandinavian countries, green-led economic recovery has been the go-to policy response to political, banking, fiscal and resource-based economic crises in recent decades.
Energy taxation, offset by cuts in personal income tax, and social security contributions have driven economic recovery. As a result, Nordic economies have grown by 28% from 2000–17, while carbon emissions have fallen by 18%.
In late 2019, before the onset of COVID, the European Union announced a Green New Deal worth €1 trillion in public and private investment over the next decade to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
However, this funding is no longer assured. The COVID crisis has put a hole in EU finances, caused divisions over spending priorities and seen few environmental strings attached to member country bailouts.
In the US, the Green New Deal featured strongly in the Obama administration’s grappling with the global financial crisis. Now, during the pandemic, it’s featuring again as a proposal from the Democrats.
Between September 2008 and December 2009, South Korea and China outstripped the post-GFC efforts of the rest of the G20 nations with their astonishing green stimulus spending of 5% and 3.1%, respectively, of GDP.
Today, South Korea is using its COVID response to trigger environmentally sustainable economic growth, spending US$61.9 billion to invest in wind, solar, smart grids, renewables, electric vehicles and recycling.
It’s clear nations around the world have decided a Green New Deal is exactly the right stimulus response to crises, including the current fallout from the global pandemic. So how is Australia tracking?
Australia risks being left behind
The lessons for Australia are, firstly, that it risks being left behind in the technological advances that come with shifting to a greener economy, if it neglects the environment in its COVID stimulus planning.
It should embrace the COVID crisis and the climate crisis as dual challenges, given Australia’s urgent need to reduce its emissions in electricity, transport, stationary energy, fugitive emissions and industrial processes.
Australia can be confident investment in clean energy that sets it on the path to carbon neutrality by 2050 will not only be rewarded economically, but also diplomatically, as it joins the global, willing climate coalition.
The UN chief economist, Elliott Harris, has called for Australia and other nations to
place more ambitious climate action and investment in clean energy at the centre of their COVID-19 recovery plans.
Instead, the Coalition government has given fossil fuels four times more stimulus funding than renewables, and has prioritised coal-fired power, carbon capture and storage, and gas industry expansion in its recent federal budget.
This is a risky investment strategy. The International Energy Agency sees a poor economic future for fossil fuels, with demand for coal on the decline and jobs in renewables expected to increase.
If the Coalition were to attempt it, a Green New Deal would ease the shift away from fossil fuels. It would focus, as such deals do elsewhere, on creating jobs by accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy. It’s time to get on board.
Making eco-conscious choices at the shops can be tricky when we’re presented with so many options, especially when it comes to milk. Should we buy plant-based milk, or dairy? We’ve looked at the evidence to help you choose.
Dairy has the biggest environmental footprint, by far
Any plant-based milk, be it made from beans, nuts or seeds, has a lighter impact than dairy when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the use of water and land. All available studies, including systematic reviews, categorically point this out.
A 2018 study estimates dairy to be around three times more greenhouse gas emission-intensive than plant-based milks.
In the case of cow’s milk, its global warming potential — measured as kilogram of carbon dioxide equivalent per litre of milk — varies between 1.14 in Australia and New Zealand to 2.50 in Africa. Compare this to the global warming potential of plant-based milks, which, on average, is just 0.42 for almond and coconut milk and 0.75 for soy milk.
What’s more, dairy generally requires nine times more land than any of the plant-based alternatives. Every litre of cow’s milk uses 8.9 square metres per year, compared to 0.8 for oat, 0.7 for soy, 0.5 for almond and 0.3 for rice milk.
Water use is similarly higher for cow’s milk: 628 litres of water for every litre of dairy, compared to 371 for almond, 270 for rice, 48 for oat and 28 for soy milk.
Milks from nuts
Milk can be made from almost any nuts, but almond, hazelnut and coconut are proving popular. Not only do nut milks generally require smaller land areas, the trees they grow on absorb carbon and, at the end of their life, produce useful woody biomass.
Still, there are vast differences in the geographical conditions where various nut trees are grown.
California is the largest producer of almond milk in the world, followed by Australia.
Compared to other plant-based milk options, its water use is much higher and largely depends on freshwater irrigation. One kernel of California almond requires 12 litres of water, which raises questions about the industrial production of these nuts in water-scarce areas.
However the biggest environmental concern with almond production in the US is the high mortality of bees, used for tree cross-pollination. This might be because the bees are exposed to pesticides, including glyphosate, and the intensive industrial agriculture which drastically transforms nature’s fragile ecosystems.
In Australia, where almond orchards are smaller-scale and less industrialised, beekeepers do not experience such problems. Still, millions of bees are needed, and fires, drought, floods, smoke and heat damage can threaten their health.
Generally, the environmental performance of coconut milk is good – coconut trees use small amounts of water and absorb carbon dioxide.
Yet as coconuts are grown only in tropical areas, the industrial production of this milk can destroy wildlife habitat. Increasing global demand for coconut milk is likely to put further pressure on the environment and wildlife, and deepen these conflicts.
Hazelnut is a better option for the environment as the trees are cross-pollinated by wind which carries airborne dry pollen between neighbouring plants, not bees.
Hazelnuts also grow in areas with higher rainfall around the Black Sea, Southern Europe and in North America, demanding much less water than almond trees.
Hazelnut milk is already commercially available and although its demand and production are rising, the cultivation of the bush trees is not yet subjected to intensive large-scale operations.
Milks from legumes
Soy milk has been used for millennia in China and has already an established presence in the West, but the hemp alternative is relatively new.
All legumes are nitrogen fixing. This means the bacteria in plant tissue produce nitrogen, which improves soil fertility and reduces the need for fertilisers. Legumes are also water-efficient, particularly when compared with almonds and dairy.
Soy milk has a very good environmental performance in terms of water, global warming potential and land-use.
The US and Brazil are the biggest suppliers of soybeans, and the plant is very versatile when it comes to its commercial uses, with a large share of the beans used as livestock feed.
However, a major environmental concern is the need to clear and convert large swathes of native vegetation to grow soybeans. An overall reduction in the demand for meat and animal-based foods could potentially decrease the need to produce large amounts of soybeans for animal feed, but we’re yet to witness such changes.
Its seeds are processed for oil and milk, but the plant itself is very versatile — all its parts can be used as construction material, textile fibres, pulp and paper or hemp-based plastics.
Its roots grow deep, which improves the soil structure and reduces the presence of fungi. It’s also resistant to diseases, and it produces a lot of shade, which supresses the growth of weeds. This, in turn, cuts down the need for herbicides and pesticides.
Hemp requires more water than soy, but less than almond and dairy. Despite being one of the oldest crops used, particularly in Europe, hemp is produced in very low quantities.
Milks from grains
We can produce plant-based milk from almost any grains, but rice and oat are proving popular. However, they require more land compared with nut milks.
Rice milk has a big water footprint. More notably, it’s associated with higher greenhouse gas emissions compared to the other plant-based options because methane-producing bacteria develop in the rice paddies.
Oat milk has been becoming increasingly popular around the world because of its overall environmental benefits.
But similar to soy, the bulk of oat production is used for livestock feed and any reduction in the demand for animal-based foods would decrease the pressure on this plant.
Currently grown in Canada and the US, most oat operations are large-scale monoculture, which means it’s the only type of crop grown in a large area. This practice depletes the soil’s fertility, limits the diversity of insects and increases the risk of diseases and pest infection.
Oats are also typically grown with glyphosate-based pesticides, which tarnishes its environmental credentials because it can cause glyphosate-resistant plant, animal and insect pathogens to proliferate.
The final message: diversify your choices
Organic versions of all these plant-based milks are better for the environment because they use, for example, fewer chemical fertilisers, they’re free from pesticides and herbicides, and they put less pressure on the soils. Any additives, be it fortifiers, such as calcium or vitamins, flavours or additional ingredients, such as sugar, coffee or chocolate, should be taken into account separately.
Packaging is also very important to consider. Packaging contributes 45% of the global warming potential of California’s almond milk. And it’s worth keeping in mind that wasting milk has a much bigger environmental footprint, and questions the ethics of how humans exploit the animal world.
If, as a consumer you are trying to reduce the environmental footprint of the milk you drink, the first message is you should avoid dairy and replace it with plant-based options.
The second message is it’s better to diversify the plant-based milks we use. Shifting to only one option, even if it’s the most environmentally friendly one for the time being, means the market demand may potentially become overexploited.
We are living through the greatest disruption of the postwar era; what is likely to be the defining historical period of our lives. And the disrupter is a piece of RNA surrounded by fat, a virus human beings have never before encountered.
A virus that ticks all the boxes for disaster: it is novel, it is highly contagious, it is transmitted by asymptomatic carriers, and it attacks and kills people whose immune systems have been undermined by disease, inequality, malnutrition, stress and age.
It’s only months since we were overwhelmed with the bushfire disaster. The climate emergency was upon us more viscerally than ever before. Sydney lost its summer to choking smoke; the glorious forests of the Great Dividing Range and eastern sea- board burnt with an unstoppable ferocity. Lives were lost, as were homes, businesses, communities, and a billion native animals. The koalas screaming in agony were heard around the world. This was our global future burning before our eyes.
Then came this virus. And it has shut down much of the world by freezing markets and informal economies that daily feed and service most of the people of the planet. But we should understand the virus as an ecological disaster, just like the climate emergency. They are not causally related. Rather, they are expressions of the same profound overburdening of the planet by anthropogenic excess.
The climate emergency has not abated with the pandemic. Extreme weather is everywhere on the planet. Syria is gripped by its worst drought in 900 years. Locusts are swarming over East Africa. We are warned the climatic sweet spot of the Holocene that has made complex societies possible for the last 6,000 years is coming to an end, to be replaced by unbearable heat in some of the world’s most populous places.
This is the end of the “good times” for the world, but it has been a long time coming. COVID-19 is simply an accelerant. Therefore, it is important now to focus on what has to be done, for all that stands between us and disaster is good government.
Many young people feel deeply pessimistic about the future. They have little confidence organised society can face profound threats, survive them and rebuild. But the world has done so, even within living memory with the astonishing recovery in Europe and Asia after World War II.
Critical moral decisions
In 1945, Europe lay in ruins. Eighty-five million people had perished, most of them civilians, deliberately murdered by starvation or industrial slaughter or burnt alive in their torched villages or fire-bombed cities. Sixty million people were displaced and took to the roads.
The total of lost or orphaned children has never been tallied. The 1944–45 winter had been terrible, crops had not been planted and there was no food. In Berlin, only the Russians seemed to know how to ration food and rebuild civil society: the other Allies were at a loss.
Civil society had been destroyed by oppression, cruelty and hunger. Scarcely any civilian who survived occupation ended the war with a clear conscience. People had to kill, steal, lie, inform on neighbours, refuse to help when asked, fail to fight when needed. And at the end, they had nothing. They amounted to millions upon millions of destitute, damaged people. A friend’s mother who spent the war in Trieste once admitted that there was no human depravity she had not witnessed.
Not only had the physical world been consumed by fire, so also had institutions, communities and infrastructure. Yet out of the carnage, modern Europe and the Soviet Union rebuilt their cities and homes and their civil societies. If the European Union and the former Eastern Bloc have problems now, their flourishing since 1945 has been a miracle. All have experienced a dramatic improvement in living standards in the past three-quarters of a century.
When this pandemic crisis ends, things will be very bad for those with weak, corrupt and incompetent governments. For those with good governments, critical moral decisions will be required: do we reinvest and rebuild positively, or do we inflict austerity to pay down the debt quickly?
The deaths will be proportionately fewer than in World War II, the buildings won’t be smashed, nor the sewers, water pipes and gas pipes shattered. Physically the world will still be there. Farms will still be producing food except where severe weather has destroyed crops. The shock and grief will be awful, and it will be the world’s turning point between collapse or recovery towards a new resilience.
JM Keynes’ 1940 book How to Pay for the War outlined a program of rationing, war bonds and currency creation that could produce the necessary funds without generating inflation. But the minute the second world war ended, 42% of the British workforce was made redundant.
How did the Allies pay for the peace without a return to the misery and chaos that were experienced after World War I? Rationing and austerity continued, but governments did not stop spending. The new British Labour government passed legislation mandating full employment; the existing Labor government in Australia in May 1945, issued its famous white paper, written by Dr HC Coombs titled Full Employment in Australia. We pre-empted the British, but we were of like mind.
Australia, by comparison, got off lightly from World War II. And Australia also had arguably the best government in its history under prime ministers Curtin and Chifley. They believed in the social contract that government was there to serve the people; that our Commonwealth was formed for the “common good”. They were great internationalists. They prosecuted the war, but they also committed from 1943 to building a better Australia for the people who had sacrificed so much to win it.
Their postwar reconstruction scheme, in just four years of war and four years of peace, established a welfare state and addressed historic injustices to Indigenous people who came under Commonwealth laws. They legislated to mandate full employment after the war, despite the demobilisation of the military and of war industries — and it worked.
They reformed the economy from the factory to the farm: General Motors-Holden, the Snowy Mountains Scheme and, this time, soldier settlements that were better planned and more successful. They invested in national and international air travel. They trained hundreds of thousands of unskilled workers to be skilled workers, and sent ex-service people to university. They opened Australia to non- British migration, changing us forever.
They lost office before they could implement Professor Sam Wadham’s massive Rural Reconstruction Scheme. But they also believed that the future depended on education and research, establishing our first research university, the Australian National University, to be a Princeton in the Pacific.
They inaugurated Commonwealth Scholarships and research funding. Our first PhDs began to graduate, and our academic gaze turned away from Oxbridge towards our Asian neighbours for the first time. They invested in the CSIRO. Another term of office may have delivered a national health service. We had to wait almost another 40 years for Medicare, but the four years after the war set up modern Australia.
A new accord?
This story is important to retell because it gives us hope — and a model. We need national reconstruction again: to transition to renewable energy, to restore fairness and security to our economy, to rebuild our rural and regional sectors that are beset by poverty, environmental stress and long-time marginalisation.
Climate change imperils our food security as it does our natural environment and wildlife. If we are to reconstruct Australia as a sustainable economy and society, then perhaps 60% of that effort needs to be in the bush.
National reconstruction requires political will, and political will needs a measure of bipartisan support to be effective. Menzies followed the social democratic Labor lead — social housing, support for universities, infrastructure construction. In the 1980s, the Prices and Incomes Accord was struck between unions and employers under the leadership of the Hawke Government. The accord lost its way after time, but initially it did bring down unemployment and inflation, in return for Medicare and new social transfers.
A new accord would be a different social contract. It would require a summit as before, after consultation and planning. It could be led by First Nations people with a mission to heal the nation and the land, starting with the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
This time its participants would be drawn from across the spectrum: farmers, business big and small, unions, universities and research, state and local government, the health and welfare sectors, culture and the arts. (Universities have played a vital role in changing course for this country in times of crisis and will do so again, just as their researchers, along with the CSIRO, are leading the fight against COVID-19.)
The accord itself could be a commitment to the guiding principles of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which connect social and economic justice to environmental justice.
This new accord would be a commitment to principles of practice that open doors to funding, tax incentives, advice and collaboration among sectors to build a new sustainable economy, turning Australia into the renewable energy powerhouse that the distinguished economist Professor Ross Garnaut envisages.
There would be no compulsion for businesses to sign on, but if they chose to be outside the tent, then they would not receive any benefits and opportunities.
No nation can truly flourish if its hinterland is degraded and unproductive. Global warming threatens our food security, our pastoralists and, as we saw in the summer of 2019–20, our forests and native wildlife. National reconstruction needs not merely to be bipartisan at the top: it must offer genuine participation in decision-making in how to transition to new industries and farming technologies.
We may need to start growing some crops under cover in highly controlled environments with careful water use and no pesticides. If the Netherlands can become the world’s second-largest food exporter after the United States, then we, too, in a more environmentally sensitive way than the Dutch, can build a high-tech food exporting industry that could replace coal and help feed a hungry world.
To do all this, we need a partnership between farmers, the private sector, workers, government and universities. If employers are to receive funding and research support from the public sector, then as their part of the accord they should commit to providing secure jobs and vocational training. They must be prepared to negotiate improving wages and support more generous welfare provision.
Above all, they need to endorse a government-funded Jobs Guarantee to get people back into the workforce with dignity and security: that is, real jobs with award wages, not work for the dole. The economy will not ‘bounce back’ if no one has money in their pocket.
It is to be hoped that the pandemic will bring an end to the distrust of science and learning that neo-liberalism has spread like poison through the rich world.
It will be time to rethink the tertiary and vocational sectors and fund research infrastructure in universities, alongside restoring the CSIRO and providing more job security for researchers. Our universities could then return to being servants of the public rather than fragile, semi-private corporations.
All this is fiscally possible if we accept that we can only pay back the debt by economic growth. Artificially balancing the budget via austerity leads to further impoverishment; investing in people and their enterprises to get on with it restores prosperity so that we can grow our way out of debt.
A fresh narrative
Government cannot do it all. Business is the larger part of society, and reconstruction cannot be done without their cooperative engagement, expertise, creativity and resources. But what is possible with the new accord is not a series of precise prescriptions for reform, but rather a narrative that can capture the trust and enthusiasm of an electorate that is disenchanted with politics and politicians.
People want our leaders to “come together”. The “Green New Deal” is an American idea; the United Kingdom wants a “green industrial revolution”; but we in Australia know how to strike accords and build institutionalised fairness.
Perhaps it does not matter what we call it: perhaps First Nations people will one day permit us to use their term Makarrata to express a new national social compact. We need to reconstruct Australia, better than we have before, and we need to do it for our very survival.
No one—no politician, no scientist, no economist, no bureaucrat, no business leader, no farmer, no pundit and no political party — has all the answers. But collectively we do, provided we can devolve consultation and much decision-making to the communities and regions directly affected. That will build resilience and draw on the experience and knowledge of those who are experts in their own worlds.
The great power of the human mind is that it can work with other minds: our greatest strength lies in each other.
This is an edited extract from What Happens Next? edited by Emma Dawson and Prof Janet McCalman AC, published by Melbourne University Publishing.
Ecologists and conservation experts in government, industry and universities are routinely constrained in communicating scientific evidence on threatened species, mining, logging and other threats to the environment, our new research has found.
Our study, just published, shows how important scientific information about environmental threats often does not reach the public or decision-makers, including government ministers.
In some cases, scientists self-censor information for fear of damaging their careers, losing funding or being misrepresented in the media. In others, senior managers or ministers’ officers prevented researchers from speaking truthfully on scientific matters.
This information blackout, termed “science suppression”, can hide environmentally damaging practices and policies from public scrutiny. The practice is detrimental to both nature and democracy.
Code of silence
Our online survey ran from October 25, 2018, to February 11, 2019. Through advertising and other means, we targeted Australian ecologists, conservation scientists, conservation policy makers and environmental consultants. This included academics, government employees and scientists working for industry such as consultants and non-government organisations.
Some 220 people responded to the survey, comprising:
88 working in universities
79 working in local, state or federal government
47 working in industry, such as environmental consulting and environmental NGOs
6 who could not be classified.
In a series of multiple-choice and open-ended questions, we asked respondents about the prevalence and consequences of suppressing science communication.
About half (52%) of government respondents, 38% from industry and 9% from universities had been prohibited from communicating scientific information.
Communications via traditional (40%) and social (25%) media were most commonly prohibited across all workplaces. There were also instances of internal communications (15%), conference presentations (11%) and journal papers (5%) being prohibited.
‘Ministers are not receiving full information’
Some 75% of respondents reported having refrained from making a contribution to public discussion when given the opportunity – most commonly in traditional media or social media. A small number of respondents self-censored conference presentations (9%) and peer-reviewed papers (7%).
Factors constraining commentary from government respondents included senior management (82%), workplace policy (72%), a minister’s office (63%) and middle management (62%).
Fear of barriers to advancement (49%) and concern about media misrepresentation (49%) also discouraged public communication by government respondents.
Almost 60% of government respondents and 36% of industry respondents reported unduly modified internal communications.
One government respondent said:
Due to ‘risk management’ in the public sector […] ministers are not receiving full information and advice and/or this is being ‘massaged’ by advisors (sic).
University respondents, more than other workplaces, avoided public commentary out of fear of how they would be represented by the media (76%), fear of being drawn beyond their expertise (73%), stress (55%), fear that funding might be affected (53%) and uncertainty about their area of expertise (52%).
One university respondent said:
I proposed an article in The Conversation about the impacts of mining […] The uni I worked at didn’t like the idea as they received funding from (the mining company).
Critical conservation issues suppressed
Information suppression was most common on the issue of threatened species. Around half of industry and government respondents, and 28% of university respondents, said their commentary on the topic was constrained.
Government respondents also reported being constrained in commenting on logging and climate change.
One government respondent said:
We are often forbidden (from) talking about the true impacts of, say, a threatening process […] especially if the government is doing little to mitigate the threat […] In this way the public often remains ‘in the dark’ about the true state and trends of many species.
University respondents were most commonly constrained in talking about feral animals. A university respondent said:
By being blocked from reporting on the dodgy dealings of my university with regards to my research and its outcomes I feel like I’m not doing my job properly. The university actively avoids any mention of my study species or project due to vested financial interests in some key habitat.
Industry respondents, more than those from other sectors, were constrained in commenting on the impacts of mining, urban development and native vegetation clearing. One industry respondent said:
A project […] clearly had unacceptable impacts on a critically endangered species […] the approvals process ignored these impacts […] Not being able to speak out meant that no one in the process was willing or able to advocate for conservation or make the public aware of the problem.
The system is broken
Of those respondents who had communicated information publicly, 42% had been harassed or criticised for doing so. Of those, 83% believed the harassers were motivated by political or economic interests.
Some 77 respondents answered a question on whether they had suffered personal consequences as a result of suppressing information. Of these, 18% said they had suffered mental health effects. And 21% reported increased job insecurity, damage to their career, job loss, or had left the field.
One respondent said:
I declared the (action) unsafe to proceed. I was overruled and properties and assets were impacted. I was told to be silent or never have a job again.
As a consultant working for companies that damage the environment, you have to believe you are having a positive impact, but after years of observing how broken the system is, not being legally able to speak out becomes harder to deal with.
Change is needed
We acknowledge that we receive grants involving contracts that restrict our academic freedom. And some of us self-censor to avoid risks to grants from government, resulting in personal moral conflict and a less informed public. When starting this research project, one of our colleagues declined to contribute for fear of losing funding and risking employment.
But Australia faces many complex and demanding environmental problems. It’s essential that scientists are free to communicate their knowledge on these issues.
Public servant codes of conduct should be revised to allow government scientists to speak freely about their research in both a public and private capacity. And government scientists and other staff should report to new, independent state and federal environment authorities, to minimise political and industry interference.
A free flow of information ensures government policy is backed by the best science. Conservation dollars would be more wisely invested, costly mistakes avoided and interventions more effectively targeted.
The Morrison government today declared it will axe buybacks of water entitlements from irrigators, placating farmers who say the system has damaged their livelihood and communities.
Instead, Water Minister Keith Pitt says the government will scale up efforts to save water by upgrading infrastructure for farming irrigators in the Murray Darling Basin.
The move will anger environmentalists, who say water buybacks are vital to restoring flows to Australia’s most important river system. It also contradicts findings from the government’s own experts this week who said farm upgrades increase water prices more than buyback water recovery.
The government has chosen a route not backed by evidence, and which will deliver a bad deal to taxpayers and the environment.
A brief history of water buybacks
Farmers along the Murray Darling are entitled to a certain amount of river water which they can use or sell. In 2008, the federal Labor government began buying some of these entitlements in an open-tender process known as “buybacks”. The purchased water was returned to the parched river system to boost the environment.
In 2012, the Murray Darling Basin Plan was struck. It stipulated that 2,750 billion litres of water would be bought back from irrigators and delivered to the environment every year. The buyback system was not universally supported – critics claim buybacks increase water prices, and hurt farmers by reducing the water available for irrigation.
The Coalition government came to office in 2013 and adopted a “strategic” approach to water buybacks. These purchases were made behind closed doors with chosen irrigators.
In a review of these buybacks released last month, the Australian National Audit Office found many of these taxpayer-funded deals were not good value for money.
The federal government ordered the review after controversy involving the 2017 purchase of water from two Queensland properties owned by Eastern Australia Agriculture.
The government paid A$80 million for the entitlements – an amount critics said was well over market value. The deal was also contentious because government frontbencher Angus Taylor was, before the purchase, a non-financial director of the company. The company also had links to the Cayman Islands tax haven.
Infrastructure subsidies: a flawed approach
The Coalition government is taking a different approach to recover water for the environment: subsidising water infrastructure on farms and elsewhere. This infrastructure includes lining ponds and possibly levees to trap and store water.
The subsidies have cost many billions of dollars yet recover water at a very much higher cost than reverse tenders. This approach also reduces the water that returns to streams and groundwater.
The justification for water infrastructure subsidies is that they are supposedly less damaging to irrigation communities. But the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) concluded in a report published this week that on-farm water infrastructure subsidies, while beneficial for their participants, “push water prices higher, placing pressure on the wider irrigation sector”. This is the very sector the subsidies purport to help.
So why would the government expand the use of water infrastructure when it costs more and isn’t good value for money? The answer may lie in this finding from the ABARES report:
Irrigators who hold large volumes of entitlement relative to their water use (and are frequently net sellers of water allocations) may benefit from higher water prices, as this increases the value of their entitlements.
Farmers with limited entitlement holdings however may be adversely affected, as higher water prices increase their costs and lowers their profitability.
In other words, the “big end of town” benefits – at taxpayers’ expense – while the small-scale irrigators lose out.
Adding insult to injury, the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists released a detailed report this week showing the basin plan is failing to deliver the water expected, even after accounting for dry weather. Some two trillion litres of water is not in the rivers and streams of the basin and appears to have been consumed – a volume that could be more than four times the water in Sydney Harbour.
The Wentworth Group says stream flows may be less than expected because environmental water recovery has been undermined by “water-saving” infrastructure, which reduces the amount of water that would otherwise return to rivers and groundwater.
This infrastructure, on which taxpayers have spent over A$4 billion, has not had the desired effect. Research has found those who receive infrastructure subsidies increased water extractions by more than those who did not receive subsidies. That’s because farmers who were using water more efficiently often planted thirstier crops.
We deserve better
It’s clear taxpayer dollars are much better spent buying back water entitlements, through open tenders, rather than subsidising water infrastructure. We can, and must, do much better with water policy.
Today, the federal government has doubled down on wasteful spending at taxpayer expense – in a time of a COVID-induced recession.
So what is on offer from the Morrison government? Continuing to ignore its own experts’ advice and delivering yet more ineffective subsidies for water infrastructure. Our rivers, our communities, and all Australians deserve much better.
A vast transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is crucial to slowing climate change. But building solar panels, wind turbines and other renewable energy infrastructure requires mining for materials. If not done responsibly, this may damage species and ecosystems.
In our research, published today, we mapped the world’s potential mining areas and assessed how they overlap with biodiversity conservation sites.
We found renewable energy production will exacerbate the threat mining poses to biodiversity – the world’s variety of animals and plants. It’s fair to assume that in some places, the extraction of renewables minerals may cause more damage to nature than the climate change it averts.
Australia is well placed to become a leader in mining of renewable energy materials and drive the push to a low-carbon world. But we must act now to protect our biodiversity from being harmed in the process.
Mining to prevent climate change
Currently, about 17% of current global energy consumption is achieved through renewable energy. To further reduce greenhouse gas emissions, this proportion must rapidly increase.
Building new renewable energy infrastructure will involve mining minerals and metals. Some of these include:
lithium, graphite and cobalt (mostly used in battery storage)
zinc and titanium (used mostly for wind and geothermal energy)
copper, nickle and aluminium (used in a range of renewable energy technologies).
The World Bank estimates the production of such materials could increase by 500% by 2050. It says more than 3 billion tonnes of minerals and metals will be needed to build the wind, solar and geothermal power, and energy storage, needed to keep global warming below 2℃ this century.
We mapped areas around the world potentially affected by mining. Our analysis involved 62,381 pre-operational, operational, and closed mines targeting 40 different materials.
We found mining may influence about 50 million km² of Earth’s land surface (or 37%, excluding Antarctica). Some 82% of these areas contain materials needed for renewable energy production. Of this, 12% overlaps with protected areas, 7% with “key biodiversity areas”, and 14% with remaining wilderness.
Our results suggest mining of renewable energy materials may increase in currently untouched and “biodiverse” places. These areas are considered critical to helping species overcome the challenges of climate change.
Yet, many of the minerals needed for renewable energy exist in important conservation areas.
For example, Australia is rich in lithium and already accounts for half of world production. Hard-rock lithium mines operate in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.
This area has also been identified as a national biodiversity hotspot and is home to many native species. These include small marsupials such as the little red antechinus and the pebble-mound mouse, and reptiles including gecko and goanna species.
Australia is also ranked sixth in the world for deposits of rare earth elements, many of which are needed to produce magnets for wind turbines. We also have large resources of other renewables materials such as cobalt, manganese, tantalum, tungsten and zirconium.
It’s critical that mining doesn’t damage Australia’s already vulnerable biodiversity, and harm the natural places valued by Indigenous people and other communities.
In many cases, renewables minerals are found in countries where the resource sector is not strongly regulated, posing an even greater environmental threat. For example, the world’s second-largest untouched lithium reserve exists in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni salt pan. This naturally diverse area is mostly untouched by mining.
The renewables expansion will also require iron and steel. To date, mining for iron in Brazil has almost wiped out an entire plant community, and recent dam failures devastated the environment and communities.
We need proactive planning
Strong planning and conservation action is needed to avoid, manage and prevent the harm mining causes to the environment. However global conservation efforts are often naive to the threats posed by significant growth in renewable energies.
Some protected areas around the world prevent mining, but more than 14% contain metal mines in or near their boundaries. Consequences for biodiversity may extend many kilometres from mining sites.
Meanwhile, other areas increasingly important for conservation are focused on the needs of biodiversity, and don’t consider the distribution of mineral resources and pressures to extract them. Conservation plans for these sites must involve strategies to manage the mining threat.
There is some good news. Our analyses suggest many required materials occur outside protected areas and other conservation priorities. The challenge now is to identify which species are most at risk from current and future mining development, and develop strong policies to avoid their loss.
The map in this article has been updated, because due to a technical issue the previous version omitted some information.
It’s been 13 years since the Australian Government set out to develop the Murray-Darling Basin Plan with the goal of finding a more sustainable balance between irrigation and the environment.
Like much of the history of water sharing in the Murray-Darling over the last 150 years, the process has been far from smooth. However, significant progress has been achieved, with about 20% of water rights recovered from agricultural users and redirected towards environmental flows.
One of the most difficult debates has been over how the water should be recovered.
Initially most occurred via “buybacks” of water rights from farmers. While relatively fast and inexpensive, opposition to buybacks emerged due to concerns about their effects on water prices and irrigation farmers and regional communities.
This led to a new emphasis on infrastructure programs including farm upgrades in which farmers received funding to improve their irrigation systems in return for surrendering water rights.
While these farm upgrades are more expensive, it was thought that they would have fewer negative effects on farmers and communities.
The other type of program is farm upgrades which offer farmers funding to improve their irrigation infrastructure in return for a portion of their water rights.
To date 255 gigalitres of water has been recovered through farm upgrades at a cost of about $1 billion.
Annual volume of water rights recovered for the environment since 2007-08
Water recovery has increased prices
As would be expected, the dominant short-term driver of prices is water availability, with large price increases during droughts. The dominant longer-term drivers include lower average rainfall related to climate change and the emergence of new irrigation crops including almonds.
While water recovery has played less of a role, buybacks and farm upgrades have still reduced the supply of water to farmers and increased prices to some extent.
Our modelling suggests water prices in the southern basin are around $72 per megalitre higher on average as a result of water recovery measures, with the effects varying year-to-year depending on conditions.
Modelled water allocation prices with and without water recovery
Farm upgrades increase prices more than buybacks
Farm upgrades are often viewed as an opportunity to save water and produce “more crop per drop”.
But they can also encourage farmers to increase their water use as they seek to make the most of their new infrastructure: sometimes referred to as a “rebound effect”.
While there have been concerns about rebound effects for some time, there has been limited evidence until recently.
As would be expected, our study finds that upgraded farms have benefited in terms of profits and productivity. However, we also find large rebound effects, with upgraded farms increasing their water use by between 10% and 50%.
To get the extra water they need to buy it from other farmers, putting pressure on prices. We find the resulting price impact to be much more than the impact of buying back water. Per unit of water recovered, it is about double that of buybacks.
These higher water prices increase the risk that irrigation assets – including some newly upgraded systems – could become stranded as price sensitive irrigation activities become less profitable.
No easy answers
Recovering water through off-farm infrastructure is one alternative, however the most effective projects have already been developed, leaving cost-effective water saving schemes harder to find.
This brings us back to buybacks. Because buybacks are cheaper than farm infrastructure programs, there is more scope to combine them with regional development investments to help offset negative impacts on communities.
The challenge is that in a connected water market the flow-on effects on water prices and farmers can be complex and difficult to predict, making it hard to know where to direct development investments.
A potential middle ground is rationalisation, where parts of the water supply network are decommissioned, and affected farmers are compensated both for their water rights and for being disconnected from water supply. This approach has less effect on water prices and allows regional development initiatives to be targeted to the affected areas.
However, rationalisation can be hard to implement given it requires negotiating with all affected farmers and all levels of government.
Given the complexity of the Murray-Darling Basin, water policy is far from simple. While it is clear more water will be needed to put the basin on a sustainable footing, there are no easy options.
Further progress will require careful policy design to help ease adjustment pressure on farmers and regional communities.
When the clock ticked over to 2020, Australia was in the grip of a brutal drought and unprecedented bushfires. But in the months since, while many of us were indoors avoiding the pandemic, nature has started its slow recovery. That is the message of our new analysis released today.
Every year, my colleagues and I collate a vast number of measurements made by satellites, field sensors and people. We process the data and combine them into a consistent picture of the state of our environment.
Our 2019 report documented a disaster year of record heat, drought, and bushfires. We repeated the analysis after the first half of 2020, keen to see how our environment was recovering.
It’s not all good news. But encouragingly, our results show most of the country has started to bounce back from drought and fire. Here are four ways that’s happening.
Whether a region is in drought depends on the measure used: rainfall, river flows, reservoir storage, soil water availability or cropping conditions. On top of that, Australia is a vast country with large differences between regions.
Halfway through January, rain-blocking conditions in the Indian Ocean finally relented. This allowed the long-awaited monsoon to reach northern Australia, and encouraged more rainfall across the rest of the continent. February and March brought much needed rains in southeast Australia.
2. Water availability
Across the continent, the volume of water flowing into rivers in the first half of 2020 was almost four times greater than the previous year – although still below average. Good rains fell in the northern Murray-Darling Basin. Some made it into the town and irrigation water supplies that ran empty during the drought, and storage levels showed a modest improvement by the end of June to 17% of capacity.
The flows were also enough to fill wetlands such as Narran Lakes and the Paroo and Bulloo River wetlands, west of Bourke. There were enough flood waters left to send a modest flood pulse down the Darling River in March for the first time since 2016.
Reservoir water storage across the entire the Murray-Darling Basin improved from 36% of capacity at the end of June 2019 to 44% a year later. Even so, by June 2020 dry conditions still persisted in the tributaries and wetlands of the middle and southern Murray-Darling Basin.
Storage in urban water supply systems increased for Sydney (52% to 81%) and Melbourne (50% to 64%) while remaining stable for Brisbane (66%), Canberra (55%) and Perth (41%).
Meanwhile, lake and wetland extent across much of Western Australia remained at record or near-record low levels. Due to the poor northern monsoon, Lake Argyle – the massive dam lake supplying the Ord irrigation scheme in northern Australia – shrank to 38% of capacity, a level not seen for several decades.
Soil moisture acts like a bank account: rainfall makes deposits and plant roots make withdrawals. This makes soil moisture a useful measure of drought condition.
Average soil water availability across the country was far below average at the start of 2020, but returned closer to average conditions from March 2020 onwards. Very to extremely low soil water availability across most of northwest and southeast Australia had eased by June 2020.
By the end of June, rains had also improved growing conditions in southeast Queensland, western New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. However, recovery in these regions is, literally, shallow. Soil water remains low in the deeper soil layers and groundwater from which trees and other drought-tolerant vegetation draw their water. Drought conditions also persist in the dry inland of Australia.
4. Vegetation growth
Vegetation condition is measured by estimating leaf area from satellite observations. National leaf area reached its lowest value in December 2019 due to drought and bushfires, but improved once the rains returned from February onwards. It’s remained very close to average since.
Autumn rains also brought the best growth conditions in many years across much of the eastern wheat and sheep belt. But in the Western Australian wheat belt, which did not see much rain, cropping conditions are average or below average.
We separately measured vegetation recovery across areas in southeast Australia burnt at different times during the 2019-20 fire season.
In the central and northern NSW regions which burnt earlier in the fire season and received plentiful rains, recovery was relatively swift – more than 63% of lost leaf area had returned by June 2020.
But in the areas burnt in early 2020, recovery has been slow. The burnt forests in the far south of NSW and East Gippsland did not receive good rains until very recently. Also, much of areas burnt in early 2020 are found in the mountains of the NSW-Victoria border region, where cool autumn and winter temperatures have paused plant growth until spring.
Leaf area recovery is not a good measure of biodiversity. Much of the increase will have been due to rapid leaf flush from fire tolerant trees and undergrowth, including weeds. Some damage to ecosystems and sensitive species will take many years to recover, while some species may well be lost forever.
Climate change: the biggest threat
Rainfall after June has been average to good across much of Australia, and La Niña conditions are predicted to bring further rain. So there is reason to hope our environment will get a chance to recover further from a horrendous 2019.
In the long term, climate change remains the greatest risk to our agriculture and ecosystems. Ever-increasing summer temperatures kill people, livestock and wildlife, dry out soil and vegetation, and increase fire risk. In 2020, high temperatures also caused the third mass coral bleaching event in the Great Barrier Reef in five years.
Decisive climate action is needed, in Australia and worldwide, if we’re to protect ourselves and our ecosystems from long-term decline.
Federal and state governments on Friday resolved to streamline environment approvals and fast-track 15 major projects to help stimulate Australia’s pandemic-stricken economy.
The move follows the release this week of Professor Graeme Samuel’s preliminary review of the law, the 20-year-old Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. Samuel described the law as “ineffective” and “inefficient” and called for wholesale reform.
At the centrepiece of Samuel’s recommendations are “national environmental standards” that are consistent and legally enforceable, and set clear rules for decision-making. Samuel provides a set of “prototype” standards as a starting point. He recommends replacing the prototypes with more refined standards over time.
But rushing in the new law is a huge concern, and further threatens the future of Australia’s irreplaceable natural and cultural heritage. Here, we explain why.
Samuel’s review said legally enforceable national standards would help ensure development is sustainable over the long term, and reduce the time it takes to have development proposals assessed.
We’ve identified a number of problems with his prototype standards.
First, they introduce new terms that will require interpretation by decision-makers, which could lead the government into the courts. This occurred in Queensland’s Nathan dam case when conservation groups successfully argued the term environmental “impacts” should extend to “indirect effects” of development.
Second, there’s a difference in wording between the prototype standards and the EPBC Act itself, which might lead to uncertainty and delay. Samuel suggested a “no net loss” national standard for vulnerable and endangered species habitat, and “net gain” for critically endangered species habitat. But this departs from current federal policy, under which environmental offsets must “improve or maintain” the environmental outcome compared to “what is likely to have occurred under the status quo”.
Third, the outcomes proposed under the prototype standards might themselves cause confusion. The standards say, overall, the environment should be “protected”, but rare wetlands protected under the Ramsar Convention should be “maintained”. The status of threatened species should “improve over time” and Commonwealth marine waters should be “maintained or enhanced”, but the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park needs to be “sustained for current and future generations”.
And fourth, the standards don’t rule out development in habitat critical to threatened species, but require that “no detrimental change” occurs. But in reality, can there be development in critical habitat without detrimental change?
Mind the gap
The escape clause in the prototype standards presents another problem. A small, yet critical recommendation in the appendix of Samuel’s report says:
These amendments should include a requirement that the Standards be applied unless the decision-maker can demonstrate that the public interest and the national interest is best served otherwise.
Which decision maker is he referring to here – federal or state? If it’s the former, will there be a constant stream of requests to the federal environment minister for a “public interest” exemption on the basis of jobs and economic development? If the latter, can a state decision-maker judge the “national interest”, especially for species found in several states, such as the koala?
Samuel says the “legally enforceable” nature of national standards are the foundation of effective regulation. But both he and Auditor-General Grant Hehir in his recent report found existing enforcement provisions are rarely applied, and penalties are low.
Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley has already ruled out Samuel’s recommendation that an independent regulator take responsibility for enforcement. But the record to date does not give confidence that government officials will enforce the standards.
Both Ley and Samuel suggested the interim standards would be temporary and updated later. But history shows “draft” and “interim” policies have a tendency to become long-term, or permanent.
For example, federal authorities often allow a proponent to cause environmental damage, and compensate by improving the environment elsewhere – a process known as “offsetting”. A so-called “draft” offset policy drawn up in 2007 actually remained in place for five years until 2012, when it was finally replaced. And the federal environment department recently accepted offsets based on the 2007 “draft” rather than the current policy.
The best antidote is to ensure the first tranche of national standards is comprehensive, precise and strong. This can only occur if genuine consultation occurs, legislation is not rushed, and the government commits to improving the “antiquated” data and information systems the standards rely on.
Negotiation to the lowest bar
According to the Samuel report, the proposed standards “provide a clear pathway for greater devolution in decision-making” that will enable states and territories to conduct federal environmental assessments and approvals. This proposed change has been strongly and consistentlycriticised by scientists and environmental lawyers.
Ley also appears to be wildly underestimating the time and effort required to negotiate the standards with the states and territories.
Take the Gillard government’s attempts to overcome duplication between state and federal law by establishing a “one-stop-shop” approvals process. Prime Minister Julia Gillard pulled the plug on negotiations after a year, declaring the myriad agreements being sought by various states was the “regulatory equivalent of a Dalmatian dog”.
The Abbott government’s negotiations for a similar policy lasted twice as long but suffered a similar fate, lapsing with the dissolution of Parliament in 2016.
Samuel warned refining the standards should not involve “negotiated agreement with rules set at the lowest bar”. But vested interests will inevitably seek to influence the process.
Proceed with caution
We have identified significant problems with the prototype standards, and more may emerge.
Ley’s rush to amend the Act appears motivated more by wanting to cut so-called “green tape” than by evidence or environmental outcomes.
Prototypes are meant to be stress-tested. But if the defects are not corrected before hurrying into negotiations and legislative change, Australia might go another 20 years without effective environment laws.
Update: This article has been amended to reflect the national cabinet decision.
The Morrison government on Monday released a long-awaited interim review into Australia’s federal environment law. The ten-year review found Australia’s natural environment is declining and under increasing threat. The current environmental trajectory is “unsustainable” and the law “ineffective”.
The report, by businessman Graeme Samuel, called for fundamental reform of the law, know as the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. The Act, Samuel says:
[…] does not enable the Commonwealth to play its role in protecting and conserving environmental matters that are important for the nation. It is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges.
Samuel confirmed the health of Australia’s environment is in dire straits, and proposes many good ways to address this.
Worryingly though, Environment Minister Sussan Ley immediately seized on proposed reforms that seem to suit her government’s agenda – notably, streamlining the environmental approvals process – and will start working towards them. This is before the review has been finalised, and before public comment on the draft has been received.
This rushed response is very concerning. I was a federal environment official for 13 years, and from 2007 to 2012 was responsible for administering and reforming the Act. I know the huge undertaking involved in reform of the scale Samuel suggests. The stakes are far too high to risk squandering this once-a-decade reform opportunity for quick wins.
The EPBC Act is designed to protect and conserve Australia’s most important environmental and heritage assets – most commonly, threatened plant and animal species.
Samuel’s diagnosis is on the money: the current trajectory of environmental decline is clearly unsustainable. And reform is long overdue – although unlike Samuel, I would put the blame less on the Act itself and more on government failings, such as a badly under-resourced federal environment department.
Samuel also hits the sweet spot in terms of a solution, at least in principle. National environmental standards, legally binding on the states and others, would switch the focus from the development approvals process to environmental outcomes. In essence, the Commonwealth would regulate the states for environmental results, rather than proponents for (mostly) process.
Samuel’s recommendation for a quantum shift to a “single source of truth” for environmental data and information is also welcome. Effective administration of the Act requires good information, but this has proven hard to deliver. For example the much-needed National Plan for Environmental Information, established in 2010, was never properly resourced and later abolished.
Importantly, Samuel also called for a new standard for “best practice Indigenous engagement”, ensuring traditional knowledge and views are fully valued in decision-making. The lack of protection of Indigenous cultural assets has been under scrutiny of late following Rio Tinto’s destruction of the ancient Indigenous site Juukan caves. Reform in this area is long overdue.
And notably, Samuel says environmental restoration is required to enable future development to be sustainable. Habitat, he says “needs to grow to be able to support both development and a healthy environment”.
Samuel pointed to duplication between the EPBC Act and state and territory regulations. He said efforts have been made to streamline these laws but they “have not gone far enough”. The result, he says, is “slow and cumbersome regulation” resulting in significant costs for business, with little environmental benefit.
This finding would have been music to the ears of the Morrison government. From the outset, the government framed Samuel’s review around a narrative of cutting the “green tape” that it believed unnecessarily held up development.
In June the government announced fast-tracked approvals for 15 major infrastructure projects in response to the COVID-19 economic slowdown. And on Monday, Ley indicated the government will prioritise the new national environmental standards, including further streamlining approval processes.
Here’s where the danger lies. The government wants to introduce legislation in August. Ley said “prototype” environmental standards proposed by Samuel will be introduced at the same time. This is well before Samuel’s final report, due in October.
I believe this timeframe is unwise, and wildly ambitious.
Even though Samuel proposes a two-stage process, with interim standards as the first step, these initial standards risk being too vague. And once they’re in place, states may resist moving to a stricter second stage.
To take one example, the prototype standards in Samuel’s report say approved development projects must not have unacceptable impacts on on matters of national environmental significance. He says more work is needed on the definition of “unacceptable”, adding this requires “granular and specific guidance”.
I believe this requires standards being tailored to different ecosystems across our wide and diverse landscapes, and being specific enough to usefully guide the assessment of any given project. This is an enormous task which cannot be rushed. And if Samuel’s prototype were adopted on an interim basis, states would be free, within some limits, to decide what is “unacceptable”.
It’s also worth noting that the national standards model will need significant financial resources. Samuel’s model would see the Commonwealth doing fewer individual project approvals and less on-ground compliance. However, it would enter a new and complex world of developing environmental standards.
More haste, less speed
Samuel’s interim report will go out for public comment before the final report is delivered in October. Ley concedes further consultation is needed on some issues. But in other areas, the government is not willing to wait. After years of substantive policy inaction it seems the government wants to set a new land-speed record for environmental reform.
The government’s fixation with cutting “green tape” should not unduly colour its reform direction. By rushing efforts to streamline approvals, the government risks creating a jumbled process with, once again, poor environmental outcomes.