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)

The Sustainable Development Goals: Game-changer or good-looking rehash?

From Agenda 21 to the Millennium Development Goals and beyond

By Peter Burnett

Australia, along with most nations in the world, has signed up to the Sustainability Development Goals (or SDGs for short), the UN’s latest effort to broker a pathway forward to a more sustainable future. How are we going in our efforts to meet the SDGs? And, indeed, is there any value in the SDG approach? I’m a tad cynical but the SDGs have definitely put a new face on sustainability.

The value of SDGs came into sharp focus for me last week at a conference in Melbourne titled ‘Why Should the Public Sector Care About Sustainable Development?’ (I think the answer to the conference-title question is simple: our future depends on it.) One of the conference presenters was John Thwaites, former Victorian Deputy Premier and Environment Minister, now a Professorial Fellow and Chair of the National Sustainable Development Council (NSDC), an NGO. John’s topic was the Sustainable Development Goals. Last year the NSDC released a progress report on SDG implementation in Australia, hot on the heels of Australia’s first official progress report.

John spoke with some passion about the value of the SDGs and gave examples of how they were influencing actual decisions by government and non-government bodies alike. Having been more focused on government policy-making, I had not considered his argument that the SDGs were gaining some real traction due to their social influence. So I thought it was time for another look: are the SDGs breathing new life into sustainable development?

Origins of the SDGs

Before answering that question, some history. The SDGs are a set of 17 goals adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. The UN describes them as a ‘shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet’.

You’ve probably seen the catchy 17-tiled SDG infographic, as it gets quite a lot of exposure (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: The 17 Sustainable Development Goals

Countries made their original commitment to sustainable development at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. The summit adopted the Rio Declaration, which sets out some 27 sustainability principles, along with a 350-page action plan called Agenda 21 (an agenda for the 21st Century).

The problem was that, to get everyone on board, rich countries had to make commitments to poor countries based on a principle of ‘intra-generational equity’. In essence this came down to promising poor countries that they wouldn’t lose the opportunity to develop, and to consume their fair share of the environmental resource pie in doing so, just because the rich countries had already eaten most of it.

Of course, this implied that the rich countries would henceforth constrain their own consumption. With the deal done and the pressure seemingly off, the rich countries went home and, unsurprisingly, did not consume less to free up resources for poor countries. So when everyone met again, at ‘Rio+5’ in New York in 1997, the poor countries objected strongly and the meeting almost collapsed.

The MDGs

Giving up on sustainable development wasn’t really an option. So they had another go, this time endorsing eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to mark the new century. The MDGs focused on poverty, with only one goal embodying a commitment to environmental sustainability*. The target date was 2015.

The MDGs breathed some life back into the sustainability. Real progress was made, though I think this was made possible by allowing the rising tide of economic growth to lift all boats, particularly in China, at the expense of ongoing environmental decline.

In any event, the Rio+20 Conference in 2012 decided that the MDGs warranted follow-on goals, and so the SDGs came to pass. Unlike the MDGs, the SDGs reflect a more even balance between social and environmental goals, with five of seventeen goals having an environmental focus. The SDG’s also have some real substance, with 17 goals supported by 169 targets and 232 indicators.

Australia and the SDGs

The proof of the pudding however is in the eating. Australia’s first implementation report to the UN is simply a compilation of actions taken by governments and others that align with the SDGs. Further, while some good things are reported (eg, the National Disability Insurance Scheme), others are glossed over. The report for example refers to government support for Ramsar wetlands, omitting mention of the small amounts involved. Still other things are trivialised: the section on ‘Sustainable Cities and Communities’ reports that community gardens are increasingly popular, supported by ‘grass-roots’ organisations!

Irrespective of how good the reported measures are, the government makes no claim that the SDGs have driven any change in domestic policy and files its report under ‘aid’ on the DFAT website. Clearly the SDGs are not a game-changer from the government’s point of view.

The NSDC report is more analytical, using a ratings scheme under which Australia scores an overall 6.5/10. While this corresponds to a university ‘credit’ grade, averaging conceals a wide spread of ratings. We are best in looking after ourselves, scoring 8.9 in health and education, and worst at sharing, rating 4.4 on climate action (ie, sharing the Earth’s capacity to absorb pollution with future generations) and 4.3 on reduced inequalities.

Are the SDGs making a difference?

I’m sure John is right and that the SDGs are gaining some traction, including in ways not readily measured. But is that influence putting a dent in the underlying problem, that we are consuming environmental resources more quickly than nature can replace them?

The NSDC answers this question itself, opening its report with the comment that despite strong economic growth, ‘our children and grandchildren face the prospect of being worse off than we are as a result of increasing inequality, environmental degradation and climate change.’

A key problem is that while the SDGs are new in some respects, they are old in others. The goals, targets and performance measures are new, but the underlying principles are not. The UN Resolution adopting the SDGs in 2015 simply calls up the earlier principles and resolutions, such as those from Rio in 1992. This means that governments (and the rest of us) have no new reason for taking the hard decisions that sustainability requires, to keep the pursuit of economic development within nature’s capacity to replace what we consume.

Trumped by the short term

This is the reason for my cynicism. Because there is nothing new foundationally in the SDGs, short term political imperatives to grow the economy will continue to trump normative or moral obligations to share available resources with future generations and poor countries, no matter how often those obligations are repeated.

I’m sure John Thwaites is right and that the SDGs are making a difference. It’s just that they don’t contain anything that would make a fundamental difference. As a result, I expect that, short of a crisis, we will continue to play the game and report actions that are consistent with the SDGs, without actually changing our ways.

*The MDGs were later endorsed at ‘Rio+10’, the World Summit on Sustainable Development at Johannesburg, 2002. These ‘Rio+’ conferences are now a thing, with Rio+30 due in 2022.