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In April this year, the Sydney Morning Herald ran the provocative headline: ‘Nation now ‘indifferent’ to environment’. The article reported that a recent university study had found that public interest in the environment has declined sharply compared to the results of an identical study in 2007.
According to the study, What matters to Australians (by the University of Technology Sydney), food, health, crime, safety and public services are now the dominant national concerns, with pollution, climate change, renewable energy and resources depletion plummeting. Parallel studies in the US and UK have found similar concerns. The study authors speculated that the 2007 results might have been an aberration, with the latest results closer to the long-term trend.
The reported decline in public interest and, by implication, support for sustainability initiatives, coincides with an apparent pull back in the level of sustainability activities by local councils.
In the economically buoyant decade leading up to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), local councils around Australia were very active in undertaking projects to make their operations more sustainable. The severe drought from 1997 to 2009 in eastern Australia and dwindling water supplies gave credibility to climate change warnings.
This made the public very supportive of measures to address both the cause and impacts of climate change. It also prompted the Federal and State Governments to respond with a wide range of grant programs to encourage local councils to undertake sustainability projects – such as water conservation, stormwater harvesting and re-use, energy conservation and
However, by 2008 local councils had completed the most obvious sustainability actions and, except for a few very well-resourced councils, further improvements seemed far more challenging. Changing light bulbs in council buildings is one thing, but building a co-generation or tri-generation plant is a much more daunting step.
Several factors combined to create headwinds to further sustainability initiatives: the GFC in 2008, the end of the drought in 2009 and, crucially, the Federal Opposition’s about-face on the emissions trading scheme in 2010 and strident criticism of the subsequent Carbon Tax.
The latter destroyed the bi-partisan support for a price on carbon emissions and encouraged scepticism. Another more recent crucial factor has been the winding down of many grant schemes for local councils, as governments have sought to balance their budgets.
So, what factors are likely to prompt renewed interest and support for sustainability generally, and at the local government level in particular?
Return to drier weather
The past two years have been much wetter than average in eastern Australia. In many areas, the ‘worst-in-a-generation’ drought has been replaced by some of the worst floods on record. Dams that were almost empty are now brim full or overflowing. This makes it harder to generate enthusiasm for new water conservation projects. However, the current La Nina cycle is waning, so drier conditions will soon return. Water conservation measures will gradually return to favour.
Resolution of the Carbon Tax debate
The Federal Opposition’s strident demonisation of the Government’s Carbon Tax has prompted a dramatic fall in public support for pricing carbon pollution.
However, the Opposition is actually targeting the Labor Government, not the need to tackle climate change. The current political stalemate in Federal Parliament must eventually be resolved. Once that happens and the Carbon Tax is either confirmed or abolished, much of the heat will disappear from the climate change debate and the benefits of sustainability can be judged in their own right, without any political overtones.
Growing cost and scarcity of resources
Regardless of the fate of the Government’s Carbon Tax, the cost of resources, like energy, water and waste, will continue to rise at a faster rate than inflation. This will build pressure on local councils, mostly subject to significant income constraints, to minimise their use of resources. In doing so, they will be making their operations more sustainable.
Insurance costs and availability
The cost of insurance and re-insurance is already rising faster than inflation because of the recent incidences of natural disasters around the world. With climate change projected to cause more frequent extreme weather events – and growing human populations in the most vulnerable areas – it seems inevitable that insurance cover will cost more and be subject to increasingly stringent conditions. Those conditions are likely to include requirements that policy holders take steps to limit their exposure to damage in extreme weather events.
As well, through insurance costs, growing concerns about councils’ legal liability for ignoring or inadequately responding to climate change warnings will further encourage councils to start adapting their assets, operations and systems to better cope with the projected climate changes. Doing so will deliver co-benefits that enhance the sustainability of local councils.
Recognition of sustainability
Until now there has been no recognised way to demonstrate and benchmark excellence in developing or operating public infrastructure. However, the new Australian Green Infrastructure Council’s Infrastructure Sustainability (IS) rating scheme, will address this need by encouraging social, economic and environmental improvements to infrastructure design and operation. The new
IS scheme is expected to have a similar effect to the Australian Green Building Council’s Green Star sustainability rating scheme.
Updated guidance and standards
The publication of updated guidelines and standards that explicitly address sustainability will remove much of the uncertainty about what is ‘good practice’. This is currently a major impediment. The new Australian standard AS5334 Climate change adaptation for settlements and infrastructure is currently being finalised and will be released shortly. Similarly, an Engineers Australia working group is updating the Australian Rainfall and Runoff guidance document, which is effectively the national standard for hydrology, stormwater design and flood estimation. The revised edition aims to provide clear advice on how to allow for climate change when undertaking flood or stormwater analysis and design.
The process of revising standards is a lengthy one because of the reliance on unpaid volunteer input and the need for extensive review and consultation. However, as more and more standards are revised over the next decade, sustainability practice will become more formalised and better understood.
Of all the factors that encouraged sustainability in the past, government grant funding is the least likely to return. All governments are now committed to balanced budgets and, with the recent drop in various tax receipts, they are struggling to match their incomes and expenditures.
Sustainability projects need to be financially justifiable, as well as providing environmental, social and equity benefits. Government grants were a useful device to help develop pioneering sustainability projects, but now that the methodologies are better established, the lack of government grants should not prevent financially sound sustainability projects from proceeding.