China succeeds in greening its economy not because, but in spite of, its authoritarian government


Sung-Young Kim, Macquarie University; Elizabeth Thurbon, UNSW; Hao Tan, University of Newcastle, and John Mathews, Macquarie University

From an appalling environmental scorecard 20 years ago, China has pioneered a “global green shift” towards renewable energy and recycling. The country’s drive to dominate renewables manufacturing benefits both China and the world, by sending technology prices plummeting.

Many have attributed this success to China’s authoritarian political regime.

Unlike a democracy, this line of reasoning goes, the state can override special interest groups or opposition parties to impose “authoritarian environmentalism”. This allows a rapid and encompassing response to severe environmental threats.

We take a different view. As the chief investigators on an Australia Research Council Discovery Project examining East Asia’s clean energy shift, we are examining why and how some East Asian countries – including China – are pursuing ambitious renewable energy transformations, and what Australia might learn from these countries’ experiences.

We argue China’s success in greening and growing its economy is not because, but in spite of, its authoritarian government.




Read more:
What we can learn from China’s fight against environmental ruin


Not that different

China’s approach to greening shares much in common with democratic countries such as Germany, South Korea and Taiwan. All have ambitious programs to rapidly build domestic clean energy industries and “green” their power generation.

As such, our project emphasises the link between China’s green shift and what we call “developmental environmentalism”.

Developmental environmentalism refers to a state approaching greening as an opportunity to promote national techno-economic competitiveness. It helps explain both the drivers of the green shift and the means of its execution.

The “means” are less about authoritarianism and more about the state’s capacity to induce the private sector into a cooperative relationship.

This type of negotiated relationship between the state and industry is the exact opposite of authoritarianism, which pursues its goals irrespective of the wishes of the private sector. Indeed, the pages of history tell us authoritarian leaders are far more likely to misuse their concentrated economic power, resulting in developmental failure.

Democratic successes

China is not alone in its green shift. In fact, some of the world’s most ambitious national greening programs have sprung to life in democratic settings.

Germany

The clearest example is Germany and its widely admired Energiewende (“energy transition”). Germany took an early lead in the development of solar devices through government-sponsored industrial programs.

Then in 2011, in the wake of the Fukishima nuclear disaster, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the shutdown of Germany’s nuclear power stations.

Countries around the world are now emulating Germany’s Energiewende.

South Korea

In one of East Asia’s most vibrant democracies, South Korea, the election of President Lee Myung-bak in 2008 signalled a shift from intensive fossil-fuel development to “low-carbon, green growth”.

Lee’s focus was on greening the economy by investing in renewables and related infrastructure such as smart grids. His successor in 2013, President Park Geun-hye, continued this approach.

Finally, after President Moon Jae-in swept into power in 2017, South Korea committed to scaling down its use of nuclear energy.

Taiwan

Taiwan provides another fascinating example of a proudly democratic country that has followed in Germany’s footsteps. National efforts to establish a renewables industry began in 2009 under President Ma Ying-jeou. These initiatives targeted various clean energy industries for promotion, including generating solar and wind facilities and batteries.

However, just like Korea, the country’s over-reliance on nuclear energy (facilitated by a state-owned monopoly in the power sector) prevented the growth of a market for renewables.

A breakthrough in the country’s highly contentious debate over nuclear energy came with the election of President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, who committed to the complete shutdown of nuclear reactors in the country.

Developmental environmentalism in action

These examples provide a clue that China’s ability to green its economy stems from something other than its authoritarian political system. We argue China’s success in greening stems from developmental environmentalism in action.

This does not simply mean a state that is “pro-development” and “pro-environment”. Rather, policymakers see greening the economy as chance to gain a competitive edge over other countries. The pursuit of strategic industry development goals involves nurturing – not displacing, as would occur in an authoritarian setting – “governed interdependence” with the private sector.

Best depicted by the Korean example, developmental environmentalism as a policy initially emerged as a response to threats to national industrial competitiveness. These included acute dependence on fossil-fuel imports, which are highly volatile, and global competitive pressures in the race to gain an early lead in the green economy.

Developmental environmentalism is also a strategic response to domestic challenges, such as the need to drive new sources of economic growth.

Lessons for Australia

If an authoritarian government provides little to no advantage for coordinating a green shift, what lessons might these countries have for Australian policymakers?

The key lesson is it’s not about designing the perfect constellation of policies or about pouring more money into entire industries.

Developmental environmentalism involves the political will to take big risks. Policymakers must target technologies – or segments of the economy – where government support could build national competitiveness.

Of course, this means creating a strategic, long-term approach to industry development, coordinated with the private sector.

Despite political gridlock, Australia is well placed to establish a foothold in the rapidly growing clean energy industry.

As the nation’s leaders engage in a fruitless debate over building new coal-fired power stations, Australian companies with world-class strengths in clean energies are emerging. Nowhere is this growing confidence more evident than in the blossoming of companies that have commercially ready smart microgrid and energy-storage solutions.

It would be a great shame – if not a national tragedy – if these companies were allowed to be picked off one by one by foreign multinational enterprises. This is the sad and familiar story of Australian manufacturing: highly innovative companies – a testament to our wealth of knowledge – are bought out, intellectual property rights absorbed, and manufacturing eventually outsourced. Often, shells of our prized national assets (typically the marketing and sales divisions) are all that remain.




Read more:
Wake up Australia, and take a lesson on solar from Korea


Yet, in the absence of a coordinated national strategy that focuses on building a national value chain or ecosystem of upstream and downstream players – as the Koreans and Taiwanese have done in smart microgrids – this future appears all but settled.The Conversation

Sung-Young Kim, Lecturer in the Department of Modern History, Politics & International Relations, Macquarie University; Elizabeth Thurbon, Scientia Fellow and Associate Professor in International Relations / International Political Economy, UNSW; Hao Tan, Associate professor, University of Newcastle, and John Mathews, Professor of Strategic Management, Macquarie Graduate School of Management, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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A sharing economy for plants: Seed libraries are sprouting up



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Got a license for those seeds?
xuanhuongho/Shutterstock.com

Michael Carolan, Colorado State University

Thanksgiving may be uniquely American, but its core spirit was exported from harvest festivals stretching back for millennia. Its essence is being grateful for what one has, while noting a duty to share one’s good fortune.

In my new book, “The Food Sharing Revolution: How Start-Ups, Pop-Ups, and Co-Ops are Changing the Way We Eat,” I look at sharing from a variety of angles – good, bad and downright ugly. One example is the custom of seed sharing, which can be traced from indigenous societies and the earliest fall festivals that ultimately inspired American Thanksgiving.

For centuries, people in agrarian societies shared seeds to help each other subsist from year to year. Today, thanks to intellectual property rights and often well-intentioned laws, our ability to share seeds is restricted. Realizing this, food activists, garden enthusiasts and community leaders are trying to make it easier by making seeds available through libraries. Surely there’s nothing controversial about that, right? Actually, there is.

Seed swap at the ‘Harvesting Change: Food and Community’ gathering in Detroit, Michigan, May 20, 2014.
W.K. Kellogg Foundation, CC BY-ND

Free seeds by mail

Until the early 1800s, U.S. farmers either saved seed from their own crops or obtained it through personal networks. Then in 1819, Treasury Secretary William Crawford called upon all ambassadors and military officers stationed overseas to collect seeds and bring them home, where they would be shared freely.

Seed advertising card, 1887.
Boston Public Library, CC BY

Initially this program was informal, but in 1839 Commissioner of Patents Henry Ellsworth persuaded Congress to appropriate funds for it. Ellsworth owned large tracts of land in the Midwest, so his motives may not have been strictly public-minded. Soon his office was distributing 60,000 seed packages annually through the U.S. mail. By the turn of the 20th century, the Department of Agriculture was shipping a billion free packages of seed each year.

This was relatively uncontroversial until 1883, when a group of representatives from mostly vegetable seed trade firms formed the American Seed Trade Association. No business model can work if the government gives away for free what private merchants want to sell.

After decades of lobbying, the group convinced Congress to end the free seed program in 1924. Without granting ownership rights to plant breeders, members argued, there would be no incentive to “improve” seed for qualities such as yield, tolerance, germination length, root depth or aesthetics. As two plant breeders put it in 1919:

“The man who originates a new plant which may be of incalculable benefit to the whole country gets nothing – not even fame – for his pains, as the plants can be propagated by anyone.”

The 1930 Plant Patent Act was a watershed. It initially applied only to nursery plants propagated through cuttings, such as roses and apple trees. Soon, however, breeders of agricultural commodities pressed to expand the law in recognition of their labor. As a result, the majority of commercial crops and garden plants in use today were developed by agricultural companies, to the point that three companies – Bayer Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta – account for roughly 50 percent of all global seed sales.

Today the seed industry is highly controlled. Every state has laws that require suppliers to obtain licenses, test seeds to ensure they are the variety advertised and properly label them. And the federal government regulates seed sales across state lines.

These laws exist for good reason. If farmers buy seed that turns out to be the wrong variety, or doesn’t germinate, their livelihood is at risk. Seed laws hold providers accountable and protect buyers. Some laws apply even to those who offer seeds for barter, exchange or trade.

Benton County Nursery Co. seed catalogue, 1960.
Internet Archive Book Images

Seed sharing redux: Seed libraries

But another community pillar is distributing seeds without charge: Libraries. The process works much the same as with books. Patrons receive seeds and plant them, then allow some of their plants to go to seed and return those seeds to the library for others’ use.

According to some proponents, there are more than 660 seed libraries in 48 states. Public libraries, universities and secondary schools are getting involved. Their motives range from preserving plant diversity and local history to enhancing food access and building regional agricultural resiliency in the face of climate change.

One of the nation’s first seed libraries is the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library, or BASIL, which opened in 2000 at the Berkeley Ecology Center in Berkeley, California and is run by volunteers. Sascha DuBrul, its founder, is said to have came up with the idea after wanting to find a home for seeds that were left when the University of California, Berkeley closed its campus farm.

A librarian from the Tulsa City and County Community Library in Oklahoma explains their seed program.

People who I interviewed for my research say the seed library movement has grown exponentially, starting with a few pioneers but expanding rapidly in the past five years. The movement includes food and community activists, gardeners, lawyers and citizens who support the idea that everyone has a right to seed.

Libraries don’t test seeds or place expiration dates on packaged seed, so some states have moved to regulate seed libraries. For example, in 2014 the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture informed the Joseph T. Simpson Public Library in Mechanicsburg that it was violating the state’s Seed Act of 2004 and needed to follow the same stringent requirements as agricultural supply companies.

Labels had to be in English and clearly state the plant’s species name or commonly accepted name, and the library had to conduct germination and purity analyses. Failure to do so, one county commissioner asserted, could threaten local food supplies through what she called “agri-terrorism.”

The seed library eventually reopened after officials
agreed that patrons would not be required to bring seed back to the
library, and that seeds it provided would be commercially packaged. It now hosts seed swap events to encourage person-to-person sharing.

Defending the right to share

Seed sharing advocates believe, as one who I will call Barry told me, that “people ought to be able share seeds without being treated like they’re Monsanto.” Many are alarmed by government crackdowns on seed libraries.

I met Barry in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he was advising state officials on adding an exemption to the state’s seed law for seed libraries. “I’ve made the rounds”, he confessed when asked how many states’ revised seed laws have his fingerprints on them.

Since 2015, states ranging from Minnesota to Nebraska, Illinois and, more recently, Alaska have adopted such exemptions. In North Carolina, seed libraries are legal thanks to a blanket seed sharing exemption that applies to all nonprofit oganizations. Alabama exempts any providers who sell up to US$3,000 worth of seed.

In September 2016, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1810, known among activists as the Seed Exchange Democracy Act, into law. The measure amended state law to exempt seed libraries from burdensome testing and labeling requirements.

Despite these successes, a number of activists I spoke with fear that agribusinesses seeking to protect their intellectual property rights will push back if the seed library movement keeps expanding. The hard reality is that sharing is not a right, even in this age of the so-called sharing economy, if the thing people want to share is a valuable commodity.The Conversation

Michael Carolan, Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean for Research & Graduate Affairs, College of Liberal Arts, Colorado State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Elephants and economics: how to ensure we value wildlife properly



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Botswana’s elephants are officially an economic asset.
Ian Sewell/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Michael Vardon, Australian National University; Carl Obst, University of Melbourne, and David Lindenmayer, Australian National University

Ensuring the economic health of nations is one of the biggest tasks expected of governments. The elephant in the room has long been the health of the environment, on which the health of the economy (and everything else) ultimately depends.

Most countries still rely on gross domestic product as the lead measure of their economic health. But this does not account for the loss of environmental condition. There is a growing recognition of the environmental damage that human activity causes, our dependence on a functioning environment, and the need for new approaches to measure and manage the world.

We hope this new idea can be advanced internationally at the two-week meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity, which began this week in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.




Read more:
Why we need environmental accounts alongside national accounts


Integrating the environment into national accounts has long been suggested as a way to improve information and has been tried in several countries.

In Botswana, where elephants are included in the nation’s environmental accounts, spending on wildlife conservation is now seen as an investment, rather than a cost. This example shows how integrating environmental assets into economic data can help provide a new policy framing for conservation. But worldwide, this type of “expanded accounting” has had limited impact on policy decisions so far.

On target

The Convention on Biological Diversity includes what are known as the Aichi Targets. Target 2 states:

By 2020, at the latest, biodiversity values have been integrated into national and local development and poverty reduction strategies and planning processes and are being incorporated into national accounting, as appropriate, and reporting systems. (emphasis added)

This provides a clear starting point for conservationists and economists to work together. So far, little has been done on the valuation of biodiversity, and the work that has been done so far has not progressed very far on the question of how to integrate environmental and economic values into national accounting.

On one hand, putting monetary values on biodiversity has been decried as the commodification of nature. But we argue that without using appropriately defined monetary values, the environment will always be vulnerable to economic forces. If Aichi Target 2 is to be met by 2020, we clearly need an agreed concept of biodiversity value, and a shared approach to recognising it.




Read more:
It pays to invest in biodiversity


Crucially, as well as calculating the environment’s contribution to the economy, we also need to assess the requirements for maintaining and enhancing biodiversity. To return to the example of Botswana’s elephants, this means recognising that elephants need land and water (Botswana’s wildlife consumes 10% of all its water, with elephants accounting for most use). As tourism-related industries generated roughly US$2 billion in 2013 (Botswana’s second-largest sector by revenue, with mining the first), the allocation of water and land to wildlife is clearly a prudent investment decision.

This approach can also reveal the impacts and trade-offs resulting from different land uses on environmental values. In Victoria’s Central Highlands, for example, the cessation of native logging would reduce revenue from timber production, but would also help support a range of rare and endangered species, including Leadbeater’s Possum. It would also benefit a range of other industries like agriculture, as well as the people in cities like Melbourne.




Read more:
Logging must stop in Melbourne’s biggest water supply catchment


Keeping the books up to date

Like any accounting system, these estimates of the economic value of the environment would need to be updated, ideally annually, if they are to remain relevant in underpinning governments’ decisions. This would also entail regular data collection on the species and ecosystems themselves.

Unfortunately, however, consistent long-term nationwide monitoring of biodiversity at the species or ecosystem level is rarely done. And while remote-sensing offers some promise for landscape-scale monitoring of major ecosystem types (such as tropical savannahs, temperate forests, wetlands), there is generally no substitute for boots on the ground.

This month’s summit in Egypt offers an opportunity for countries to reaffirm their recognition of the benefits that biodiversity provides to people and the economy. It also provides a chance to go further, to agree that integrated accounting will help us understand and appreciate the trade-offs between the environment and economy.

Recognising and accounting for the elephant in the room would be a great achievement – not to mention a sound investment in the future.


The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of Heather Keith to this article.The Conversation

Michael Vardon, Associate Professor at the Fenner School, Australian National University; Carl Obst, Honorary Research Fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne, and David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Morrison government’s biggest economic problem? Climate change denial



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The government’s stubborn commitment to coal is alienating it from its natural supporters in the business community.
Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Judith Brett, La Trobe University

Last week Peter Costello accused Malcolm Turnbull of failing to develop an economic narrative to unite the Coalition. Turnbull promised this when he challenged Tony Abbott for the leadership of the Liberal Party, but, said Costello, it never came, and the result is a government struggling to manage deep differences over social issues. There was “jobs and growth”, but this is really just a goal without much of a story about how to get there, except for the company tax cuts.

The big question, though, is why the government does not have a coherent economic narrative.

One possible answer is that it has been too preoccupied with social issues such as religious freedom and before that, same-sex marriage, to give the economy sufficient attention. There is something in that.

But this does not get to the heart of the problem, which is the inability of the Coalition to face the reality of climate change and its stubborn determination to live in a parallel universe of business as usual. It is climate change denial that is preventing the government from developing a coherent economic narrative.




Read more:
The pro-coal ‘Monash Forum’ may do little but blacken the name of a revered Australian


To be sure, those who doubt the seriousness of climate change are now more likely to describe themselves as sceptics rather than outright deniers, but the effects are the same. Doubting the risks of climate change, opposing serious counter measures and believing in coal’s long-term future is an identity issue for many Coalition politicians.

Then-treasurer Scott Morrison brings a lump of coal to question time in February 2017. Climate change denial is holding back the government from a clear economic strategy.
AAP/Mick Tsiakis

As an identity issue, it is largely impervious to evidence, as we saw in government ministers’ hasty dismissal of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report – before they had even read it, one suspects. Identity issues are also resistant to the normal processes of bargaining and compromise with which many political conflicts are resolved. The National Energy Guarantee was the last of the government’s energy policies to founder on the suspicion that a market mechanism might damage coal. Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s Clean Energy Target met the same fate.

So now, some members of the party of private enterprise and the free market, which argued for and oversaw the privatisation of most of Australia’s power utilities, are seriously advocating that the government develop a coal-fired power station. Barnaby Joyce has been at it again in recent weeks.

When AGL announced the planned closure of its ageing Liddell coal-fired power station last year, the government strenuously tried to dissuade it, keep it running for longer or to sell it to rival power company Alinta. The pressure was very public on AGL to “do the right thing”, but also private, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ringing AGL Chairman Graeme Hunt. It was to no avail, and AGL persisted with its commercially based decision to close the plant and invest instead in the generation of renewable energy, as it had every right to do.




Read more:
The true cost of keeping the Liddell power plant open


To state the obvious, the stubborn commitment to coal is pulling the government’s economic policy towards the sort of state socialism it is supposed to abhor. No wonder it is having difficulty developing a coherent economic narrative.

Further, it is alienating the government, and the Liberal Party in particular, from its natural supporters in the business community. With the collapse of the NEG, the government has no energy policy to provide certainty to business and investors. The focus of the new minister for energy, Angus Taylor, has contracted to reducing power prices for consumers. Climate policy has been shifted back into the portfolio of the Minister for the Environment, separating energy from emissions and further demonstrating the identity denialism that distorts the government’s economic narrative. Faced with doubts about Australia’s capacity to meet its agreed to Paris targets, the government blithely says we are “on track”.




Read more:
Australia is not on track to reach 2030 Paris target (but the potential is there)


But most big business outside the fossil fuel industries is not in denial about the real risks of climate change, nor the imperatives of international action. Since Turnbull walked away from the NEG in a vain attempt to appease his critics and save his leadership, the Australian Industry Group and the Business Council of Australia have both been discussing ways to “go it alone” on emissions reduction.

Australian Financial Review journalist Phil Coorey last week quoted a member of the Business Council of Australia’s Energy and Climate Change Committee:

Someone has got to do something. This has to be industry-led unless government wants to take over the markets.

Industry needs certainty to invest, and to maintain and create the jobs that are central to the government’s focus on “jobs and growth”. That certainty needs to last beyond the tenure of one government or even two, and have bipartisan support.




Read more:
Big firms voice lack of faith in ‘cumbersome’ and ‘impractical’ Emissions Reduction Fund


Yet the government is unwilling to provide that certainty. As Angus Taylor told an AFR National Energy Summit last week:

There is no room for bipartisanship when we have a 26% [reduction target] and the other side has 45%.

But because climate policy has become an identity issue for some members of the Coalition, and they fight on it tooth and nail, is has been removed from the normal processes of policy formation.

No wonder the government can’t develop a coherent economic narrative.The Conversation

Judith Brett, Emeritus Professor of Politics, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia must make the environment integral to economic decision-making


Carl Obst, University of Melbourne

How we track our economy influences everything from government spending and taxes to home lending and business investment. In our series The Way We Measure, we’re taking a close look at economic indicators to better understand what’s going on.


The way traditional economics measures the environment, or in many instances doesn’t, is a long standing problem. For decades, our primary measure of economic activity, gross domestic product (GDP) has measured “progress” without accounting for the cost borne by the environment, nor the substantial benefits we receive from it.

In politics and economics we regularly use the word “capital” to mean assets like buildings or cash. This should extend to the environment too. Nature is an asset.

The need to recognise our natural capital is highlighted by its ongoing loss – the reductions in forests, the depletion of fish stocks, the degradation of soil, the loss of biodiversity, more severe flooding and similar trends. The human and environmental cost of these losses are invisible if you only look at GDP, and so there is little political incentive to do anything.

We must change this, and make nature integral in our calculations and decision making. Our economic system functions within, not alongside, an environmental reality. The tools have been created over the past twenty years to factor the environment into our decision making. We just need to take the next step.

Measuring natural capital

For over 20 years experts around the world have been developing extended economic accounts to include nature. They build upon the United Nations (UN) economic accounting framework called the System of National Accounts (SNA). In 2012, the UN Statistical Commission adopted the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA) as the international statistical standard for the integration of environmental data within the SNA, including new standards for the measurement of GDP adjusted for the depletion of natural resources such as timber, fish, water and mineral resources.

Progress in the implementation of the standard is ramping up, with at least 70 countries having or planning SEEA based measurement programs. Legislation has been passed for EU countries that must now produce accounts annually in six areas of the SEEA. The World Bank is leading a global partnership, WAVES, to drive forward accounting for natural capital in developing countries. It uses the SEEA as the technical basis for its work.

Australia has been at the leading edge of these developments and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has a small but well established program for environmental accounting. There are accounts for flows of water and energy on an annual basis, and annual measures of the stocks and values of land and various natural resources. These, and other environmental-economic accounts, are all brought together in the annual report, Australian Environmental-Economic Accounts.

At a corporate level, there is also interest in extended accounting. A substantive step forward was the release of the Natural Capital Protocol in July 2016 by the Natural Capital Coalition involving contributions from a wide range of stakeholders. The corporate focus has mostly been on accounting for carbon emissions and water use, but extensions into other areas are well underway.

But these advances have not been enough. Getting traction and buy-in with decision makers remains challenging and the level of investment needed to ensure more frequent reporting has not been forthcoming.

Integrating economic measures

Although accounting for environmental stocks and flows is useful and should be encouraged, none of the accounts on their own drive home the link between economic activity and the environment. Without a broader, more systemic framing, it remains easy to see the environment as a set of separable components, which are external to the economy.

This siloed view is reinforced in our approaches to environmental measurement. Experts in soil, water, biodiversity and the climate all establish their particular approaches, without consideration for how their data can be used and applied in an integrated way.

To create this more holistic view, SEEA has recently been extended to account for ecosystems and biodiversity. The resulting accounting framework melds human production and consumption with the benefits provided by environmental ecosystems. These include the provision of timber, fish and water, the filtration of air and water, carbon sequestration and cultural and amenity services. Sustaining this requires maintaining our natural capital.

Ecosystem accounting thus gives a platform for a full integration of nature with standard economic data on production, income and wealth.

This advance has allowed for more engagement with experts in other fields – economics, statistics, ecological and biophysical sciences, geography and accounting. Together, the experts involved have worked to create a common understanding and language for the considerable depth of knowledge that exists in each “silo”. Ecosystem accounting projects can now been found all over the world at national and local scales. They are taking place in many developed countries but examples are also present in less statistically advanced countries such as the Philippines, Peru, Uganda and Mexico.

In Australia, the ABS is developing ecosystem accounts for the Great Barrier Reef and the SEEA EEA framework has been applied extensively in Victoria in various contexts, for example to support the recent State of the Bays report and in the assessment of Victoria’s national parks. Indeed, in Victoria, environmental-economic accounting is a key feature in its recently released strategic plans for biodiversity and the provision of clean air and water.

Building on all of these developments, in November 2016 , Australia’s environment ministers “agreed to work together to develop a common national approach to environmental accounts”.

Closing the circle

However, while the recent advances in environmental-economic accounting have opened new possibilities, much work still remains. Measuring and accounting for our natural capital is only part of the story. We must integrate the information into the analytical tools and models that decision makers use. We must report natural capital measures in budget statements and annual reports. And, most importantly, we must use the information to build the conversation about the inherent connection between natural capital and economic activity.

The standard set of financial and economic data in the national accounts and corporate reports cannot be regarded as best practice any longer. Australia is a mature and wealthy society, the next step must be investment by governments and corporations in systems to account for natural capital and hence give themselves a complete set of information for economic decision making.

The Conversation

Carl Obst, Honorary Research Fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne

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

The fossil-fuelled political economy of Australian elections


David Holmes, Monash University

The endorsement for coal mining from the Labor-Coalition duopoly that the election campaign has seen in the last week makes the token appeals that have been made about tackling climate change even more disingenuous.

In this election campaign, the major parties have only brought up climate change when they have been pressed to do so at public forums, like leaders’ debates, the ABC’s Q&A, or when they treat social media as something that needs to be quelled.

The Coalition’s response is simply to say that Australia participated in the Paris agreement, and that is good enough. Labor, on the other hand, points to having outbid the Coalition on targets. Yet neither party is planning to deliver the cuts needed for Australia to play its part in keeping global warming below the 2℃ threshold.

Which leads us back to a question I will deal with at the end of this article: if polls are consistently showing that Australian voters want climate change on the election agenda, why are the leaders keeping so quiet about it?

Neither party is shy of talking up coal, however. Bill Shorten declared last week that a Labor government would not ban coal mining – and that it would be part of Australia’s energy needs for the foreseeable future.

But then on Tuesday, Attorney-General George Brandis, campaigning for Queensland’s most marginal seat of Capricornia, put in one of the pluckiest coal-selling performances of the campaign. He cited the gigantic Adani mine in central Queensland a saviour for the electorate.

We know that Adani, the massive Indian coal company, wants to develop the Carmichael mine, which according to some estimates could generate up to 10,000 jobs. And people in Rockhampton know that and they know that the Greens are doing everything they possibly can to prevent the development of the Adani mine.

They see their future prosperity as being bound up in the development of the Adani mine, and they know that if there were to be a Labor-Greens government, that would be the end of the Adani mine, that would be the end of coal mining in central Queensland, and that would be the end of their best shot at economic prosperity in the future.

But what doesn’t add up here is that around the world, coal is in terminal decline, while the future for renewables is looking very bright and secure.

Just to the north, the federal government has quarantined A$1 billion from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation for projects to “save” the Great Barrier Reef. But this money is demonstrably not going to create any jobs that are relevant to Capricornia. Apparently pork-barrelling is not needed in Capricornia, as the promise of coal is a ready replacement.

But the largest contradiction of all is the complete illogicality of claiming (even if without foundation) to save the reef and solve climate change in one Queensland electorate, while proposing to unleash one of the largest deposits of CO₂ to the world’s atmosphere from the electorate next door.

It is worth heeding 350.org’s Bill McKibben’s warning that if all the coal in the Galilee Basin, of which the Adani mine holds one of the largest deposits, is exported for burning, it would use up 30% of the world’s carbon budget. 100% of the budget gets you 2℃.

And new climate research looking at the difference between 1.5℃ and 2℃, suggests the latter will make what we experience at the upper limits of present-day climate variability the new normal around the globe, and worse closer to the equator.

The influence of the mining and energy industry on election campaigns

This leads us to ask serious questions about the influence that mining and energy companies have on major political parties during election campaigns.

There is some variation in which particular mining companies are favoured by particular parties. Labor is certainly not as keen on Adani as the Coalition is. But, in general, the support for fossil-fuel industries is part of the DNA of the major parties today.

It is well known there is a perpetually revolving door between mining/energy companies and politicians/staffers from the major parties.

Take the Labor Party. When Labor lost the last election, Martin Ferguson, Craig Emerson and Greg Combet either took up management jobs with mining and energy companies and associations or worked as consultants for them.

Combet, a former climate change minister, took up consultancies for coal seam gas companies AGL and Santos. Ferguson, resources minister during Labor’s last term of office, landed the position as chairman of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association’s advisory committee only six months after leaving politics.

With the Coalition, former National Party leader Mark Vaile is chairman of Whitehaven Coal, the company at the centre of protest and controversy at the Maules Creek mine. Another former National Party leader, John Anderson, became chairman of Eastern Star Gas only two years after quitting Canberra.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Anne Davies last year found a complex web of interlocking networks of influence that tied together NSW Premier Mike Baird’s office, then-prime minister Tony Abbott’s office, and energy and mining companies including AGL and Santos.

At times, these companies brought together high-profile Liberal and Labor politicians. Santos engaged a lobbying company, Bespoke Approach, which listed former Labor senator Nick Bolkus and former Liberal South Australian premier John Olson as directors.

AGL lays claim to the same cross-party alliance between former Labor minister John Dawkins and former Liberal senator Helen Coonan, who co-chair lobbying firm GRA Cosway.

But what is less-well-known is the degree to which mining and energy companies have enticed media advisors from the major parties to walk through that revolving door. Davies included an interactive graphic in her report that shows the rotation of media people between Canberra, mining and energy companies, and state politics.

Understanding the rotation of media advisors does not just open up the question of lobbying – it also explains how governments may feel obliged to legitimate their support for fossil fuel.

Such staffers are a real prize for the companies. They give them access to the media strategies of government departments, which may translate into real influence about the kind of messages that might be most favourable to their company’s operations.

Carbon-laced political donations

It is now a matter of public record that fossil-fuel interests have bankrolled climate denialism around the world for decades. The case of the collapsing edifice of Peabody Energy, once the world’s largest coal company, is a paradigm example of this. Fossil-fuel companies even sponsored the Paris climate summit.

But can the donations of fossil-fuel companies also influence election campaigns? Well, yes they can, but we won’t find out who and how this might be happening until after the election.

A recent Four Corners program delved into the lack of transparency of Australia’s donation process. For example, knowledge of who is funding the parties in this election campaign won’t be revealed until the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) releases its data in February next year.

But we do know from the last election campaign that mining and energy companies loomed large as donors for both Labor and Liberal parties. The AEC’s data release from February 2014 showed the Liberal Party received more than $1.8 million directly from energy companies that supported the repeal of an emissions trading scheme (ETS).

Even more was donated via the Liberal-linked Cormack Foundation. Two of the biggest “receipts” to the Cormack Foundation were BHP and Rio Tinto.

Labor received only $453,000 from mining and energy companies in the context of the immense industry opposition to an emissions trading scheme.

Speculating on 2016 party donations

The 2013 election was all about mining and energy companies donating in return for killing the carbon tax. This has now been completed. Job done, time to move on.

With the carbon tax gone, and millions in corporate welfare flowing directly to the mining and energy companies from taxpayers, all that the PR departments of these companies would be worried about is that climate change is kept off the election agenda.

Such an environment would suit the fossil-fuel industries as they fight for a few more years of viability in a world that is abandoning them. As constitutional lawyer George Williams has observedof all forms of corporate donations:

These companies are hoping that giving money will lead to outcomes. That’s why they’re doing it, and that’s one of the key problems of the current system.

So, here is a hypothetical PR strategy that would make perfect sense for the mining and energy sectors in this election, in eight easy steps.

Step One: Mining and Energy companies donate to major political parties with a request to drop climate change from their campaigns.

Step Two: Major political parties agree not to run on a climate platform and continue to heavily subsidise the operations of mining companies.

Step Three: Parties use money for broadcast and newspaper campaign budgets.

Step Four: Newspapers and TV and radio outlets sell the attention spans of audiences to the advertisers of political parties for large sums.

Step Five: Major parties expect that audiences will be persuaded to vote for one of them, while fossil-fuel company donations are justified by backing both possible winners who will look after their interests. The investment would only fail if one of the parties had to share power with minor parties or independents.

Step Six: Major parties continue to support coal and energy companies, offering them mining exploration licences, mining leases and export licences.

Step Seven: A part of the donations that energy companies give to parties is paid by consumers of increased electricity prices as well as taxpayers who are subsidising the corporate welfare that goes to these companies.

Step Eight: With favourable regulatory conditions for mining and electricity generation, mining and energy companies have greater certainty with which to expand their investments, operations and profits – some of which can be injected back into the political process at election time.

To the extent that this hypothesis is proven to be correct, and repeats the processes at play in the 2013 election, what emerges is that although Australia enjoys the free speech of a multi-party democracy, discussion of climate change is not free from the influence of capital in the election process.

To the extent that the major donors to Labor and Coalition are dominated by mining and energy, it is in the interests of this industry to finance a political duopoly that encourages the closure of public debates that do not conform to its interests.

The winners in this process can be identified as a media-political-industrial complex. This complex is a kind of three-way protectorate, where each group looks after itself by looking after the other two.

Broadcasters and newspapers are winners as they generate large revenues at election time that is channelled to them by political parties from the donors.

Mining and energy companies are winners, as they are able to distract voters from climate change and reduce pressure on parties to decarbonise the economy and regulate against their activities.

The parties are winners as they only need to neglect climate change in return for millions of dollars in donations to their election campaigns.

The losers are the voters, who are not only forced to subsidise the political conditions that make their per-capita emissions four times higher than the global average, but also subsidise the conditions in which climate is taken off the public agenda.

The biggest losers are our grandchildren, who are going to inherit the climate mess created by the manipulative, influence-peddling mediocrity that plays out over three-year election cycles – and not just in Australia.

The Conversation

David Holmes, Senior Lecturer, Communications and Media Studies, Monash University

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

Study: Australians can be sustainable without sacrificing lifestyle or economy


Steve Hatfield-Dodds, CSIRO

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

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

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

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

Competing views

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

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

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

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

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

Income up, environmental pressures down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hatfield-Dodds et al (2015)

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

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

Growth of what?

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

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

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

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

Choosing a sustainable future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Conversation

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

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