Environmental Bulls and Bears

Markets need fair, transparent and accessible laws – including on open and equal markets, labor laws, environmental planning and management, consumer protection and whatever else is arrived at in the democratic arena. Optimal tax take is some 23% of GDP and government budgets are balanced. Interest rates are best managed through cash markets to restrain inflation to a 2% to 3% target. These nuts and bolts of market management are mainstream market theory and keep economies on a stable – as far as is possible – growth trajectory.

The best way to foster innovative technology is with private/public partnerships for first of a kind (FOAK) builds. Modular nuclear for instance. In the interim technology should be the best available technology (BAT).  High efficiency low emission coal generation – super clean and lower carbon emissions – are the least that is needed for health and environmental reasons and are the lowest cost option for much prospective global energy demand.  Disrupting energy supplies is potentially destabilizing.

It turns out that economies like climate and climate models are dynamic systems with bells on. They look something like this. Nodes and links.

Best of all they have dragon-kings. Hence the need for stability.

Stability brings with it economic growth and reduced scope for fear and greed. Economic growth is faster in well managed markets in low income regions. This leads to a broadening of economic activity and strong nodes of regional economic activity. North and South Americas, Oceania, Asia, Africa and Europe all have scope to be influential partners in the global economy. Multiple regions of economic strength provide buffers against instability in one region or other. It is no longer the case that the global economy is dominated by one region or another. A mutual interest in trade and growth provides as well a path to peace as countries recognize that co-operation is more fruitful than conflict.

Stable, high growth economies provide resources to solve human and environment problems and the way that is managed is of critical importance.  There are two approaches.  A bottom up approach based on the ideas of Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom that now have a global following –  combined with the cross-disciplinary methods of Environmental Science.  Development – including potentially nuclear – is regulated by voluntary but enforceable contracts – with penalties for environmental harm.  Most environmental planning and management is done by private consultants and nothing of value is added by government with their focus on end of pipe regulation with bureaucratic hoops and delays.   This streamlines development while freeing up resources for a broader assessment of environmental priorities.  Or a top down command and control paradigm that is everywhere failing the objective test of environmental conservation.

An Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment found that riparian zones are declining over 73% of Australia. There has been a massive decline in the ranges of indigenous mammals over more than 100 years. In the past 200 years, 22 Australian mammals have become extinct – a third of the world’s recent extinctions. Further decline in ranges is still occurring and is likely to result in more extinctions. Mammals are declining in 174 of 384 subregions in Australia and rapidly declining in 20. The threats to vascular plants are increasing over much of the Australia. Threatened birds are declining across 45% of the country with extinctions in arid parts of Western Australia. Reptiles are declining across 30% of the country. Threatened amphibians are in decline in southeastern Australia and are rapidly declining in the South East Queensland, Brigalow Belt South and Wet Tropics bioregions.

Our rivers are still carrying huge excesses of sand and mud. The mud washes out onto coastlines destroying seagrass and corals. The sand chokes up pools and riffles and fills billabongs putting intense pressure on inland, aquatic ecologies. In 1992, the Mary River in south east Queensland flooded carrying millions of tonnes of mud into Hervey Bay. A thousand square kilometres of seagrass died off decimating dugongs, turtles and fisheries. The seagrass has grown back but the problems of the Mary River have not been fixed. The banks have not been stabilised and the seagrass could be lost again at any time. A huge excess of sand working its way down the river is driving to extinction the Mary River cod and the Mary River turtle. The situation in the Mary River is mirrored in catchments right across the country. Nationally, 50% of our seagrasses have been lost and it has been this way for at least forty years.

It is well known what the problems are. The causes of the declines in biodiversity are land clearing, land salinisation, land degradation, habitat fragmentation, overgrazing, exotic weeds, feral animals, rivers that have been pushed past their points of equilibrium and changed fire regimes. The individual solutions are often fairly simple and only in aggregate do they become daunting. One of the problems is that the issues are reviewed at a distance. Looking at issues from a National or State perspective is too complex. Even if problems are identified broadly, it is difficult to establish local priorities. Looking at issues from a distance means that a focus on the immediate and fundamental causes of problems is lost. There are rafts of administration, reports, computer models, guidelines and plans but the only on ground restoration and conservation is done by volunteers and farmers. Volunteers are valiantly struggling but it is too little too late. Farmers tend to look at their own properties, understandably, and not at integrated landscape function.

There are solutions to some or all of these problems, scientifically based sustainable grazing and agriculture, replanting and stabilizing riparian zones, restoring fragmented habitat, applying appropriate fire regimes and controlling feral species. It first of all needs political will and a financial commitment. The Australian conservation Foundation and the Farmers Federation estimated that $6 billion a year for twenty years is required to restore Australian landscapes – about half of that from private sources.

A necessary prerequisite is to get environmental science operating on local and regional scales. Environmental science is a new type of science. It is team based incorporating a range of skills – ecology, archaeology, sociology, engineering, economics, lawyers and others. It focuses on specific issues and problems and has all the skills and knowledge needed to assess and, above all, fix problems. There are already thousands of talented and dedicated public servants working in isolation on environmental issues. Put them in balanced teams and get them working in local and regional areas. They need to see, smell, touch and taste environmental problems. They need to get out of the cities and work with local organizations and individuals. They need to live with and be part of local and rural communities.

The existing command and control model for environmental management is inherently incapable of reversing declining Australian environmental trends. Environmental problems are not necessarily technically difficult but they tend to have political, economic and social dimensions that aren’t amenable to legislated controls. Our systems are rules oriented and therefore inflexible. They cannot respond quickly to changes in technology or emerging problems, local or regional variations or changing environments. A move to local, flexible, efficient, autonomous and voluntary systems must occur. In Queensland, the central organising environmental legislation is the Sustainable Planning Act. It specifies a number of activities that trigger assessment under other environmental legislation. The associated environmental legislation is the Environmental ProtectionAct, the Fisheries Act, the Vegetation Management Act, the Coastal Protection and Management Act and the Water Act.

One of the problems of the system is complexity, with thousands of pages of legislation and associated policy and regulation. The Sustainable Planning Act is possibly a perfectly adequate vehicle for town planning, roads, water, building and structural certification, sewerage, storage of flammable materials and a host of other traditional activities. The Environmental Protection Act applies to industry and development. Its main concern is emissions of noise and air and water pollutants. The main outcome is a host of end of the pipe limits on emissions. The Fisheries Act protects marine vegetation and approves structures in marine waters. The Vegetation Management Act rules on clearing of native vegetation on private land. The Coastal Protection and Management Act at least theoretically addresses sustainable development of the coastline. In practice, it approves development in the coastal zone. It applies to very limited areas of the coastline with the bulk left to weeds, 4WD’s, goats, pigs and cats. The Water Act applies to diversion of water resources.

The Productivity Commission reported on regulatory regimes in respect of vegetation but the findings apply equally well to other environmental legislation. The Commission found that there are “several key underlying factors limiting their efficiency and effectiveness in promoting the delivery of the community’s native vegetation and biodiversity goals on private land.

1. Regulation of native vegetation clearing prescribes the means of achieving a range of environmental goals across different regions. However:

(a) there are likely to be other means of achieving at least some desired environmental outcomes at less cost (for example, well-managed pastures may also reduce soil erosion). Moreover, because the costs of regulation are largely borne by landholders, the cost benefit trade-off is obscured.

(b) environmental problems are complex, dynamic and geographically heterogeneous and will require innovative and adaptive solutions drawing on local as well as scientific knowledge. Across-the-board requirements for retention of native vegetation are rigid and preclude innovation. Indeed, retention of native vegetation in some areas perversely appears to be exacerbating some environmental problems; and

(c) ongoing management of native vegetation is essential to ensure its health and regeneration, but regulation of clearing focuses only on preventing its deliberate removal.” In addition to point (a) above, there are likely to be ways of producing better environmental outcomes in more flexible and cooperative regimes.

The Commission recommended empowering regional bodies to pursue integrated environmental, social and economic outcomes.

Laudable as the goals of any single piece of environmental legislation may be, the larger picture is not addressed in a manner that integrates science, society and the economy and at the same time provides for conservation and restoration of our landscapes. The legislation applies to part of the problem but leaves huge gaps where the decline of ecological systems continues unabated. Next generation environmental approvals are needed to save money and to redirect those resources into achieving better environmental outcomes. In Queensland, the way forward must be to exclude the environmental legislation from the Sustainable Planning Act. Reassign staff from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Primary Industries, the Department of Natural Resources and Mines and Parks and Wildlife into interacting teams of environmental scientists working at local, regional, State and even National levels. Keep the environmental triggers in the Sustainable Planning Act, by all means, by making them notifiable activities. Subject activities to integrated assessment but make compliance voluntary and enforced by contract. This would streamline processes tremendously and allow people to get on with higher priority and broader environmental conservation goals. If agreement can’t be reached, refer it to the political sphere where decisions should always have been. Provide for statutory timeframes. Keep criminal sanctions for proved environmental harm.

The alternative to hierarchical, compartmentalized, over legalized and failing approaches is gives the prospect of better outcomes all around.  Environmental science teams are comprised of biologists, engineers, lawyers and even non professionals – farmers and greens – anyone who can work cooperatively to solve problems. Above all, they must have a brief to assess and solve problems of air and water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, land clearing, land degradation, salinisation, habitat fragmentation, weeds, feral animals and fires across the entire landscape but focusing on the local and specific solutions. Their role would be to plan, tender out to contractors and farmers and monitor solutions working, necessarily, transparently and accountably.

Well funded, locally based and broadly skilled teams are the way forward. A broad range of skills are needed to solve environmental problems working at local and regional levels. There are three elements to sustainability, the welfare of current and future generations and the conservation of biodiversity on which all life ultimately depends. For one objective measure of sustainability, the unfortunate truth is that the trend to declining biological diversity has not been reversed over the past forty or more years. The urgency of now doing so should be apparent to everyone.


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