Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Monday, 7 February 1994
Page: 434


Senator MARGETTS —My question deals with a topic which was dealt with in this chamber last week but in this particular case I ask a question of the Minister representing the Minister for the Environment, Sport and Territories. I refer the minister to the recent media reports relating to the release of a survey by the New Economics Foundation in London which found that Australia ranked very poorly in an analysis of key environmental issues. I ask: what action is the Australian government taking to address the fact that Australian households produce the world's highest per capita level of household garbage?


Senator Kernot —I have already asked about this.


Senator MARGETTS —No, you have not, Senator Kernot. I have checked the Hansard. What action is the Australian government taking to reduce the high level of carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide emissions in this country? The last part of my question is similar to that asked by Senator Kernot. I ask: what action is the Australian government taking to address the low level of funding generally for environmental protection in this country compared to other OECD countries?


Senator RICHARDSON —Senator Margetts was kind enough to give me some notice of this question. I have a quite lengthy response from the minister. Rather than read out the entire response, I would seek leave, with Senator Margetts's concurrence, to incorporate it. I should say that one always has to be wary of the methodology that is used in producing some of these reports. In this case it is pretty obvious that the methodology used by the New Economics Foundation in London is, to say the least, flawed.

  The way that indicators have been lumped together to produce a score for each country is a pretty questionable way of doing business. No weighting has been given to the importance of any individual indicator and there is no rigour in the selection of those 11 indicators in the first place. The OECD itself is very critical of the methodology used in the article and describes it as `highly misleading'. So even the OECD queries the methodology. Nonetheless, I have an answer. If Senator Margetts is happy, I will incorporate it in Hansard; otherwise I will read it out.

  Leave granted.

  The document read as follows

NEW ECONOMICS FOUNDATION REPORT ON ENVIRONMENTAL PERFORMANCES IN OECD COUNTRIES

Question to be asked by Senator Margetts:

I refer the Minister to recent media reports relating to the release of a survey by the New Economics Foundation in London which found that Australia ranked very poorly in an analysis of key environmental issues and ask:

1.  What action is the Australian Government taking to address the fact that Australian households produce the world's highest per capita level of household garbage?

2.  What action is the Australian Government taking to reduce the high level of carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide emissions in this country?

3.  What action is the Australian Government taking to redress the low level of funding generally for environment protection in this country compared to other OECD countries?

Before answering the three specific questions asked by Senator Margetts, I would like to comment on the New Economics Foundation Report that is the basis for her question. Quite simply, the report is so flawed in its methodology that it is misleading in the extreme to rank any one country against other OECD members in the form of a league table. It is not valid to reach conclusions in an overall sense from such an analysis. The report itself contains quite important qualifications on this issue. For example it says, and I quote

."While mindful of some valid problems in interpreting the data. . . . . . "

AND

."This was a relatively quick and dirty exercise"

AND

."The 11 indicators (on which the scoring was based) represent a relatively ad hoc selection of potential indicators."

I could go on. Suffice it to say that the report gathers together data for 11 indicators to produce a score for each country against each indicator. Such an approach is flawed, with no weighting being given to the importance of individual indicators, no real rigour in the selection of the 11 indicators in the first place and an acknowledgment that the OECD figures on which the indicators are based are themselves heavily qualified, due to the virtual impossibility of obtaining comparable figures based on standard definitions for the 24 OECD countries.

I should also add that OECD itself is very critical of the methodology used in the article, describing it as "highly misleading".

I now address each of Senator Margetts' questions:

1.  What action is the Australian Government taking to address the fact that Australian households produce the world's highest per capita level of household garbage?

.I am aware of the survey and have seen the report which uses a dubious methodology to compare the environmental performance of 21 OECD countries.

.Firstly, let me say that I dispute the so called fact that Australian households produce the most garbage in the world. If you look at the report—and it is clearly acknowledged by the authors—there are some serious limitations to compiling and comparing data on waste generation from different countries. This because the approaches to the surveying and definition of waste varies considerably. For example, the report states that "some definitions include household waste others include commercial activities, office buildings, institutions such as schools and government buildings".

.Secondly, the report quotes Australian data which is more than 5 years old. This ignores many of the significant initiatives which have been undertaken during that period including:

  -development of a number of strategies to address waste minimisation, recycling, packaging, and oil and tyres;

  -economic studies of waste generation and disposal;

  -development of a National Waste Database;

  -supporting local government to manage waste more effectively through the provision of information and funding of innovative waste minimisation projects.

2.  What action is the Australian Government taking to reduce the high level of carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide emissions in this country?

Carbon Dioxide

The Australian Government, along with all State and Territory Governments adopted the first phase of the National Greenhouse Gas Strategy in 1992. The Strategy give particular attention to implementing measures in the energy production, distribution and use sectors where the greatest impact on carbon dioxide emissions can be expected. Australia has already submitted the National Greenhouse Response Strategy to the international community involved in negotiations on the Climate Change Convention as the means by which Australia will meet many of our obligations under the Convention. Implementation of the first phase of the Strategy is already well underway.

Sulphur Dioxide

Australia's indigenous fossil fuels are low in sulphur and energy use is not a significant source of sulphur oxide emissions. Our sulphur emissions are derived mainly from smelting of non-ferrous metals such as lead and gold.

The main environmental impacts of sulphur oxides emissions is the formation of acid deposition or acid rain. The ESD Report on Energy Use stated that `the evidence to date indicates that acid rain is not a national problem for Australia'. The reasons identified in the ESD report include that we have a relatively low concentration fo industrial development, absence of heavily industrialised neighbouring countries and the fact that Australia is endowed with a number of soils having a moderate to good capacity to neutralise acid rain.

Sulphur oxides do cause local problems (health and material and plant damage) but in Australia they are confined to mining towns such as Mt Isa and Kalgoorlie, but actions are being undertaken to reduce such impacts.

Whilst the control of emission levels is essentially a matter for the States, the Commonwealth is coordinating an appraisal of the national air quality goal for sulphur dioxide. The discussion paper recently completed by the National Health and Medical Research Council recommends that Australia's current sulphur dioxide air quality goal is adequate and should be re-endorsed.

3.  What action is the Australian Government taking to redress the low level of funding generally for environment protection in this country compared to other OECD countries?

I assume that this question arises as a result of the recently published (25 January 1994) report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Again, before commenting in detail, a few points should be made.

  -only 10 countries were included in the comparison. 14 were omitted. The 10 included were Australia, Canada, US, Japan, Austria, France, Germany, Netherlands, Portugal and UK.

  -the comparisons should be regarded an indicative only, due to reporting difficulties in obtaining comparable data for environmental expenditure from government and industry sectors.

  -the report showed that our expenditure was amongst the lowest within the 10 countries in the survey. However, spending by the Government is similar in level to the other countries, by industry being lower. The report relates to spending in 1990-91 and there are signs that industry has increased its level of expenditure since then.

Having said that, we should not be too pre-occupied with comparisons between countries of such a crude indicator. Environmental conditions will always vary between countries, requiring different responses from both Government and industry. Indeed, as newer and more efficient technology becomes available to deal with pollution and as cleaner production processes are adopted by the industry, lower level of expenditure on environmental protection may result.

Senator Margetts can be assured that for its part the Federal Government will continue to provide sufficient funds to ensure that the high standard of environmental protection that it has established will be maintained.