National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development - Part 1 Introduction

Prepared by the Ecologically Sustainable Development Steering Committee
Endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments
December, 1992
ISBN 0 644 27253 8

Part 1 - Introduction

Index to Part 1

What is ecologically sustainable development?

Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) represents one of the greatest challenges facing Australia's governments, industry, business and community in the coming years. While there is no universally accepted definition of ESD, in 1990 the Commonwealth Government suggested the following definition for ESD in Australia:

  • 'using, conserving and enhancing the community's resources so that ecological processes, on which life depends, are maintained, and the total quality of life, now and in the future, can be increased'.

Put more simply, ESD is development which aims to meet the needs of Australians today, while conserving our ecosystems for the benefit of future generations. To do this, we need to develop ways of using those environmental resources which form the basis of our economy in a way which maintains and, where possible, improves their range, variety and quality. At the same time we need to utilise those resources to develop industry and generate employment.

By developing this Strategy, we have demonstrated our belief that a coordinated approach to ESD is required. There are many reasons for this, including the need to look at management of Australia's ecological and economic resources on a regional, national and international basis, and the significance of potential threats to our environment and economy if we do not take action.

Governments recognise that there is no identifiable point where we can say we have achieved ESD. Some key changes to the way we think, act and make decisions, however, will help ensure Australia's economic development is ecologically sustainable. There are two main features which distinguish an ecologically sustainable approach to development:

  • we need to consider, in an integrated way, the wider economic, social and environmental implications of our decisions and actions for Australia, the international community and the biosphere; and
  • we need to take a long-term rather than short-term view when taking those decisions and actions.

By following an ecologically sustainable path of development, we should be able to reduce the likelihood of serious environmental impacts arising from our economic activity. The number of divisive and damaging confrontations which have characterised some of our development projects should also decrease. More practically, ESD will mean changes to our patterns of resource use, including improvements in the quality of our air, land and water, and in the development of new, environmentally friendly products and processes.

Australia's goal, core objectives and guiding principles for the Strategy

The Goal is:

Development that improves the total quality of life, both now and in the future, in a way that maintains the ecological processes on which life depends.

The Core Objectives are:

  • to enhance individual and community well-being and welfare by following a path of economic development that safeguards the welfare of future generations
  • to provide for equity within and between generations
  • to protect biological diversity and maintain essential ecological processes and life-support systems

The Guiding Principles are:

  • decision making processes should effectively integrate both long and short-term economic, environmental, social and equity considerations
  • where there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation
  • the global dimension of environmental impacts of actions and policies should be recognised and considered
  • the need to develop a strong, growing and diversified economy which can enhance the capacity for environmental protection should be recognised
  • the need to maintain and enhance international competitiveness in an environmentally sound manner should be recognised
  • cost effective and flexible policy instruments should be adopted, such as improved valuation, pricing and incentive mechanisms
  • decisions and actions should provide for broad community involvement on issues which affect them

These guiding principles and core objectives need to be considered as a package. No objective or principle should predominate over the others. A balanced approach is required that takes into account all these objectives and principles to pursue the goal of ESD.

Who will be affected by ESD?

Every one of us has a role to play in national efforts to embrace ESD. The participation of every Australian - through all levels of government, business, unions and the community - is central to the effective implementation of ESD in Australia.


In addition to setting the strategic and policy framework, governments will be making changes to their institutional arrangements to ensure that ESD principles and objectives are taken into consideration in relevant policy making processes. Among other things, this will involve strengthening of Cabinet processes, establishing more effective coordination arrangements between Ministerial Councils, and reviewing the charters and corporate plans of relevant government agencies to include ESD objectives.

Success will require changes in the patterns of decision-making and actions by all groups and individuals. Significant increases in the overall level of awareness of development and environmental problems and their solutions will also be required. Governments are concerned, however, that any ESD- related actions and decisions do not result in an unequal burden of adjustment on particular regions, sectors or groups in society. Therefore, the appropriateness of some policies and progress on implementation will vary between regions.

Experience of a wide range of environment and development problems can be found in all sectors of private enterprise and the community. These same groups can help provide practical solutions for these problems. Governments recognise that much of this experience has been under-valued in traditional decision making processes. However, Australia's potential for successfully embracing ESD depends in large part on our ability to recognise and utilise the full range of this experience. This can be facilitated by creating a partnership between government, the corporate world and community groups that have a particular interest in, or capacity to contribute to ESD.


Private enterprise in Australia has a critical role to play in supporting the concept of ESD while taking decisions and actions which are aimed at helping to achieve the goal of this Strategy. Many have already been active participants in the ESD process, including taking significant individual steps to ensure that Australia's economy and production base are put on an ecologically sustainable footing.

Community Organisations

A wide range of community-based organisations, including unions, are already working on ESD-related activities such as coordinating public education and information programs, bush regeneration programs and action to control hazards to the environment. Governments will continue to provide opportunities for community consultation so individuals and groups can provide input on the development of programs and policies, and comment on the overall success and direction of this Strategy.


Embracing ESD will ultimately rest on the ability of all Australians to contribute individually, through modifying everyday behaviour, and through the opportunities open to us to influence community practices.

As a nation we have a great capacity for change, and a very high awareness that our individual choices can influence social change. These choices will vary from how we respond to environmentally friendly products on our supermarket shelves, to changes in water, energy and waste disposal pricing, to our support for changes to product packaging and improved recycling facilities. We each have the capacity to influence public demand for products and services which are less harmful to the environment while also supporting our economy and providing employment.

How has this Strategy been developed?

This Strategy has evolved over several years and through extensive consultation with all levels of government, business, industry, academia, voluntary conservation organisations, community-based groups and individuals. The Strategy's origins stem back to release of the World Conservation Strategy in 1980, the National Conservation Strategy for Australia in 1983, and perhaps more importantly, the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development Our Common Future (the Brundtland Report). The Brundtland Report recognised that sustainable development means adopting lifestyles within the planet's ecological means. The Report also made it clear that the world's current pattern of economic growth is not sustainable on ecological grounds and that a new type of development is required to meet foreseeable human needs.

In June 1990, the Commonwealth Government set about the task of identifying comprehensively and systematically what Australians need to do to embrace ESD, by instituting a process of detailed discussion involving governments and the community following release of Ecologically Sustainable Development: A Commonwealth Discussion Paper. As part of this process, in August 1990 the former Prime Minister, the

Hon R J L Hawke, announced his intention to establish nine sectoral ESD Working Groups, involving government officials, industry, environment, union, welfare and consumer groups, to examine sustainability issues in key industry sectors. Their purpose was to provide advice on future ESD policy directions and to develop practical proposals for implementing them.

Community consultation formed an important part of this process, with a series of one day consultation forums being held around Australia to discuss mechanisms for integrating economic and environmental concerns, and an opportunity for broader community comment on the interim reports of the Working Groups.

In November 1991, the nine ESD Working Groups produced reports covering agriculture, forest use, fisheries, manufacturing, mining, energy use, energy production, tourism and transport. In January 1992, the three Chairs of the Working Groups presented further reports on intersectoral issues and greenhouse. In all, these eleven reports contained over five hundred recommendations on ways of working towards ESD.

The ESD Working Group process was valuable in two key respects. First, it produced wide ranging and innovative recommendations for action both within and across key sectors of activity. While unanimity was not reached in a number of areas, many of the recommendations had a wide measure of support from all the interests represented. Second, and equally important, it promoted a continuing dialogue between interests and community groups. As a result, there is a better understanding of the factual basis of the debate and a greater willingness from the broad range of participants to encourage action which takes account of all the interests involved.

The reports of the ESD Working Groups have provided the foundation on which governments have developed this Strategy. In November 1991, Heads of Government agreed on a cooperative intergovernmental process for examining the recommendations of the ESD reports. They established the intergovernmental ESD Steering Committee (ESDSC) to coordinate the assessment of the many recommendations and their implications for current and future government policies, and to report to Heads of Government on the outcomes of these considerations.

In May 1992, Heads of Government also agreed to release a draft of this Strategy as an officials' discussion paper, to promote discussion and obtain community views on possible future policy directions. This was primarily in recognition of the nature, range and significance of many of the issues covered by the ESD Working Group Reports' recommendations. The draft strategy was subsequently released by the Prime Minister on 30 June for a two-month public comment period.

Over two hundred submissions were received in that period. The majority of these submissions advocated acceptance of, and mechanisms for implementation of the final recommendations from the ESD Working Groups and Chairs; the clearer identification of priorities and of agencies responsible for implementation; and clarification of the linkages between this Strategy and other government policies and initiatives. The changes in structure and content in finalising this Strategy are largely in response to these comments. The ESDSC also found the submissions a valuable source of information on the broader community's priorities, and utilised them in helping to determine final policy positions. In addition, the ESDSC has produced a Compendium of ESD Recommendations as an accompanying document to this Strategy. The Compendium describes in tabular form, how this Strategy and the National Greenhouse Response Strategy, agreed by governments, together with examples of relevant existing policies, relate to the over five hundred ESD recommendations.

At its meeting on 7 December 1992, the Council of Australian Governments endorsed the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development, noting that implementation would be subject to budgetary priorities and constraints in individual jurisdictions. The Council noted that the reports of the ESD Working Groups and Chairs have provided the foundation on which governments have developed the Strategy.

The Council noted that the document is intended to play a critical role in setting the scene for the broad changes in direction and approach that governments will take to try to ensure that Australia's future development is ecologically sustainable. The Council agreed that the future development of all relevant policies and programs, particularly those which are national in character, should take place within the framework of the ESD Strategy and the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment which came into effect on 1 May 1992. The Council encouraged business, unions and community groups to use the ESD Strategy as a basis for actions which contribute to the pursuit of Australia's national goal for ESD. The Council agreed to the publication and public release of the Strategy for wide community distribution and access.


What are the linkages between this Strategy and other government policies and initiatives?

The Brundtland Report acted as a catalyst for a number of international developments on environment and development issues, including negotiation of a range of international treaties and conventions. These developments culminated in the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), which was held in Brazil in June 1992 and attended by most of the world's governments.

A number of direction setting documents were signed at UNCED, including the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21. Policy making on related environment and development issues could not be put on hold while these documents were being developed, and the basic principles for world sustainable development were being refined. In some cases consideration of related policy issues was incorporated into the UNCED process, such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity. In this context, the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21 provide a broad framework for global sustainable development.

Within Australia, a number of processes are underway which are important to achieving the overall goal of this Strategy. Some of these initiatives commenced before the formal ESD Working Group process. Related initiatives include the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment (IGAE), the National Greenhouse Response Strategy, the development of the National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity, the National Waste Minimisation and Recycling Strategy, the Commonwealth Major Projects Facilitation initiative, and National Forest Policy Statement . Governments are also addressing the domestic implications of international documents such as Agenda 21, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

As Australia's goal, core objectives and principles for ESD have been developed, refined and found increasing acceptance, they have been reflected to a greater or lesser extent in these initiatives. Others have been brought directly under this umbrella Strategy. Over time, Governments will ensure greater consistency of related policies and processes with these objectives and principles.

As well as action to ensure environment and development policies are consistent with ESD, Australia has also embarked on a micro-economic reform program which will have far-reaching implications for how we apply our human and material resources towards long term economic well-being. More effective and efficient management and understanding of our resources is therefore critical from all aspects of social, industrial, economic and environmental planning.


What does the National Strategy for ESD contain?

This document sets out the broad strategic and policy framework under which governments will cooperatively make decisions and take actions to pursue ESD in Australia. It will be used by governments to guide policy and decision making, particularly in those key industry sectors which rely on the utilisation of natural resources.

The Strategy plays the critical role of setting the scene for the broad changes in direction and approach that governments will take to ensure that Australia's future development is ecologically sustainable.

The Strategy also aims to be accessible to industry, business and the broader community. It should provide these groups with a good understanding of government approaches to a wide range of economic and environment policies. Governments encourage industry and business to use this document as a basis on which to develop processes, resource use and management techniques which contribute to Australia's national goal for ESD.

Similarly, we believe that community groups will find this Strategy a useful information source and we encourage them to promote its goal, objectives and principles and to develop community-based and individual actions to pursue ESD.

When reading the Strategy, the following points need to be kept in mind:

  • part 2 provides the broad strategic framework for those key industry sectors which rely on natural resources as their productive base; while
  • part 3 provides the same information for a broad range of issues which are relevant to actions in several of the key industry sectors.

For example, when looking for information on how governments will apply pricing and taxation measures to the mining sector, you will need to read both the section on mining in part 2 and the section on pricing and taxation in part 3 to get the full picture.

Further work is continuing on a number of complex and difficult areas. For example, the ESD Steering Committee has commissioned work on the relationship of the precautionary principle and policy instruments for application of the principle of intergenerational equity.

It should also be recognised that many of the broad strategic directions and actions outlined in this Strategy will require substantial funding. In light of the very significant budgetary constraints facing all levels of government for the foreseeable future, each jurisdiction will determine its own priorities for implementation of actions following assessment of the budgetary priority they should command, both between individual ESD-related actions and against other competing demands for public funding. Funding arrangements agreed between levels of government should reflect the commitment of Heads of Government in July 1991 in relation to tied grants and matched funding.

The Commonwealth, States, Territories and the Australian Local Government Association acknowledge that while the Association endorses this Strategy and will do all within its power to ensure compliance, it cannot bind local government authorities to observe the terms of this Strategy.


What is the Compendium of ESD Recommendations?

The Compendium of ESD Recommendations has been prepared as an accompanying document to the National Strategy for ESD. The Compendium describes in tabular form how this Strategy and the National Greenhouse Response Strategy, agreed by governments, together with examples of relevant existing policies, relate to the over five hundred recommendations arising from the ESD Working Groups' and Chairs' Reports.

The Compendium:

  • lists all the recommendations arising from the ESD Working Groups' and Chairs' Reports
  • relates the governments' responses in the Strategies, together with examples of relevant existing policies, programs and actions, to each of the recommendations arising from the ESD Reports and provides supporting detail and cross references
  • identifies governments' responses to each recommendation
  • identifies examples of specific policies, programs and actions that are being put in place or will be put in place to respond to recommendations
  • identifies bodies with primary responsibility for implementation
  • where appropriate, sets out a broad timeframe for implementation