Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Don't forget our other environmental problems

There's a hidden danger in the ascendancy of climate-change denialism in Canberra. It won't last - denials of reality can never last - but while it does it's an enormous distraction.

The obvious cost is that the longer we leave it to get serious about playing our part in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, the more expensive and disruptive our efforts will need to be.

But there's also a hidden cost. The more time we spend arguing about climate change, the more our attention is distracted from the many other threats to the economy and our way of life coming from other environmental problems.

We've been conscious of the many other ways economic activity has been degrading our natural environment for decades. We've been working to reduce that degradation for decades, and the need for action has been clear to people on all sides of politics.

What's more, as the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists acknowledges in a report published last Thursday, we've made progress in some areas. Air pollution controls have given us much improved air quality in our cities and water pollution controls have created cleaner waterways and restored the health of coastal estuaries.

Controls over land clearing, the creation of additional national parks and investments to manage fire and restore native vegetation on private land have given greater protection to our biodiversity.

New farming practices, such as "minimum till" and landcare, have improved soil structure, increased vegetation and reduced soil erosion.

Overused water resources, such as the Great Artesian Basin, have started to recover following the agreement in 2004 laying the foundation for long-term sustainable management of our freshwater resources.

And incentives to generate renewable energy are driving the transformation of energy markets.

But despite these improvements, the Wentworth Group reminds us that the most recent official survey, the State of the Environment report, in 2011, found other environmental assets are still in poor condition or are getting worse.

Despite all we've done and spent to repair the damage to our land, for instance, the report found the trends for many indicators remain adverse.

On rivers, wetlands and estuaries, many catchments remain in a degraded condition. Within many drainage basins, river condition is still affected by inadequate environmental flows, pollution and changes in ecological processes.

"In Australia's food bowl, the Murray-Darling Basin, 20 of the 23 river systems are in a poor or very poor condition," the group says. And despite the Howard government's appropriation of $10 billion in 2008, the Gillard government's basin plan in 2011 won't restore these rivers to a healthy condition.

The first State of the Environment report in 1996 described the loss of Australia's biodiversity as "perhaps our most serious environmental problem". Since then, the rate of land clearing, a primary driver of species extinction, has slowed.

Even so, land clearing for agriculture, mining, coal seam gas and urban development is continuing to fragment and degrade native vegetation. In the decade to 2010, clearing of native vegetation across Australia still averaged a million hectares a year.

"Clearing of native vegetation, when combined with pollution and over-extraction from waterways, the introduction of weeds and feral animals, and unsustainable fire practices, has resulted in the listing of over 1600 species of native plants and animals as threatened with extinction," the group says.

The condition of the Great Barrier Reef has declined over the past two decades. Since 1986, on average across the reef, hard coral cover has declined by half.

It's surely not saying anything new or controversial that our economy - and our way of life - depend on our preserving a healthy natural environment. Healthy waterways are needed for swimming, fishing, drinking and irrigation, and to allow us to recover from floods and droughts.

Healthy soils store carbon and nutrients, support production of food, fibre and raw materials, store and filter water, and host rich biodiversity.

Healthy native vegetation protects river corridors, filters water, stores carbon, provides wood, protects against erosion, gives people access to nature, manages salinity and provides habitat for plants and animals.

Healthy coasts, estuaries and beaches provide habitat, buffer the effects of storms and give people a place to enjoy nature. Healthy oceans provide food, recreation and habitat for marine plants and animals.

So there's no either/or. If we want the economy to stay healthy we must restore the health of the environment. Should we continue degrading the environment it will rebound on the economy, causing great loss and disruption.

We need to modify our economic activity to reverse the damage we're doing to the environment. This will involve some cost and some frustration for business people who want to be free to make a buck however they please and let others worry about the eventual environmental costs.

But the good news from the Wentworth Group is that if we introduce the right policies the economic cost need not be great. It offers a five-point "blueprint for a healthy environment and a productive economy" on which it will elaborate next year.

The trick is that productivity - how much we make relative to how much we use - is the key to long-term economic growth and a pillar of ecological sustainability. People can create greater value while using less materials and energy, with less impact on the environment.