How are we going?

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What’s in Australia’s decadal Environmental Report Card?

By Peter Burnett

The OECD has just released its ten yearly environmental report card on Australia. It’s called OECD Environmental Performance Reviews: Australia 2019. This is the third review of Australia, following reviews in 1998 and 2007, so we can look at some trends as well as the current report card.

How did we do? Good and bad.

Being reviewed by our ‘peers’

Before reviewing its findings, some background. The OECD’s environmental review program was established in 1991. Since then around 85 reviews have been conducted. The review teams include members from other OECD countries. For the 2019 Australian review these reviewers came from Canada and New Zealand. So the report is not just ‘the view from Paris.’

These reviews aim to help countries assess their environmental progress while promoting domestic accountability and international peer review. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much sign of this has happened with past reviews. Perhaps Australian governments use the reviews behind the scenes, but publicly at least governments have not said much about them beyond the formal welcome when they hit the desk. And they haven’t generated much debate either. Nor is there much sign of international peer learning.

But these reviews offer a unique opportunity to governments seeking genuine environmental policy advance. Perhaps it’s time to try some encouragement from the sidelines.

Could do better

The report says some nice things about Australia. They acknowledge that we perform well in the OECD ‘Better Life Index’, showing that we rate better, often significantly better, than the OECD average on a range of things, including on environmental quality. That’s great, but our environmental quality rating was earned largely on the back of good scores on urban air quality and public satisfaction with water quality in an OECD index (see www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/countries/australia).

These are both factors where we get a boost from being a small population in a large country and from the absence of the high-polluting neighbours that you can find elsewhere (South Korea, for example, chokes on China’s industrial emmissions).

The OECD also compliments us on being one of the few OECD countries that has a green investment bank (the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, CEFC) to help finance renewable energy, but they either don’t know, or diplomatically overlook, the fact that we only kept the CEFC because, in one of the stranger events in recent Australian political history, Al Gore dropped in and talked Clive Palmer into opposing its abolition.

So some of our success is more down to good luck than good management. But, of course, it’s the brickbats rather than the bouquets that are more important here. The headlines of the 2019 Review amount to saying ‘this student is not working to potential’, or the old-fashioned ‘could try harder’.

On climate policy and resource efficiency, the OECD recommends that we intensify our efforts to reach our Paris Agreement goal and produce an integrated energy and climate policy framework for 2030. Of course, we nearly did the latter with the National Energy Guarantee, but the politics got too hard.

On governance, which in Australia’s federal system is as much about federal-state cooperation as anything else, the OECD calls for more effort, but they add a new emphasis on state-to-state cooperation, to encourage best-practice and increase efficiency. For example, they recommend standardised approaches to cleaning up old mine sites and a nationally-consistent approach to landfill levies to remove incentives to truck waste interstate. While federal-state cooperation is less politically-sensitive than topics like climate policy, it’s profoundly and perennially challenging. In fact, there aren’t many examples of genuine success, except where there are large federal government carrots or sticks involved, as there were with the successful National Competition Policy of the 1990s. The trouble is that the carrots are expensive and the sticks take great political skill to wield effectively.

On economic efficiency, a key recommendation relates to environmental taxes: to tax fuels that are currently exempt (eg, coal) and increase rates on fuels that are too low (eg, petrol and diesel taxes don’t include an environmental component). In principle this is simple enough but fuel taxes can be political dynamite, not just here but elsewhere, as recent demonstrations in France and Zimbabwe show.

Our ‘special topics’

Finally, the report included two ‘in depth’ chapters on topics chosen by Australia, one on threatened species and biodiversity and the other on chemicals.

The OECD was blunt about species and biodiversity: things were poor and worsening. It found that pressures from humans, such as agriculture and urban development, were increasingly interacting to exacerbate challenges for threatened species. They recommended that Australia invest time and resources in regional plans and strategic assessments and that we get our act together on environmental information, including biodiversity baselines to measure progress. Sensible, but complicated, expensive and a political minefield.

In contrast, the recipe for success on chemicals seems easier: we already have reforms in the works and could achieve much just by getting a move on.

Recurring themes

Some of the themes that recur in the reports include the need for ongoing water reforms, full policy integration and enhanced Indigenous engagement in land management. Some of these themes are really tough because they affect vested interests or might constrain economic growth, but surely we can get Indigenous engagement right.

Other recommendations that I think are achievable without too much pain are the greening of government procurement and comprehensive and consistent approach to environmental information, especially baseline monitoring.

These are very useful reports and hopefully government will do more with the 2019 report than it did with the earlier ones. The ANU has given the reports some early attention by holding several events to mark the release of the report, and the report has already received some significant publicity, eg on the ABC: www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/pm/oecd-says-australia-not-on-track-to-meet-paris-agreement-targets/10764274.

Watch this space.

Why can’t we agree on fixing the Environment?

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Of tribalism and short-termism, and other diabolical drivers of disagreement

By Peter Burnett

There are strong arguments that looking after the environment is as much a conservative idea as a progressive one. Since most on the political Left also support pro-environment policies, why then can’t we get bipartisanship on the environment?’

Some believe there is a Conservative fundamentalism that is so wedded to the free market and opposed to ‘big government’ that, when confronted with a global problem requiring a collective response, such as climate change, they’d rather deny the facts than accept any form of collectivism.

Free market fundamentalism is not the only factor pushing politicians on the Right in particular (although not exclusively on the Right) to oppose substantive action on the environment.

The major parties of the political Left and the Right are really coalitions of groups with overlapping world views. Labor is a coalition of unionised labour and social progressives, while the Coalition includes ‘small l’ liberals, social conservatives, free market fundamentalists, regional interests and even libertarians. Different pressures have more or less traction with different groups within these coalitions and some of these pressures combine to drive opposition to comprehensive action on the environment.

I’ve tried to describe some of these drivers below. As all of them are socially undesirable, I’ve also included suggestions (potential solutions) for how society might weaken their influence.

Vested interests

Politics is resource-intensive. Politicians need to get their messages to voters, but mass media advertising is costly. Both old fashioned approaches such as door-knocking, and modern social media are low-cost, but using them (legitimately) is still resource-intensive and volunteers are scarcer than ever. We have public funding for elections, but it’s not enough. As a result, politicians are dependent on campaign donations, especially large ones from big business and other vested interests. This makes the politicians beholden to these donors.

Solution: Full public funding of elections and more transparency about who’s influencing whom; eg, making ministerial diaries public (currently this is done only in Queensland and NSW).

Tribalism

We live in a time of declining support for traditional institutions and values, and increasing polarisation. Social values are now more diverse, relative and fluid: your truth is as good as mine and people are not ‘rusted on’ any more. As a result, coalitions of support in politics are based less on ideological commitment and more on loyalties. These loyalties are more personal and thus less amenable to compromise. People are more likely to defend positions because they are loyal to, or face pressures from, members of their political tribe. In the environmental sphere, this polarisation has been exacerbated by the rise of Green parties and the resulting association of the environment with them as a Left, even far Left, issue. The Greens are seen by many on the Right as extreme and their ideas not to be associated with, reinforcing the tribalism.

Because tribalism is driven by interests more than values, it can seem irrational when viewed through a policy lens. On the Left, it might mean, for example, propping up an uneconomic industry in preference to facilitating industry restructuring, driven by loyalty to unions and existing workers. On the Right, it might mean opposing a price on carbon in the face of any amount of advice from economists that this is the most economically efficient response to climate change, driven by loyalty to business interests.

Solution: seek to mobilise public opinion to override tribal loyalties. Of course this is more easily said than done. ‘Get Up’ may an example of doing this, although some argue that it is really an arm of the Labor Party. Transparency measures will help here too.

Short-termism

Another problem is short-termism, the constant focus of governments on the next election, which is never far off under three year terms. Short-termism tends to squeeze out any good policy which has a political downside, which includes most things environmental.

This problem is exacerbated by careerism, the modern political phenomenon of pursuing politics as a career straight out of university, rather than starting later in life, after a successful career in the real world (including in trades and the many other careers that don’t call for tertiary education). The result is to increase the incentive for politicians to place their political careers ahead of everything else because, politics aside, they have mortgages and no other experience to fall back on.

The result of all this is a major disjunct: most environmental issues involve short term pain for long term gain, while politicians seeking election crave short term gain, even at the expense long term pain (for others). Their priority is to dispense the sugar hit to win votes, and to sweep the structural issues under the carpet. This will encourage, for example, small one-off environmental grants while discouraging major reforms such as carbon pricing.

Solution: longer Parliamentary terms and independent institutions, one to monitor and report on the environment over the long term and another to provide deep policy analysis and advice on environmental sustainability, as the Productivity Commission does for the economy.

Diabolical drivers of disagreement

At the end of the day, despite the availability of mitigating reforms, the tribalism of modern politics seems entrenched. In the current political culture, a pro-environment coalition of conservatives and progressives is fanciful, despite the underlying common ground.

I think it will take an environmental crisis, and a very large one at that, to change that culture. I’d love to be wrong.

Environmental sustainability: a thoroughly Conservative notion

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In the face of a worsening global crisis, can’t we find some common ground?

By Peter Burnett

‘The Environment’ has been a major public concern for more than fifty years now. Surveys consistently place the environment among the issues of greatest social concern, while numerous scientific reports continue to document a general and ongoing environmental decline. What’s more, the effects of environmental decline are becoming increasingly obvious, not only through intense heat, drought and cyclones, but also as previously unknown phenomena such as multiple coral bleaching events and arctic wildfires.

With all this concern and things getting worse, you’d expect action, but paradoxically, having gained considerable momentum in earlier years, environmental policy seems to be moving more slowly as the problem worsens, like an icebreaker that slows and eventually becomes stuck as it moves further into the pack ice. Even the Paris climate agreement of 2015, which looked at the time like a significant breakthrough into more navigable policy waters, now looks to have been no more than a patch of thinner ice. Optimists can retain some hope because of growing indications that renewable energy technologies might mitigate climate change, despite policy efforts. Yet technology is much less likely to solve other dimensions of environmental decline, especially biodiversity loss. We still need good policy.

The greatest obstacle to progress on policy is the polarisation of political views on the environment. In modern discourse, we have become so used to associating environmental concern with the political Left that we’ve lost sight of the fact that caring for the environment, especially when seen through a sustainability lens, is actually a fundamentally conservative idea. Perhaps navigable policy waters can be found in the roots of environmental concern, among older notions of what we would now describe as environmental sustainability.

Good husbandry

Concerns about human impacts on the environment go back to antiquity. Some 2,500 years ago, Plato compared the denuded hills of Attica to bleached skeletons, while just over 2,000 years ago the Roman writer Columella lamented the depletion of agricultural land on the Italian peninsula.

Searching for a solution, he argued the need to maintain the ‘everlasting youth’ of the Earth through good husbandry. This is as clear a definition of sustainability as any you’ll find today.

In the early modern era, the roots of sustainability can be traced to the great Enlightenment philosopher John Locke and his theories of private property. Locke argued that by investing their labour in harvesting goods from nature, individuals gained the right to regard them as private property. But he attached a proviso to this. The right to convert natural goods into private property would apply only where there was enough left in common for others, in good condition. This provides another good framing for sustainability.

In usufruct to the living

In the eighteenth century, the French Revolution prompted Thomas Jefferson to reflect on the rights of the present generation to bind those coming after, leading him to argue that ‘the earth belongs in usufruct to the living’. This was a reference to the Roman civil law concept of ususfructus, which was the right to use the land and take produce, without impairing its capacity to produce. (This is not old hat. Margaret Thatcher made much the same argument in her famous statement to the 1998 British Conservative Party conference that no generation has a ‘freehold’ on the earth: ‘All we have is a life tenancy—with a full repairing lease. This Government intends to meet the terms of that lease in full.’ )

Early sustainability concerns were not just philosophical reflections. Wood shortages affected a number of European countries in the early modern era. In 18th century this prompted discussion in German forestry circles on how to use natural resources in the interests of present and future generations, leading Von Carlowitz to propose a principle of nachhaltende Nutzung (sustainable use). This implied the need to keep the harvesting of trees within rates of regrowth.

Two centuries later, in 1908, US President Theodore Roosevelt, riding the Progressive Era tide of public interest in conservation, established a National Conservation Commission, which then made the first survey of the natural resources of the United States. Even into the early years of the ‘Great Acceleration’ of economic growth after World War II, the economist Ciriacy-Wantrup was arguing that we shouldn’t run nature down because the cost of restoring it would be unacceptably high.

Society is a contract…

None of these arguments is even slightly suggestive of what might be described today as a ‘Green Left agenda’. In fact, you could argue that conservatives were all over this issue more than a century ago. What is common to the arguments is an express or implied concern for the future, especially a social obligation to future generations. This is entirely consistent with the argument of another conservative, British philosopher and MP Edmund Burke, that ‘Society is a contract… between those who are dead, those who are living, and those who are to be born’. This concern is also the essence of ‘intergenerational equity’, the principle underlying the modern ideal of environmental sustainability.

With broad support for environmental causes on the Left, and with the strong conservative pedigree of sustainability, why isn’t there bipartisan support for policies to keep the environment in good condition for future generations?