A similar proportion would favour reducing Australian coal exports to other countries.
“Australian views of coal exports and coal mines … appear to have shifted significantly in recent years,” the report says.
Only three in ten people would back the federal government providing subsidies for building new coal-fired power plants.
There are notable age differences in attitudes to coal. More than seven in ten (72%) of those aged 18–44 support banning new coal mines, but only 55% of people over 45.
The government’s “gas-fired recovery” has majority support – 58% back increasing the use of gas for generating energy.
The poll found most people want Australia to have more ambitious climate policies ahead of the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow late this year.
Seven in ten people say Australia should join other countries, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, to increase its commitments to address climate change.
Some 60% say Australia is doing too little to combat climate change. But Australians are critical of other countries for not doing enough – 82% say China is doing too little. The figures for the US and India doing too little are 71% and 81% respectively.
Nearly eight in ten Australians (78%) support setting a net zero emissions target for 2050.
Scott Morrison has been edging towards embracing this as a target and is likely to do so before Glasgow, although he faces some resistance within the Coalition. All the states and territories have this target.
The federal government is coming under considerable pressure from the Biden administration and the Johnson government over the climate issue.
Climate questions will be a feature of the G7 summit in June to which Morrison has been invited.
The Lowy poll found 74% believe the benefits of taking further action on climate change would outweigh the costs.
More than nine in ten people (91%) support the federal government providing subsidies for the development of renewable energy technology, while 77% favour the government subsidising electric vehicle purchases.
More than half (55%) say the government’s main priority for energy policy should be “reducing carbon emissions”. This was an 8 point increase since 2019.
Six in ten people agree with the proposition “global warming is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now, even if this involves costs”. This was a 4 point increase from last year
Six in ten Australians (64%) support “introducing an emissions trading scheme or carbon tax”.
The report, authored by Natasha Kassam and Hannah Leser, says: “While the COVID-19 pandemic appeared to temper concerns about climate change in 2020, the issue has risen to prominence again in 2021. The majority of Australians (60%) say ‘global warming is a serious and pressing problem…we should begin taking steps now, even if this involves significant costs’. This represents a reversal of the dip in 2020 during the early days of the pandemic, but remains eight points below the high watermark of concern in 2006.”
The climate poll was taken in mid and late April with a sample of 3,286.
So what determines someone’s climate change attitude, and how does it translate into voting?
In research published today, we studied 2,033 Australian voters’ attitudes across the political spectrum in the context of the 2019 federal election. And we found over 80% said they think it’s important Australia reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This includes close to 70% of conservative voters (those voting for Coalition parties).
However, digging deeper reveals nuance to these attitudes. While most Australians support climate action, stark differences emerge along political party preferences in terms of how important voters think it is.
Our research suggests the question about social support for climate action in Australia is no longer: “does climate change matter to enough Australians?”. Instead, the critical question may well be: “does climate change matter enough to Australians to shift climate politics?”.
Why the ‘climate election’ didn’t pan out
We conducted our survey in July 2019, two months after the Coalition won the federal election. Its victory came as a surprise to many, as the election was sometimes billed the “climate election”, implying climate change was a bellwether issue.
The climate policies of the two major parties were night and day, with the Labor Party campaigning on ambitious mitigation targets and the incumbent Coalition maintaining the status quo of very limited climate policy.
So what were the voters thinking?
We found about half of Australian voters (52%) said climate change was important when deciding their vote in the 2019 Australian federal election. However, climate was the most important issue for only 14% of voters.
Even among those who said they felt it was extremely important for Australia to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, most (58%) said climate change was important, but not the most important issue, when deciding their vote.
Climate change was stated as the most important issue for 21% of Labor voters and 39% of Greens voters, but for less than 5% of Liberal Party, National Party, and Queensland LNP voters.
This pattern was reversed for those who didn’t take climate change policy into account in their vote: 26% of Liberal, 21% of National, and 31% of Queensland LNP voters did not consider climate change when deciding their vote. Under 15% of Labor and Greens voters did the same.
And when we looked at how much voters cared about climate action, the differences become more potent. Three quarters (73%) of progressive voters (those voting for the ALP or the Greens) see Australian action to reduce emissions as “extremely important”. Only one quarter (26%) of conservative voters say the same thing.
Who’s more willing to make sacrifices for the climate?
Our research also explored the extent voters were willing to accept a personal cost to support climate action. We asked about their willingness to accept a significant or small personal cost, but didn’t specify what we meant by small or significant, because a small cost to one person may be a significant cost to another.
Most voters (72%) said they’d be willing to incur some personal cost in return for emissions reductions. Across the political spectrum, the proportion of voters willing to accept a small personal cost is relatively similar: 60% of progressive voters, 55% of conservative voters.
Major differences emerge when it comes to “significant personal cost”.
While 26% of progressive voters are willing to incur a significant personal cost, only 5% of conservative voters feel similarly. At the other end of the spectrum, 40% of conservative voters are unwilling to incur any personal cost, but only 14% of progressive voters feel the same.
Support for strong climate policies may depend on whether the policies will, or are perceived to, personally impact voters. Given political leaders’ stances influence public support for climate policies (as 2018 research showed), our research highlights an opportunity for conservative political leaders to clarify their position on climate change.
Interestingly, age was a consistent predictor of responses. Younger people were more likely than older people to consider it important that Australia reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Younger people were more willing to incur a personal cost to support climate action, and to consider climate change when deciding their vote.
In fact, we found an Australian voter from the Baby Boomer generation is half as likely as a voter from Generation Z to consider it important to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Divisive politics have a limited shelf life
If future young people cared just as much about climate change as today’s young people, and if existing cohorts don’t change their views as they age, then the percentage of Australian voters who consider greenhouse gas emissions to be “extremely important” is likely to increase from 52% in our 2019 data, to 56% by 2030. By 2050, this figure could rise to 65%.
These projections are purely on the basis of more climate-aware cohorts coming into voting age and replacing older voters. It doesn’t consider any future changes in attitudes within cohorts (which may also make a big difference).
The key implication is simple. If Australian political leaders pursued stronger climate action, they could rest assured most of the voting population will broadly support them, along with most of their own voter base — regardless of which party is in power.
This will become only more pronounced with gradual generational change, and likely changes in attitudes within age groups. In any case, it’s clear divisive politics that result in climate delay have a limited shelf life.
We will remember 2020 as a year of crisis. COVID-19 hit Australia just as we were beginning to make sense of the horror bushfires and smoke of last summer, a sinister illustration of global warming’s threats.
Since then, the news media has given centre stage to COVID-19 and its cascading impacts on society, shifting climate change to a relatively minor role in our narrative of this year’s crises. So, have Australians forgotten about the urgency of climate change?
No. Polling released today by The Australia Institute shows climate change and its impacts remain a prominent concern to Australians, even amid the upheaval and uncertainty wrought by COVID-19.
82% of Aussies worry about climate-driven bushfires
This year, it polled 1,998 Australians aged 18 and over, and found the vast majority (79%) hold views in line with the best available scientific evidence. That is, four in five Australians agree climate change is occurring. This is the highest result since 2012.
An even greater majority, 82%, is worried climate change will result in more bushfires, up from 76% in last year’s report. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the record-breaking fires of last summer and the threat of longer and more ferocious fire seasons.
The level of scientific consensus on climate change is remarkable. Urgent action on climate change is recommended by scientists and desired by the overwhelming majority of the public. Yet, Australia remains an international laggard in this area.
The Climate Change Performance Index evaluates 57 countries plus the European Union, which together are responsible for more than 90% of global emissions. This year, Australia ranked last on climate policy.
For many years, denial, delay and division over climate change was the norm in Australian politics. This is still the case among some media and political elites, and is no more pronounced than in debates over the future of coal in the domestic energy mix and for export.
Our energy sources play a big role in our overall contribution to climate change, with electricity generation contributing 32.7% of Australia’s emissions.
For everyday Australians, the solution is clear. The Climate of the Nation report shows the vast majority (83%) want to see coal-fired power stations phased out. Some 65% want the Australian government to stop new coal mines from being developed.
However, the ability for people and policy to engage constructively with concerns over jobs and climate is limited by toxic politics.
An important culprit is the pervasive “us versus them” narrative that dominates political and media discourse. The narrative repeatedly – but erroneously – signals to people in coal production regions that the rest of the country doesn’t care about them.
Coal production is also pitted against climate action in the “climate versus jobs” debate. But the polling shows such binaries are false: most Australians do care what happens in coal production regions. In fact, three-quarters of Australians want governments to plans and manage an orderly shift from coal to renewables.
The Australian people, by a large majority, care for those living in coal production communities and want to secure a safe climate.
68% of Aussies support an ambitious climate target
Australians recognise our country can make a disproportionately large and positive contribution to international efforts to mitigate climate change.
Seventy-one percent want Australia to be a global leader in finding solutions to climate change, while 77% recognise tackling climate change can create opportunities for new jobs and investment in clean energy.
The Climate of the Nation results clearly shows this goes against the will of the Australian people. Australia has a voting base that will support and reward ambitious climate action. Now is the time for political leaders to reflect this in the nation’s climate policy.
In the town of Goulburn in southern New South Wales, an energy revolution is brewing. The community has come together to build its own 4,000-panel solar farm – everyday citizens are invited to buy shares in the venture and reap the rewards.
Goulburn is not alone: community-owned energy is an idea whose time has come. About 100 community energy groups operate across Australia – their projects at various levels of development – up from 25 groups in 2015.
The concept is gaining political attention, too. Independent MP for the federal Victorian seat of Indi, Helen Haines, in August moved a motion in parliament, calling on the Morrison government to support community energy, including establishing a new government agency. The bill is backed by fellow independent Zali Steggall.
At its core, community energy rests on the belief that everyday people should have power over how their energy is generated – including its environmental and social impacts. Big corporations should not control our energy systems, nor should they reap all the profits. So let’s take a look at how community energy works.
What is community energy?
Australia’s first community-owned renewable energy project, Hepburn Wind, started generating power in June 2011. Since then, many more communities across Australia have banded together to manage their own solar, wind, micro-grid and efficiency projects.
The Goulburn project will be built in the Hume electorate of federal energy minister Angus Taylor, about 3km from the town centre. Earlier this year it received a A$2.1 million state grant, under the Regional Community Energy Fund.
Investors can reportedly buy A$400 shares, each covering the cost of a solar panel and the infrastructure needed for grid connection.
Hepburn Wind and the Goulburn Solar Farm, for example, involve a community investment model in which local groups develop a project, then seek investors from the community to fund it.
This might involve forming a cooperative, or selling shares in the venture. The community organisation may take responsibility for delivering the project – including design, installation, and management – or may outsource this to an external company.
A second model involves raising money through donations, either via crowd-sourcing platforms or traditional means. The money is usually spent on installing a sustainable energy system at a local premises. For example in north-east Victoria, a First Nations-owned renewable energy project will deliver solar power to the office of a state government agency.
The third type of project involves a group of households coming together to find a renewable energy solution, such as bulk-buying solar energy.
What are the benefits?
Community-owned renewable energy projects are a great way for everyday people to get involved in the transition to a low-carbon future. The benefits include:
the creation of funds to reinvest in other community projects. For example in Scotland, dividends from renewables developments have been invested in electric public transport and local skills development
community building, in which towns develop a stronger identity, participate in communal activities and make collective decisions about their future.
Empowering the community
The energy transformation is not just about moving from fossil fuels to renewables. It’s also about changing who is responsible for, and benefits from, our energy system.
Inevitably, those in power, such as existing energy generators and their political supporters, will resist such change.
We’ve seen this play out in Australia, which has triggered more than a decade of climate policy inaction. More recently, the Morrison government has pushed ahead with a plan for a “gas-fired” economic recovery, despite the harm this will cause to our emissions reduction efforts. These developments are clearly at odds with community support for action on climate change.
Traditionally, communities are often shut out of decision making on energy projects, including renewables. Communities often become dependent on both local political representation to voice their views, and the capacity of energy network operators to work with them.
Communities must be empowered to take part in planning, and have ownership of projects. Our research, soon to be published, shows such empowerment involves helping communities develop the capacity and power to meet their own energy goals. This means developing new skills, working together and becoming equal decision makers.
Governments are central to this by helping communities deliver projects. The Victorian government’s Community Power Hubs are a good example. At three “hubs” – in Ballarat, Bendigo and the Latrobe Valley – various types of energy projects were implemented. Each sought to build local knowledge of, and participation in, community energy, and ensured the benefits stayed in the region.
Australia’s growing community energy movement shows us what’s possible, but it needs more government support, especially at the federal level. Helen Haines’ proposal is a very good start.
The energy transformation will require massive investment, and most projects will be built in regional communities.
Empowering community energy is the ideal way to provide some of that investment, build stronger rural economies and ensure the benefits of the energy transformation are shared by all.
Bushfires are predicted to be worse than normal across much of Australia this summer but research shows many people, especially those in high-risk areas, remain unprepared.
The latest Australian Seasonal Bushfire Outlook shows the 2019-20 fire season has the potential to be an active season across the country, following a very warm and dry start to the year.
The east coast of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, as well as parts of southern Western Australia and South Australia, face above-normal fire potential. It means communities in those areas, and across Australia, should start planning their emergency fire response.
The ingredients for a bad fire season
Above-normal bushfire potential refers to the ability of a large fire to take hold. It takes into account recent and predicted weather for a particular area, the dryness of the land and forests, and recent fire history.
The year to date has been unusually warm and dry for large parts of Australia. In fact it has been the fifth-driest start to the year on record, and the driest since 1970. Some areas, such as New South Wales into southeastern Queensland, are into their third year of dry conditions.
The warming trend means that above average temperatures now tend to occur in most years, and 2019 has followed this pattern. These high temperatures further dry the landscape and vegetation.
An early start to the fire season has been declared in many areas across eastern Australia. The dry landscape means that any warm and windy conditions are likely to see elevated fire risk. However in some drought-affected areas, poor growth of grass and annual plants means that vegetation loads are reduced, which may lower the fire risk.
Climate change doesn’t create bushfires, but can make them worse
Heat, drought, flood and fire are not new phenomena for Australia. What is different now is that there is an underlying 1℃ increase in average temperatures since industrial times began – the result of climate change – which means that the variability of normal events sits on top of that. So climate change alone doesn’t create a bad fire season, but can make the weather conditions conducive to very large and destructive fires.
Weather records are routinely being broken and all indications are that temperatures will continue to increase.
We cannot be sure what this means for extreme hazards like bushfire. This is an area in critical need of further research into weather prediction, land planning, infrastructure development, population trends and community awareness.
Firefighting resources are finite
The distribution and readiness of firefighting resources are also considered when calculating fire potential.
In Victoria’s East Gippsland, for example, forests have been extremely dry for many years. If a fire were to start under bad conditions, there is a high likelihood it would grow too large for local resources, and they would need to call for extra support from elsewhere.
Fire seasons are lengthening and overlapping across states, and indeed across the globe. So we need to think of new ways of dealing with bushfires, floods, cyclones, and heatwaves. The old ways of sharing resources such as aerial firefighting equipment, and fire fighters between Australian states and other countries, may not always be possible. So we need to discover better ways to manage all our resources.
Be prepared, and get your kids involved
Research has identified significant trends of vulnerability linked to demographic changes, such as a growing and ageing population. For example, the population of those aged over 85 is predicted to double in the next 25 years. The general population is also increasingly shifting into traditionally hazard-prone areas such as forested or coastal rural areas.
Our research is consistently showing that many Australians, especially those in high risk areas, are not sufficiently ready for fire and have not established fire plans well ahead of time. For example, people may underestimate the risks to life and property if the fire danger is not rated as “catastrophic”. The research showed many properties were under-insured and some people overestimated the response capacity of fire services.
So, make sure you’ve got a plan, talk about it with your family and ensure you have back up plans B, C and D. Include your children in planning to help them prepare, and don’t forgot about your pets and animals too.
Backed by the research, emergency warnings to people under the threat of a fire have been transformed in recent years. But do not wait for a warning, as it might be too late. Everyone should be aware of their surroundings.
The latest outlook report is the work of the Bureau of Meteorology and fire and land management agencies around the country, brought together by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre.
For more information on how to prepare and be ready for the fire season, consult your local fire service website.
The risk of extreme heat events and the adverse impacts on older people has been extensively discussed in research. Remarkably, very little attention has been paid to the role of urban greenery in reducing heat stress for seniors.
Older people are particularly at risk of heat stress. Pre-existing medical conditions and limited mobility increase their vulnerability. Deaths of older people increase during extreme heat events.
The physical features of urban areas shape the capacity of older adults to engage in many activities when it’s hot. These include vegetation volume and coverage, thermal design, and the extent of shading in public areas and walkways. Increasing urban greenery may offer a way to improve older people’s comfort and social experience.
It is expected 20% of the global population will be older than 60 by 2050. The figure for Australia is even higher, at 23%. This means that by 2050 around one in four Australians will be more vulnerable to extreme heat.
Planning our urban centres to meet the needs of a rapidly ageing population is a matter of urgency. Urban greening to reduce their vulnerability to heat stress should be central to this agenda. It can also improve people’s quality of life, reduce social isolation and loneliness, and ease the burden on health systems.
An important task is matching the design of communities with the needs of an ageing population. Where older adults live and the quality of their local areas strongly influence their lived experiences. Yet recent research found the experiences of seniors were often not accounted for in research on neighbourhood design.
If one in ten Australian seniors live in aged-care facilities, it is clear these should be designed to minimise heat stress. This isn’t just good for residents; it may also benefit operators by lowering health-care and electricity costs.
While these facilities are purpose-built for older people, many in Australia were built well over a decade ago, when heat stress was not such a large concern. Many more facilities are being built now and will be into the future. Yet it is uncertain whether they are being actively designed to reduce the impacts of heat.
We recently conducted a focus group to investigate this issue. Participants were senior managers from four large corporate providers of aged care in Australia. We investigated if and how providers try to minimise heat stress through design. We also sought to understand the rationales used to support these design approaches.
Several participants reported on refurbishments that they expect will have cooling effects. Cited design approaches included green roofs and walls, as well as sensory gardens. Other expected benefits included reducing anxiety and improving the mental health of residents.
The fact that single design interventions could produce multiple benefits improved the potential for corporate buy-in. Participants expected that increasing green space and green cover would give their facilities a competitive advantage by attracting more clients and providing a better working environment for staff.
Participants also reported on challenges of including greening in their projects. For example, the benefits of trees were weighed against concerns about roots disrupting footpaths and becoming trip hazards. Species selection was another concern, with fears that inappropriate plants could die and undermine support for greening programs.
Our research suggests that more can be done to make cities hospitable for older people, especially during extreme heat. Urban greening is a start. Encouraging aged-care providers to adopt green infrastructure will have benefits. But we should also consider reforms to planning systems and urban design to better protect older people who choose to age in place.
Extreme heat affects the mental health of Australians to the same degree as unemployment, yet Australia’s policy action on climate change lags behind other high-income countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom.
As Australia approaches another summer, we face the inevitability of deadly heatwaves. Our report published today in the Medical Journal of Australia concludes that policy inaction, particularly at the federal level, is putting Australian lives at risk.
Australia is the first to prepare its own country-level report. Developed in partnership with the Lancet Countdown – which tracks the global connections between health and climate change – it adopts the structure and methods of the global assessment but with an Australian focus.
How Australians’ health suffers
Australians are already facing climate change-related exposures that come from increasing annual average temperatures, heatwaves and weather-related disasters. Australian deaths during the 2014 Adelaide heatwave and Melbourne’s 2016 thunderstorm asthma event are examples of the risk climate poses to our health.
Our report was produced by a team of 19 experts from 13 universities and research institutes. We aimed to answer what we know about climate change and human health in Australia and how we are responding to this threat, if at all.
To do this, our team examined more than 40 indicators that enable us to track progress on the broad and complex climate change and human health issue. Health impact indicators included the health effects of temperature change and heatwaves, change in labour capacity, trends in climate-sensitive diseases, lethality of weather-related disasters and food insecurity and malnutrition.
We also developed an indicator for the impacts of climate change on mental health. This involved examining the association between mean annual maximum temperatures and suicide rates for all states and territories over the last ten years.
We found that, in most jurisdictions, the suicide rate increased with increasing maximum temperature. In Australia’s changing climate, we urgently need to seek ways to break the link between extreme temperature and suicide.
Across other indicators, we found workers’ compensation claims in Adelaide increased by 6.2% during heatwaves, mainly among outdoor male workers and tradespeople over 55 years.
And we found the length of heatwaves increased in 2016 and 2017 in Australia’s three largest cities – Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Heatwave length varied from year to year, but between 2000 and 2017, the mean number of heatwave days increased by more than two days across the country.
Policy action we need
Australia’s slow transition to renewables and low-carbon electricity generation is problematic, and not only from a climate change perspective. Our report shows that pollutants from fossil fuel combustion cause thousands of premature deaths nationwide every year. We argue even one premature death is one too many when there is so much that we can do to address this.
Australia is one of the world’s wealthiest countries with the resources and technical expertise to act on climate change and health. Yet Australia’s carbon intensity is the highest among the countries we included in our comparison – Germany, United States, China, India and Brazil.
A carbon-intensive energy system is one of the main drivers behind climate change. Australia was once a leader in the uptake of renewables but other nations have since streaked ahead and are reaping the benefits for their economies, energy security and health.
Despite some progress increasing renewable generation, it’s time we truly pull our weight in the global effort to prevent acceleration towards dangerous climate change.
Policy leaders must take steps to protect human health and lives. These include strong political and financial commitments to accelerate transition to renewables and low-carbon electricity generation. The government lacks detailed planning for a clean future with a secure energy supply.
Our MJA-Lancet Countdown report will be updated annually. Now that Australia has begun systematically tracking the effects of climate change on health – and given its poor performance compared with comparable economies globally – further inaction would be reckless.
On Wangkumarra land, in the corner-country near the borders of Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia, stands an ancient stone arrangement. It has been placed to the side of a huge complex, rivalling Stonehenge, featuring megaliths polished, carved and placed to balance precariously on each other.
They should fall, but they don’t, as this is a place where time runs differently. In contrast to the Western “arrow of time”, the small rock formation pictured shows the non-linear, infinitely interconnected cycle of time followed by the First People who built the site and used it over millennia. It is a stone calendar, aligned within a fraction of a millimetre to the points of the compass.
The key to understanding this temporal reality is the shape of the stone calendar. It is round, not a continuum. There is no beginning or end, and as such, there is no “New Year”. Seasons do not serve as a basis for linear metaphors of new life in spring to death in winter.
Instead, both seasons and humans are viewed as components of cycles. Around Australia, Indigenous languages vary in both the number of season words in their lexicon and their precise meaning. This is at least partly due to the very different kinds of weather experienced around the year in different parts of the country.
A tour of the seasons
In the Tiwi islands just to the north of Darwin there are three major seasons named in the Tiwi language: Kumunupunari (the dry season of fire and smoke); Tiyari (the season of hot, humid weather); and Jamutakari (the wet season of daily rain and full rivers). These three seasons subsume 13 overlapping, more precisely defined seasons.
For example, in the Mumpikari season (which overlaps with the start of the Jamutakari “wet season”) the first rains after the dry time make the ground soft and muddy enough to retain the footprints left by possums returning to their trees, which makes the possums easier to track when hunting.
Understanding the meaning of a word like Mumpikari “season of muddy possum tracks” entails knowledge of the type of weather experienced at that time (first rains following a long dry spell), consequent changes in the local ecology (muddy ground), as well as changes in human behaviour and potential sources of food (it’s a good time to hunt and eat possums).
The changes in weather, ecology and potential food sources over the course of the year are dramatic, but vary significantly across a continent as large as Australia. The season experienced in tropical Cape York in January is very different to January in Tasmania. Likewise, the middle of the year brings radically different weather patterns to the tropical north, temperate south and central desert regions respectively.
The definitions of seasonal terms tell us a lot about the ecology that a language is spoken within and how speakers interact with it. In the Warlpiri language of the Tanami Desert, for example, several seasonal terms (such as karapurda) make reference to the prominent westerly winds that blow at the onset of the hot season.
Common food sources also feature prominently in the definitions of season terms, such as mangkajingi, “season of year when goannas are easily found in shallow burrows”. In the Bardi language of the Dampier Peninsula (WA), the build up to the wet season is named Lalin and colloquially referred to as “married turtle season”, because the mating turtles are a prized food source at this time.
In Gulumoerrgin (Larrakia) language group, spoken around Darwin, the year is divided into seven named seasons. Each of these seasons is associated with distinctive patterns of weather, but also changes in flora, fauna, and human activity. The Gurrulwa season, or “big wind time”, is heralded by the flowering of wattles, which in turn indicates that the local stingrays are plentiful and good to eat. The flowering of the Yellow Kapok at this time in turn indicates that it is the time for important traditional ceremonies to be held.
These connections between species are often cemented in language by using a single word. In the Dalabon language of Arnhem land, the word yawok has two meanings: (1) a species of yam (Dioscorea bulbifera); and (2) a species of grasshopper (Caedicia spp.). To the untrained observer, the yam and grasshopper might appear to have little in common.
But for Dalabon speakers, this naming practice is a useful mnemonic that helps them remember that the yam is ripe for harvest precisely at that time of year when the grasshopper’s mating call can be heard. Similar principles have been found to underpin the naming of plant and animal species in languages such as Bininj Gun-Wok and Ndjébbana.
The words of any language tell us a lot about the history of its speakers; who they’ve been in contact with, where and how they have lived. This is certainly true of the English calendar months. It is also seen in the number and nature of the seasons named by different Indigenous communities, from the tropical north of Australia to the chillier climates down south.
With around 370 languages and many hundreds more dialects originally spoken in Australia, it is impossible to do justice to the wealth and variety of traditional systems of tracking time and seasons. But a recurrent theme is the interconnectedness of human activities and the cycle of changes in flora and fauna that attend the tilting of the earth’s axis.
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.
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 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.
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.
Concerns about drought and water supply are once more building in eastern Australia. Recent reports from Victoria show the state government is considering switching on the so-far-unused desalination plant to supply Melbourne. While Melbourne doesn’t currently need extra water, this might free up other water allocated to the city to be diverted to regional communities in the north of the state where water shortages are looming.
When drought strikes, people and governments look to shore up water supplies. In Australia, politicians have focused on building more dams and long pipelines, at the expense of alternative sources such as recycled water.
It has been widely assumed that drinking recycled water, from sources such as sewage, is not acceptable to the public. But an Australia-first survey released by the Australian Water Association shows the public is ready to accept recycled water.
Water is getting further away and more expensive
Since colonisation, we have tapped increasingly distant, more energy-intensive and more expensive sources of fresh water.
We have constructed large dams to buffer variable water supplies through wet and dry seasons, as well as wet and dry years. As water consumption has exceeded the capacity of river basins to meet demand, we have constructed long pipelines, to pump water in from less populated river basins to more populated basins.
During the last decade, many of our major cities began to identify that the capacity to pump more water from distant locations was approaching sustainable limits.
New sources of water were required. So, in a very short period of time, cities including Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and the Gold Coast set about constructing seawater desalination plants.
Hindsight comes with 20-20 vision and it’s clear that most of these desalination decisions – with the notable exception of Perth’s – were premature since the plants have barely beeen used. Politicians and those with a financial interest in these plants often comment that the desal plants represent great “insurance policies” for when the next drought inevitably arrives.
However, these “insurance policies” came with billion-dollar price tags. Much of this has been externally financed, thus accruing significant annual interest costs.
Furthermore, the costs associated with maintaining desal plants are significant – even when they supply zero or negligible water. In some cases, such as Sydney, the real need to use the desal plant – given effective demand management – is likely to be still many years away. As such, it is arguable that these desal plants were very poor value insurance policies.
I argued that the technology was established to reliably purify water from sewage treatment plants to such a high degree that it would be capable of providing extremely high-quality drinking water for Sydney. This practice has been adopted in a number of US cities and is commonly referred to as “potable water recycling”.
All towns and cities are physically unique in terms of geography and historic development features. However, in the right mix of circumstances, potable water recycling can have significant advantages over seawater desalination.
These can include reduced operation and construction costs, as well as much lower energy requirements, which translate to reduced carbon emissions. Nonetheless, the suggestion that the NSW government seriously consider potable water recycling as an alternative to seawater desalination was not widely appreciated.
The general wisdom of the time was that Australians would not be prepared to accept water that was once sewage as a component of their drinking water supply. Indeed, this appeared to be supported by a telephone survey around that time.
Since then, the New South Wales and Victorian state governments have made statements that potable water recycling is not even an option for consideration by cities in those states.
Political thirst for dams
It is widely recognised that most opportunities for building dams on rivers to provide water for Australia’s large cities have been effectively exhausted.
Nonetheless, Australian politicians appear to yearn for opportunities to announce a new big dam project. When the federal member for Calare, John Cobb, announced a plan to dam the Belubula River at Needles Gap (NSW) in 2014, he declared: “I believe this project will lift the spirits of the central west and will inspire all of regional Australia.”
Water supply projects may have many diverse objectives, and inspiring all of regional Australia may be an understandably important one for a politician. However, many politicians appear to carry some unshakeable assumptions about community water supply preferences in Australia. Most seem to think we all want to hear announcements for new big dams.
And if we can’t have new big dams, they think desalination plants are our next preferred option. Few politicians deny the sustainability advantages of potable water recycling, but most seem to think it’s just too difficult to bring the community on board to support it.
Attitudes are changing
In the recent survey, 3,316 completed responses were received from community members across Australia.
Of these, 69% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that recycled water “can be treated and managed for safe drinking”. This compared with 56% who agreed with the same statement for stormwater and 82% who agreed for seawater desalination.
Given the prevalence of actual seawater desalination plants around Australia and a lack of any public discussion about potable water recycling, I suggest that this level of faith in the capabilities of recycling plants is remarkable.
Recent research from the United States has shown that by engaging the community and providing accurate information, the underlying level of support for recycling can be significantly increased.
When consumers were asked whether they agree with the statement that “there is scope for more dams to provide additional water supplies in the south of Australia (e.g. in the Murray-Darling Basin and the south-east coastal areas)”, only 33% agreed. This rose to 46% for northern Australia. So much for inspiring all of regional Australia.
When this happens, we can expect many regional areas to struggle in their management of dwindling water supplies. Many will be searching for sustainable water supply solutions and some will identify potable water recycling as the most sustainable option for their circumstances.
The challenge for the federal and state governments will be to support the needs of these towns and cities. They will do that best by ensuring that all potential water supply options are on the table and given fair consideration.
In the meantime, our politicians would serve regional Australia best by ceasing to stigmatise potable water recycling as an option that is not even entitled to consideration.
Instead, they should work to build upon the support that currently exists in our communities so that when the need arises, potable water recycling is a viable and broadly accepted water supply solution. There is already powerful evidence that this can be achieved, when state governments work constructively toward this goal.
In 2013, the Western Australian government gave strong support and approval for a potable water recycling project to provide up to 20% of Perth’s water supply. That plant has since been constructed and will soon begin replenishing one of the city’s essential, but dwindling, groundwater supplies.