Do we need a new agenda for the environment?

Author: Bob Debus is NSW Attorney-General and Minister for the Environment

Just outside the Legislative Council Chamber in the New South Wales Parliament there’s a famous historical painting by Algernon Talmage, depicting Sir Arthur Phillip landing at Sydney Cove in 1788.

The painting shows a flagpole with a fluttering Union Jack set amongst six tree stumps.

In other words, the painting has immortalised the fact that less than an hour after Phillip and his crew set foot on Australian soil, six trees had gone and land clearing was already underway.

There were of course some legendary botanists and natural scientists among the first expeditions to Australia. But the colonists couldn’t help but bring with them the assumptions of their native land, half a world away.

They came from a country where the soil was deep and geologically new, where rainfall was steady and reliable, where biodiversity was low and relatively unaffected by invasive species, where forests had been cleared rather gently over several millennia.

They’d never heard of El Niño or salinity or acid sulphate soil and thought foxes, let alone rabbits, were harmless creatures to be shot for occasional sport.

It’s no wonder that European colonists have done so much environmental damage in the tiny speck of time that they have been on this ancient and fragile continent, so long isolated from the rest of the world.

·  79 plant and animal species have become extinct, with many hundreds more in danger of becoming extinct. Feral and introduced species abound.

·  More than half of the State’s native vegetation has been cleared. In some cases, like in the sheep-wheat belt, it’s well over 70 percent. Even in the late 1990s, we were still knocking down vegetation at a rate of between 60,000 and 100,000 hectares – or 200,000 football fields – each and every year.

·  With the growth of urbanisation and ruthless extractive agriculture, our fresh water resources have been massively depleted. As a consequence, our once beautiful inland wetlands like the Macquarie Marshes are now collapsing.

·  And finally, we are witnessing an increasing prevalence of climate-induced natural disasters – and it appears they are becoming more serious. The 1999 Sydney hailstorm caused more than a billion dollars damage to property in a matter of minutes. We saw catastrophic bushfires in 2001 and 2002 and we continue to suffer widespread drought, the worst on record.

There are many people for whom the ethical, spiritual or even sheer common sense case for protecting the environment is intuitive. The need to care for our environment is accepted as an intrinsic good; as is the need to make major lifestyle changes. But others ask 'why bother to do more?' They see our cleaner skies and beaches and they have a good standard of living. They carry their environmentally friendly green bag, recycle their newspapers and feel they have done all they can reasonably be expected to do.

This is the dilemma facing the modern conservation movement – and Labor Governments which have incorporated the environment into their progressive political agendas.

Looking back over the past forty years since the conservation movement renewed its activism, it’s fair to say that many of the goals of the mid-1960s have now been achieved through cooperation with progressive Labor Governments.

·  In NSW the northern rainforests were saved in 1984 – after almost twenty years of protests. They are now a major driver of the local economy through an unprecedented tourism boom.

·  The toxic sludges that polluted our rivers and harbour have largely been cleaned and major restoration works undertaken.

Our legislation makes corporate polluters clean up old contamination problems like those at the ICI Botany site in Peter Garrett’s electorate.

·  The bitter debates about conserving our native forests and restructuring the timber industry to make it sustainable have mostly now resolved through a series of hard fought Forest Agreements.

So we can say that much of the original agenda of the conservation movement has now been achieved. Most notably in the vast growth in our national parks estate, which Myles Dunphy would have regarded as an impossible dream.

Forty years ago when the veterans of the movement surveyed the landscape they decided they had to campaign hard for large areas of our precious native forests to be permanently conserved.

In 1965 there were less than one million hectares protected in reserves, but today there are almost six and a half million hectares under the management of the National Parks Service.

So do we need a new agenda for the environment?

My answer is unequivocal – yes. Conservation groups, the community and Governments cannot pretend that the old agenda is still relevant to today’s problems when so much of that agenda has already been achieved.

While there must be continuity, we must also renew and re-engage with new ideas and a contemporary agenda or risk the environment becoming marginal to today’s politics – with its emphasis on private good and individual wealth.

If we don’t then we risk the possibility that large sections of the community will simply say that we’ve done enough for the environment – let’s now get on with other issues.

The problem today is that the issues are not so nearly well defined as they were forty years ago. For example, ordinary citizens – let alone the average neoconservative economist – find it much harder to really care, at a visceral level – that a species became extinct last week, or a red gum forest is dying 600 kilometres away.

There are credible scientists and economists who are looking at the growth of the global economy – the world economy will double in less than twenty five years – and calculating that by the middle of the century, humans will be using more than the energy of the sun can produce in the natural world. That’s the ultimate unsustainability.

At the least, the merest prudence suggests that we should work urgently as a society to reverse the depletion of natural resources – by changing methods of production and significantly improving techniques for protection.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that the new environmental agenda can be wholly brand new; it must evolve from the experiences we’ve had over these past four decades.

It must change as science rapidly develops; as we evolve better institutional arrangements and more effective technical capacity for regulation and for negotiation with landholders, producers and the community.

Tonight, I’ll use a handful of examples to illustrate how global environmental problems have manifested themselves in NSW.

I could, of course, quite easily list a dozen more.

Water use

Water is the clearest example of the over-allocation, overexploitation and mismanagement of an essential and scarce natural resource.

Aldous Huxley once said, ‘Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.’

That neatly sums up Australia’s experience with water management.

Only a few weeks ago, I visited a property out west. We were driven along a small levee bank – it was little more than a metre in  height, just wide enough for our vehicle.

Only a few years ago, the Department of Land and Water Conservation – now abolished – built the bank. It wasn’t a major piece of engineering and would have taken a few men with a dozer a week or so to build.

The aim, I was told, was to divert the floodwaters from the local river to provide water for a few nearby farms. No assessment or approval process took place.

The result – visually obvious on the day – is that a couple of thousand hectares of River Red Gums are now slowly dying. They could well be dead within a few years.

A once vibrant wetland forest, which would probably have been naturally flooded fairly regularly – and which should be teeming with wildlife – is being denied the water it needs to survive.

Multiply this example by perhaps 100,000 and you start to get an idea of the environmental havoc that has accumulated over the last century across the Murray Darling Basin.

Australia has less than one percent of the world’s freshwater and only 12 percent of our rain is available in waterways. Yet despite this, surface water use in NSW rose by a staggering 300,000 million litres – or 60 percent – over a 15 year period between 1983 and 1997.

That’s the equivalent of 300,000 Olympic swimming pools.

Consider this. By the time the Murray River reaches the ocean – and it often doesn’t even get that far – only 25 percent of its natural flow remains. The other 75 percent has been taken out, mostly for irrigation.

And yet the science tells us that to even come close to ensuring a healthy working river, we need something approaching two thirds – not one quarter – of the natural flow.

It’s pretty much the same story for other rivers in the Basin.

And yet we also know that healthy rivers and wetlands are important for both conservation and economic reasons.

From a conservation viewpoint, healthy rivers and wetlands support vibrant ecosystems and abundant biodiversity – they are vital for the survival of native fish, birdlife and wetland forests.

But they’re just as important from an economic viewpoint. A dying river becomes salty and is prone to algal blooms, making it unusable for irrigated agriculture, let alone drinking water.

Healthy wetlands and rivers support sustainable inland fisheries, sustainable timber extraction, inland tourism, a strong grazing industry and good drinking water, all of which are economically important for inland NSW.

In 1944, then NSW Labor Premier Sir William McKell visited the Macquarie Marshes and on his return to Sydney he directed the relevant Government department to ensure the Marshes had sufficient water.

This was, by the way, the same year McKell acted to protect what we now call Kosciuszko National Park, one of the planet’s great alpine reserves.

It’s a great pity no one listened to McKell.

Extraction licences continued to be issued even when it was obvious that the limits to sustainable extraction had been not only reached, but well exceeded.

So what does happen when you take too much water out of a river system that feeds an important wetland?

Well, it’s pretty much what you’d expect. The wetland dies.

That’s why there’s been a massive decline in the area of our State’s inland wetlands: the Macquarie Marshes is down by 50 percent and the Gwydir Wetlands by 75 percent. Narran Lakes, the Lowbidgee Floodplain and the Murray River wetlands are all experiencing similar levels of stress.

The slow death of these once magnificent wetlands has impacted severely on bird life. Once known for their spectacular bird breeding events, these are now the lowest on record.

Whereas bird counts averaged 30,000 in the 1980s – when, of  course, there were severe droughts as well – the most recent count undertaken in October 2004 by Dr Richard Kingsford, revealed only 15 birds. Not 15,000 – just 15.

And the prevailing drought isn’t – as some have argued – the sole cause of this problem. It’s of course extreme, and it’s not helping, but its impact is merely accelerating the rate of decline.

The very core of the problem lies in the fact that fresh water resources have been historically over-exploited and that governments have been allowing unbalanced and unsustainable resource allocation for more than 100 years.

So how do we solve this problem?

To the extent we can be hopeful, I believe there is emerging evidence of a change in attitudes.

With national tragedies like the decline of the Macquarie Marshes playing out as we speak, the old thinking is gradually changing.

The NSW Government’s Water Management Act – passed in 2000 – provides hope for a better future. The Water Sharing Plans drafted since that Act came into being are a start – but only a start.

We now know more about how best to help farmers use water more efficiently. That’s why I’m working closely with my colleague the Minister for Natural Resources – to find solutions to the slow death of wetlands like the Macquarie Marshes. These will be announced in the next few weeks.

Already, with other governments, we’ve made decisions to restore environmental flows in the Snowy River – with early signs that river health is returning – and to increase the flow in the Murray River by 500,000 million litres a year, or 500 Gigalitres.

In many rivers, our new legislation – along with the many other actions being carried out – should help to halt what has to date been an inexorable decline in health. In some others, I anticipate improvements.

But the truth is we have only made a start.

For instance, the science tells us that we need to eventually return three times that amount of water to the Murray River. That must remain our long term goal and I commend Federal Labor for its stance on this issue.

It also remains clear that if we don’t provide more environmental water – many of this State’s already massively depleted wetlands will simply vanish. They’ll quite literally dry up with the forests and reed beds and condemn the birdlife that relies on them.

I now turn to the loss of biodiversity.

It’s a fact that Australia has the worst record in the world for mammal extinctions. There’ve been 27 in this State alone, with one third of our remaining vertebrate animals now under threat.

The main causes are not arcane or difficult to understand. They are loss of habitat – in other words land clearing or other development – and feral animals.

What would you expect when more than half the State’s vegetation have been removed and highly efficient alien carnivores like cats and foxes have been let loose?

Until only very recently – and I mean up until the late 1990s – the way we managed land clearing in this State was remarkably similar to the way we managed fresh water. A shambles.

Decisions were made without any real attempt to credibly assess environmental impacts or take note of the available science.

Well this too is an area of policy where I hold out some hope for the future. I do so for some very good reasons.

First, the Premier made a promise before the last election to end broadscale land clearing. And at that election, Labor received an overwhelming mandate to do so.

This was an historic commitment – and future generations will see it as one of Bob Carr’s most important environmental achievements.

Stopping more than a century of virtually unregulated land clearing will immediately help to slow the rate of species extinctions in this State.

And when financial incentives start flowing to encourage farmers to improve the quantity and quality of vegetation on their farms, we’ll have turned the corner.

Over time, this will mean more habitat for our endangered wildlife.

While we can’t reverse extinctions – with all due respect to Dr Archer’s well known research in the area of cloning – something very real can be done to help those species now threatened with extinction.

The second reason I’m hopeful is because of some key reforms we made last year to the State’s threatened species protection laws.

These will better protect endangered flora and fauna and help prevent further extinctions.

They will ensure that planning policies are part of the solution to protect biodiversity rather than part of the problem. Informed decisions will be made about how to appropriately zone land; and how to ensure that land with high biodiversity values isn’t developed inappropriately.

The third reason I’m optimistic is that we are serious about controlling feral animals, especially foxes.

Foxes occur in all landscapes across NSW. They’re responsible for killing tens of millions of native animals every year. There’s a direct correlation between local and regional extinctions and foxes.

Foxes have been declared a ‘Key Threatening Process’ in NSW and we now have an innovative Fox Threat Abatement Plan.

As a result, serious programs are now in place to eradicate foxes.

And we’re starting to see positive results – species coming back from the brink of extinction.

Rock wallabies in Far Western NSW are increasing in numbers; bandicoots are returning to the suburbs of Sydney; Little Terns are successfully breeding in greater numbers; Mallee Fowl are being reintroduced into former strongholds where they’ve been extinct.

Indeed, I’ve had the pleasure of releasing quite a few back into the wild myself over recent years.

It’s only a start, but an undeniably good one.

And the final reason I hold out hope is that so much of our State’s remaining high conservation value land has been forever protected in national parks.

This is one of the most important achievements of the Carr Government – the massive expansion of national parks which permanently protect areas of the highest conservation value.

No other government in this State’s history has come close. Only a month or so ago, we declared our two millionth hectare of new park since 1995. It was four million when we were elected ten years ago – now, it’s almost six and a half million.

Since I’ve been Minister, I’ve focussed on those parts of the State that have historically received little or no conservation attention – areas which nevertheless have irreplaceable conservation and cultural heritage values.

I’m talking especially about Western NSW.

In recent years, over one million hectares of magnificent new parks have been created in the West. You probably haven’t heard of them, let alone visited them. They are that new.

Names like Gundabooka, Ledknapper, Paroo-Darling, Culgoa, Mount Grenfell and Oolembeyan. They sit alongside existing parks like Mutawintji, Kinchega, Mungo and Sturt.

And only a fortnight ago, we took another significant step.

We announced the protection of the very best of the Western Woodland forests – including the Pilliga, the Goonoo, Terry Hie Hie and Bebo.

Around 350,000 hectares of these forests are now to be permanently conserved. This is the single most important one-off addition to the reserve system in Western NSW in the State’s history.

Although I note in passing that the Coalition has vowed to roll back all these declarations should they stagger over the line at the election in 2007.

Finally, I turn to global warming.

It’s not that long ago that the scientists who first alerted the world to global warming were written off as alarmists and crackpots. And indeed, the propaganda being pumped out by the jackals of the Bush regime still carries many of those overtones.

But for those not blinded by ideology, the manifestations of climate change are becoming too obvious to ignore.

Just take one of many examples. Global warming is changing the way we manage fire. Climate predictions indicate that extreme weather – including higher temperatures and drought – will likely increase in frequency. With these changes, large fires will become more common.

Even our very recent history – when we’ve seen huge bushfires rage across much of south-east Australia – demonstrates that we’ve already entered this new era.

During the summers of 2001 and 2002, we experienced nothing short of extreme and unprecedented weather conditions.

The year 2002 was the hottest on record. Other factors such as low humidity, low rainfall, strong and unpredictable winds and the high incidence of dry lightning strikes combined to produce lengthy periods of extreme weather conditions that caused firestorms –infernos that didn’t respect State borders or different land tenures and which were often unstoppable.

I was also Minister for Emergency Services during those years, so I have some first hand knowledge of these fires and of those who fought them.

We had the usual band of armchair commentators and National Party MPs who said it was all the fault of the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

But what we experienced during those two summers – without a doubt – was a taste of what we can expect to see more of in the future. That is, what we can expect to see if we choose to do nothing to respond to climate change.

It’s also no coincidence that fierce forest fires raged across parts of the United States, Canada, Portugal, Spain, Russia and Croatia during those same summers.

CSIRO data recently showed that the average temperature had increased during each of the most recent four droughts in Australia. That is, droughts are getting more prevalent – and they’re getting hotter.

It should be blindingly obvious to anyone in Canberra that this is exactly what we’re experiencing now. Doing nothing is not an option.

Let me briefly turn to sustainable production.

As well as causing the many problems I’ve mentioned, the old environmental agenda is characterised by a basic assumption: that as economies grow and develop, the environment inevitably degrades. History indeed shows this to be basically true.

But we can’t accept this outdated assumption. Not anymore.

The new environmental agenda must challenge it. We need economies to grow and we need the environment to improve. We can – indeed must – have both. And that means fundamentally transforming production and development – by making them sustainable.

And if you think that’s impossible, think again. Already we are seeing emerging signs that positive economic growth can be tied to better environmental outcomes.

Here in NSW, we have incentives offered by our “polluter pays scheme”, otherwise known as load based licensing.

In the last few years, companies have spent more than one billion dollars to cut pollution. Not only are their license fees cut when they do, their production processes become more cost efficient and sustainable. They save money and invest more and air and water quality improve.

Last year, we introduced an especially innovative program – it’s called the Hunter River Salinity Trading Scheme. It’s Australia's first “live” pollution credit auction, for tradeable permits to manage discharge of salty mine water into the Hunter River. Since the scheme started, the industry has grown by about 50%, while harmful salinity has been halved.

We’re also working on other ways to achieve sustainability.

In Florida and California, major developments must now be designed to maintain or improve environmental outcomes for wetlands and threatened species. This hasn’t driven those States’ economies backwards.

To the contrary, after 20 years of learning, new markets for conservation are now well established. Instead of destroying wetlands and other critical habitats, they restore and secure them with perpetual legal protections and ongoing management under private ownership.

Indeed, they sell the conservation benefits as offsets to other developers whose projects will harm the same habitats that are protected by the offsets.

In NSW, we need to be just as innovative.

I’m now examining the possible introduction of what could be called a “biodiversity banking scheme”, which would apply both the American experience and our own successful market-based pollution reduction programs.

It’s a way of achieving sustainable economic growth and development and ensuring there’s a net gain for biodiversity along the way.

I firmly believe that Labor Governments are well placed to ensure that necessary environmental decisions are made – and that the changes they produce are implemented in a fair and socially responsible way.

Labor has a structural advantage over both the Tories on the Right and the Greens on the Left.

Not only are we capable of responding to problems from government – something the Greens never have to worry about – but our historical commitment to social justice and our links with the broader labour movement provide us with a critical advantage.

Environmental politics is no longer a fringe issue.

Today’s heightened awareness and concern about environmental problems – especially amongst young people – mean that Labor – both State and Federal – needs to seize the issues and confidently assert our record and our ability to act decisively.

It would be a serious political miscalculation for Labor – whether in government or in opposition – to adopt a knee-jerk reaction to what some in the Party see as “Greens Party” ideas.

This approach runs the risk of turning off a good proportion of an entire generation of new voters, for whom the Greens remain attractive. The fact many young people have become politically active because of environmental issues is a good thing and should be encouraged.

Instead of leaving these issues to the Greens Party, Labor should be the leader.

You needn’t look further than the various NSW Regional Forestry Agreements to find a clear example of Labor’s leadership role in solving the big issues.

About one half of the two and a half million hectares of new national parks created by the Carr Government came from the RFA process.

This innovative policy restructures the timber industry in a sustainable way – while at the same time creating a comprehensive, adequate and representative reserve system.

It hasn’t been one at the expense of the other.

Through sheer hard work, a balanced outcome not only ensures significant benefits for the environment, it also achieves a political settlement to often long standing disputes between conservationists and loggers.

In other words, the hallmark of Labor’s policies is to bring about permanent environmental improvements in a socially just manner.

It’s quite unreasonable to expect that the immediate economic and social burden of the new environmental agenda should be at the expense of other’s well being.

If jobs are lost because a forestry decision reduces the amount of timber provided to the local timber mill, then another part of that decision must involve the creation of new, better jobs.

Those who live in the cities who vocally demand better conservation outcomes must help pay for them through the taxation system.

For example, when we announced our decision to restructure the timber industry in Western NSW a few weeks ago and created 350,000 hectares of new reserves, we funded the creation of more jobs than those which will be lost.

So what do we mean by the new environmental agenda?

A major part of this new agenda involves demonstrating that sound environmental policy is consistent with good social and industry policy.

Because we ourselves are the cause of the problems, we are also the solution. It’s our choice.

We can do the sorts of things I’ve already suggested – like ensuring more water flows into our inland rivers and wetlands – either through increased water efficiency or by buying the water needed to restore their health.

And on greenhouse, we should sign Kyoto and get on with it – something I’m sure that my colleague Peter Garrett will talk more about in a few minutes.

We must continue to develop new ideas to transform production – to make it sustainable in the long term. We can have economic growth, and the jobs and high standard of living that go with it, and we can simultaneously restore our environment.

Politics is the art of the possible. When engaged in environmental politics it’s too easy to despair at the compromises and setbacks; to lose sight of the progress that has been made and the opportunities for future gains.

The impact of global warming and the looming crisis in the availability of fossil fuels is producing an unparalleled awareness of environmental issues in the Australian community. The need to reduce demand for scarce resources such as water has been brought to the forefront of political debate.

The colonists who chopped down every tree they saw, who unleashed the fox and the cat into the bush, who used koalas for casual target practice and slaughtered the whales might as well be an alien species – living in a long lost world several millennia ago not just five or six generations ago.

In an era when even John Howard must pay lip service to his desire to protect the humpback whales, the apocalypse may nearly be upon us.

Although of course he did call them hunchback whales, so perhaps he was thinking of something quite different.

I thank you for your attention tonight and look forward to your ideas of how the Labor Movement can help to define the new environmental agenda.

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