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Second Environmental Economics Round Table Proceedings

Convened by Senator Robert Hill, Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Canberra, 5 July 2000
Environmental Economics Research Paper No. 7
Commonwealth of Australia, 2000
ISBN 0 642 19485 8

Opening address

Senator Robert Hill
Minister for the Environment and Heritage


I welcome everyone here today. For those who do not know me, I am the Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage.

This round table is a contribution we seek to make to policy development and debate at the legislative and executive level on the subject of environmental economics. I was astonished when I was reminded, reading the papers, that the last of these environmental economics round tables was in 1997. It seemed to me but yesterday.

One thing that is encouraging is that I have realised since I walked into the room that one of our distinguished overseas guests here today was a participant in 1997. It is good to see that happening because it builds on our experience of the past.

We try to take advantage of occasions when we have international visitors in Australia who are leading thinkers in this area. In this instance, largely due to Mike Young, we have linked into the meeting of the International Society of Ecological Economics being held tomorrow at the Australian National University.

The whole area of debate on ecological economics or environmental economics in Australia, although it is advancing, is advancing at a slow pace. It is not headlines in the newspapers, either in relation to macro policy or at the micro level. But there are things happening that are gradually changing attitudes–and perhaps more is happening than we sometimes recognise; it is just that it is not necessarily being fed into the language.

The last meeting we had focused a lot upon using market instruments more effectively to influence better economic outcomes which in turn have a better environmental consequence. We discussed a number of areas on that occasion in relation to managing pollution, the development of water trading, property rights in fisheries, and so forth. Since then, the debate in relation to greenhouse and the possible use of market instruments as a better alternative to regulatory instruments, particularly in terms of cost effectiveness, has been gathering momentum in this country. We need to broaden and engage more in this debate.

At the micro level, more companies than ever are now mouthing the language of sustainable development and the use of the tools of eco-efficiency. We now have about 100 companies in Australia publishing environmental reports in some shape or form, some now quite sophisticated with independent audits and taking into account social consequences as well as environmental costs. More are becoming interested in the issue and more are recognising something that always seemed obvious to me, that sound environmental policy, for example, resource efficiency must contribute to better economic outcomes. It always struck me as obvious and I could never understand why leading business people seemed to have difficulty accepting the obvious. But now it is more readily acknowledged.

We now have companies that have gone one step further. They have not only adopted principles of resource efficiency within their businesses–both at the input level in terms of use of energy, water and so forth and at the output level in terms of their waste and pollution management–but are now going out and selling themselves on the basis of their environmental performance. They not only win through better resource management (which helps contribute to a better bottom line) but have also realised that they can market that as a business asset and get a further competitive advantage.

It has struck me as surprising that Australian business has not seized these opportunities as quickly as others. You only have to look to companies like BP, Shell (we have a representative of the Shell company here today), Toyota, Unilever and others out there on the global stage that are now selling their environmental achievements as a competitive asset.

I think discussions like this today, where we bring together politicians, policy-makers, senior officials, and senior business people either as representatives of corporations or of industry associations, are important. We probably should do it more often. We are grateful that you are all prepared to come and engage in a day of discussion. We are particularly pleased that our international guests, led by Amory Lovins, have joined us and will stimulate our thinking, which hopefully we can then translate into policy and practice in this country. Thank you for your participation.