Saturday, July 18, 2015
In which case, those of us who do care about ecological sustainability – including many Coalition voters and, in all probability, Abbott's successor, whether Liberal or Labor – will have a lot of catching up to do.
This looks like being true of our excessive contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions. But it also applies to the more mundane problems of protecting and restoring our degraded land, water systems and native flora and fauna.
So what should we be doing, even if we aren't yet? The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists have produced a paper on Using Markets to Conserve Natural Capital. As the name implies, it has economists' fingerprints all over it.
In many cases the adverse environmental consequences of economic activity aren't reflected in the costs faced by producers and their customers, a classic instance of "market failure" – where the operation of market forces does not produce satisfactory outcomes for the community.
For instance, industries will continue to emit excessive greenhouse gases if there's no market value placed on retaining a stable climate system. And farming may cause land degradation if there's no market value placed on preserving the services the ecosystem provides to society by allowing us to grow food and fibre.
All this is a way of saying that the economy and the environment are inextricably linked but, left to its own devices, the market isn't capable of ensuring we don't stuff the environment and thereby stuff the economy.
Most economists accept this truth, but argue that the least economically costly way to fix the problem is to intervene in markets in ways that harness market forces to the service of the environment.
Often this can be done by getting the social (community-wide) costs of environmental damage incorporated into the private costs borne by producers and consumers. This was the rationale for the Gillard government's policy of using a hybrid carbon tax/emissions trading scheme to put a price on emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
The concerned scientists accept this logic and propose four market-oriented interventions to reduce future damage to the nation's "environmental assets" and to fix past damage.
Their first proposal is to change the law to impose on all landowners, public or private, a "duty of care" to prevent further damage to their land and water resources. Developing codes of practice would give landowners greater certainty about their obligations.
This reflects the principle that the community's right to a clean and sustainable environment overrides the rights of individuals to unrestricted use of their private property.
Actions of great environmental value that go beyond the standard of care required – such as fixing damage done in the past – could be purchased by governments from private owners using programs that use market-based instruments, such as Victoria's BushTender program.
The scientists' second proposal is for the federal government to supplement our efforts to reduce carbon emissions by paying farmers, Indigenous communities and other landowners to engage in "carbon farming" – doing things that improve the rate at which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and converted to plant material or soil organic matter, where it stays.
If you do this right, it can also be used to restore degraded land. But it involves having a price on carbon so farmers can be rewarded with valuable "carbon offset" certificates.
However, there are risks if the market for carbon offsets isn't properly regulated. "Without complementary land-use controls and water accounting arrangements in place, carbon forests could take over large areas of high quality agricultural land and affect water availability," the paper warns.
"This could create adverse impacts on food and fibre production, and affect regional jobs that are dependent on these industries."
The scientists' third proposal is that we reform the tax system to make it one that doesn't encourage unsustainable practices, but rather encourages the conservation and repair of the natural environment.
"Subsidising or providing economic incentives for fossil fuels makes no sense because it results in increased costs to the environment, costs we will all have to bear sooner or later," the paper says.
It particularly makes no sense when at the same time we're using a tax on carbon to discourage the use of fossil fuels or, as now, spending taxpayers' money to pay for "direct action" to reduce emissions.
And yet our miners and farmers are exempt from paying petrol excise on fuel used off-road. It's the obvious tax break to get rid of – and save the government money.
The paper also recommends establishing a broad-based land tax to provide long-term, equitable funding for paying farmers, Indigenous communities and other land holders to restore and maintain environmental assets in a healthy condition.
Finally, the scientists propose government action to encourage sustainable farming practices. They say farmers need to receive a financial reward for managing their farms sustainably and suppliers, retailers and consumers need to have confidence that their products satisfy rigorous standards.
A farm is sustainable when environmental assets located on the farm are being maintained in a condition that contributes to the overall health and resilience of its surrounding region.
Environmental assets – not all of which will be on farms – include soil, native vegetation, native fauna, water resources (rivers, aquifers, wetlands, estuaries) and carbon.
The financial reward doesn't have to come from the government. Consumers will pay a premium for food that has been grown sustainably, provided they have some assurance this is so.
The government's role is to support the development of voluntary, industry-based sustainable certification of farms and to ensure such schemes are trustworthy. The government should also be active in the development of international sustainability standards so our exporting farmers can participate and benefit.
All very sensible stuff. Now we just need a sensible government.