Thursday, June 20, 2013

Some questions that need to be asked

Unimpressed with the standard of contemporary political debate in Australia, the Board of Australia21 has become increasingly concerned that a number of grave challenges are being ignored, bypassed or placed in the “too hard” basket, and that there is no sign of this changing as we head into vitally important national elections.

Accordingly, we commissioned a series of essays by a number of Australia21 Directors, Fellows, Associates and other contributors, which draw attention to threats arising from global change. These are threats that all Australians will need to manage in the near future, and need to be thinking about now. The resulting publication is available for download from our website.

We hope that this series of essays will help to stimulate a constructive discussion between voters and political aspirants from all parties about the kind of Australia we will leave to our children in an increasingly hazardous, globalised and resource-constrained world.

We think political parties should take a long-term view when they frame policies to put to the Australian people. When they propose new policies, they should be expected to explain how sustainable they would be in the long term, and how they would fit into a longer-term context. We wonder whether politicians are acting responsible when they imply that Australians in full-time employment are “doing it tough” – “tough” against what benchmark, exactly?

So what do we propose? As a response to the concerns raised in these essays, we are posing a series of questions under twelve themes for consideration by voters across Australia.

They are not the only questions that come to our minds, but they are some of the more important ones, and if these twelve questions clusters can become part of the political discourse in the lead-up to the election of our next government, this small volume will have served a valuable purpose.

You might like to put some of these questions to our political leaders and your local candidates:

1. On Greenhouse gases:
What is your assessment of Australia’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and to the global effort to curtail their growth? Do you believe that we should radically curtail energy production from fossil fuels? If so, over what timeframe? Should we also curtail our mining and export of fossil fuels to other countries? What energy source(s) would you see as most promis  ng replacements for fossil fuels in Australia, and what should we do to encourage rapid uptake? If you do not believe we should rapidly curtail reliance in fossil fuels, please outline your thinking on this matter.

2. On economic management and growth:
How long do you think we can sustain the current approach to economic management in which growth of GDP is required to maintain high employment and accordingly the rate of GDP growth is seen as an indicator of the health of the economy? Do you think we need to develop a more “steady state” approach to economic management, in which we can maintain full employment without rapid growth in the demands placed upon our resources and the biosphere? How (on the business principle of “what gets measured gets done”) can we better integrate the health of the environment and measures of human well being, in Australia and globally, into our measures of economic performance and economic “success”?

3. On defence policy:
What is your concept of what the Australian Defence Force (ADF) should be structured to do over the next two decades? Are we spending enough on defence for the ADF to be able to meet your expectations? Are you concerned about the prospect of strategic competition emerging between China and the United States, and how do you think Australia should respond? Do we have the right decision-making processes in place to ensure that we go to war only for the right reasons, and with good prospects of success?

4. On food for our future:
What is your assessment of the prospects of Australia feeding itself in the context of rising temperatures, declining extent and health of croplands, and rising food prices and international famine? What policies would you support to ensure that your constituents will be resilient to what many predict is an imminent global food crisis?

5. On our dependency on oil:
In view of the tenuous state of Australia’s oil reserves and the firm likelihood of oil crises in the near term, what policies would you favour to build Australian resilience in this area? Do you think the Government should adopt policies to ensure that we have specified stock levels of fuels and lubricants in-country? Should the Government seek to develop the capacity to produce liquid fuels from non-conventional sources?

6. On prospects for the global economy:
What do you think is the likelihood of another global financial crisis? What should we do to prepare for such an eventuality? What is your assessment of Australian prospects of again withstanding major damage from a collapse in the international economy?

7. On protection against toxins and antibiotic resistance:
What role should government play in protecting the community against exposure to toxins and deterioration in antibiotic sensitivity?

8. On the valuation of services provided by ecosystems:
Do you agree that we should include in our evaluation of proposed developments or changed land use the economic value of the services provided by local ecosystems to human communities and to industry? If not, how do you think we should best protect ourselves from the loss of these services? If so, what role should government play in building the value of these services into our thinking about the economy?

9. On ecological footprints:
Should we be trying to reduce Australia’s current ecological footprint? Can we do this in a way that assists developing countries without simply transferring an equivalent part of our footprint to them?

10. On environmental refugees:
What role should Australia play in the accommodation of environmental refugees from the South Pacific and from South-East Asia as sea levels rise? What impact should such refugees have on the numbers taken from other migration categories? How should we best integrate provision for refugees from the results of climate change into our immigration policy?

11. On domestic travel:
Do you think that the rising demand for rapid movement between our major cities can be met into the indefinite future by increasing civil aviation capacity? Can you foresee a time when exclusive reliance on air travel might become a problem or face constraints?

12. On responding to the needs of the coming generation:
Is Australia preparing its younger population adequately for the likely risks ahead as climate change and resource scarcity challenge the conventional wisdom of endless economic growth?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

How to donate to Australia21

If you wish to make a donation to assist Australia21 to continue its program of multidisciplinary research and inquiry on issues of strategic importance to Australia in the 21st century, there are three ways in which you can do this:

(1)    By clicking the “Donate” button on our website and following the link to the “Give Now” website

(2)     By sending a cheque to Australia21 Limited, PO Box 3244, Weston ACT 2611

(3)     By direct transfer to our Bank MECU account: BSB 313-140, A/c No. 2319 3882

If you choose the third option you will need to send an email to advising us of the amount and your name and address so that we may send you a receipt.

All donations over $2 are tax deductible.

We thank you in advance.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Ross Garnaut launches Australia21 issues document

Last evening Monday 17 June 2013 Professor Ross Garnaut of the University of Melbourne launched the Australia21 book “Placing global change on the Australian election agenda: Essays on vital issues that are largely being ignored”.

Following is the text of his address to the invited audience.

For over a decade I have been talking about The Great Australian Complacency of the Early Twenty First Century. The book that we are here to launch today represents an uncomplacent and thoughtful effort to bring Australians closer to the large challenges that are part of their contemporary reality and of the reality within which Australians must make their lives in the years ahead. We and our successors face these challenges whether we are aware of them or not.

Australians over the past decade and now more than ever enjoy the highest incomes that they or their forebears have ever experienced, absolutely and relative to the main developed countries against which we have habitually compared ourselves. At the turn of the century, our average incomes converted into international currency were significantly below the average of the United States, the European Union and Japan. Now we are one quarter higher than the United States, one third higher than the European Union and one half higher than Japan. The proportion of work-age Australians in employment is now well above that of the United States, when two decades ago it was well below.

Our net exports of beverages were about zero when Australia embarked upon a great venture of economic reform thirty years ago. They rose steadily and strongly for nearly twenty years, reaching a peak at the remarkable level of 0.25 percent of GDP. Now in the Great Australian Complacency we are drinking the surplus ourselves. I have described this as a journey from Champagne to Coonawarra and back to Champagne.

When we embarked on that reform venture, about 50% more Australians travelled abroad for tourism than foreign tourists came to Australia. By the early years of this century, that ratio had been reversed: we were receiving 50% more visitors than Australians were travelling overseas. Now we are back to the old ratio.

Much the same story is told by total exports of manufactures and services.

These recent years have been good times, with Australians enjoying an abundance of consumption well beyond the experience of earlier Australians or by citizens of other substantial high-income countries.
And yet the conventional wisdom has it that Australians are doing it tough. Our political leaders have spent the past decade empathising with the pain and suffering of Australians, and doling out cash palliatives.

These last ten years were the best of times to accept a small fall in current consumption to begin the process of decarbonising our economy, and so to match part of the efforts that Chinese, Americans, Japanese, Koreans, Brazilians and Europeans are making to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to reduce the risks from dangerous climate change to the welfare of future people in Australia and all over the world.

Just last year we put in place policies that allow a modest start on what will be a long journey to decarbonisation of our economy. The results of those modest efforts are showing up in a notable downward shift in the trajectory of our greenhouse gas emissions, albeit of smaller dimension than will prove to be necessary.

I will come back to that in a moment.

This volume brings to our attention many of the big issues that could blight the lives of future Australians if we do not deal effectively with them now; climate change; challenges to energy and food supplies; threats to ecosystems that are important and perhaps fatefully so to our civilisation; risks from short-sighted use of chemical processes; and unpredictable consequences from loss of senses of community and place.

As we read these thoughtful contributions to discussion of the big issues facing Australians, we should keep in mind that modern economic growth and all of the social, political and biophysical change that go with it are young and raw. The progress of modern economic growth frequently throws up surprises—sometimes pleasant and sometimes existential threats to economic growth and to our civilisation. Humans living today in Australia and also in much of the rest of the world are heirs to the investments that have been made by earlier generations in recognising and dealing with challenges before they overwhelmed societies, polities or economies.

Sometimes the foresight of our forbears was incomplete and the responses flawed. The consequences of those past errors are small compared with the consequences of our failing on some of the big issues that are brought to our attention in the work that we are launching this evening.
This is the thought that I hope that Australians will keep in their minds as they read the contributions to this important volume.

Australia 21 seeks to get us discussing the big questions rather than to give us the answers in a package.

Let me then add a couple of points to the discussion.

First, I suggest that we think hard about what we mean before we draw take a hard position against economic growth on the grounds that it damages ecosystems that are important to life. Sure, current patterns of economic growth have those effects. But economic growth is not inherently in conflict with conservation of the natural environment. Increases in human material well-being (and that is the proper definition of economic growth) derive from increases in population, in the amount of capital used by each worker, and increases in productivity (increases in output per unit of capital and labour applied).

Yes, inexorable increase in population is by definition in conflict with finite natural resources. In our experience so far, increase in material standards of living is the one reliable way of reducing fertility below replacement levels and ending population growth. This process has turned out to be stronger than the edicts of Imams as well as Popes.

Increases in capital per worker can be resource-saving or resource using. There are many examples of resource-using investment. But there are also resource-saving increases in the use of capital-Japan in the late seventies and early eighties is one example. Watch and you may likely to see another and larger example in China in the years immediately ahead.

The same goes for productivity growth deriving from technological change. Much technological improvement results in less pressure on natural systems per unit of economic value that is generated.

When we see economic growth in this light, we do not need to make enemies of the whole of the developing world’s people as they seek higher standards of living.

When we see economic growth in this light, we recognise that the important thing is to make sure that we put in place policies that encourage resource-conserving and discourage resource-using capital intensification and technological change.

That is what has Australia has done in a small but so far effective way with its carbon pricing and associated clean energy policies. The link of the carbon price to that in the European Union will probably lead to lower carbon prices for a while and diminished pressure for use of carbon-conserving investments and technologies. However, the presence of the carbon pricing causes firms to consider the likelihood that European prices will rise in future, and to think twice about the carbon intensity of future output from investments that they are making now..

To expect Australians to put the welfare of future Australians near the top of their priorities may be too much to ask as we live through what I hope are the later days of the great Australian Complacency. But surely it is not too much to expect that we will not make things worse, by retreating on the modest steps forward that we have made in addressing one of the great challenges facing our people.

Ian Dunlop has contributed much to Australian discussion of the issues for the future by drawing to our attention the need to reduce our use of fossil fuels. He has two good reasons for this: fossil fuels, first of all oil, are not finite, and would not always support human use at the current intensity, let alone the levels to which intensity would rise if recent trends were to continue. And climate change.

I myself would be less worried about our prospects for avoiding dangerous climate change if we were closer to peak fossil fuels. If the known reserves of oil and coal and gas were one tenth of current levels and the prospects for greatly expanding them were poor, the prices of the fossil fuels would be high and rising. Business would be getting on with the job of developing alternative sources of energy, supported by government support for innovation in new technologies. The commercialisation of known alternative technologies would be accelerating.

If peak fossil fuel were approaching, the world of energy would look a bit like it did for a while when the developed countries received a scare about the security of oil supplies in the 1970s. Even the great oil companies developed branches and subsidiaries directed at alternative sources of energy.

No-one would be talking about declining uses of fossil fuels being the end of economic growth, or the end of the historic convergence of many people in the developing countries towards the material standards of living of the developed world. We would celebrate the reduction in Chinese manufacturing costs for solar photovoltaic panels by 90% between 2008 and 2013. We would make sure that the progress in use of algae as a source of bio-fuel, reported by Julian Cribb, was amply funded. We would calculate that the development of an alternative energy system that did not depend on fossil fuels a few decades hence would take just a small proportion of the increment of incomes if we managed our economy well. We would take note of the Japanese and Chinese investments today in reducing the costs of batteries to drive electric cars, note the Chinese intention to have 5 million electric vehicles on the road by 2020, and calculate that the transition to cars without conventional fuel would be much cheaper in a few years than it would be today.

The transition to a low-carbon economy is difficult not because it is technologically complex or economically costly, but because, prior to the peak oil and peak fossil fuel crashing upon us, it depends on human foresight and sound policy.

This collection places a great deal of emphasis on climate change, as it should. It is a diabolical policy problem because of the way in which human frailty gets in the way of conversion of the science and the technology into a solution. 

Ross Garnaut
University of Melbourne
17 June 2013

Nicky Grigg joins Board of Australia21

We are delighted to announce the appointment of Dr Nicky Grigg to the Board of Australia21.

Nicky is a research scientist at CSIRO Land and Water. She completed Environmental Engineering and Applied Mathematics undergraduate degrees at the University of Western Australia, and a PhD in Resource Management and Environmental Science at the Australian National University. She conducted her postdoctoral work in complex systems science at CSIRO and has worked on a diverse set of projects ranging from a local scale (e.g. analysis of stormwater harvesting in Canberra) to a national scale (e.g. what builds social-ecological resilience in Australia?). Currently she is part of an interdisciplinary team using integrated modelling approaches to understand impacts of and responses to global change. Nicky is also involved with a range of change focussed community activities. She was a founding member of SEE-Change (, has participated actively in the CSIRO Scientists in Schools program and over several years has performed in National Science Week and ‘Canberra Conversation’ events with A Chorus of Women. Nicky brings not only scientific expertise to Australia21 but also a lived experience of community engagement which is very valuable to us.

Steve Cork joins Board of Australia21

We are delighted to announce the recent appointment of Dr Steve Cork to the Board of Australia21.

Steve is a futurist, strategist, and ecologist who has had a career spanning research (University of NSW, CSIRO, and at the Australian National University) and public policy (Australian Government, United Nations). He pioneered research in Australia on the natural environment’s benefits for humans, managed the Future Landscapes Program in Land & Water Australia, led the writing team that prepared the Millennium Assessment’s scenarios for the future of the world, and has worked on forest and coastal policy and market-based instruments for natural resource management in the Australian Government. He is currently an adjunct Professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the ANU and provides futures and strategic thinking services to government and non-government organisations, large and small, as a private consultant (EcoInsights). For several years Steve has been a valued member of Australia21's leadership team for the resilience project and the ecosystems project. We look forward to his contribution in this new role as a director in a wide range of areas, particularly futures and strategic thinking.