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Overview of ecologically sustainable development (ESD)



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SPEECH TO THE SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE FORUM YASS, 25 FEBRUARY 1991 The Hon John Kerin, MP Minister for Primary Industries and Energy

Overview of Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD)

I want to talk today about the politics and background of the Government's Ecologically Sustainable Development process.

Apart from the sheer rationality involved, I also think that there is a broader vision implicit in where we are going with sustainable development. Fundamentally it embodies some well established, but

still revolutionary, ideals. Mrs Brundtland, who led the World Commission on Environment and Development and who has given us the most quoted definition of sustainable development, provided an earlier statement that better demonstrates this revolutionary flavour:

"There are many dimensions to sustainability. First, it requires the elimination of poverty and deprivation. Second, it requires the conservation and enhancement of the resources base which alone can ensure that the elimination of the poverty is permanent. Third, it requires a broadening of development so that it covers not only economic growth but also social and cultural development. Fourth, and most important, it requires the unification of economics and ecology in decision-making at all levels."

Much of the current debate on sustainable development has focussed on this last point. However these integral issues of equity and social justice are vital and must not be forgotten when we talk about integrating environment considerations into our economic framework,

I congratulate the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science, and Dr Gordon Burch the ACT Branch President, for convening the forum today. Forums such as this are tremendously valuable as a way of getting together a broad range of parties interested in contributing to understanding of sustainable development and related issues.

Choosing a country centre as a venue was quite courageous, even a town as close to Canberra as Yass, bearing in mind the current rural situation and the decisions of the Government has taken in the wool industry. But it was also quite shrewd. It provides an ideal opportunity for those who feel they are never considered in policy development to come and have their say.

Dr Roy Green is playing a key role in conducting the ESD process underway for agriculture, forestry and fisheries. An essential element

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of this process is consultation with the community and interested parties. This forum is a good example of the sort of broad consultation necessary for diverse views to be put and debated.

I want to start with a brief overview of Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) and then discuss the importance of coordinated and integrated land resource information to ESD policies. ESD is one of the key issues of the 1990’s and one which affects every Australian.

Some of the conceptual issues that are arise through the sustainable development process can be captured in simple phrases. For instance, I have said that . sustainable development is 'putting hearts, minds and

pockets in the same currency'

This simple quote raises some difficult questions about the currencies that we use to measure our values. . In the absence of agreed value systems, perhaps we should be looking to establish some sort of stable exchange rates.

The decision by the Government to formulate an ESD strategy reflects growing community recognition that our economic and material welfare cannot be pursued without also considering the environmental factors which contribute to our standard of living.

The Commonwealth's Discussion Paper on ESD defined sustainable development as "using, conserving and enhancing the community's resources so that ecological processes on which life depends are maintained, and the total quality of life, now and in the future, can be increased".

The Working Groups are now focussing on ways of addressing the issues involved in moving towards ESD and commencing the process of formulating sectoral strategies.

An effective ESD strategy will require the involvement of all levels of Government and all sectors of the community. Sustainability must become part of our basic ethos.

The Commonwealth Government will work towards establishing an institutional framework which will encourage the adoption of sustainable practices in all sectors of the economy.

In our Federal system, primary responsibility for the management of natural resources lies with State Governments. Ecologically sustainable development will require action by State Governments to ensure that resource management policies are geared towards achieving sustainability.

Local Governments will also have an important role to play in implementing an effective ESD strategy as they have a shared responsibility with the State Governments for matters such as resource planning and pollution control. Local Governments could also have a key role to play in environmental monitoring.

ESD places a responsibility on industry and business to adopt management practices which protect the environment. Environmental management schemes and environmental audits are key tools which can help achieve ESD. I am encouraged by the efforts being taken by many industries to develop and use these tools.

Much of the debate around sustainable development centres on the theory and process of integrating how we manage the environment and the economy . a debate simplistically portrayed as between red-necks and

greens. . but I don't think the situation is that black and white.

Tonight I want to talk to you about four things: . the challenges posed by ESD . information needs for ESD . applying and using the information . the big picture

Challenges Posed by ESD

The concept of ESD offers a more intellectually rigorous and co­ operative approach to analysing the interrelationships between economic development and environmental management compared with the adversarial approaches that have characterised debate on these

issues over recent years.

As a result, it presents a particular challenge to economists, environmentalists, individuals and governments alike.

Conflict over resources arises primarily because of difficulty in defining rights to use and enjoy environmental resources, many of which provide wider public benefits, and from the difficulty of valuing the variety of services derived from the environment.

To improve the future welfare of the Australian community, and to minimise resource use conflict, experts in a variety of fields have to grapple with:

. devising innovative processes or mechanisms for valuing resources to take account of environmental impacts and external

effects such as decline in water quality, soil erosion and loss of biodiversity, in the absence of markets for such environmental services;

. more adequately defining rights to use resources and appropriate terms and conditions to provide incentives to balance current and future resource use and to guard against short term exploitation;

. detailing the ecological impacts and risks involved in resource use; and

. measuring costs and benefits of alternative policies or actions.

For individuals, ESD provides a challenge to increase their own awareness of the environment and to consider how they should balance economic and environmental considerations in the full array of "day to day" decisions which guide their activities.

Individuals also need to gather evidence to decide their position on the major environmental issues which confront society.

The challenge for governments is that ultimately it is their role to arbitrate on competing claims, based on the best available information, and to make judgements about the level of acceptable risks in the long term interests of the community.

Collecting Information for ESD

As the Commonwealth's ESD Discussion Paper points out, more comprehensive, accurate and cost effective information for decision makers is fundamental for improved policies for ESD.

There are two aspects to this. Information should be useful and information must be used.

When scientific institutions and Government agencies are considering the collection and provision of data, they must bear in mind the underlying problems that decision makers, both private and

Government, are trying to solve. Questions such as who needs it? for what purpose? and where should it be collected? are relevant.

Furthermore, it is important to demonstrate how any new proposals fit in with data already available as well as other existing information gathering activities. It is important that methodologies embody consistent data collection procedures and yield compatible data sets.

Each data provision activity should help fill in a specific information gap in the puzzle we are pursuing in the ESD process. All data gathering and assessment activities need to be complementary to ensure useful results.

These principles, and our own experiences, suggest that we need to improve the coordination and integration of our activities. For example, in the general area of land resource assessment, many agencies are active.

Commonwealth bodies such as CSIRO, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, the Bureau of Mineral Resources, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and the Australian

Surveying and Land Information Group are directly involved in collection of information on land resources. CSIRO, for example, has a large data base on the properties of Australian soils.

These, and several other bodies such as the Bureau of Rural Resources, the Resource Assessment Commission and the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, seek, collate and analyse land resource information.

I established a National Resource Information Centre within the Bureau of Rural Resources to act as a clearing house for natural resource data. As a clearing house it can answer queries as to who has what data and it can assemble information required for particular tasks, but it does not maintain a large data base of its own over time. NRIC,

besides its role as an information broker, also provides technical advice on information services and management.

More specific activities in relation to land resource assessment currently underway include:

. the preparation of a National Land Resource Assessment by the Commonwealth/State Technical Committee on Soil Conservation. This Assessment, to be completed by 1996, focusses on land capability;

. the refinement of methodologies for land resource assessment by the Bureau of Rural Resources;

. the development of a more appropriate classification system for Australian soils by CSIRO;

. the development of national monitoring networks for each of the major forms of land degradation by the National Resource Information Centre. These will be commenced with networks for monitoring salinity and rangeland degradation;

. the incorporation of continental data sets on soils, water and vegetation into a national geographic information system by the National Resource Information Centre.

Considerable opportunities exist for ensuring that these information gathering and management exercises are co-ordinated and integrated. This is one of the tasks that NRIC will need to address.

Applying The Information

Land resource information is required for decision-making by a range of users.

Landholders use a wide variety of information in farm planning. Information on land resources helps them to decide on land use and management options, tree planting, the layout of soil conservation earthworks, irrigation, and so on. This increases the efficiency of land

use and management and increases farm profitability. It also assists progress toward sustainable land resource use and management.

Community groups such as landcare groups use land resource information to tackle and solve many local and catchment problems such as salinity, tree dieback, weeds, pests, water quality, soil acidity, erosion and so on.

Land resource information also helps them to co-ordinate and integrate their activities through group and catchment plans, so that neighbours help rather than hinder each other.

Local Government uses land resource information in

. catchment and regional planning;

. providing more appropriate zoning and regulations;

. improving planning for infrastructure such as roads, water supply and recreation facilities; and

. providing support to landholders and community groups.

State Governments probably use land resource information more than anyone else. They are also the major gatherers and keepers of it.

State authorities use land resource information in the formulation and implementation of many policies and programs. Examples include:

. property, catchment and regional planning;

. promotion of conservation farming;

. development and management of water supplies;

. use and conservation of forest resources;

. planning and management of nature conservation areas; and

. coastal development and management.

The Com m onw ealth uses land resource information to formulate and implement natural resource policies and programs. These include:

. land management programs;

. forests management programs;

. water management programs;

. climate change policies.

As I said earlier, the information should be used and it should be useful.

The National Land Resource Assessment is an example of adapting to future needs. Its present focus on land capability is a significant change from the early 1970's, when a national assessment of land degradation (delivered by the "collaborative study" between the Commonwealth and the States) was considered to be the most useful information required.

The National Land Resource Assessment is therefore a good example of user driven information gathering.

The Big Picture - Policy Integration

In the end the ESD process must result in practical outcomes. A major part of this will be the improved coordination of policies and programs at all levels of government. As I outlined earlier, improved information has an important role. This is required to ensure that we prevent unintended side effects or gaps in the policy framework and to provide the greatest benefits for monetary resources expended.

The Government has been moving to improve integration on a number of fronts.

The Decade of Landcare Plan will provide a working model for cooperation between the Commonwealth, State and local Governments

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and the community in achieving agreed goals for landcare over the next decade. The Plan is critical in that it will establish agreed roles and responsibilities for Governments and the community.

Last year the Australian Soil Conservation Council initiated a proposal for a Working Party to consider the coordination and integration of natural resource management policies and programs and to put forward options for improvement. This initiative was endorsed by the Ministerial Councils responsible for agriculture, water resources and forestry. The Working Party is due to report later this year.

The Land and Water Resources Research and Development Corporation was established last year to provide an integrated approach to land and water research. It will also coordinate its activities with those of related research bodies.

Landcare Australia Limited (LAL) has been established to fulfill a special role in raising community awareness and developing a landcare ethic in the urban, rural and corporate community.

There are a number of important representative arrangements designed to better coordinate and integrate landcare activities. These include the Soil Conservation Advisory Committee, the Landcare Liaison Group, meetings of State landcare coordinators and the breadth of representation on the board of LAL.

At last year's Special Premiers' Conference, leaders of Commonwealth and State Governments signalled their commitment to improving policy formulation via the development and conclusion of an Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment. This is intended to provide better definition of the roles of respective governments as well as a cooperative national approach to the environment for those issues which transcend State boundaries. Agreement on principles which should be able to guide reform of existing policies and institutions and future policy development should be a major outcome of this process.

Last week I had the pleasure of launching the Australian Local Government Association report on 'The Roles of Local Government in Land Conservation'. This was important in signalling local government’s greater awareness of its role and powers and desire for

greater participation in policy development for natural resource management.

I have talked a lot about Government initiatives. However, I recognise that government arrangements should not develop an impetus of their own and lose touch with the broader community. Hence these initiatives provide for the widest possible participation by all interested

groups.