Game of Sustainability – Episode One: A New Hope

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By Peter Burnett

This is another in our series on the environmental policies of previous Australian Governments. This time, the policy story is too long for a single blog …

In my last blog in this series I told the story of how the Hawke government started with an environmental bang in 1983 by blocking Tasmania’s Franklin Dam project. It did this by passing laws to protect the World Heritage status of the surrounding wilderness.

By taking this unprecedented action, Hawke dramatically expanded federal environmental power through the High Court decision in the Tasmanian Dam Case. After that, Hawke pretty much lost interest in the environment.

Until, that is, the 1987 election was in the offing.

The second wave

There was a second global wave of environmental concern in the mid 1980s (the first wave was in the late 1960s and early 1970s).

In 1984, the worst industrial disaster in world history, a chemical accident at Union Carbide’s Bhopal factory in India killed more than 22,000 people.

Then in 1986 there was a nuclear accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Soviet Union (now in modern-day Ukraine). The casualties were much lower than Bhopal (the death toll will eventually reach around 4,000 when long-term injuries are included) but the accident forced the resettlement of some 350,000 people and released a radioactive cloud that gave the world, and Europeans in particular, enormous concern.

The resulting wave of environmental concern swept around the world. And it affected Australia as well, although the issues here played out more through a revival in anti-development sentiment, again played out in several instances through World Heritage nominations.

Environmental revival in politics

All this led the Hawke Government to run hard on environmental issues in the lead up to the 1987 election. Labor made campaign commitments about environmentally-significant areas such as Kakadu Stage II; in return the environment movement had advocated a vote for Labor.

Graham Richardson, an influential party fixer, was instrumental in this political deal-making. His reward after Labor won the election was not just promotion to the ministry as Environment Minister, but the elevation of the environment portfolio to cabinet.

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

Let the games begin …

Yet there was more to this second wave than a return to prominence of environmental issues. The whole debate was about to shift from a case-by-case approach (revolving around ‘places of the heart’) to one based on joined up, but complex and contested, policy principles.

Just after the election, the United Nations released a major report, Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report. This is the report that put Sustainable Development on the map.

Brundtland argued that countries should pursue Sustainable Development as ‘development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

This deceptively simple idea captured imaginations around the world. Within five years, at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, Sustainable Development would become the phrase on everyone’s lips and the foundation stone for Agenda 21, an action plan endorsed by almost every country and major stakeholder group in the world.

Meanwhile, back home …

Even though Australia was part of this global phenomenon, things played out differently at home during the five years between the publication of Our Common Future through to the Rio Earth Summit.

Richardson rejected early advice from his department to take the Brundtland Report to Cabinet for a discussion of its policy implications. He was a political hardhead and hardly a policy nerd — presumably he wanted to stick with the simple ‘case-by-case’ political appeal of World Heritage listings, rather than explore the rabbit warrens of a policy concept like Sustainable Development.

However, ministers with economic portfolios were deeply frustrated by Richardson’s ‘one-off forays’, or ‘icons’ approach as they called it (an icons approach only worries about the iconic bits of nature, the special rainforests and coral reefs, for example).

Richardson had the reputation of stitching up deals on popular environmental causes with Prime Minister Hawke in advance of Cabinet meetings, with the result (as they saw it) that well-developed proposals for economic development would be torpedoed by the latest popular environmental cause. Economic ministers wanted some rules to play by.

Primary Industries Minister John Kerin led a Cabinet revolt. He first took his frustrations to Cabinet at the end of 1987, arguing that existing processes for considering conservation and development proposals were characterised by a lack of consistency and frequent requirements for:

eleventh hour ad hoc responses to proposals … (both within and outside Governments), 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.*

Round one to rationality … sort of

Round one went to Kerin and the economic ministers. Sort of. The government announced in late 1988 that it would establish a Resource Assessment Commission (RAC) to assess major environment and development issues. However, while the advice of the RAC was to be based on three legislated principles, dealing with policy integration, optimising benefits and sequential use of land, this was not ‘Sustainable Development’ as was being discussed elsewhere around the world.

In fact, in a process later described by Richardson as ‘long and difficult’, officials had come up with no less than forty five principles related to environment and development, covering everything from ‘maintaining essential ecological processes and life support systems’ (spot-on) through ‘development and environmental considerations should be taken into account … early’ (relevant) to ‘rights of interested parties … in the decision-making process should be made clear and adequately publicised’ (marginal)!

In other words, although Sustainable Development had been on the table for more than a year, the Australian government had yet to engage with it properly.

All this would change the following year, 1989.

Watch this space for the next exciting episode in this ‘Game of Sustainability!’

*John C Kerin (2017). The Way I Saw It; the Way It Was: The Making of National Agricultural and Natural Resource Management Policy (Analysis and Policy Observatory)

Banner image: What is ‘sustainable development’? Is it protecting the best bits of nature? Is it the right to clean water and safe food for everyone? Or is it living in a way that doesn’t limit the choices of future generations? The debate on what sustainable development meant was raging towards the end of the 1980s; and in Australia it took on its own unique direction. (Image by David Salt)

Lies, damned lies and … Environmental Economics?

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A single LNG development in Australia could raise the global temperature by a tiny amount. Should it be allowed? What has the ‘economics of substitution’ got to do with it?

By Peter Burnett

People frustrated by weak government responses to the Paris Agreement (with its goal of limiting global warming to ‘well below’ 2° Celsius and ‘pursuing efforts’ to achieve 1.5°’), continue to look for ways to pressure governments for stronger action. One strategy is to challenge fossil fuel developments in court.

In the latest Australian challenge, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) is challenging the federal approval given to Woodside Energy’s $16 billion Scarborough liquefied natural gas (LNG) project, off the Pilbara coast in Western Australia.

The formal basis for the challenge is, in essence, that Woodside obtained approval from the wrong federal regulator. Beyond that, it gets complicated. But it’s worth considering the details here because there are some very important principles at play.

Offshore Approvals and the Reef ‘carve-out’

Under Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) the federal environment minister would normally need to approve major developments such as Scarborough. However, in 2014, then environment minister Greg Hunt switched off this requirement for offshore projects by, in effect, accrediting the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) to approve projects in his stead.

The basis for NOPSEMA’s accreditation is that its regulatory regime was assessed as meeting the requirements of the EPBC Act. But the accreditation had several ‘carve-outs’, including for projects likely to have a significant impact on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). In other words, if a major offshore project was likely to have an impact on the GBR, then NOPSEMA could not approve it and the task but would revert to the minister for the environment.

ACF’s claim is that even though Scarborough is off WA, its total greenhouse gas emissions, especially the ‘scope 3’ emissions generated when the gas is burnt by overseas customers, will be so large that as to have a significant impact on the GBR, even though it lies on the other side of the country.

If the ACF win the case, this would trigger the carve-out and bounce the project back to Australia’s new environment minister Tanya Plibersek for a fresh approval process, something that could take years (which could well scuttle the proposal).

Overheating

An analysis by Climate Analytics found that the total emissions from the Scarborough project were just under 1.4 billion tonnes, three times Australia’s annual emissions. ACF argues that this will result in 0.000394 degrees of additional global warming that will harm the Reef.

Woodside may counter that this is not a significant impact, even on the back of existing emissions-driven climate change.

Is an extra 4 x 10,000ths of a degree significant? I think there is a good argument that when the GBR is already at a critical point, every additional measurable impact on the whole reef is significant. Keep in mind this is a single development which, by itself, has the capacity to create a measurable global temperature increase (at a time when the world is already overheating).

A second likely defence argument will be that 1.4 billion tonnes is a gross figure, which would be offset significantly, if not completely, by various factors, including that gas from Scarborough, relatively low in carbon intensity, will displace other fossil fuels with significantly higher carbon intensity. This is the ‘market substitution’ argument.

We have been here before. In 2015, environment minister Greg Hunt used a similar argument in successfully defeating ACF’s challenge to Adani’s huge Carmichael coal mine in Queensland. The Federal Court upheld the minister’s decision at both first instance and on appeal.

So, if this argument has failed before, why run it again?

Will the market substitution argument prevail?

The basic argument may be the same, but the legal context is different, notwithstanding that both cases concern the application of the EPBC Act. In the Carmichael case, the relevant arguments revolved around the meaning of certain words in the Act, including ‘relevant impact’.

However, the appeal judges did say that their decision was made on the basis of the particular arguments which ACF had put; they dropped a hint that a different argument might have led to a different result. With so much at stake, this alone is enough to make one think it was worth having another go at the market substitution argument.

I don’t know what arguments ACF and their lawyers have in mind this time around, but the Scarborough case turns on some different legislative words, especially on what is a ‘significant’ impact, as distinct from the meaning of ‘impact’ itself.

In this slightly changed context, I think the economic substitution argument could be attacked from a different angle to the one used in Carmichael. It goes like this:

If the total emissions from the Scarborough project, including scope 3 emissions, are ‘likely to have a significant impact’ on the GBR, the current approval from NOPSEMA is invalid and Woodside must refer the project afresh to Minister Plibersek.

Notwithstanding that significance must be decided on the basis of a likely net, rather than gross emission increase; the likelihood is that each of the factors said to offset the gross impact does not, on balance, reduce the gross figure significantly, for the following reasons.

Even if gas from Scarborough has a much lower carbon content than the fuel currently consumed by Scarborough’s customers, it is not enough to find that this low carbon gas would displace high carbon fuel for these customers. Rather, to achieve a net reduction, the high carbon fuel must be displaced from the entire market — ie, it must be likely that it will be left in the ground.

This is because, prima facie, if supplies of a fossil fuel are displaced by an alternative, basic economics (the principle that markets ‘clear’) suggests that the displaced fuel will be sold elsewhere, even if this requires a price reduction. This is especially true given that the global market for fossil fuels continues to grow, despite a Covid19-induced dip.

Then there is the policy argument, that because many countries have adopted Paris targets such as ‘net zero by 2050’, emissions from Scarborough will be offset by reductions that are driven by these targets.

Even if countries delivered on such targets in full and the 1.5° goal were achieved, the reef would still be under significant threat and Scarborough would still exacerbate that threat.

However, countries are not on a global trajectory for anything like 1.5°, so the backdrop to Scarborough’s impact is closer to a 3° increase. Worse, many countries have a history of promising more than they deliver, in some cases adopting targets that are little more than aspirations.

Finally, there is the argument that technological change will drive major emissions reduction through the shift to renewables. This is valid in some countries, but, globally, the renewables shift is more than offset by global increases in demand: otherwise, global emissions would not continue to rise.

At the end of the day, unless there is evidence that gas from Scarborough is leading directly to high-carbon fuels being left in the ground, the supposed offsets look rather vague at best, leaving it likely that Scarborough’s net emissions will be similar to its gross emissions.

Where are we headed with this?

I wouldn’t like to predict where the Federal Court will land, but I do think it is possible that the market substitution argument, at least under the EPBC Act, will prove to make little difference.*

If I were the federal government I would deal with cases like this by moving quickly to legislate a comprehensive climate policy regime, not to mention a wider and contemporary environment protection regime as recommended by the 2020 Samuel Review.

I would be thinking that it is better for governments to get on the front foot rather than risk the unpredictable results that can follow when people are driven to litigation by their frustration with outdated or missing laws.

*I know the argument has been rejected by the Land and Environment Court in NSW in the Gloucester Resources case (Rocky Hill). But the Court there had the power to review the decision on the merits, which makes a big difference, for reasons too complicated to explain here.

Banner image: New research shows global warming of 1.5°C relative to pre-industrial levels will be catastrophic for almost all coral reefs – including those once thought of as refuges. Should any new fossil fuel developments be approved in such a time? (Image by Maria Beger)

Why can’t we fix this? Because it’s complex

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By David Salt

If you could go back in a time machine some 20 years, what would you tell a younger version of yourself about climate change and how the world has responded to it in the last two decades?

Back from the future

“Well, young David, you know how many people are talking about climate change; and how scientists are forecasting horror weather, ecosystem collapse and mass climate disruption if we do nothing about our carbon emissions? Well, guess what? I’m from your future, from 2022, and you know what we did? We did nothing!

“And the scientists were right. We’re now experiencing horror weather, ecosystem collapse and mass climate disruption.

“Of course, it’s unfair of me to say we did completely nothing. In the past two decades there’s been heaps of talk, research and many agreements signed. And many of us now have photovoltaics on our rooftops.

“The scientific consensus on climate change has only firmed since the year 2000, and there have been efforts in various places on ways of reducing carbon emissions.

“However, by and large, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane have steadily, remorselessly, built up. (In 2000 we were around 370 parts per million CO2, in 2022 we’re over 412 ppm, over a 14% increase.)

“Here are few ‘milestones’ that you might want to reflect on from the past two decades (that’s the next 20 years from where you’re standing).

“As you know, there had been multiple international scientific consensus reports on the biophysical reality of climate change, most notably the IPCC reports of 1990, 1995 and 2001. These set out the very clear case for the scientific basis of the changes happening to the Earth system and what this meant for us, but they were quite ‘sciency’, bloated with technical jargon and largely discounted by the politicians.

“Then, in 2006, the UK released the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. It was significant because it was the largest and most authoritative report of its kind setting out the dire consequences for civil society. It found that climate change is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen, presenting a unique challenge for the world. The Review’s main conclusion was that the benefits of strong, early action on climate change far outweigh the costs of not acting.

“I’m telling you this, young David, because at this time (still six years in your future) it looked like all the political ducks were lining up for strong action on climate change.

“In 2007, Australia elected in a new government led by Kevin Rudd who declared that ‘climate change was the great moral challenge of our generation’ and proposed a comprehensive policy called the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) that would put a cap on Australia’s carbon emissions. It would have placed Australia at the vanguard of global climate action.

“I have to say, young David, that up until this time I had begun to despair that any of our political leaders were going to do the right thing. And then Rudd stood up and said this was too important not to do something, we couldn’t abrogate our responsibility to future generations. I felt hope.

“But then the opposition conservative party decided to turn climate change into a divisive political battle, and the Greens said the CPRS wasn’t strong enough and voted against it… and the CPRS failed to pass through Parliament.

“And then Rudd said ‘Ah well, it’s too difficult to get through so we’ll park the CPRS and revisit it sometime down the line.’

“This moment is several years in your future, young David, but, mark my words, when you reach it your illusions that climate change is a tractable issue capable of being solved by good science and well-meaning people will be shattered. And it will be a significant moment in which you begin transforming into me, grumpy old David.

“Because you believed Rudd when he said this was the most important issue of our time. And you stopped believing him when he threw it to the side. (I note his party stopped believing in him after this, too.)

“And then I watched in horror as climate denialism started taking centre stage, populism trumped informed debate and the costs of acting were overhyped in order to prevent any meaningful action being taken. Stern’s mantra of ‘early action on climate change far outweigh the costs of not acting’ were completely forgotten in the political shit storms that followed.

“And then the Great Barrier Reef started bleaching (2016), our forest biomes went up in flames (2019) and historic floods devastated the nation (2022). The most common adjective being rolled out in all these disaster stories is ‘unprecedented’ because the past is no longer a guide to what we can expect.

“In 2022 (the year in your future from which I return) the whole world is enduring ongoing climate catastrophes. India and Pakistan have just suffered their longest and most intense heat wave resulting in crop failures. Europe is reeling under the ‘unprecedented’ heat and the fires are expected soon. In the United States an ‘unprecedented’ drought is crippling the water supplies of their western cities. Many of our small island Pacific nations are facing an existential crisis as rising seawaters lap at their doors. And everyone everywhere is going a little bit crazy.

“And, young David, this is not ‘a new normal’. This is only the start of the warming that scientists were describing two decades (and more) ago, with some accuracy I might add. Yet still our political leaders allow today’s ‘sunk investments’ in fossil fuels to delay our actions.

“Oh, and speaking of investments, young David, one last thing before I’m back to the future; buy as much stock as you can in Apple and Facebook. But don’t tell anyone I told you, otherwise I’ll be in big trouble with the mechanic who runs the space-time continuum.”

It’s complex

So, what’s the point of this little thought exercise (above and beyond a reflection on my earlier poor investment choices)?

In recent weeks, Australia has been gripped by an energy crisis – not enough affordable energy to power the system at the beginning of a cold winter. Experts from across the energy spectrum have commented on the causes and solutions to this crisis, always noting they are complex and not quickly solved. In response, many people have accused the experts of obfuscating and hiding behind the idea of ‘complex’. Just tell us how to fix it, they cry.

But it’s true, I thought. It is complex. You can’t solve this energy crisis with simple and easy fixes. You increase energy supply here, and you throw out the system over there. Simple fixes to complex problems inevitably create bigger problems down the line or on the other side of the continent.

And the energy problem is only a small part of the bigger climate change issue, which is complex times complex. Greenhouse gas emissions are embedded in our energy, our food, our transport, in everything.

And yet, again, our political leaders tell us there is a simple solution, just vote for us. Anyone who acknowledges it is a complex problem with complex solution will be torn to shreds by the opposing party when they go for election. The costs to the present status quo (based on fossil fuel dependence) will outweigh calculations on future sustainability.

Stern’s claim that the “benefits of strong, early action on climate change far outweigh the costs of not acting” are valid, but completely lost in the complex world in which we live.

In some ways I’m feeling like it’s 2007 again. We have just elected a new government promising action on climate change and hopes are high. But I fear we’re still not engaging with the complexity of this challenge.

If I could turn back time, this is what I would be trying to tell our political leaders. Don’t treat climate change as a simple problem. It’s not. It’s complex. And complexity means you need to acknowledge connectivity between sectors, path dependency, non-linearity and threshold behaviour in key variables. All themes which I will discuss in up-coming blogs.

I titled this essay ‘Why can’t we fix this? Because it’s complex.’ Another way of framing that is encapsulated in the quote: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong,” (HL Mencken).

I believe climate change is a challenge that can be resolved, but only if we acknowledge that it really is a problem of complexity.

Banner image: Quick Young David, there’s not a moment to lose. The very future is at risk! (Image by Danny Springgay from Pixabay)

Bringing ‘the environment’ in from the cold

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By David Salt

‘The Environment’ is a tricky portfolio for any incoming minister.

The truth is, both major political parties are shy when it comes to campaigning on big environmental reform. Big reforms are very expensive, easily attacked (there are always lots of potential losers), difficult to implement in single terms of government and the implementing party doesn’t get rewarded at subsequent elections as there is rarely a large dividend for individual voters.

Consequently, the majors usually play a small target game when it comes to campaigning on the environment – say enough to suggest you’re concerned about the environment but don’t commit to too much. The aim is to differentiate yourself from the other team without raising the debate to such a level that people might start looking closely at what you’re actually proposing.

Consider how the outgoing conservative government campaigned on the environment when it was seeking to take government 9 years ago, and then how it performed. Back in 2013 the conservative party (the Liberal National Party, then in opposition) placed its focus on saving threatened species because the Labor Government was turning its conservation efforts towards a more holistic landscape focus.

Putting those plans into action

Back then Greg Hunt, the shadow minister for the environment, loudly trumpeted that his party would never turn its back on a threatened species, that his party would take positive action when it came to saving endangered animals. I remember him saying while Labor was happy to leave recovery plans up on the shelf, the conservatives would get those plans down and put them into action.

In many ways this suited the action orientated, anti-bureaucracy, managerial approach of the Abbott conservatives, in which they placed a tight focus on parts of the environmental challenge while ignoring the bigger picture.

As a campaign tactic it played well. It gave the conservatives a respectable fig leaf of environmental credibility; they hadn’t committed to too much; and it was different to Labor’s approach. When coupled with their intention to ‘axe the [carbon] tax’, deploy a green army and plant 20 million trees, the conservatives had an environmental strategy to bat away all probing questions. They went on to win that year’s election.

They didn’t win because of the brilliance of their environmental plan. That wasn’t the point; their plan was to neutralize the environmental debate at no net cost, enabling them to take up the fight to the Labor government on a number of other fronts.

Once in office they threw a few pennies towards threatened species research and management while gutting the environment department as a whole. They did their best to not talk about biodiversity conservation at all (the term literally slipped from view) while attempting to reduce the legal checks and balances surrounding development approvals that harmed biodiversity.

Nine years into their term of office and the pennies spent on threatened species research came to an end. The Threatened Species Recovery Hub was closed down despite the problem of threatened species only growing (in some cases accelerating).

While I’m talking about the last government, which has now left office, this is not ancient history. A couple of months ago, just before the election, the environment minister Sussan Ley scrapped the requirement for recovery plans for 176 threatened species and habitats. The move was quietly published by the environment department after the election was called in April. (Ms Ley made the decisions despite a government call for feedback receiving 6,701 responses, all disagreeing with the proposal.)

Book ends to a sad saga

While possibly a minor note in the symphony of neglect and vandalism that characterized the conservative government’s approach to the environment, the saga of recovery plans for threatened species is significant for two reasons.

First, it provides symbolic bookends to their nine years in office. They began in 2013 by trumpeting their superior management would see recovery plans put into action so real conservation outcomes would be realized. They finished in 2022, having gutted the environment department’s capacity to even produce recovery plans (recovery plans for many species were years overdue), by simply scrapping the requirement for those plans. It’s hard to get more cynical than this.

It’s also an important story because it shows how difficult it can be to campaign on the environment. People care about threatened species and habitats, but they vote on cost of living and perceptions on who is the strongest leader. The conservative’s campaign on threatened species was as cynical as it was hollow. It was cobbled together to provide the impression they were doing something on the environment, but they knew that when their approach was shown to be false the electorate would have moved on to focus on other issues.

In a sense they were right. The electorate still worries about threatened species but its attention has been grabbed by unprecedented wildfires, mass coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and floods. Accelerating environmental decline has become the new normal and the electorate has lost faith in the government’s ability to deal with it. The fact that Sussan Ley refused to release the latest State of the Environment Report (which was available months before the election) only heightened our concern.

Of course, the conservatives were defeated last month for a raft of reasons, with climate denialism, contempt for women, and a lack of integrity high on the list.

The Labor opposition played a small target campaign on many issues and especially on the environment. As things have turned out, it looks like this was a clever course to take. Having won office, however, what now?

Demoted to the environment

As the ashes begin to settle following their victory, the familiar game of ‘new government’ begins to play out. The broken defeated conservative party turns on itself; the new Labor government discovers the old government have left many nasty undisclosed secrets lurking in the books; and positions of power are divvied out.

One ‘surprising’ ministerial appointment was making Tania Plibersek the Minister for The Environment. Regarded by many as one of the new government’s star performers, Ms Plibersek had been the Shadow Minister for Education and was expected to keep this responsibility moving into government; indeed, it was her stated preference. Many media commentators suggested the switch to environment was a ‘demotion’.

As a ministerial posting, why would education be seen to be more important than the environment? To put it crudely, because the department of education commands more money as a policy area, and education probably influences more direct votes than the environment; and money and votes equals more power.

Personally, I’m delighted someone as talented and capable as Ms Plibersek has been given the responsibility for the environment, but the very framing of the position as ‘a demotion’ says a lot about how ‘the environment’ plays in politics. To coin an economic idea, the environment is too often seen as an externality to political life, it’s not part of the core business.

In from the cold

As an externality, the major parties will always be keen to downplay big environmental reform ideas because rocking the boat is simply unacceptable in a political campaign. (Witness the blowback from a price on carbon for the Gillard government.)

The solution is to bring the environment in from the cold, to connect it to the numbers that politicians see as central to what voters think is important.

One way of doing this is by developing environmental accounts that are incorporated into the economic national accounts that sit at the heart of so much political debate; to capture the environmental externality and bring it inside the tent.

Another way this might happen would be to have a trusted, transparent and independent office overseeing all development applications where there is an environmental impact.

How will we know that the environment has been brought in from the cold? We’ll know when the next ‘surprise ministerial posting’ to the environment is described as a promotion.

Banner image: Image by Eduardo Ruiz from Pixabay

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

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

Where to now with biodiversity after Dasgupta?

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Will Australia follow the UK’s lead on significant biodiversity policy reform?

By Peter Burnett

Author’s note: this is the second part of a two part blog: See Leaders and laggards for part one.

At the end of my earlier blog on Professor Partha Dasgupta’s recent review of The Economics Of Biodiversity for the UK Government, I posed the question of why the UK Government seems to be taking the challenge of biodiversity decline reasonably seriously while the Australian Government had made the biodiversity crisis such a low priority?

After all, it’s hard not to agree with Dasgupta’s basic argument that Nature is our most precious asset, that it is biodiversity that enables Nature to be productive, resilient and adaptable, and that our demands on Nature far exceed its capacity to continue supplying us with the goods and services on which we will rely.

And, helpfully, Dasgupta has given us a clear recipe for fixing the problem:

First, ensure that our demands on Nature do not exceed its supply.

Second, change our measures of economic success to base them on wealth, not income alone (ie GDP).

Third, transform our institutions and systems to enable these changes for the long term.

The UK response

The UK’s response to Dasgupta formed part of a multi-pronged environmental push, taking advantage of the coincidence of three major global meetings being held in 2021. The first two were or are being hosted in the UK: the G7 in Cornwall, (June) and the COP 26 Climate Convention meeting in Glasgow (November). Then there was the COP 15 Biodiversity Convention in Kunming, earlier this month.

The Dasgupta Review helped the UK negotiate the G7 2030 Nature Compact, in which the G7 leaders committed to halting and reversing biodiversity loss by 2030, as part of a double commitment that ‘our world must not only become net zero, but also nature positive’.

A ‘nature positive’ outcome would be actioned across four ‘core pillars’:

Transition for example by reviewing environmentally-harmful subsidies;

Investment in nature, including identifying ways to account for nature in economic and financial decision making;

Conservation, including through new global targets to conserve or protect at least 30% of land globally and 30% of the global oceans by 2030; and

Accountability, including by producing ambitious and strengthened National biodiversity plans and more transparent metrics and success indicators.

The UK is also seeking to leveraging its COP 26 Presidency in Glasgow to accelerate the transition towards more sustainable international supply chains (supply chains that factor in impacts to biodiversity).

In its domestic response to the Dasgupta Review, the UK’s headline commitments were first, to adopt the ‘nature positive’ goal, defining it as ‘leaving the environment in a better state than we found it, and reversing biodiversity loss globally by 2030’; and second, to reform economic and financial decision-making, including the systems and institutions that underpin it, to support the delivery of a nature positive future.

Specifically, the government amended its Environment Bill, which already contained a mechanism for setting environmental targets, to include a legally binding target on species abundance in England for 2030. It is also legislating a ‘biodiversity net gain’ standard for nationally-significant infrastructure projects.

Finally, the UK co-sponsored a ‘30 by 30’ Leaders’ Pledge for Nature at the CBD COP 15 in Kunming, China. This pledge, currently supported by some 70 countries, is to protect at least 30% of global land and at least 30% of the global ocean by 2030.

What about Australia?

While Australia has now moved, with great reluctance, to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, it has displayed no interest in the Dasgupta Review or in making serious biodiversity commitments more generally.

In fact, our current biodiversity strategy, Australia’s Strategy for Nature 2019-2030 is a lightweight document that has was heavily criticised during public consultation.

We did join the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and commit to the 30×30 target although, as I explain below, our commitment is not what it seems.

Nevertheless, because Prime Minister Morrison announced this at the G7 meeting in Cornwall (as an invited guest) I think we can give part of the credit for this to Dasgupta and the UK: the PM would not have wanted to attend without a good ‘announceable’ in his pocket.

Anyhow, our 30×30 commitment comes on top of having exceeded (or, as the PM would say, beaten) our Aichi 2020 targets of 17% of land in reserve and 10% of marine areas in reserve, by reaching nearly 20% of land in reserve and 37% of marine areas.

In announcing our 30×30 commitment, the PM announced an intention to increase the area in marine reserves to 45%.

In her subsequent statement to COP 15 in Kunming, Environment Minister Sussan Ley announced plans to increase Australia’s Indigenous Protected Area network by another 3.7 million hectares of land and sea, and to establish  two new Australian Marine Parks around the waters of Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. These would increase the percentage of protected Australian waters from 37% to 45%.

Despite the size of this increase, I think it represents talking up easy goals. As you can see, the marine reserves are in the Indian Ocean, well away from areas of significant economic activity on the Australian mainland.

Similarly, I think the government has found it easy to add further Indigenous Protected Areas to the reserve system because, again, most of them are away from areas of significant economic activity. The government has acknowledged this in Australia’s most recent report to the CBD in our most recent national report:

“despite this growth [in the size of the reserve system], only minor progress has been made since 2011 in meeting representation targets for ecosystems and threatened species. In part, this is because most growth has been in desert bioregions, so that representation improvements have been highly localised.”

UK v Australia: what’s the difference?

While no doubt there’s plenty of politics and padding in the UK’s response to Dasgupta, I think there is also plenty of substance to the actions they are taking. And legislating targets for species abundance and biodiversity net gain for major developments (along with an independent monitoring agency) should reduce the wriggle room substantially.

Australia, on the other hand, is all for the talk but not much for the walk.

At the end of the day, Australia’s position on biodiversity is similar to our position on climate change. We are all for signing up to the goals, as long as, to use the words of Scott Morrison in announcing Australia’s net zero by 2050 commitment:

Its not a plan at any cost. There’s no blank cheques here. It will not shut down our coal or gas production or exports. It will not impact households, businesses or the broader economy with new costs or taxes imposed by the initiatives that we are undertaking. It will not cost jobs, not in farming, mining or gas, because what we’re doing in this plan is positive things, enabling things. It will not increase energy bills. It won’t. It is not a revolution, but a careful evolution to take advantage of changes in our markets.

That’s right. We’re all in favour of action, provided this comes at no significant cost to the budget, no taxes or other costs to households and no loss of production, exports or jobs (ie no costs to the economy. And no legislation.

Can you imagine what kind of policies meet these stringent no-cost, no-obligation criteria? That’s right. Marine reserves thousands of kilometres from both population centres and economically-significant activity.

UK v Australia: why the difference?

And why is this ‘Australian way’, as Morrison calls his approach, so different to the British way? I think it’s just the way the politics have played out. In Australia, the Coalition has demonised environmental policy for so long as being a creature of the ‘green left’, that the political cost of substantive action on the environment is just too high.

In the UK, it played out differently. Margaret Thatcher was in favour of climate action in the 1980s, while in the 2000s, David Cameron, then still in Opposition, was able to galvanise support for the Conservative Party with his line ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’.

Will the Coalition in Australia ever run such a slogan? Not in this political generation.

Banner image: Image by Angelo Giordano from Pixabay

Passing the buck – the rights and responsibilities of fossil fuel divestment

What happens when the ‘Big Australian’ sees the writing on the wall

By David Salt

Heard the news? BHP, one of our biggest miners (and biggest emitters), is going ‘green’! Indeed this big news from the company that once promoted itself as the ‘Big Australian’. It began selling off its coal assets a couple of years ago and now it it’s dumping its oil and gas assets. It looks like it’s getting out of fossil fuels (such a dirty business), focussing instead on its profitable iron ore and buying up potash mines (so you can grow healthier plants, potash being an essential potassium plant fertiliser).

With carbon emitting fossil fuels so on the nose, it’s great to see our big corporates finally pulling their weight…

…until you look at the detail and realise it’s just ‘business as usual’ – profits before people and smoke and mirrors with a little greenwashing to tick the corporate responsibility box.

Better do something

As everyone is now noting, our planet is suffering under climate change (this week it’s Louisiana’s turn) and our very future is increasingly uncertain. The science, now half a century strong, is being borne out and the underlying problem is the carbon emissions from how we do business.

Coal, being a dirty (carbon intense) source of energy, is particularly smelly. In recent years many sections of society (for example institutions in law, economics and science) have been trying hard to stop our use of coal and this has led to coal assets falling in value.

Companies everywhere are divesting themselves of fossil fuels but coal is particularly problematic, and even coal companies are now divesting from coal. Consider, for example, BHP’s Mt Arthur, in NSW’s Hunter Valley. Two years ago the mine was worth $2bn. Now it’s a $200m liability that BHP is struggling to off load!

Regarding its oil and gas assets, BHP is giving Woodside all of them in exchange for shares in Woodside meaning BHP shareholders will own 48% of Woodside. Which sounds like a sleight of hand to me in which BHP can claim it doesn’t own them because the assets are actually owned by BHP shareholders. This means, according to the Guardian, that shareholders will be able to sell their shares if they want to reduce their exposure to fossil fuel assets.

Meanwhile, Green groups are saying Woodside doesn’t have a good record on managing fossil fuel assets after it sold a floating oil rig, Northern Endeavour, for a nominal amount to a company that collapsed three years later without paying decommissioning costs estimated at between $200m and $1bn. Woodside claimed the sale was all above board.

Passing the buck

Which raises the big and complex issue of what is to become of all these ‘stranded’ fossil fuel assets. Will big companies simply off load them for whatever they can get and let some other hapless soul deal with the repercussions?

And does getting rid of these assets mean they’ll stop producing carbon emissions?

Political philosopher Jeremy Moss believes BHP (along with other companies) is banking the profits from their failing assets, while washing their hands of the responsibility to do something about their past and ongoing contribution to climate change. Instead of selling these assets, he says, companies should retire the assets and wear the costs.

In a recent Conversation editorial, Professor Moss reckons that if fossil fuel producers are truly serious about their climate responsibilities then two things need to happen: Fossil fuel producers should retire their mines or wells instead of selling them and they should pay for the cost of restoring mined land. Governments also need to step up to the plate and establish a national inventory of liabilities and an independent body to monitor safety of former mine and well sites.

Sounds reasonable and logical, just not doable. Based on past performance (eg, decades of climate denial and effective lobbying to prevent proactive climate policy), I think it’s safe to say the big fossil fuel miners think it’s cheaper to manipulate government than be true to their rhetoric on social responsibility.

Having said that, fossil fuel miners are now being hard hit by the divestment movement. Financial institutions around the world have adopted divestment policies aiming to end or reduce their involvement in the carbon economy and it does appear that new investments in oil, gas and coal are drying up. Which is likely why BHP is quarantining its fossil fuel assets in this joint venture with Woodside.

The non-fossil fuel BHP entity (which gave away its oil and gas assets) is no longer a target of the divestment movement and can once again access international capital. The exclusive fossil-fuel BHP/Woodside entity will carry on emitting because of the enormous injection of assets from BHP, possibly the only way it could develop given the divestment movement is depriving it of traditional forms of capital and insurance.

And then the music stops…

It’s a win-win for the corporates (and their shareholders), and a lose-lose for the planet (and its inhabitants).

Of course, one day the music will stop and the corporates betting their profits on stranded fossil fuel assets will find there’s no chair for them to sit on. The Bank for International Settlements has suggested that when this happens there could be a collapse in asset prices of fossil fuel industries that could lead to a wider economic collapse along the lines of the GFC.

What might a win-win look like? That’s a win for corporates and a win for society. Based on a realistic costing of the impacts of climate change in coming years* and being realistic about the tiny chance that the big corporates play fair (ie, be true to their social responsibility and not interfere with governmental policy), I think the best we could hope for might be governments stepping in and buying out the whole fossil fuel sector at some cut (heavily-discounted) rate based on their falling asset value.

Corporates will always pass the buck. But governments are elected to protect society. So why not accept the situation and get our governments to actually accept the buck on our behalf?

Haven’t we already spent trillions coping with the corona pandemic (and misbegotten adventures in Afghanistan). Why not draw down the debt a bit further and buy all the stranded fossil fuel assets? We can then restore the minesites (a few good jobs there, I reckon), repurpose the assets we’ve picked up to maximise their social utility (oil rigs make excellent platforms for hotels) and wear the cost?

Yes, I know this will have me labelled as a pixie in cloud cuckoo land (and a communist to boot) but do the maths yourselves. The cost to us of buying these stranded assets versus the cost of allowing them to continue functioning (ie, destroying the planet after taking out the economy) surely makes it a rational thing to do.

*There are many robust estimates of the cost of climate change in the coming years from many respected institutions. They are all scary and they have all been ignored by the Australian Government. Here’s one:
Lack of climate action over 50 years will cost Australian economy $3.4tn and 880,000 jobs

Banner image: Stranded assets? Maybe with a lick of paint they’d make nice floating hotels. (Image by Elise Aldram from Pixabay)

Three experts and a politician in a sandpit – who has the real insight on climate policy in a connected society

By David Salt

The scientist, the economist and the lawyer

There were three people at the bar – a scientist, a lawyer and an economist – arguing about how to solve the intractable problem of sustainability, and specifically climate change.

The scientist said we just need to know a little more, remove some of the uncertainty around our knowledge on the earth system (and what humans are doing to it), and then society would fall behind the overwhelming scientific consensus that something needs to happen.

The lawyer said we just need better laws proscribing what’s acceptable and what’s not. Better rules are the solution.

The economist said we just need to provide the right incentives for people to begin doing the right thing and discourage them from doing the wrong thing. Bad behaviour, said the economist, should simply cost more making it ‘common sense’ to be sustainable.

Enter the politician

“You mean, like putting a price on carbon?” said a greying, white gentleman in an expensive suit who had butted into the conversation. “That worked a treat for Australia’s climate change policy.”

“Actually,” said the economist, “it did work well until it was canned by the Abbott Government in 2013.”

“But that’s the point,” purred the politician. “We proposed to ‘axe the tax’ and the people voted us in and we did… axe the tax that is. Putting a price on carbon was electoral poison and may we never hear of it again.”

“And you, Ms Scientist,” he said turning on the person representing science…

“It’s ‘doctor’ actually…” stammered the scientist; but was totally ignored by the politician who was building up a good head of righteous steam.

“…how effective has all your additional science reportage been in winning hearts and minds? For God’s sake, the IPCC’s Sixth Report read like a horror movie in terms of what it’s predicting. Yet we were able to deflect its potency by describing it as horror porn and pointing out we were actually beating our emission targets. It quickly faded from the news cycle.

“And as for you, Ms Lawyer, it’s all well and good to let scared children block coal developments by dragging our Minister for the Environment through the court saying she’s abandoned her duty of care to the future but just you watch happens on appeal.

“Mark my words,” he boomed, “No higher court will uphold a judgement that threatens to block every major economic development that brings with it a residue of environmental harm. To do so would kill the economy, the voters won’t hear of it.

“No, don’t you worry your pretty little heads with all this sustainability clap trap. The adults are in charge, and we’ll make sure there’ll be technology aplenty to ensure our thriving economy continues apace!

“And don’t forget whose taxes keep you happy and out of danger playing away in your little academic sandpits,” he finished with a flourish.

Shifting piles of sand

“You might be surprised what you find in sandpits, Mr Member of Parliament,” hissed back the scientist. “Back in the 80s, physicists experimented with models of sandpiles and discovered they were complex systems. The more grains you add to a pile of sand, the more unstable it becomes. It moves into what’s called a critical state.

“As the pile grows, more and more parts of the sand slope become unstable requiring just one more grain of sand to trigger a slide. At a certain point there are enough small triggers across the pile that setting off one small slide creates an avalanche that can rearrange the whole pile.

“You might think you’re safe from one of the small slides but the interconnected critical nature of the pile means change will occur well away from the initiating disturbance.”

“Thanks for that,” quipped the politician. “I’ll remember that next time a blunder into a sandpit.”

Pile high society

“You don’t get it, do you?” snapped the economist. “Our colleague is actually describing society. You and your conservative brethren are trying to hold things in the same state because that best serves your vested interests, your fossil fuel backers. But our sandpile society is slowly building up a resistance to your efforts. And when the instability corrects itself, your lack of action means the correction will be big.

“Companies and governments, though not the Australian Government, are trying to figure out how to sustain themselves in this increasingly uncertain climate-afflicted world. More and more countries are signing up to economic measures like a price on carbon. Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanisms are being developed by the G7. Even coal companies, irony of irony, are feeling the heat as insurance companies refuse to insure them; companies are having to figure out how they can do this themselves.

“All these things are little patches of instability on the sandpile and it’s making the whole sandpile unstable. This is not just a physics model, economists recognise it all too well and have seen it at play in every economic upheaval from the Great Depression to the GFC.”

“And you piss on the law, Mr Politician,” chimed in the lawyer. “But do you not see what’s happening everywhere at the moment?

“It’s not just a few children disillusioned at your deceit and lack of action. It’s courts at all levels calling you out. The whole Sydney City Council just endorsed the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty and, of course, most of the world signed up to the Paris Agreement. Citizens everywhere are now standing up and demanding what our governments are actually doing to meet these agreement.

“A Dutch court, in a landmark ruling, has just ordered Royal Dutch Shell to drastically deepen planned greenhouse gas emission cuts. This could trigger legal action against energy companies around the world.

“And a Paris court has found the French Government legally responsible for its failure to meet targets intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

“So, Mr Politician,” said the scientist, taking back the reins of the argument. “What does it mean for your efforts to stop change when all sectors of society – law, economics and science just to mention three – begin building in checks and balances to force change? Your malfeasance enables you to disable some of our efforts – ‘axe the tax’, as you say – but over time the little efforts across society build up, the triggers accumulate, the demographics change and the evidence emerges.

“I’d say you’re sitting on a hypercritical pile of sand being peppered by little grains of sand. And each new grain, each new disturbance, could trigger the slide that triggers the avalanche. And when that happens, your smug self-assurance over the success of the games you’ve been playing will be unable to staunch the flow.”

Nowhere to sit

“And if we’ve scared you out of the sandpit, Mr Politician, think of it as a game of musical chairs,” observed the economist. “Unfortunately, I can’t hear the music anymore.

“And, thanks to you and your efforts, it looks like Australia doesn’t have a chair to sit on.”

Image: In the sandpit of life, a single grain of sand can change everything if the circumstances are ripe. For an excellent article on sandpiles as models of economic growth and disruption, see https://www.mauldineconomics.com/frontlinethoughts/the-growing-economic-sandpile
(Image by Nuwanga Mavinda from Pixabay)

Fixing the Environment is the right thing to do? Isn’t it?

Beware the Siren’s call of populism

By Peter Burnett

The Grattan Institute’s latest report, ‘Gridlock: removing barriers to policy reform’, argues that Australia’s governance is going backwards and that, without reform, there is little prospect for many policy reforms that would ‘increase Australian prosperity’.

To which we at Sustainability Bites would add ‘and avoid environmental catastrophe’.

The report identifies a number of barriers to public interest reforms. These include vested interests, a weakened media, increasing tribalism in politics and society, and, ultimately, plain old unpopularity.

Grattan also gather a number of sensible recommendations for reform: increasing the expertise and independence of the public service, reducing the number of political advisers in ministerial offices, a federal anti-corruption commission and so on.

Interestingly, the report also confirms that the 1980s and 1990s were indeed ‘golden years’ of reform (something we too believe here at Sustainability Bites) and that this view is not just a rose-tinted longing for the ‘good old days’.

Why the gridlock?

This is all good stuff. But what’s really going on here? We are an advanced liberal democracy, better off in material terms than any society in history — so why do we find ourselves stuck in reform gridlock?

In some cases, the explanations are obvious. The decline of traditional media for example is largely due to the rise of social media.

But it’s much harder to explain the recent rise of tribalism and populism, and a corresponding decline in the willingness of our leaders to champion unpopular reforms.

Of course, these things are all manifestations of human nature, but why are they so prevalent now?

The rise of neoliberalism, and the decline of Conservatism

I put much of the current prevalence down to the rise of neoliberalism, pushing out ‘capital C’ Conservatism and other ways of thinking now seen by many as old-fashioned.

Let me explain.

Neoliberalism is based on classical liberal ideas of individual choice and the efficiency of free markets. However, unlike classical liberalism, it is much less focused on governance-oriented themes such as equality before the law and democracy.

As a result, the prescriptions of neoliberalism tend to be focused on economic policy, such as deregulation and privatisation.

In common with economics, neoliberalism is utilitarian, a philosophy which is focused on maximising ‘utility’ or happiness. And utilitarianism belongs to the family of moral philosophies that are consequentalist, assessing the morality of actions on the basis of their consequences.

In contrast, various other moral philosophies are deontological (from the greek word for ‘obligation’ or ‘duty’) and thus concerned about ‘doing the right thing’.

‘Capital C’ Conservatism has a strong deontological theme, as it seeks to conserve institutions and values on the basis that they are good in themselves. Most religions also have strong deontological foundations, as does humanism.

Does it really matter?

Why all the philosophy? Isn’t it enough that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, to point out that neoliberalism has made us all much wealthier and indeed lifted millions out of poverty?

These things are true but there’s more to it. Remember, we are looking for an explanation for a loss of reform momentum and decline in standards of governance.

The philosophy is relevant because it does provide an explanation.

In looking for explanations of the changes in our politics over the last 40 years, it is not enough to point to the rise of neoliberalism. There has also been a corresponding decline in deontological thinking such as Conservatism and traditional religion.

In short, while material wealth is up, it’s just as important to note that commitment-driven behaviour, such as church-going, volunteering and even sticking with one football team for life, is down. We are not as ‘rusted on’ as we used to be.

So how does this explain the politics?

Consistent with the neoliberal focus on ends rather than means, good government does not matter as much as it once did. The most recent examples of this come from two very capable and well-respected centre-right politicians, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and federal Finance Minister Simon Birmingham.

Both were asked to defend pork-barrelling by their respective governments. The Premier said:

“The term pork barrelling is common parlance. And if that’s the accusation … I’m happy to accept that commentary … I think all governments and political parties make promises to the community in order to curry favour … it’s not an illegal practice; unfortunately it does happen from time to time.”

The Finance Minister said (and then promoted it on his own website):

“[T]he Australian people had their chance and voted the government back in at the last election, and we’re determined to get on and deliver those election promises that we made in relation to local infrastructure as we are nation building infrastructure.”

Shocking. Gladys says ‘everyone does it’ and Simon says ‘you had your chance and you chose us, pork and all’.

Yet, other than a few outraged columns from political commentators, these frank admissions of very poor political behaviour seem to have had little impact or generated much backlash.

If that’s our attitude to pork barrelling, is it any wonder that we are in trouble?

Environmental implications

At the most general level, the solution to environmental decline is to keep our consumption of nature’s services to the rate at which nature produces those services. If we fail to do this, we consume nature itself (natural capital), to our own detriment but especially to the detriment of future generations.

This is why ‘intergenerational equity’ is the fundamental principle of environmental sustainability.

Intergenerational equity is a classic example of deontological thinking. It is a moral imperative to do the right thing by future generations, even at the expense of our own consumption.

So if this kind of thinking is out of fashion, what can we do?

A return to moral codes that many have abandoned seems rather unlikely.

The next best thing might be to emulate the pragmatism of the Greek hero, Ulysses. When he knew that the voyage home from Troy would take his ship past the island of the Sirens, he had himself lashed to the mast so that he would be restrained from giving in to their velvet-like and irresistible call.

We too can lash ourselves to the mast of the ship of state, by setting up institutions such as a federal anti-corruption commission, or, for the environment, a legislated ‘net zero’ target and the independent Climate Change Commission (as proposed by independent MP Zali Stegall).

Of course, it would be better just to ‘do the right thing’. Failing that, when we are tempted to give in to the siren call of populism, good institutions can help save us!

Image: To save ourselves from the Siren’s call of populism we need greater institutional integrity — bring on the independent watch dogs! Image by Andy Faeth from Pixabay