WSSD - Australian National Assessment Report

Environment Australia
ISBN 0 642 54855 2


2. Overview of Sustainable Development in Australia

2.1 Beginnings of Environmental Concern in Australia

A developed and widespread understanding of the environmental consequences of economic development began emerging throughout the world in the second half of the 20th Century. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, in most developed countries, environmental concerns had polarised the community on a variety of issues. In Australia, as in other industrialised countries, pollution in urban settlements was an early concern. However, because the Australian economy depended so heavily on primary resources, the concern in many early environmental debates was the impacts of primary resource industries.

A unique mix of circumstances has provided the context for Australia's approach to sustainable development. As an island nation encompassing an entire continent, bordered by three oceans, Australia has responsibility for a considerable area of the marine environment. A relatively low, but highly urbanised population concentrated in the coastal strip inevitably has a significant impact on those oceans. As an entire continent, we have a range of different climates, and a correspondingly vast range of different ecosystems. We are one of the Earth's mega-biodiverse countries and we continue to have one of the world's highest rates of species extinction. Large areas of land are still available for development. However, most of the continent is arid and unsuitable for either agriculture or more intensive use. Where land is suitable for agriculture, traditional European agricultural animals, plants and techniques have contributed to several of our most difficult environmental problems including our high rate of species loss. To further complicate matters, in our federal system political responsibility for environmental matters is shared between the national government and eight state/territory governments.

As in most other countries, environmental issues began catching the public imagination in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In Australia, these issues often had a "place" focus. Individual species of Australia's unique wildlife attracted relatively little attention in their own right; the concern in Australia at that time was saving wildlife in more general terms by saving particular places, ecosystems and habitats (for example, the campaigns to prevent the flooding of Lake Pedder, to stop sand mining on Fraser Island, and to save particular old growth forests from logging). Whales were one set of species that did, briefly, receive attention as a domestic environmental issue. After our last whaling station at Cheynes Beach closed in the late 1970s, whales became an international, rather than a domestic environment issue for Australians.

One issue that polarised some sections of the community was uranium mining. This issue grew out of the general anti-nuclear movement around the world, which had been growing since the Second World War. In the 1970s, consistent with Australia's interest in saving places, the Australian anti-nuclear and conservation movement had a place focus - targeting uranium mining in the Alligator Rivers area of the Northern Territory.

The compromise resolution of this conflict in many ways reflects Australia's approach to sustainable development. Australia has not embraced the use of nuclear power generation, but we have allowed limited uranium mining in some locations with a comprehensive set of safeguards whilst, in other areas, we have established national parks inside which such activities are not permitted. Internationally, we have been pro-active in working with other nations towards the shared goals of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and safe disposal of nuclear waste.

Australia refers to its process for making our way of life sustainable as Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD). The prefix "ecologically" was added to the normal international usage ("sustainable development") in recognition of the very great importance of protecting ecosystems in the context of a continent in which many unique ecosystems were under threat.

2.2 The Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) Process

The Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) process, launched in Australia in July 1989, was the first formal government initiative aimed at institutionalising sustainable development in decision making. Initially, the ESD Process involved a summit of industry, union and conservation organisations. A Federal Government discussion paper, outlining the concept of ESD in Australia, was subsequently released for public comment. Nine Working Groups were then established with independent chairs to consider the implementation of ESD principles in nine sectors of Australia's economy which have major environmental impacts: agriculture; forest use; fisheries; mining; energy production; energy use; manufacturing; tourism; and transport. Industry, union, community groups, conservation organisations, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (see below), the Federal Government and State and Territory Governments were represented on the Working Groups.

The Working Groups identified key problem areas, set priorities for change, and attempted to develop solutions that would meet environmental, economic and social goals. The draft reports of the Working Groups on the nine sectors and on a range of cross sectoral issues (such as land, air, water, biodiversity, marine and coastal issues, waste and chemical issues, urban, public health and population issues, research and development, and climate change) were widely circulated for public comment and the final reports of the Working Groups were published in 1991. The Reports made over 600 recommendations.

Although the Working Groups included some State and Territory representatives, not all States were represented in the Groups. Consequently, the original ESD process never received endorsement from all State and Territory governments. A Commonwealth-State process was established to convert the outcome of the ESD process into something that all Australian Governments could endorse. In 1992, the year of the first UNCED world summit on sustainable development, Australia produced its own National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development. The National Strategy, which was endorsed on a whole of government basis by all Australian Governments and the Australian Local Government Association, agreed to a set of core objectives and guiding principles for the Strategy as a whole, and to specific objectives and broad strategies for eight sectoral issues (more or less the same as those covered by the original ESD process but with energy production and use combined) and for 22 cross-sectoral issues.

The National Strategy identifies seven guiding principles which can be summarised as:

  • integrating short and long term environmental, economic and social considerations in decision making;
  • taking measures to prevent environmental degradation even in the absence of scientific certainty (the precautionary principle); and
  • broad community involvement in decisions and actions which affect them.

The National Strategy has provided a broad national agenda for sustainable development in Australia. Some of its specific recommendations for the various sectors of the Australian community are no longer relevant, or the objectives of the recommendation having been achieved by other initiatives, but it still provides a nationally agreed checklist of objectives against which outcomes can be compared.

2.3 Experiments with institutional and process change

Important as the ESD process was, it was not the only government initiative aimed at incorporating a sustainable development culture in government and the wider community. There have been a number of parallel and subsequent attempts to develop institutions and processes for implementing sustainable development.

The Resource Assessment Commission, established prior to the Rio Conference, was one early initiative which assisted government to institutionalise sustainability principles in decision making. The Resource Assessment Commission's functions involved holding inquiries and making reports to the Prime Minister on specific resource matters referred to it. The Resource Assessment Commission's brief was to identify and assess the social, economic and environmental values associated with different resource development alternatives. This involved identifying values which were essentially unquantifiable and potential losses which might accrue over the longer term.

During its four years of operation, the Resource Assessment Commission completed three substantial inquiries into resource matters referred to it by the Prime Minister: the Kakadu Conservation Zone Inquiry, the Forest and Timber Inquiry and the Coastal Zone Inquiry. It was ultimately abolished in 1993 primarily because its functions had been superseded by other intergovernmental mechanisms such as the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment and the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development, which also integrated economic and environmental priorities.

In order for Australia to move down a path towards genuine sustainable development, the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment was a very important step in the context of a federation in which environmental responsibilities are shared. Agreed in 1992, the Agreement set out the roles of the parties and established ground rules under which the signatory governments would interact on the environment. Although the Agreement was about roles and responsibilities in relation to the environment, rather than sustainable development, its Section 3.2 identifies integration of economic and environmental considerations as a principle of environmental policy and as essential to the adoption of sound environmental practices and procedures. In other words, sustainable development was a clear intent of its signatories. Similar principles were embodied in other processes such as the development of Australia's first National Greenhouse Response Strategy in the early 1990s.

Initially, implementation of the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment, the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development, and the National Greenhouse Response Strategy were overseen by an intergovernmental committee of officials reporting to the Council of Australian Governments. This arrangement operated between 1994 and 1997 at which time that responsibility was assumed by Ministerial Councils. The Ministerial Councils comprise Ministers responsible for similar portfolios in all Australian jurisdictions, for example the (then) Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council and the Agricultural and Resource Management Council of Australia and New Zealand.

Perhaps because the ESD process, and the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development itself, had approached sustainability on a sectoral basis, it began to emerge that on the ground progress required that each sector take responsibility for developing its own approach. However, while economic sectors can, to some extent, take responsibility for their own implementation of sustainable development, overseen by a Ministerial Council, there is a host of sustainability issues which remain unavoidably cross-sectoral. Since cross sectoral issues still need to be addressed on a whole of government basis, in order to ensure that the social, economic and environmental dimensions of an issue are properly considered, each Minister in the Ministerial Council undertakes to obtain this agreement within his/her own Government. However, on some cross-sectoral issues this ministerial responsibility is necessarily shared.

For example, a range of economic sectors contribute in various ways to greenhouse gas emissions. Multiple sectors contribute to the effectiveness of greenhouse sinks. Moreover, the impacts of climate change would ultimately impact on the entire country, its environment, its entire people, and its entire economy. Similarly, a range of sectors impacts on the marine environment while all aspects of the environment, all people and, ultimately, all industries depend on the health of the oceans for their continued existence. It would therefore be difficult to identify anyone ministry with primary responsibility for climate change or marine policy issues.

The Federal Government has responded to these overlapping responsibilities by recognising the need for single-focus agencies with responsibility for some of these cross-sectoral issues, establishing the Australian Greenhouse Office and the National Oceans Office to address the environmental, social and economic aspects of these cross-sectoral concerns. Both are unique, in comparative international terms, in their design, function and administration.

This trend towards fostering sustainable development on a sectoral and specific cross-sectoral basis has allowed these issues to be addressed at quite a basic, operational level. Sectoral and tightly focused cross-sectoral strategies allow for very specific actions to be recommended at a level of detail where the outcomes are measurable, and accountable and may even be more immediate. For example, the Regional Forests Agreement process engaged all interested parties to reach decisions on the logging and other uses of native forests on a region by region basis. This approach has enabled us to add more than 2.8 million hectares to forest reserves through ten separate agreements covering four States. The Agreements aim to ensure the protection of the most ecologically valuable areas of forest in all States while maintaining the economic viability of the logging industry and addressing the social concerns of logging communities. The Regional Forest Agreement process was an experiment in applying sustainable development principles to a particular sector, through a public consultation process, right down to the level of what happens in a single forest coupe.

2.4 On-going challenges

Despite the institutional and process reforms implemented in Australia to progress sustainability, we face a wide range of difficult ongoing challenges. Sustainable Development of urban environments is a particular concern. While the total level of some pollutants has fallen significantly as a result of improved fuel and emissions standards, and a range of government initiatives, urban air and water pollution, remnant habitat loss and various other problems remain serious concerns. The growth in energy-intensive transport has outstripped the development of more fuel efficient systems and other efforts at energy conservation. Public transport in urban centres (while retaining a small share of the passenger transport task) has continued its downward spiral of reduced use leading to increased fares, leading to even more reduced use. Private car use has continued to increase, leading to more congestion in the metropolitan cities and putting pressure on urban air quality. These are particularly difficult challenges for policy makers given the many cross-sectoral contributing factors involved and the complexity of linking them in long-term solutions.

Biodiversity, an issue for which Australia has a truly global responsibility (because of our own mega-biodiversity), is intrinsically difficult to deal with in an integrated fashion. While specific programs aimed at protecting endangered and threatened species have long been in place in Australia, most work to conserve biodiversity is delivered through other programs with objectives such as land health, freshwater health, vegetation conservation, or marine protection. While progress is being made, land clearing for urban development and agriculture continues to deplete and endanger native species and ecosystems while roads continue to dissect the remaining wildlife corridors, and many native animals are killed on those roads every year. Salinity, caused by land clearing and irrigation, and other pressures on water quality threaten not only plants, animals and ecosystems but also the future of agricultural and other industries in many parts of Australia, and even urban water supplies in some cities. Declining water quality due to over-allocation and nutrient and sediment pollution affects inland aquatic biodiversity and ecosystems, as well as affected marine and estuarine biodiversity at the end point of these river systems. For example, the quality of water entering the Great Barrier Reef lagoon threatens the viability of both the Reef as a functioning ecosystem and the industries that depend on it. A National Action Plan on Salinity and Water Quality is in place to address water quality and salinity issues but it will take at least several decades to undo the damage already done.

Constraints which have hindered resolution of these issues include competitiveness concerns and social issues, limited ability of the existing tax system and subsidies to target incentives for environmental purposes, the constraints of a federal system of government (including the different priorities facing different Governments) and the financial considerations which limit the options of Local Governments for keeping land undeveloped.

The need to work within these constraints has, however, stimulated some of the institutional experiments described in subsequent chapters of this report.

2.5 Assisting Sustainable Development outside Australia

Consistent with the increasing integration of objectives in Australia's domestic approaches to sustainability, over the last decade there has been a shift, both multilaterally and bilaterally, from assisting more traditional development outside Australia to a more integrated management of resources.

Box 1: Australia's Development Assistance Program

Australia's development assistance program assists developing counties to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable development. Over the decade 1991/2 to 2000/01 Australia provided an average of 0.30% ODA/GNP or around AUD1.4 billion (constant 1999/2000 prices) per year on development assistance.

The development assistance program focuses on several key result areas to reduce poverty and promote sustainable development. These include building effective partnerships with developing countries; international organisations; promoting effective governance; improving access to and quality of education and health; improving agricultural and rural development; providing essential infrastructure; delivering humanitarian and emergency assistance; and promoting gender equity.

Australia recognises that poor people suffer the most from the consequences of environmental damage. Preventing environmental degradation is essential to poverty reduction and ensuring development is sustainable. Development assistance to address environmental concerns has focused on areas outlined in Agenda 21 including, among others, water and natural resource management, oceans, atmosphere, biological diversity, deforestation and desertification. Australia has provided some AUD2.3 billion (constant 2000/01 prices) on environment related development assistance in the ten years since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.

In meeting our international reporting obligations (see below on reporting to the Commission for Sustainable Development, and to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), Australia endeavours to describe our experience in ways that may be useful to countries with similar conditions or problems. Through our contribution to the development of international environmental and sustainability indicators, Australia has promoted the need for tools for the measurement of progress towards sustainability to be as specific as necessary to properly assess individual national circumstances, and the uniqueness of a nation's sectoral and cross-sectoral responses.