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Priority one: a sustainable agenda

By Michael Krockenberger - posted Saturday, 15 December 2001

The Howard government has been accused of lacking a third-term agenda. Perhaps this reflects the Australian mood. Perhaps Australians don’t want change in these troubled times. Commentators speak of reform fatigue.

However, there are clear signs that Australians want more than the status quo. Social researchers such as Hugh Mackay remind us that Australians crave a vision.

A missing vision is the environment. While Labor used the election campaign to update its environmental policies – arguably leaving it too late to have much electoral impact – the Coalition rested on its laurels. No new major policies were released.


This would be fine if the laurels were worth resting on. However, other than marine conservation it is not a good record - and that against a backdrop of disturbing environmental facts.

Australia has the developed world’s highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions, principally due to high fossil fuel consumption and clearing of native vegetation. Despite this the Howard government has consistently argued a special case for Australia in international negotiations.

Careful analysis shows that Australia has no special greenhouse case other than that it is an especially energy inefficient country. But the Australian government has used bully diplomacy to get special concessions within the Kyoto Protocol. And having achieved these it still won’t ratify the Protocol.

Australia has the highest percentage of arable land affected by land degradation of any developed country. Salinity is a scourge eating away our agricultural resources and built infrastructure. The Howard government has recognised the land degradation problem and is spending more on the problem than any previous government. But it is not enough and far too much of the Natural Heritage Trust funding has been dissipated through lack of strategic approach.

Australia clears more land than any other developed nation and is only exceeded by a handful of developing countries. Broadscale land clearing is an absurd activity. The burning and rotting of native vegetation is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and the major cause of dryland salinity and biodiversity loss. No developed country has lost more species of mammal in the last 200 years. Scientists now fear that the current spate of clearing will lead to many extinctions of woodland bird species. Land clearing is also economically absurd. The cleared land, primarily used for cattle grazing, has low economic returns, and the long-term costs from salinity are enormous. The current national repair bill for salinity is estimated at $65 billion and rising.

Australia, the driest inhabited continent, is the largest per capita water user outside North America. The major user is irrigated agriculture, especially thirsty crops such as rice and cotton. Governments have been unwilling to tackle these vested interests.


Other than the USA Australia produces the most waste per capita of any nation. And we are one of the least energy efficient countries in the OECD.

A reform agenda for Howard’s third term? Sustainability reform, or to give it another name, environmental modernisation.

It would not just be good for the environment but also good for the economy and employment. Australian can achieve 20 – 40% energy efficiency gains at no net cost for a start. Renewable energy industries employ far more people, many of them in the regions, than coal power stations. Environmental industries are worth $1 trillion worldwide and unless Australia gets moving we’ll miss the boom.

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About the Author

Michael Krockenberger is Strategies Director for the Australian Conservation Foundation.

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