It’s election time! For one party the environment is not a priority. For the other, it’s not something to talk about.

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By Peter Burnett

With Australia heading to the polls at the end of this week, what better time to look at election policies on the environment, especially those of the two parties capable of forming government: a re-elected Coalition, or Labor?

Climate gets the lion’s share of environmental attention these days, so I’ll focus on the rest, but I can’t resist a couple of quick comments on climate before doing so.

First, both major parties have committed to net zero by 2050, but Labor is more ambitious in the short term, with a 2030 target of 43% (adopted in 2021), compared to the Coalition’s target of 26-28% (adopted in 2015).

Second, the issue is not just the target but whether there’s a credible path to achieving it. I’ve already criticised the government for tabling a plan for its new 2050 target without any new policy to go with it.

As for Labor, they don’t have any measures for getting to zero by 2050 either, though they have supported their ‘43% by 2030’ target with policies and modelling.

Whoever wins government, they’ll need to get cracking on post-2030 policy, as 2030 is less than eight years away and climate is by far the biggest challenge for governments since World War II.

As to environmental policy on everything else, it boils down to ‘not a focus for us’ vs ‘not telling’. Let me explain.

The Coalition on the Environment

The Coalition at least has a policy, but that’s the high water mark of my compliments.

Climate aside, three things stand out.

First, for a party that likes to claim the mantle of being the best economic managers, they are heavily into creative accounting. A number of the claims in the Coalition policy contain big numbers, such as the claim that they are investing $6 billion for threatened species and other living things, but they puff these up by counting past spending and/or projecting a long way forward.

I’ve criticised this practice as ‘disingenuous bundling’. Certainly, one of the headline policies, ‘$1 billion for the Reef’ represents little more than business as usual.

The second stand-out theme is making a virtue of necessity. The Coalition has a reasonable policy on waste and recycling. And they quote the Prime Minister himself as arguing that ‘It’s our waste, it’s our responsibility’.

The back-story however is that we used to ship a lot of domestic waste to China, but they banned this from 2018. In reality, we had no choice but to fix the problem.

Again, the Coalition policy recites money spent on bushfire recovery and flood response, but practically speaking they had no choice in this. Hardly inspiring.

Finally, they tell you that they have put another $100 million into the Environment Restoration Fund. I’ve criticised this elsewhere as pork-barrelling.

All in all, if you ignore the pork, necessary disaster-response and the smoke and mirrors, it’s pretty much an empty box, though freshly wrapped.

Labor on the Environment

While the Coalition reached for the wrapping paper, Labor have gone for ‘keeping mum’.

Pursuing a small-target strategy overall, but forced by circumstance to engage with the high political risks of climate policy, Labor have gambled that they can run dead on the rest.

They have released a few topic-specific policies. Labor will double the number of participants in the successful Indigenous Rangers program and spend $200m on the Great Barrier Reef, on top of the Coalition’s $1 billion by 2030. They’ll also spend $200m on up to 100 grants for urban rivers and catchments.

A little more significantly, Labor’s Saving Native Species Program commits $224.5 million over four years to preparing overdue species recovery plans and investing in the conservation of threatened species, especially the koala.

Like the Coalition, however, Labor likes to make virtue out of necessity: more than 10% of this money goes to fighting Yellow Crazy Ants in Cairns and Townsville.

All of this is at the margins.

But on the big issues … silence.

What of the 2020 review of Australia’s national environmental law by Professor Graham Samuel? What about the ongoing decline identified by successive State-of-the-Environment reports?

Labor’s website cheerily tells us that: ‘Labor will commit to a suite of environmental policies that continues Labor’s legacy on the environment, and we’ll have more to say about this over the coming weeks’ (my emphasis).

Well, if the ‘coming weeks’ refers to the election campaign, time’s up.

And the winner is …

If you are looking to the major parties for vision and boldness on environmental policy then, with the possible exception of Labor’s climate policy, you’re destined for disappointment.

The Greens are always strong on environment, and have some well-founded hopes of winning an extra seat or two, so they are a definite option for environmentally-concerned voters.

With minority government a real possibility and the major parties reluctant to associate with the Greens, it’s the ‘Teal’ and other climate-focused independents like David Pocock in the ACT (collectively, ‘Teals’ for short) who look to have the most potential to up the ante on the environment.

Standing mostly in well-off inner-city seats and blending liberal blue with environmental green, the Teals may find themselves holding the balance of power, at least in the Senate and possibly in the House of Representatives as well. While climate is clearly their focus, I’d expect the Teals to push strong environmental policy generally, if the chance comes their way.

Teal anyone?

Banner image: Look closely at what both major parties are offering on the Environment and there’s nothing to get excited over. (Image by yokewee from Pixabay)

International declarations and other environmental promises: A game for those who talk but don’t walk

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By Peter Burnett

When is an international declaration on the environment worth the paper it’s printed on? Don’t worry, it’s a rhetorical question. Based on the way the Australian Government treats them, they’re not worth anything. Consider what we’ve recently said about forests and climate change.

When it comes to forests, Australia stands with Bolsonaro

I was a little taken aback when, at last November’s climate summit in Glasgow, Australia joined 140 other countries in signing the Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land Use.

The declaration pledges to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 and the signatories represent 85% of the globe’s forested land.

Surely this was great news!

Unfortunately, of course, it was too good to be true. Countries were playing the old environmental promises game again. All you have to do is sign up — no action required.

Even President Bolsonaro of Brazil had signed! The same Bolsonaro who has been widely condemned for accelerating the destruction of the Brazilian Amazon.

As a declaration, this document is not legally binding. It’s also full of weasel words like ‘sustainable land use’ and ‘opportunities … to accelerate action’.

And, of course, even if you cut down all the trees, it’s not deforestation … as long as you plant new ones!

Are they any more serious at the OECD?

More recently, environment ministers from OECD countries had one of their five-yearly (or so) pow-wows in Paris at the end of March. Australia’s minister Sussan Ley was one of the vice-chairs and of course the OECD Secretary-General, Australia’s own Mathias Cormann, was there to advise ministers in their deliberations.

The top agenda topics were climate and plastics and the meeting yielded a formal outcome, the OECD Declaration on a Resilient and Healthy Environment for All.

Now we’ll see some action, I thought — unlike the UN, the OECD regards ministerial declarations as legal instruments, having a ‘solemn character’, though in this case the declaration is not actually legally binding.

So, I thought (naively) if this is a solemn commitment they’ll have to act!

The declaration committed OECD countries to net-zero by 2050, ‘including through accelerated action in this critical decade with a view to keeping the limit of a 1.5°C temperature increase within reach’ (my emphasis).

You might think this would require Australia to increase the ambition of its ‘26-28% by 2030’ target, but I’m sure you’d be wrong.

The Australian Government would probably cite later words from the statement that ‘we underscore the need to pursue collective action’ to achieve the Paris Agreement. We’ll step up if everyone else does so first.

Alternatively, we might announce ‘accelerated action’ in December 2029. I’m sure the lawyers will come up with something to get us off the hook.

Ministers also committed to ‘strengthen our efforts to align COVID-19 recovery plans with environmental and climate goals to build a green, inclusive and resilient recovery for all.’ If you thought this would require Australia to increase its policy ambition and pursue a green recovery, again I think you would be wrong.

I expect the government would say (without hint of irony or embarrassment), that its stimulus efforts were already ‘green, inclusive and resilient’. Green is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.

Plastic promises in Paris

Finally, ministers at the OECD pow wow committed to developing ‘comprehensive and coherent life cycle approaches to tackle plastic pollution’ and ‘promoting robust engagement in the intergovernmental negotiating committee to develop an internationally legally binding instrument on plastic pollution with the ambition of completing negotiations by the end of 2024’.

Australia is on more solid ground here, as it has some genuine policy ambition on plastics. These were forced on it when China stopped all imports of plastics and other waste in 2018, including ours, but … it’s the result that counts!

And no doubt Australia is happy enough to commit to an objective of negotiating a convention on plastics over the next nearly-three years. After all, it’s only a process commitment.

Much of the rest of the declaration consisted of pious incantations or directions to the OECD bureaucracy to do more work on policy tools, data-gathering and the like. No problems here — apart from a few dollars to support the OECD machine, this work creates no obligations.

In terms of putting ‘walk’ over ‘talk’ (ie, actions over words), Paris rates just a little ahead of Glasgow. I’d give the Paris declaration 2 out of 10 and Glasgow 1.

Postcard from Mathias: feeling expansive in Paris

A couple of other things jumped out at me in reading the record of the OECD meeting in Paris.

How strange it is to my Australian ears to hear Mathias Cormann abandon his ‘tell-em-nothing, concede nothing’ Australian political style, in favour of spruiking the international environmental cause, even though he did so in very-OECD economistic terms. I’ve emphasised the interesting words:

Secretary-General, Mr. Mathias Cormann, stressed the importance of a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach to meeting the climate challenge. He set out key thoughts in this regard including the need to mainstream climate change across all areas, step up efforts on implementation, to secure real net reductions in emissions, mobilise investment and realign global flows towards the transition, the need for reliable data and monitoring, and the importance of enhancing efforts towards adaptation and managing losses and damages.

Esperanto anyone?

Of greater interest, the environment ministers had lunch with a group of business leaders. Emmanuel Faber, Chair of the International Sustainability Standards Board, and former CEO of Danone, a multinational food corporation based in Paris, stressed the need for:

a common language to understand the climate impact of portfolios, underlining this pivotal moment in developing such a common language that can guide decisions to align finance with environmental goals and avoid greenwashing (emphasis added)

We have such a common language in the form of the System of Environmental Economic Accounting (SEEA), adopted in 2012 and enhanced with a standard for Ecosystem Accounting in 2021.

In my view, what we really need is for governments to learn to speak it! (Reminded me of Esperanto — great idea, but a little lacking on the uptake)

While my main point has been to decry the dominance of talking over walking, in the case of environmental accounting, talking is walking!

Banner image: Vaunting ambitions declared in Paris amount to little back home.
(Image by GAIMARD at Pixabay)

Last Chance Quiz – the Australian Government’s (non) response to queries on the environment

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By Peter Burnett

With an election called, you might want to inform your vote with the latest on the Australian environment and what the Government is doing about it. Unfortunately, the Government says: ‘Tough!’

As we all know, a federal election has been called for 21 May 2022. The Australian Government is now in ‘caretaker mode’, meaning it must refrain from major decisions during the campaign.

Before going into caretaker mode, it’s not uncommon for governments to make lots of major decisions immediately beforehand. This year, the vehicle for many of those big decisions was the Budget, handed down in late March.

For reasons likely connected with an internal Liberal Party brawl over candidates, the election was not called immediately after the Budget was handed down, but two weeks later. This meant that the business of Parliament continued, including ‘Budget Estimates’, in which Senators quiz officials about Budget initiatives and other things.

This turned Budget Estimates into a ‘last chance quiz’ about sensitive issues, including the environment.

Here are a few ‘highlights’ or, more correctly, lowlights from this ‘quiz’. I think they demonstrate well what priority the Government places on environmental issues (as well as good governance).

More budget honesty please

One of the political tricks of recent times has been to inflate budget numbers by announcing programs for longer and longer periods.

Once upon a time, spending was only for the coming year. Then it was three, then four. Four years is now the official period of the ‘forward estimates’ or ‘forwards’ as you sometimes hear politicians say.

But now politicians are making announcements for eight or nine years down the line. These commitments are un-legislated and go way beyond the life of the government, and are thus very rubbery.

For example, I wrote recently about the Budget announcement of $1 billion for the Great Barrier Reef amounting to little more than ‘steady as she goes’, once averaged over its announced nine year timeframe.

Now we have, supposedly, $22 billion for clean energy technology. Not only does this figure stretch to 2030, twice the four-year estimates period, but officials told Senators in Estimates that much of it covered a continuation of ‘business-as-usual’ activity for bodies such as the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and CSIRO.

Breathtakingly, one ‘key investment’, listed under the $22 billion clean energy spend, is the same $1 billion I mentioned above for the Great Barrier Reef!

The explanation was that this $1 billion was in fact a climate investment, not ‘clean energy’. Either way, as Manuel from Fawlty Towers would have said, ‘Que?

So, how much in the Budget actually represented ‘new money’ for increased policy ambition as part of a pre-election commitment?

Officials couldn’t say — they took it on notice. As a result, I can’t tell you! (And don’t hold your breath that any answers will be provided before the election.)

Clearly the Howard Government’s statutory ‘Charter of Budget Honesty’ needs an overhaul!

State of the Environment Report

We learned that his five-yearly report has around 1200 pages, cost $6m and was sent to the Minister last December. Unfortunately, we also learned that the law gives her until a date after the May election to table the report, and there are no indications that she will table it early.

So, if you want to inform your vote with the latest environmental trends, don’t look for the State of the Environment report!

Environment Restoration Fund

In my last blog I raised concerns that the $100m newly allocated to this fund would be used for pork barrelling, because that’s what happened to the previous round of $100m in 2019.

The new revelations in Estimates were that the Minister was yet to adopt any grant guidelines for this new round, but that priorities would include threatened and migratory species; coastal waterways; pest animals and weeds; and greening cities, with an emphasis on east coast flood recovery.

My concerns remain. In the absence of guidelines, this money could, once again, be allocated through election commitments, without scientific advice and without competitive applications. They got away with it last time, so why not do it again?

Threatened species at warp speed

The Auditor-General found recently that only 2% of recovery plans were completed on time; 207 remain overdue and there is no integrated process for monitoring implementation.

It turned out that in responding to the Auditor-General, the department had committed to ‘track and publish the implementation of priority actions in conservation advice and recovery plans for all 100 priority species under the Threatened Species Strategy 2021-30 by 2026’.

That’s right. In another four years, we’ll be able to see what’s going on for 100 out of nearly 2000 threatened species (ie, 5%). Now that’s what I call warp speed!!

More disingenuous bundling

The Budget headline for threatened species was $170m over four years.

But $100m of that is the second-round Restoration Fund discussed above, which could be given away as pork, while $53 million, previously announced, is for koalas, of which only $20m reserved for large scale restoration and animal health — I think there is a real chance that much of the money will be dissipated as small grants.

Another element of the claimed spend on threatened species is a new $20 million Queen’s Jubilee Program, providing grants for locals to plant trees, such as ‘large shade trees in a school or civic centre’ under the I can see Carnaby’s cockatoos and orange-bellied parrots lining up now!

The real gain for threatened species, on a proper science-based prioritisation? As usual, it’s hard to know, but it could be a few million a year. I’d say ‘chicken feed’, but chickens are not a threatened species.

What prospects for change?

You can see from my cynicism that I think this government tinkers with the environment while inflating and conflating its efforts so as to deliberately mislead the people. The ‘last chance quiz’ poked a few holes in this carefully contrived environment Budget narrative, but this doesn’t mean we are any wiser about what’s going on.

But I just can’t leave things on such a depressing note.

Would a Labor government be any better? Possibly, though they have yet to announce their policies and their general ‘small target’ approach holds little prospect of the the sort of bold (and expensive) action we need to halt the decline of Nature.

Perhaps the best prospects for the environment lie in a hung Parliament – the ‘teal Independents’ have been very strong on climate change and it’s hard not to think their attitude would spill into environmental policy more generally.

Hope springs eternal!

Banner image: Image by Mietzekatze at Pixabay.

Federal budget: $160 million for nature may deliver only pork and a fudge

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By Peter Burnett

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s cash-splash budget has a firm eye on the upcoming federal election. In the environment portfolio, two spending measures are worth scrutinising closely.

First is a A$100 million round of the Environment Restoration Fund – one of several grants programs awarded through ministerial discretion which has been found to favour marginal and at-risk electorates.

Second is $62 million for up to ten so-called “bioregional plans” in regions prioritised for development. Environment Minister Sussan Ley has presented the measure as environmental law reform, but I argue it’s a political play dressed as reform.

It’s been more than a year since Graeme Samuel’s independent review of Australia’s environment law confirmed nature on this continent is in deep trouble. It called for a comprehensive overhaul – not the politically motivated tinkering delivered on Tuesday night.

A big barrel of pork?

The Environment Restoration Fund gives money to community groups for activities such as protecting threatened and migratory species, addressing erosion and water quality, and cleaning up waste.

The first $100 million round was established before the 2019 election. In March 2020 it emerged in Senate Estimates that the vast majority had been pre-committed in election announcements. In other words, it was essentially a pork-barelling exercise.

The grants reportedly had no eligibility guidelines and were given largely to projects chosen and announced as campaign promises – and mostly in seats held or targeted by the Coalition.

Given this appalling precedent, the allocation of grants under the second round of the fund must be watched closely in the coming election campaign.

A tricky Senate bypass

Australia’s primary federal environment law is known as the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

Under provisions not used before, the need for EPBC Act approval of developments such as dams or mines can be switched off if the development complies with a so-called “bioregional plan”.

Bioregions are geographic areas that share landscape attributes, such as the semi-arid shrublands of the Pilbara.

In theory, bioregional plans deliver twin benefits. They remove the need for federal sign-off — a state approval will do the job – and so eliminate duplication. And national environmental interests are maintained, because state approvals must comply with the plans, which are backed by federal law.

But the government’s record strongly suggests it’s interested only in the first of these benefits.

Since the Samuel review was handed down, the government has largely sought only to remove so-called “green tape” – by streamlining environmental laws and reducing delays in project approvals.

Bills to advance these efforts have been stuck in the Senate. Now, the government has opted to fund bioregional plans which, as an existing mechanism, avoid Senate involvement.

Meanwhile, the government has barely acted on the myriad other problems Samuel identified in his review of the law, releasing only a detail-light “reform pathway”.

A rod for the government’s back?

Ironically, bioregional plans may create more problems for the government than they solves.

First, the surveys needed to prepare the plans are likely to spotlight the regional manifestations of broad environmental problems, such as biodiversity loss.

And the EPBC Act invites the environment minister to respond to such problems in the resulting plans. This implies spelling out new investments or protections – challenging for the government given its low policy ambition.

The federal government would also need to find state or territory governments willing to align themselves with its environmental politics, as well as its policy.

Of the two Coalition state governments, New South Wales’ is significantly more green than the Morrison government, while Tasmania is not home to a major development push.

Western Australia’s Labor government has been keen to work with Morrison on streamlining approvals, but fudging environmental protections is another thing altogether. And Labor governments, with a traditionally more eco-conscious voter base, are particularly vulnerable to criticism from environment groups.

The government may fudge the bioregional plans so they look good on paper, but don’t pose too many hurdles for development. Such a fudge may be necessary to fulfil Morrison’s obligations to the Liberals’ coalition partner, the Nationals.

Tuesday’s budget contained more than $21 billion for regional development such as dams, roads and mines – presumably their reward for the Nationals’ support of the government’s net-zero target.

Bioregional plans containing strict environmental protections could constrain or even strangle some of these developments.

But on the other hand, the government may be vulnerable to court challenges if it seeks to push through bioregional plans containing only vague environmental protection.

For a government of limited environmental ambition bioregional plans represent more a political gamble than a reform.

Morrison has clearly rejected the safer option of asking Ley to bring forward a comprehensive response to the Samuel review, casting streamlining as part of a wider agenda.

Such a reform would have better Senate prospects and created room to negotiate.

Morrison could also have promised to reintroduce the streamlining bills after the election. But he must have concluded that the measure has no better chance of getting through the next Senate than this one.

What price fundamental reform?

If the government successfully fudges bioregional plans, the result would be watered-down national environmental protections.

This would run completely counter to the key message of the Samuel review, that to shy away from fundamental law reforms:

“is to accept the continued decline of our iconic places and the extinction of our most threatened plants, animals and ecosystems”.

Clearly, good reform is too expensive — politically as well as fiscally — for this budget.

Peter Burnett, Honorary Associate Professor, ANU College of Law, Australian National University

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

Banner image: Feed them pork, win their votes. (Image by BeckyTregear @ Pixabay)

The Farm Biodiversity Stewardship Market Bill 2022 – Watch out for weasel words

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By Peter Burnett

In 2020 I was a member of a consultative group established by Professor Graham Samuel in his review of Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

At several points in our discussions, Professor Samuel, a highly experienced and well-regarded former regulator, cautioned against ‘weasel words’: that is, hollow or ambiguous words that create a false sense of certainty or clarity.

I agreed with Professor Samuel whole-heartedly: one of the secrets of good regulation is to use simple and clear words that leave no scope for confusion or manoeuvre.

Say what you mean and mean only what you say. No legal fudges. It gives everyone certainty and increases trust in a regulatory system.

The Morrison government’s new Agriculture Biodiversity Stewardship Market Bill 2022 (Biodiversity Credits Bill), was introduced last month (February) with very little fanfare. It fails the weasel-words test by including words copied from a similar law on carbon credits, the Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Act 2011 (‘Carbon Credits Act’).

Creating biodiversity credits

Governments in Australia have experimented over the years with biodiversity stewardship schemes (for example, see Learning from agri-environmental schemes in Australia). Typically, these schemes pay farmers to protect or restore native vegetation on their land. The Morrison government is the latest to trial such a scheme.

One difference this time around is that the government is going further than before, using the scheme to lay foundations for wider biodiversity markets. A key to doing this is to create ‘biodiversity credits’ as a new form of property readily bought and sold.

This requires legislation and hence the Biodiversity Credits Bill. The Bill is modelled on the Carbon Credits Act.

In principle, this is a good thing.

Weasel Words

The problem is that the part of the Carbon Credits Act that deals with the integrity of carbon credits was watered down by the Abbott government in 2014 as part of its policy of replacing a carbon price with a (much more limited) purchasing of emission reductions by government.

At the time the government called this watering-down ‘streamlining’ and ‘simplification’, using its now-standard justification that the changes would ‘provide greater flexibility … while retaining the same high standards …’

Integrity is essential to ensuring that carbon or biodiversity credits represent a real gain for the environment at full face value. To achieve this, the credits must be both additional to business as usual and achieved in full compliance with a scientifically robust methodology (renamed ‘protocol’ in the new bill).

The methodology requirements for carbon credits, which are set by the minister, were watered down by the following changes:

The Biodiversity Credits Bill adopts this same watered-down system from the Carbon Credits Act.

It also lowers the bar on the integrity standards, dropping a requirement in the Carbon Credits Act that any necessary assumptions in an approved methodology be ‘conservative’ and replacing it with a requirement that any such assumptions be ‘reasonably certain’.

Superficially, the changes look minor, even trivial. In substance, they are very significant.

Their net effect was and is to weaken the benchmark for, and rigour of, the expert advice; to allow the minister to disregard the advice once given; and to allow more use of CSIRO scientists who, as government employees, can be subject to greater pressures from within government, subtle or otherwise.

In addition, the weaker and more subjective the language, the more difficult it becomes to mount a court challenge on the ground of failing to meet statutory requirements.

What now?

Rumour has it that the government is pushing for a quick passage of the Bill in the few days remaining before the Parliament is prorogued for a May election — presumably on the expectation of bipartisan support.

Such support would deliver another blow to the environment by opening the new biodiversity credits to political influence, compromising their integrity. As the market for credits grows, there will pressures from suppliers to make it easier to have approaches accredited, and from buyers to increase the supply of credits to meet demand and lower prices.

The 2014 carbon credit integrity model should not be adopted for biodiversity credits.

But more than that, biodiversity credits are like a currency. Just as the integrity of our currency has been entrusted to the Reserve Bank board, an independent and expert body, so too should the integrity of biodiversity (and carbon) credits be entrusted to an independent expert body.

I hope the Senate will not support the Biodiversity Credits Bill in its current form.

Act in haste, repent at leisure.

Banner image by monicore @ Pixabay

Senate Estimates – slippery answers like bare-handed barrel-fishing

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The latest Senate Environment Committee ‘Estimates’ hearings

By Peter Burnett

Regular readers will know that I have written several times about what emerges from Senate Estimates. Estimates is a somewhat esoteric proceeding in the Australian Parliament (and some others) in which politicians ask questions of (mostly) bureaucrats about proposed allocations of money to spending programs.

Well, that’s the theory anyway. In practice, questions get asked about any official activity, right down to the micro level of when the official sent a document to a minister.

In return, officials, who are often the meat in the sandwich here, respond with lots of detail but work hard not to reveal anything of substance in their answers. It’s a bit of a game but sometimes the stakes can be quite high.

Despite having long left the bureaucracy, I have retained my interest in this ritual form of combat, partly for what it reveals about the art of public administration but, more relevantly here, for the little gems of information that spill forth about environmental programs.

As a participant, I was focused on surviving the stressful experience of a public grilling from the politicians. As an observer, I now have much broader aspirations to seeing the accountability mechanisms (for that is what the Senate Estimates is supposed to be) of Parliament work.

Unfortunately, they usually do not.

The most recent Environment Estimates were held in February. I’ve chosen several issues of interest below, one to illustrate the failings of Estimates as an accountability mechanism and another as a vehicle for arguing the need for improved accountability.

Dragging it out (that’s the Australian Way)

I sympathise with frustrated politicians trying to get straight answers to legitimate questions. To them, Estimates must feel like bare-handed barrel-fishing: it’s easy enough to get close, but landing a catch is something different entirely.

My example from the February Estimates concerns the modelling commissioned by the government to support its Long-Term Emissions Reduction Plan — that’s the plan to implement the government’s commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, sanctimoniously subtitled in the ‘popular’ version of the plan as ‘The Australian Way’.

(Recall that the decision to commit to net zero by 2050 caused great division between the Liberal and National parties in the Coalition, and that the Nationals were said to have secured significant concessions from the PM in return for signing on, which the PM reluctantly felt he had to do, because Jo Biden and others were doing it.)

The story revealed over several Estimates hearings was that work on ‘the plan’ had started in February 2021.

The finalised plan was released on 26 October 2021, in the lead-up to CoP 26 in Glasgow, but the supporting modelling, which would have helped critics to ask penetrating questions, was not released until 12 November, after CoP 26 had finished.

Why the delay? asked the Senator. She complained that back in the Budget Estimates, in May, officials wouldn’t even confirm that they were doing the modelling. Then, at Supplementary Estimates, held just before the Plan was adopted, the government made a claim of ‘public interest immunity’ in relation to the modelling, meaning that it would not be released on the ground that it was the subject of current Cabinet deliberation.

Now, in February this year, officials were saying that they hadn’t released the modelling promptly, after the government announced the Plan, because they didn’t have the capacity to produce both the plan and the modelling for publication. In particular, officials said they needed more time to make the public version of the modelling ‘accessible’.

The questioning Senator was naturally suspicious. Had the Minister himself taken the decision about when to release the modelling? ‘I’d have to take it on notice to specifically check if the minister himself gave any particular direction’ replied the official, thus avoiding dropping the minister in the proverbial and further drawing out the accountability process.

You can see why this sequence of events would frustrate the Senate’s attempts to scrutinise a major decision.

The underlying answer to legitimate questions was that it is never the right time to ask for politically-sensitive information, until the moment chosen by the government to release it — that’s the Australian Way!

Peas and thimbles

On 28 January the government announced an ‘additional’ $1 billion over nine years in funding for the Great Barrier Reef. A number of Estimates questions were directed to ascertaining how this money would be allocated.

In this case the government had to be much more forthcoming because the questions related directly to the purpose of Estimates, which is to scrutinise proposed new expenditure.

So, officials provided detail, for example, that the funding would be allocated to the environment department and to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, but that no further money would be channelled through the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a private body through which the government had channelled, in 2017, Australia’s largest and most controversial-ever grant of $443m.

Questioners also probed the governments’ decision to announce nine years’ funding, as this was far beyond the standard four year forward forward-estimates period.

Senators also elicited from officials that ‘the new money effectively dovetails with the decline in the existing funding commitments’ — ie, that much of this ‘new’ or ‘additional’ money was simply an extension of existing spending, which was declining, not because the job was done, but because governments often allocate funding for arbitrary periods.

Looking at these answers, it seems to me that the government started with the idea that they needed to be seen to be spending big to stave off the threat of an ‘In Danger’ listing for the Reef, and simply took the current spending that was about to lapse, decided to continue it, and just kept adding more forward years until they got to the politically credible figure of $1 billion.

That’s why nine (years) was the magic number, though of course officials didn’t say so! Interestingly, if they had used the standard four-year period, on a pro-rata basis the funding would have been $444m — almost identical to the controversial Reef Foundation grant!

A coincidence like that would never have done!

Unfortunately, however, the questions stopped short of asking whether any of the money was truly ‘additional’, ie, representing increased effort overall.

Once allowance is made for the fact that most of the money just extends existing budgets or programs, and for inflation, would there be anything left to represent a real increase? It appears not, although we can’t be sure.

And even if there were a real increase for the Reef, would that increase come at the cost of a reduction in environmental expenditure elsewhere?

In other words, does any of this ‘additional’ money reflect any additional effort for the environment? Or is it just a transfer from one environmental program to another

In theory, it would be possible to ask a series of questions that would force an answer this question.

In practice, obfuscation in official documents, limited time in Estimates and limited resources available to Senators to formulate a set of questions sufficiently comprehensive to force the answer, make such an exercise impractical.

A better way?

As an exercise in bare-handed barrel-fishing, Estimates is hardly satisfactory. While Parliament has other accountability mechanisms, most of these have their own problems.

And when a mechanism does work well, as we’ve seen recently with successful reviews of grant programs by that pesky Auditor General, the government counters by cutting his budget!

One solution to strengthen accountability would be — wait for it — to publish proper accounts! I’m talking about detailed accounts at the program level, which logically should form part of a comprehensive set of environmental accounts.

To date, the commitment of Australian governments to improved accountability, and to environmental accounts themselves, has been very limited, but … we live in hope!

Banner image: Senate Estimates is like barrel fishing with your hands. Lots of targets but most are slippery and impossible to hold on to. (Image by David Salt)

What is ecology’s contribution to sustainability? And why does economics get the Big Chair at the dinner table?

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By Peter Burnett

For most people who take an interest in it, sustainability is the central idea of Our Common Future, a major United Nations report on environment and development. It was published in 1987.

You may know it as the Brundtland Report, after its principal author, Gro Harlem Brundtland, a medical doctor who became the first female Prime Minister of Norway in the early 1980s and, later, Director General of the World Health Organisation.

Whenever I pick up my copy of Our Common Future I’m always drawn to a sentence on the back cover: ‘Our Common Future serves notice that the time has come for a marriage of economy and ecology…’

Due to the efforts of some pioneering economists and ecologists from the late 1980s, there is a marriage of economics and ecology within a new discipline created by those pioneers, that of ecological economics. But this marriage has few progenies beyond academia.

Even within ecological economics, there are some signs that the marriage is not an equal one. Ecology has influenced the approach of economics but not the other way round.

I began to wonder. What is ecology and what is its contribution to sustainability?

Economics comes in from the cold

Let’s start with economics. In the decades following the outbreak of World War II, economics ‘came in from the cold’, completely transforming itself from just another academic discipline, inhabited by retiring academics, to one that some critics attack as ‘imperialist’ or ‘hegemonic’ in its attitudes.

This transformation happened because governments invited economists into the very heart of government.

First, they wanted to win the war, a ‘total war’ requiring that the efforts of every sector of the economy be directed towards victory.

Then, governments wanted economists to assist them to win the peace, initially to find jobs for millions of returning allied soldiers and subsequently to show that capitalism had a better recipe for prosperity than communism in the ideological battles of the emerging Cold War.

The resulting mantra of ‘jobs and growth’ also helped win elections at home and became a fixed feature of the political landscape.

Economists delivered the goods. As a result, they wield an influence that is the envy of most other disciplines.

Oxford economist Kate Raworth encapsulated this influence in her description of economics as the ‘mother tongue of public policy’.

If economics is its ‘mother tongue’ then, unfortunately, ecology remains a foreign language to public policy.

What about ecology?

The term ‘ecology’ was coined in 1866 by Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), a 28-year-old German marine biologist, although some ecological ideas, like ‘the balance of nature’, go right back to the Greek philosophers.

Ecology is the study of the relationship between living things and their environment.

Ecology didn’t really take off until the mid-twentieth century. Raymond Lindeman’s (1915–1942) work on trophic dynamics (energy flows in particular food-web levels) was seminal for ecosystem ecology, while the brothers Eugene Odum (1913–2002) and Howard Odum (1924–2002)published their influential textbook, Fundamentals of Ecology, in 1953.

Ecology entered the popular lexicon in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. Many claim this book triggered what can be described as the modern environmental era.

The influence of ecology on sustainability

Sustainability seeks to identify the human behaviour that will allow the greatest possible level of economic activity consistent with maintaining the ‘ecosystem services’ that Nature provides to humans.

Because ecology is concerned with the natural relationship between plants and animals and their physical environment, ecologists can advise humans on what they may do, or must not do, if they want these ecosystem services to continue (let alone maintain Nature for its inherent value and beauty).

Economics is concerned with the efficient allocation of scarce resources, all of which come, directly or indirectly, from Nature. Economic advice is given routinely in the context of constraints on the supply of resources.

Typically, those constraints have been related to humans factors, such as cost. But there is no reason why economics cannot operate equally well within restraints identified by ecologists, based on Nature’s ability to maintain ecosystem services.

In essence, this is the marriage of economics and ecology.

Economics does not have much to teach ecology in terms of its method, but it can help set ecology’s agenda: from a sustainability perspective, the key questions are ‘what is required to keep Nature operating’ and ‘how can humans restore ecological loss already sustained?’

Married, but not communicating

Both ‘ecology’ and ‘economics’ come for the Greek oikos, meaning household, so it seems the attraction between the two disciplines is a natural one (pardon the pun).

However, they speak different languages and, unfortunately for ecology, the marital home, sustainability, lies in the (economic-speaking) land of government.

The challenges of communicating ecological insights in this foreign land are myriad. Apart from ecologists not being native speakers of economics (and vice-versa) their substantive ideas concerning ecological relationships and processes are not obvious to the ordinary person.

Great communicators wanted

It seems to me that, to put this marriage on a more equal footing, ecology needs more great communicators.

These are rare birds indeed. So rare, that of the first two who spring to my mind, one is of great age and the other passed away nearly 15 years ago.

Internationally, David Attenborough is a master and highly influential.

In Australia, the late Professor Peter Cullen of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists was also a master communicator. His passing in 2008 was a great loss to our country.

These two leaders exemplify the skills we need: they are (were) well-versed in biological science, relate naturally to ordinary people through media, speak fluent public policy and, to ice the cake, have mellifluous voices!

We need to do more to grow these skills.

In 2018 the ABC began awarding media residencies annually to Australia’s ‘Top Five Young Scientist Communicators’, a great initiative.

Who else will nurture our young ‘Attenboroughs’ and ‘Cullens’?

Building a truly sustainable future will require more of these vital bridge builders.

Banner image by geralt @ Pixabay

‘The Big Shift’ begins – sustainable development comes to Australia

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Environmental policy changes under the third Hawke government (1987-1990)

By Peter Burnett

This is another in our series on the environmental policies of previous Australian Governments.

The story so far: In the previous instalment in this series on environmental policy in Australia, we saw how the Hawke Government was elected in 1983 on the back of a wave of environmental concern surrounding the proposed Franklin Dam in Tasmania. Unfortunately, having stopped the dam, the Government lost its enthusiasm for the environment. But the wheel was turning …

In the lead-up to the 1987 election Hawke swung back to a fairly strong pro-environment stance. Environmental concerns were on the rise and, in return for Labor’s campaign commitments in relation to environmentally-significant areas such as Kakadu Stage II, the environment movement had advocated a vote for Labor.

Graham Richardson, a backbencher but nevertheless an influential party fixer, was instrumental in negotiating these commitments. After Labor won the election, Richardson’s reward was not just promotion to the ministry as Environment Minister, but the elevation of the environment portfolio to cabinet.

Suddenly the environment was back at the centre of policy-making.

What Now?

Labor implemented the promises it made about expanding Kakadu; it also protected some other very special places including the Wet Tropics forests and Shelburne Bay in North Queensland.

But this wasn’t where the action lay for policy nerds. The most interesting action was to be found inside the Cabinet.

The ‘environmental turn’ had been driven much more by politics than policy. Flushed with success and now a cabinet minister, Graeme Richardson pressed for more of what some insiders deprecatingly called ‘one-off forays’, or ‘icons’, interventions to protect prominent bits of the environment with high public appeal, without a larger vision or plan about how to care for the environment.

While this approach held the prospect of more political success, it also caused deep frustration on the part of ministers with economic portfolios.

Events intervened. While the Hawke Cabinet didn’t know it at the time, 1987 was the year in which (what I would call) ‘The Big Shift’ in environmental policy began.

Sustainable development: will it sink or swim?

In mid-1987 the United Nations published a report, Our Common Future, or Brundtland Report as it was known.

This was no ordinary report. On the back of a several environmental disasters including the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, the Brundtland Report was grabbing headlines.

Brundtland put a new concept on the table, ‘sustainable development’, which it defined as ‘development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

The Environment Department advised Richardson to raise the Brundtland Report in Cabinet, but he rejected this idea.

The archives don’t reveal why, but my guess is that Richardson wanted to continue his ‘icons’ approach.

Politically, the ‘icons’ approach was simple and successful. ‘Sustainable Development’, on the other hand, was a nebulous policy idea. Why risk it?

Policy fights back

But if Richardson thought he could apply a little of Sir Humphrey’s ‘masterly inaction’, he’d underestimated the Clark Kent-like Primary Industries Minister John Kerin.

At the suggestion of the head of the mining lobby, Kerin read the Brundtland Report. He writes in his autobiography that he saw in Sustainable Development a possible way to reconcile competing arguments on environmental management and began promoting the idea.

But Kerin had also built up a head of steam. In his submission to Cabinet, he was highly critical of:

“eleventh hour ad hoc responses to proposals … minimal recognition of the multiple objectives involved in resource allocation decisions and a propensity for parties to seek “winner take all outcomes” without understanding economic, social or environmental consequences.”

Kerin persuaded Hawke and other ministers to send Richardson and himself away to develop options for rationalising and improving the policy framework for decisions on what was blandly described as ‘competing land uses’.

Surprisingly, Kerin didn’t actually suggest that the government endorse Sustainable Development per se. Instead, perhaps hoping to hoist Richardson on his own policy petard, he made sure that Cabinet directed that the two ministers take into account the policy principles embodied in the dormant Nature Conservation Strategy from 1984.

While this strategy pre-dated the Brundtland report, it took a Brundtland-like approach of pursuing both conservation and development as essential.

Working the policy through

The work was delegated to officials. It must have been hard going, because it took officials from the environment and economic departments 11 months to prepare a report for Cabinet, during which they identified no less than 47 objectives and principles to be applied in resolving conflicting land-use claims! (Admittedly the principles were divided into categories; eg, economic principles, conflict resolution principles.)

And it seems that 11 months of dialogue had exhausted everyone, because, rather than telling the public servants to whittle the 47 principles down to a manageable few, Cabinet endorsed the lot!

Things weren’t as bad as they looked though, because the three principles at the head of the list of 47 were given primacy by being endorsed as ‘notable’.

More than this, Cabinet agreed to establish the Resource Assessment Commission (RAC), an independent body which was to assess and report on major environment and development issues (but only if the government gave them a reference). And the three ‘notable’ principles were written into the RAC legislation.

So, round one in the fight for good policy went to Kerin and the economic ministers.

We now had a set of environmental policy principles and a body, headed by a judge, to report on major environment and development issues. (I’ll tell you what happened to the RAC another day.)

The principles

But what about the principles, I hear you say?

The first dealt with policy integration. Common sense really: consider conservation and development together, as early as possible.

The remaining two principles reflect the downsides of compromise.

The second principle was that there should be ‘benefit optimisation’, which seems like an attempt to graft environmental and equity considerations onto economic efficiency. But it takes the easy way out: while saying that decision-makers should look at all three factors (environment, society, economy), the principle gives no guidance as to how they can be reconciled to produce a single outcome.

The third principle, that in some cases both conservation and development can be accommodated concurrently or sequentially, and, in other cases, choices must be made between alternative uses, seems like weasel words to me, to play down the need to make hard decisions.

For example, the idea that a mine-site could be cleared of critical habitat and later returned to its previous condition without enduring loss, is wishful thinking. (Yet we can see that thinking in recent decisions that count site restoration as environmental offsets!)

The remaining 44 principles, never announced, included a number of existing principles, such as ‘polluter pays’ and some prosaic statements, for example that the costs of environmental consultation should be kept down.

The Big Shift begins

Despite all the hard work put into them, at the end of the day, this was a flawed set of principles. But they did mark a start, the start of ‘The Big Shift’ from an ad hoc protection of special places, to a systematic and integrated approach to environmental policy.

It’s ironic that this move was championed by the Minister for Agriculture, John Kerin, head of a ministry that has traditionally been focussed on production and not seen as a good friend to the environment, while at the same time the Environment Minister seemed disinterested in wider or deeper policy reform.

Top marks to John Kerin for a big effort.

Unfortunately, one attempt would not be enough. In fact, 35 years later, The Big Shift is by no means complete.

In many ways our environmental policy settings are just as ad hoc, opaque and reactive as they were in the late 1980s.

Banner image: Mossman Gorge, part of the Daintree National Park in Tropical North Queensland. The area was given World Heritage Status in the 1980s, a time in which there was considerable political reward for protecting iconic bits of nature. It was during these years that environmental policy began its big shift, moving towards a bigger picture on sustainable development. (Image by David Salt)

Does a ‘duty of care’ to future children make any difference to environmental approvals?

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By Peter Burnett

Do you think our political leaders, our representatives, owe the children of the future, our children, a duty of care? I think most people would.

But what does that actually mean in practice?

Should a duty of care apply if the political leader is wearing a second hat as a regulator? What if the law the regulator is applying says nothing about a duty of care?

Our legal system is grappling with this issue right now.

Last year, in a case known as Sharma v Minister for the Environment, the Federal Court of Australia found that the environment minister, in her statutory capacity as a regulator under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), owed Australian children a common law (ie, non-statutory) duty of care not to injure them by approving a development that would exacerbate climate change.

At the time, the minister was considering making a statutory decision to approve an extension to the Vickery coal mine in NSW.

Is it okay to develop a coal mine if it results in increased emissions?

As I wrote in an earlier blog, the implication of the case for decisions under the EPBC Act (and other regulatory laws) was that regulators, when considering whether to approve a development, must now turn their mind to an additional mandatory consideration, the likelihood of harm, at least to children, if not others.

In that discussion, I argued that the decision was legally incorrect and would likely be overturned on appeal. In fact, an appeal has been heard, though not yet decided.

In the meantime, the original decision stands and must be applied — ie, regulators must consider the likelihood of future harm to children from a development.

What does this mean in practice? Well, documents released recently under freedom of information (FoI) laws have revealed how the environment minister was advised by her department concerning this new-found duty of care.

The documents concern another coal mine extension, this time by Glencore of its Mangoola mine in the NSW Hunter Valley.

For completeness, the Court also found that human safety is a mandatory relevant consideration under the EPBC Act, including when affected by the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG).

Rather than this being part of a duty of care, the Court said this implication was found in the ‘subject-matter, scope and purpose’ of the EPBC Act.

As a result, if a proposed development in fact posed a ‘real risk’ to human safety of Australians (not just children) the Minister should give ‘at least elevated weight’ to the need to avoid that risk.

This part of the decision may be less vulnerable on appeal because it results from the Court’s interpretation of the Act, rather than the (more radical) application of a duty of care from outside the Act.

Requirements on Minister: EPBC Act plus duty of care

The EPBC Act contains a fairly standard process for granting environmental approvals, based on considering an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and applying various statutory criteria.

Although the EPBC Act does not extend directly to climate impacts, it does cover indirect impacts on things that it does proect, eg threatened species. And GHG can have an indirect impact on threatened species, by changing the climate.

So, it is common under the EPBC Act to consider climate impacts from projects that are large GHG emitters, like coal mines.

Consistent with the Sharma decision, when environment minister Sussan Ley considered the Mangoola mine, she considered, in addition to the usual statutory matters, her duty of care to avoid causing harm to Australian children, as a result of GHG emissions from both the mine itself (scope 1 and 2) and the coal it would produce (scope 3).

Minister’s decision on climate impacts of mine

The minister decided that, even having regard both to her additional duty of care to children and the implied statutory duty to consider human safety, it was not necessary to refuse the mine extension, or to impose additional climate-related conditions.

While these duties might have been new, it turned out that considering those duties simply took the minister down the same path of reasoning that she and her predecessors had used before when considering indirect climate impacts.

This reasoning has been validated by earlier court decisions and it goes like this:

First, if the mine didn’t go ahead, potential customers would simply burn coal from other mines, with no overall difference for the climate (the market substitution argument).

Second, if this is wrong, and the mine does increase GHG emissions, national and international policies, such as ‘nationally determined contributions’ under the Paris Agreement, would prevent overall emission increases, because countries have agreed to phase coal down (the climate policy argument).

And Ley added a new argument: the coal phase down would be reinforced by private company commitments: mine proponent Glencore had itself adopted a target of reducing total global emissions from its operations (scope 1, 2 and 3) by 50% by 2035, reducing to net-zero by 2050.

Just more boxes to tick? Is that it?

So, at the end of the day, even considering a new duty to children and giving ‘elevated’ weight to human safety consistent with the Sharma decision, the minister ended up at the same place as earlier decisions.

The mine could go ahead because it would not increase emissions, or, alternatively, any increase would be ‘extremely small’.

Plus, of course, there were social and economic benefits that made approval, on balance, ‘appropriate’.

It turned out that the duty of care to children and human safety were just two more boxes to tick.

So, does it matter then whether the government wins or loses the Sharma appeal if the result is the same?

You might think not, but I can however see two reasons why it matters.

It does matter

First, Sharma found the environment minister had a duty of care. While this duty might not change environmental outcomes now, if the duty is upheld it will invite compensation claims in future decades, based on harm generated by approval decisions taken now.

This creates risks for government.

The second implication is environmental and political. If the duty of care to children remains, this will confirm a higher profile for the climate implications of development decisions. I think this increases the chances that someone will take the ‘market substitution’ and ‘climate policy’ arguments to the High Court.

I know I told you that these arguments had already been accepted in earlier Federal Court decisions. But I think there are grounds for challenging this.

Why? I’ll tell you in another blog, but a High Court appeal would put climate change issues before the highest court in the land. And that’s not something to be sneezed at.

The implications of this? If the children win again in court, I think the government will move in Parliament to legislate these legal and political risks away.

So the children will probably lose even if they win.

Banner image: On the one hand coal gives us ‘cheap’ energy. On the other, it emits a lot of GHG likely to harm future generations of children. (Image by Pavlofox @ Pixabay).

Could anything be ‘New’ About Capitalism and the Environment?

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An opening for ‘environmental debt’

By Peter Burnett

Capitalism is a popular theme in Australian environmental policy at the moment, at least for Liberal governments.

Hardly surprising I suppose. The Liberal Party prides itself on being the natural home of free enterprise.

Addressing a business breakfast last month, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told his audience that ‘We believe climate can be ultimately solved by “can-do capitalism” not “don’t do governments” seeking to control peoples’ lives.

As a three word slogan, ‘can-do capitalism’ would not have rated a further mention in this blog if it were not for the fact that, shortly afterwards, Matt Kean, recently-appointed NSW Treasurer (who also remains, for the time being, Environment Minister) popped up in a media interview spruiking ‘New Capitalism’ as the solution to environmental and other problems.

At first blush, this seemed like nothing more than a bit of political jockeying between two Liberal politicians who have a bit of form in the needling department, as Mr Kean seemed to be taking aim at Morrison.

“I think it [New Capitalism] is very different [to Can-Co Capitalism],” Mr Kean told the Australian Financial Review. “I don’t want to make policies just for a news cycle, I want to make policies for a generation that will build a stronger and more prosperous nation for everyone,” Mr Kean said.

Kean’s ‘New Capitalism’

But there was more to it than that. Mr Kean went on to say that ‘I guess “New Capitalism” is looking at the environmental and social benefits of the decisions we take, not just the financial benefits.’

Still fairly ho hum and hardly new. This amounts to a very weak form of sustainability: ‘sustainable’ in a sense of requiring economic, social and environmental factors to be taken into account, but very weak because it does not require any particular weight to be given to social or environmental factors. Indeed, this formula doesn’t require any weight at all!

However, Kean continued, outlining “five pillars” of his economic portfolio, including “climate and sustainability”. A little more substance, but still just a topic and not really a policy.

Then it got interesting. Kean started talking about there being a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the big structural issues in the economy. ‘There’s no point leaving our kids with a bucketful of money if we’ve left them with a mountain of environmental debt,’ he said.

What’s ‘environmental debt’?

Now you’re talking Matt. I’ve always thought ‘environmental debt’ was a useful concept, conveying clearly that we have borrowed someone else’s share of nature (the ‘someone else’ being future generations) and must pay it back.

But the term hasn’t been used much in our political discourse, perhaps because it is potentially so powerful and, to my mind, policy-specific.

In fact, the only serious mention of environmental debt I can recall in Australian political discourse comes from 30 years ago, when the Hawke government made reference to the importance of not saddling future generations with environmental debt, in the course of developing the now-long-forgotten National Strategy on Ecologically Sustainable Development.

But why does using up nature create a debt? Because Nature can only produce what each generation of humans needs if there is enough of each of its component ecosystems, its ‘natural capital’, to do so.

Call it ‘critical mass’ if you like. That’s just the way Nature works. Drop below critical mass in any ecosystem and you are in trouble.

This phenomenon has been explained by comparing Nature to an inheritance, coming in the form of a large fund that has been invested.

We can live off the natural ‘dividends’ or ‘ecosystem services’ forever, but if we draw down more than just the dividends, we start eating into the natural capital, condemning future generations to receiving fewer ‘dividends’ (and more trouble) from Nature than we have.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what we have done.

So, if we value our children and grandchildren as much as ourselves, we owe it to future generations to pay back our over-consumption. (As an aside, try arguing against that proposition: Groucho Marx is reported to have said ‘What has posterity ever done for me?’ But he was a comedian.)

And how do we pay back environmental debt? Through environmental restoration. Restoration can come from doing things that build Nature’ capacities (like planting trees) or from reducing things that harm Nature (like carbon emissions).

Don’t forget the accounts

And if Kean is serious about repaying environmental debt, there’s another implication: we need a way to measure it. Banks keep track of their loans by keeping accounts. As I’ve explained before, there is an now an internationally recognised way of keeping environmental accounts, the System of Environmental-Economic Accounts, or ‘SEEA’.

By recording the extent and condition of our ecosystems, and then identifying the minimum of such extent and condition (‘critical mass’) needed to produce the ecosystem services on which we all rely, we can then identify any shortfall as our accumulated ecological debt.

Environmental accounts could also be used to keep track of the gains achieved through environmental restoration, as we reduce the debt.

Going somewhere?

As you can see, that this is dangerous territory for a politician. Talk of environmental debt raises issues that are moral (always tricky), long-term (when most politics goes for the quick fix) and specific (raising the risk of being boxed in, to a potentially-unpopular policy).

But Matt Kean is a highly unusual politician, not only because he comes from the political Right but outdoes the environmental commitment of many on the political Left, but also because he’s been unusually successful in bringing his conservative colleagues along with his pro-environment policies.

In deploying the language of environmental debt, Kean may now be striking out further, into waters that, while not newly discovered, are rarely sailed.

Let’s hope his boldness pays off. Not only for ourselves, but for our children.

Image by geralt at Pixabay