Environment policy in Australia: beyond ‘business as usual’

The Centre for Policy Development is running a series of articles and discussion papers looking at how we can move beyond our current impasse on environmental policy. This series will attempt to unearth the basic principles that Australia’s policy makers need to uphold if true sustainability is to be achieved.

We invite you to contribute your ideas in response to the questions raised below.


Given the various ‘report cards’ on the state of Australia’s environment it is clear that Australia’s current environmental policies and programs are seriously flawed. Reforms that tinker at the edges of ‘business as usual’ will not be enough to ensure our environment’s capacity to support either current or future generations.

While there are isolated success stories, overall we are drawing down on our ‘natural capital’ rather than living within our environmental means. It is time to consider a range of new approaches.

We are embarking on this series at a time when we no longer need to be distracted by arguments about whether climate change is happening, or whether human activity has contributed to it. Instead we can focus on the most effective ways of preventing a runaway greenhouse effect. There is a strong social, economic and moral case for early action. The challenge will be to take this action while the same factors that have stymied effective policy-making for the past two decades are still in operation.

The climate change debate illustrates many of the problems with environment policy in general. The need for sustainability poses a particular challenge for policy-makers, because election cycles provide strong incentives to ‘discount’ the long-term costs of inaction and focus instead on the short term costs of action. Clearly, good policy ideas are not enough to solve environmental crises – we also need enough popular pressure to sustain the political and economic costs of addressing it.

This shift in political will needs to be based on the understanding that ‘environment’ is neither a code word for something unimportant or optional, nor is it something that is ‘over there’ and away from us. The environment is not disconnected from our every day social practices and lifestyles. Nor is it separate from our society or economy; its use (and often abuse) has made us a wealthy nation.

Questions to consider:

1. How can we balance regulation and market mechanisms, along with community and individual actions and responsibility?

  • How should the responsibilities and costs of cleaning up our act be distributed across governments, markets and communities?
  • How can we achieve a balance between individual actions, rights and responsibilities and the need for collective approaches?
  • What resource and pollution pricing mechanisms should we use? What are the dangers of putting monetary values on the un-valuable but invaluable?
  • What is the best mix of competitive and cooperative approaches to managing our shared resources or commons?
  • What are the limitations of public awareness/education campaigns aimed at changing individual behaviour? Under what circumstances can behaviour change be achieved?
  • Is there a role for Australian governments to ‘back winners’ in the new clean energy generation industries, or should this be left to the market?

2. Can economic growth ever be environmentally sustainable?

  • If so, what measures need to be taken to de-couple economic growth from increases in resource consumption and pollution (including greenhouse gas emissions)?
  • If not, how can we prioritise sustainability over growth while still maintaining a healthy economy?
  • How much should we be investing in reducing the impact of unsustainable technologies and practices compared to what we spend on converting to sustainable alternatives?

3. How should we deal with different sectors’ and interest-groups’ conflicting demands upon our common resources?

  • How can we best balance the land use demands of our urban, rural and coastal environments?
  • With Australia traditionally relying on forms of agriculture imported from countries with very different soils and climates, how can policy-makers best support those farmers whose crops and practices are most suited to our unique environment? How do we deal with those farmers who have relied on water-thirsty practices for generations?
  • What kind of water conservation policies are needed to meet urban and rural water needs and successfully combat salinity problems on Earth’s driest inhabited continent?
  • How can we best preserve Australia’s vulnerable species and habitats from the impacts of global warming and inappropriate land uses?
  • How can governments take responsibility for the inappropriate land-use policies of the past (such as the allocation of water rights and lock-in to old-growth forestry)

4. Can Australia and a handful of wealthy nations ‘go it alone’ in attempts to achieve sustainability?

  • What is the balance between Australia’s environmental responsibilities and our position towards aid and trade? Do we have a moral obligation to look beyond our national borders?
  • Is increasing population on both a global and national level a threat to our living standards? If we stabilise Australia’s population, can we continue to enjoy our present level of standard of living?
  • Is the population debate worth having, or do discussions about ‘ideal’ populations lead to a lifeboat mentality where we turn our back on international obligations regarding refugees and family reunions?

5. How can we reform our policy-making processes so that they are better suited to dealing with environmental problems?

  • How can governments be made accountable to future voters?
  • How can we better equip our policy-making processes to deal with the interconnected and complex nature of environmental systems and problems?

In the first installment in this series, Geoff McAlpine outlined principles for better environmental policy-making, based on the values put forward in Reclaiming our Common Wealth.

For more information or to pitch or submit an article, discussion paper or research project please contact editor@cpd.org.au or call CPD Director Miriam Lyons on (02) 9514 2034.

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