No Australian city has a long-term vision for living sustainably. We can’t go on like this


Mike Berry, RMIT University and Ian Lowe, Griffith University

This article is part of a series on rebalancing the human–nature interactions that are central to the study and practice of ecological economics, which is the focus of the 2019 ANZSEE Conference in Melbourne later this month.


Australia was already one of the most urbanised nations by the end of the 19th century. Unlike European and North American countries, Australia’s pattern of settlement did not have a neat urban hierarchy. The gap between the large and small towns was huge.

These patterns have intensified in the decades since federation, especially after the second world war. International and internal migration trends have driven rapid growth in the big cities, especially Melbourne and Sydney. This has created major problems with providing adequate housing, infrastructure and services.

The fundamental issue is the reluctance of urban communities and their leaders to discuss what might be sustainable populations.




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The folly of unlimited growth

No Australian city has a long-term vision showing how a future stabilised population might be supported with the essential resources of food, water and energy. No Australian city has faced up to the inevitable social tensions of increasing inequality between a well-served inner-urban elite and an increasingly under-resourced urban fringe.

Leaders in cities that have not grown as rapidly, such as Adelaide, lament their failure to grow like Sydney and Melbourne, despite all the associated problems. All implicitly believe unlimited growth is possible.

In reality, the expanding ecological footprints of the large cities have created unsustainable demands on land to support urban dwellers. And the wastes the cities produce are straining the capacity of the environment to handle these.




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Given the many unpriced flow-on effects from dense urban growth and market-led development, governments are struggling to deal with the undesirable consequences. Congestion and pollution threaten to overwhelm the many social and economic benefits of urban life.

The growth and concentration of populations are also driving chronic excess demand for appropriate housing. The result is serious affordability problems, which are adding to inequality across society and generations.




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In 1970, urban historian Hugh Stretton pointed to the role of Australia’s widespread owner occupation in offsetting the inequalities generated in labour markets and by inherited wealth. This is no longer the case.

The dominant neoliberal economic ideology has resulted in a retreat from providing public housing. Abandoning would-be home-owners to the market has produced a situation in which urban land and house ownership is reinforcing class-based inequalities. Home ownership is increasingly the preserve of the affluent and their children.

Housing-related inequality is also seen in the geography of our cities. Poorer households are priced out of locations with better access to good jobs, schools, transport, health care and other services.




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Our big cities are engines of inequality, so how do we fix that?


Failures of governance

Governments in Australia’s federation are poorly placed to respond adequately. Responsibilities and fiscal resources are divided, creating obstacles to effective planning and infrastructure provision.

The main factor driving urban population growth is an unprecedented rate of inward migration. The national government sets large migration targets as an easy way of creating economic growth. This leaves state governments with the impossible task of meeting the resulting demand for infrastructure.

Jane O’Sullivan has shown each extra urban citizen requires about A$250,000 of investment. The total sum is well beyond the capacity of state and local governments.

Arguments between federal and state governments are heavily politicised, especially when it comes to major transport investments. Even within single jurisdictions, complex demands and unexpected consequences prevent effective action. The waste recycling crisis is a prime example.

State governments must also deal with difficult trade-offs between, for example, allowing further development on the edges of cities or encouraging higher density in built-up areas. This often involves conflicts with local governments and communities, concerned to protect their ways of life.

Australian planners and governments have long tinkered with policies to encourage decentralisation to smaller cities. Despite these attempts, the dominant pattern of urbanisation with its seemingly intractable problems has hardened, a triumph of reality over rhetoric.




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What needs to change?

To get beyond the rhetoric and make our cities more sustainably liveable requires a much more deliberate and interventionist role for government. It also requires residents of our cities and suburbs to be willing to allow their governments to interrupt business as usual.

This, we know from experience, is a big ask. It will step on the toes of the property lobby and ordinary home owners. In some cases, for example, the short-term financial interests of property owners are leading local authorities to ignore scientific warnings about the impacts of climate change on coastal development.




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Major changes are also needed in how urban land is taxed and the proceeds invested. “Simple” reforms like replacing stamp duty on land transfer with a universal land tax, as the Henry Tax Review recommended, will take political courage that has been absent to date.

More complex policies like finding ways of diverting population growth to non-metropolitan regions will take careful thought and experimentation. This might include relocating government agencies to provincial cities. This has been tried sporadically in the past at the federal level and in states such as Victoria and New South Wales. However, such cases tend to be one-offs and do not reflect an overall strategic plan.

Future generations will inevitably be critical of the complete failure of current leaders to plan for sustainable development.The Conversation

Mike Berry, Emeritus Professor, RMIT University and Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor, School of Science, Griffith University

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

Australia falls further in rankings on progress towards UN Sustainable Development Goals


John Thwaites, Monash University and Tahl Kestin, Monash University

Australia is performing worse than most other advanced countries in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), according to the global SDG Index, which compares different nations’ performance on the goals.

According to the SDG Index, released yesterday in New York, Australia is ranked 37th in the world – down from 26th last year, and behind most other wealthy countries including New Zealand, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.

The best-performing countries are the northern European nations of Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Germany, all of which have a history of balancing economic, social and environmental issues.

The SDG Index measures progress against the 17 SDGs agreed by all countries at the United Nations in 2015. The goals encompass a set of 169 targets to be met by 2030 to achieve economic prosperity, social inclusion and environmental sustainability.

Yet despite the progress made by some countries, all nations still have a way to go to achieve all of the goals.




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Australia: the world’s worst on climate action

The latest SDG Index shows that Australia is performing relatively well in areas such health and wellbeing, and providing good-quality education. But its results for the environmental goals and climate change are among the worst in the OECD group of advanced nations.

The new index ranks Australia as the worst-performing country in the world on climate action (SDG 13). The measure takes into account greenhouse gas emissions within Australia; emissions embodied in the goods we consume; climate change vulnerability; and exported emissions from fossil fuel shipments to other countries.

One of the reasons why Australia has slumped so far in the rankings is that the SDG Index is now taking into account the so-called “spillover” effects that countries have on other nations’ ability to meet the SDGs. These effects may be positive, such as providing development aid; or negative, such as importing or exporting products that create pollution.

The report shows that G20 nations account for the largest negative economic, environmental, and security spillover effects. Despite being among the richest nations in the world, the US, the UK and Australia are rated worst in the G20 for negative spillovers.

The UK, for instance, rates particularly badly on the tax haven score, which makes it harder for other countries to raise the tax revenue needed to provide health, education and other services to their citizens.

This year’s SDG Index also includes a key environmental spillover indicator: carbon dioxide emissions embodied in fossil fuel exports, calculated using a three-year average of coal, gas and oil exports.

Australia’s annual exported CO₂ emissions are a colossal 44 tonnes per person. This outstrips even Saudi Arabia (35.5 tonnes per person), and is orders of magnitude larger than the figure for the US (710kg per person).

G20 leading the way?

With all countries still falling short of achieving the SDGs, the SDG Index also assesses what actions G20 governments are taking to help close this gap. Most G20 countries have begun to implement the goals but there are large variations among G20 countries in how the SDGs are being embraced by political leaders and translated into action.

Composite score of national coordination and implementation mechanisms for the SDGs in G20 countries.
SDSN and Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2018 SDG Index and Dashboards Report

Brazil, Mexico and Italy have taken the most significant steps among G20 countries to achieve the goals, illustrated for instance by the existence of SDG strategies, coordination units in governments, or online platforms. India and Germany have at least partially already undertaken an assessment of investment needs.

According to this assessment, Australia has taken some initial steps to support SDG implementation. Supportive actions taken by the government include setting up a cross-departmental committee, co-chaired by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, to coordinate Government SDG activities. The Senate has established an inquiry to examine the opportunities to implement the goals.

Significantly, the federal government has also prepared a Voluntary National Review report on progress in implementing the goals, which it will present to the UN’s High Level Political Forum next week. The report addresses how Australia is performing against each of the goals and includes many case studies of implementation from business, civil society, academia, youth and all levels of government. It is accompanied by a new Australian SDG case study hub. Many of these activities occurred after the cut-off period for the SDG Index, so Australia’s overall performance on SDG implementation is actually higher than the SDG Index gives it credit.

However, Australia is not taking more deliberative action to address the SDGs, such as developing a national implementation plan or setting aside funding for SDG implementation. Nor are individual departments identifying the gaps in Australia’s SDG performance and identifying what they plan to do differently to address them.

The ConversationGiven Australia’s poor performance on some of the SDGs there is clearly a need for targeted action if we are to achieve the goals by the 2030 deadline.

John Thwaites, Chair, Monash Sustainable Development Institute & ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University and Tahl Kestin, Sustainable Development Solutions Network Manager, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University

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

After 25 years of trying, why aren’t we environmentally sustainable yet?



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After decades of sustainability initiatives, key environmental indicators keep getting worse.
The Capital Wind Farm, REUTERS/Jason Reed/File Photo

Michael Howes, Griffith University

In 1992, more than 170 countries came together at the Rio Earth Summit and agreed to pursue sustainable development, protect biological diversity, prevent dangerous interference with climate systems, and conserve forests. But, 25 years later, the natural systems on which humanity relies continue to be degraded. The Conversation

So why hasn’t the world become much more environmentally sustainable despite decades of international agreements, national policies, state laws and local plans? This is the question that a team of researchers and I have tried to answer in a recent article.

We reviewed 94 studies of how sustainability policies had failed across every continent. These included case studies from both developed and developing countries, and ranged in scope from international to local initiatives.

Consider the following key environmental indicators. Since 1970:

  • Humanity’s ecological footprint has exceeded the Earth’s capacity and has risen to the point where 1.6 planets would be needed to provide resources sustainably.

  • The biodiversity index has fallen by more than 50% as the populations of other species continue to decline.

  • Greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change have almost doubled while the impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly apparent.

  • The world has lost more than 48% of tropical and sub-tropical forests.

The rate at which these indicators deteriorated was largely unchanged over the two decades either side of the Rio summit. Furthermore, humanity is fast approaching several environmental tipping points. If crossed, these could lead to irreversible changes.

If we allow average global temperatures to rise 2℃ above pre-industrial levels, for example, feedback mechanisms will kick in that lead to runaway climate change. We’re already halfway to this limit and could pass it in the next few decades.

What’s going wrong?

So what’s going wrong with sustainability initiatives? We found that three types of failure kept recurring: economic, political and communication.

The economic failures stem from the basic problem that environmentally damaging activities are financially rewarded. A forest is usually worth more money after it’s cut down – which is a particular problem for countries transitioning to a market-based economy.

Political failures happen when governments can’t or won’t implement effective policies. This is often because large extractive industries, like mining, are dominant players in an economy and see themselves as having the most to lose. This occurs in developed and developing countries, but the latter can face extra difficulties enforcing policies once they’re put in place.

Communication failures centre on poor consultation or community involvement in the policy process. Opposition then flourishes, sometimes based on a misunderstanding of the severity of the issue. It can also be fed by mistrust when communities see their concerns being overlooked.

Again, this happens around the world. A good example would be community resistance to changing water allocation systems in rural areas of Australia. In this situation, farmers were so opposed to the government buying back some of their water permits that copies of the policy were burned in the street.

These types of failure are mutually reinforcing. Poor communication of the benefits of sustainable development creates the belief that it always costs jobs and money. Businesses and communities then pressure politicians to avoid or water down environmentally friendly legislation.

Ultimately, this represents a failure to convince people that sustainable development can supply “win-win” scenarios. As a result, decision-makers are stuck in the jobs-versus-environment mindset.

What can we do?

The point of our paper was to discover why policies that promote sustainability have failed in order to improve future efforts. The challenge is immense and there’s a great deal at stake. Based on my previous research into the way economic, social and environmental goals can co-exist, I would go beyond our most recent paper to make the following proposals.

First, governments need to provide financial incentives to switch to eco-efficient production. Politicians need to have the courage to go well beyond current standards. Well-targeted interventions can create both carrot and stick, rewarding eco-friendly behaviour and imposing a cost on unsustainable activities.

Second, governments need to provide a viable transition pathway for industries that are doing the most damage. New environmental tax breaks and grants, for example, could allow businesses to remain profitable while changing their business model.

Finally, leaders from all sectors need to be convinced of both the seriousness of the declining state of the environment and that sustainable development is possible. Promoting positive case studies of successful green businesses would be a start.

There will of course be resistance to these changes. The policy battles will be hard fought, particularly in the current international political climate. We live in a world where the US president is rolling back climate policies while the Australian prime minister attacks renewable energy.

Michael Howes, Associate Professor in Environmental Studies, Griffith University

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

Rush to dam northern Australia comes at the expense of sustainability


Barry Hart, Monash University; Avril Horne, University of Melbourne, and Erin O’Donnell, University of Melbourne

Ahead of the election, the major parties have released different visions for developing northern Australia. The Coalition has committed to dam projects across Queensland; Labor has pledged to support the tourism industry.

These pledges build on the Coalition’s A$5 billion Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, a fund to support large projects, starting on July 1.

The Coalition has pledged A$20 million to support 14 new or existing dams across Queensland should the government be returned to power, as part of a A$2.5 billion plan for dams across northern Australia.

Labor, meanwhile, will redirect A$1 billion from the fund towards tourism, including eco-tourism, indigenous tourism ventures and transport infrastructure (airports, trains, and ports).

It is well recognised that the development of northern Australia will depend on harnessing the north’s abundant water resources. However, it’s also well recognised that the ongoing use of water resources to support industry and agriculture hinges on the health and sustainability of those water resources.

Northern Australia is home to diverse ecosystems, which support a range of ecosystem services and cultural values, and these must be adequately considered in the planning stages.

Sustainability comes second

The white paper for northern Australia focuses almost solely on driving growth and development. Current water resource management policy in Australia, however, emphasises integrated water resource planning and sustainable water use that protects key ecosystem functions.

Our concern is that the commitment to sustainability embedded in the National Water Initiative (NWI), as well as Queensland’s water policies, may become secondary in the rush to “fast track” these water infrastructure projects.

Lessons from the past show that the long-term success of large water infrastructure projects requires due process, including time for consultation, environmental assessments and investigation of alternative solutions.

What is on the table?

The Coalition proposes providing funds to investigate the feasibility of a range of projects, including upgrading existing dams and investigating new dams. The majority of these appear to be focused on increasing the reliability of water supplies in regional urban centres. Few target improved agricultural productivity.

These commitments add to the already proposed feasibility study (A$10 million) of the Ord irrigation scheme in the Northern Territory and the construction of the Nullinga Dam in Queensland. And the A$15 million northern Australia water resources assessment being undertaken by CSIRO, which is focused on the Fitzroy river basin in Western Australia, the Darwin river basins in Northern Territory and the Mitchell river basin in Queensland.

Rethinking dams

New water infrastructure in the north should be part of an integrated investment program to limit overall environmental impacts. Focusing on new dams applies 19th-century thinking to a 21st-century problem, and we have three major concerns about the rush to build dams in northern Australia.

First, the process to establish infrastructure priorities for federal investment is unclear. For instance, it’s uncertain how the projects are connected to Queensland’s State Infrastructure Plan.

Investment in new water infrastructure across northern Australia needs to be part of a long-term water resource plan. This requires clearly articulated objectives for the development of northern Australia, along with assessment criteria that relate to economic, social and environmental outcomes, such as those used in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Second, the federal government emphasises on-stream dams. Dams built across the main river in this way have many well-recognised problems, including:

  • lack of environmental flows (insufficient water at the appropriate frequency and duration to support ecosystems)

  • flow inversion (higher flows may occur in the dry season than in the wet, when the bulk of rainfall occurs)

  • barriers to fish movement and loss of connectivity to wetlands

  • water quality and temperature impacts (unless there is a multi-level off-take).

As a minimum, new dams should be built away from major waterways (such as on small, tributary streams) and designed to minimise environmental impacts. This requires planning in the early stages, as such alternatives are extremely difficult to retrofit to an existing system.

Finally, the federal government proposals make no mention of climate change impacts. Irrigation and intensive manufacturing industries demand highly reliable water supplies.

While high-value use of water should be encouraged, new industries need to be able to adapt for the increased frequency of low flows; as well as increased intensity of flood events. Government investment needs to build resilience as well as high-value use.

Detailed planning, not press releases

In place of the rather ad hoc approach to improvements in water infrastructure, such as the projects announced by the federal government in advance of the election, we need a more holistic and considered approach.

The A$20 million investment for 14 feasibility studies and business cases in Queensland represents a relatively small amount of money for each project, and runs the risk of having them undertaken in isolation. The feasibility studies should be part of the entirety of the government’s plan for A$2.5 billion in new dams for northern Australia.

Water resource planning is too important and too expensive to cut corners on planning. Investment proposals for Queensland need to be integrated with water resource planning across the state, and across northern Australia, and with appropriate consideration of climate change impacts.

Fast tracking dams without considering ecosystem impacts, future variability in water supplies, and resilience in local communities merely sets the scene for future problems that will likely demand another round of intervention and reform.

The Conversation

Barry Hart, Emeritus Professor Water Science, Monash University; Avril Horne, Research fellow, Department of Infrastructure Engineering, University of Melbourne, and Erin O’Donnell, Senior Fellow, Centre for Resources, Energy and Environment Law, University of Melbourne

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