Open your eyes to a new framing for environmental reform and you’d be amazed what can be achieved.
By Peter Burnett
Reform is tough and environmental reform is no exception. It’s tough because the choices on the table almost invariably involve looking at the status quo, figuring out the trade-offs, and revealing winners and losers. The losers often use, or threaten to use, their political power to try and block the reform. As a result, instead of transformative and enduring change, we usually end of up with incremental shift that solves little.
But it may not have to be this way if we enter the reform process with a different framing of the problem and potential solutions. I’m going to try some reframing here by building on two things: overlaps in ecological and economic thinking and a change in Australian political culture produced by the pandemic. What might be achieved if this reframing was applied to the current review of the EPBC Act (Australia’s premier environmental law)?
On free lunches
Writing nearly fifty years ago for a public that was showing unprecedented concern about a degrading environment, ecologist Barry Commoner explained ecology by formulating four simple laws.
The first was ‘everything’s connected to everything else’. The second and third were ‘everything must go somewhere’ and ‘nature knows best’.
The last law was already familiar to economists: ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’ (which, by the by, also happens to be the slogan of our blog).
Economists had long recognised that every choice involves costs, starting with the opportunity cost of not doing something else. A choice to commit resources to one project inevitably means that those resources are no longer available for another.
Commoner was simply pointing out that environmental choices have a cost too. To take a straight-forward example, the more we use the airsheds above our cities as a sink for pollution, most of which comes from vehicles, the less those airsheds can do for us in supporting health and amenity. While we can certainly opt for some of each, the laws of nature preclude us from having both – there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
The facts of life
These ‘facts of life’ often leave us making binary choices and trade-offs (more of this and less of that). We can’t avoid choices, but sometimes we can change the facts that we are choosing between by reframing the problem.
Consider this energy example: developments in battery technology have made electric vehicles a feasible alternative to vehicles powered by fossil fuels. But they cost more, at least for the time being.
Returning to our urban air quality example, instead of choosing between driving more kilometres and reduced air quality, we could decide that high pollution levels are unacceptable and take polluting options off the table. Instead, technology would now allow us to frame our choice as between restrictions on (fossil-fueled) vehicle use and the cost of switching to (unrestricted) electric travel.
Yet we tend to stick to traditional framings. New approaches can be expensive and risky, or challenging to assumptions, values and interests. Consider our last federal election. The Opposition put forward a policy promoting electric vehicles; the government ran a scare campaign somehow connecting this to tradies losing their (fossil-fueled) utes.
Same old, same old
You see this phenomenon in politics all the time. It’s much easier to frame a debate in traditional ways than to risk rocking new boats or getting lost in complexities.
Take the current review of Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, best known for requiring environmental impact assessment (EIA) of developments affecting threatened species and other ‘matters of national environmental significance’. The review is led by Professor Graeme Samuel, a commercial lawyer and regulator.
You can see the arguments playing out in the media. Pro-development interests emphasise the cost of duplication and delay while sloganeering about cutting green tape, while pro-environment groups argue that the current law has failed to slow accelerating environmental loss, while also demonising big business.
Same old arguments, same old replies.
Slogans aside, both sides are right. There is duplication and delay between federal and state EIA, and the EPBC Act is failing to put a measurable dent in environmental decline. If ever there was a time to attempt a reframing of the debate, surely this year, one of unprecedented bushfire crises and an economy king-hit by COVID-19 and in need of some wins, is it.
An inter-connected whole
There is another approach, a deal to be done here, but we’d have to think differently about how we do government.
Everything’s connected to everything else. Not just in the physical environment, but in the way we manage things in a federal system, which prefers to slice the environmental cake neatly into Commonwealth and State slices.
Back in the early 1990s we dealt with this problem through COAG (the Council of Australian Governments), drawing up an ‘Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment’.
With that agreement moribund, it’s time for a new one. The trick would be for both levels of government to agree that the environment is an inter-connected whole, requiring a common policy framework and a shared commitment to high standards of conservation.
Implementation would be based on three main principles: scale, planning and cooperation.
The first is the principle of scale. This would see the Commonwealth focusing on the issues of largest scale, whether in terms of geography, politics or environmental significance, while the States would focusing on issues of regional and local scale. So the Commonwealth would lead on climate change for example, while the States would focus on development approval and catchment management.
The second is to plan, with those plans taking a proactive stance, a bias to conservation. This would involve preparing regional plans, which would protect areas of high conservation value while also identifying priority degraded areas for restoration.
The States would prepare these plans but the Commonwealth would accredit them as protecting matters of national environmental significance appropriately. It would then back that protection with investments, large ones; enough to restore environmental function to the point of resilience.
In return for legally binding State protection of its interests, the Commonwealth would bow out of EIA completely, saving considerable time and resources.
The third principle is good old-fashioned cooperation. This is never easy in a federal system, because the practical incentives to cooperate are often trumped by the political incentives of playing for advantage.
Not always however. As COVID-19 has shown, where there is real common cause, politicians of all stripes can get along famously.
Not a ‘Green New Deal’ but a new ‘Green Deal’
For this approach to work we’d have to agree that the environment is so important that federal-state politicking should come second. No easy task. We could start by asking independent statutory bodies like the Bureaus of Meteorology and Statistics to gather and hold environmental information, and to produce environmental accounts. This would guarantee an expert and impartial foundation of information for informed decision-making.
After our deadly Black Summer most people agree something needs to change.
In the Depression-era USA, President Franklin D Roosevelt enacted a wide-ranging and radical set of economic and social programs called the ‘New Deal’, to enable his country’s recovery. Currently there is much talk in the US about a ‘Green New Deal’ that will address climate change and economic inequality. This talk has spread to other countries, including Australia.
While the ‘Green New Deal’ might be seen as a project of the Left, could it be that in this extraordinary year of environmental, health and economic crises, the time for a new framing, a ‘New Green Deal’ has come?
The choices might still be hard but at least the trade-offs would be different. It’s at least time to start talking about it.