We need to tackle climate change – but also endless growth

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Curbing population growth would help the environment, but is difficult to achieve (Image via Pixabay)

Fighting the climate crisis is growing increasingly difficult as Australia's population continues to grow, writes Stephen Saunders.

BEHIND OUR PARIS commitments facade lies perpetual “growth” and environmental decline. Is climate crusading the premier gambit to “save our environment”?

If Earth stopped warming, would that save our environment? I asked iconic Australian survivors — like the mountain pygmy-possum, night parrot and orange dryandra.

“Dunno, mate,” they drawled. They know a dry continent, of skeletal soils. Lower Australian emissions wouldn’t necessarily protect specialised habitats. Nor would mitigation of climate change necessarily staunch environmental decline — via overpopulation, logging, land clearing, habitat loss, species losses and water misuse.

How treatable are these overlapping stressors? Let’s skip around the admissions ward.

Can we curb population growth?    

Postwar, Arthur Calwell targeted 2% population growth annually. Hawke-Keating pursued other reforms, but John Howard near-doubled migration. Net migration surpassing 200,000, unknown before 2007, is the new “LibLab” normal.

Net migration is largely controllable and natural increase is fairly stable. Population growth could be lower. It’s a key driver of (see below) land-use change, habitat loss and invasive species.  

OECD-area population growth is about 0.7% and economic growth 1.6%. Under 270,000 net migration and 1.7% population growth, Australia’s economic growth strains for 2%2.25%.

Our GDP “miracle” is population-fuelled. The elite, not ordinary voters, adore mass migration. In May, Labor heroically overbid the Coalition on (parent visa) migration. Migrant-rich Sydney electorates weren’t buying. In ALP’s post-mortem, it never happened. 

Sneering at voters, LibLab will keep on congesting big cities. Despite Canberra surging to 400,000 and decades of flimsy decentralisations, Sydney/Melbourne retains two-fifths of the national population. Each city is galloping to eight million. Melbourne’s keen to get there first.

For illustrative purposes, cutting population growth looks to be “moderate to high” difficulty, with “high” environmental payoff. Ironically, Treasury and Green Labor orthodoxies bar the way. 

Can we curb native-forest logging?

Forestry economist Judith Ajani chainsawed native-forest logging. We could mainly source timber from (softwood) plantations.

State-subsidised broadacre logging, especially for woodchips, doesn’t compute. Dollars and jobs are few. Losers are carbon storage, water catchments, tourism and habitat. Fire risks may increase.

This men’s business isn’t impregnable. In 1999, WA’s Richard Court moved against old-growth logging. Tasmania makes and unmakes “forest peace”. Though NSW's extended Regional Forest Agreements till 2039, Victoria’s 2030 phase-out of logging may give Leadbeater’s possum a lifeline. Plantations way out-produce native forests. Logging’s social licence is tattered.

Only 16% (120 million hectares) of Australia is still native forest. Less than a fifth is publicly conserved. Nearly 30% of the 120 million is “available and suitable” for logging. Only a fifth of that (7.5 million ha) lies in public hands. Private logging might continue if public logging ceased.  

Arresting native-forest logging looks to be “moderate” difficulty, for “moderate to high” environmental payoff.

Can we curb land clearing?

Logging and city-sprawl clear land. Most clearing is for grazing or grain. Colonials razed tall or rain forest. Today’s battleground is Queensland-NSW “woody” vegetation. 

Australia is a land-clearing larrikin. Robert Hill finessed an Australia clause at Kyoto 1997. Countries computing 2012 emissions reductions from the 1990 baseline could impute reductions via (transitory) land-clearing curtailment. Physical emissions could otherwise grow, leaving “protocol” emissions compliant. The problem is now we’re a global deforestation hotspot.

As Queensland strove to decelerate breakneck clearing, NSW relaxed. Landowners might clear another three million hectares by 2030. Curbing land clearing looks like “moderate to high” difficulty, for “moderate to high” environmental payoff.

Can we curb habitat loss?

Before 1967, Indigenous Australians weren’t counted properly. Post-Mabo, their land-rights and native-title regime go to perhaps 50% (400 million ha) of the continent.

Indigenous (land and sea) estates preserve landscapes and species, sink carbon and employ Indigenous rangers. About 75% of over 250 threatened faunal species occur on Indigenous land. Less protected are over 1,000 threatened flora, including many WA endemics. Habitat removal is hammering even “common” bird species.

Another big habitat bastion is the National Reserve System. It’s about 150 million ha, mostly government reserves and Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs). Some IPAs are also native-title.

Indigenous and other reserves harbour invasive species. Counter-efforts are patchy. Though fighting feral cats, white culture valorises feral horses. 

Indigenous reserves and national parks are under-resourced. Humans always know less than they think about habitat-versus-greenhouse feedbacks. Reducing habitat loss looks like “moderate to high” difficulty, but offers “high” environment (climate) payoff.

Can we curb species losses?

The sixth wave of extinction deleted dozens of Australian mammals. Spare a thought for our 20,000 vascular plant species, our birds, reptiles, frogs and insects. 

“Threatened species” machinery and Commissioner tick the boxes. Occasionally, species recovery pays dividends and helps climate-threatened species.

But threatened fauna-plus-flora tops 1,000 species. The question is how to triage this. The Threatened Species Strategy promises better “trajectories” for 70 species by 2020. Funding is desultory. Even if major development looms, recovery plans may not “recover”. New species keep appearing. 

Permissive clearing of threatened-species habitats is remarkably widespread. Threatened-species programs look “high” difficulty, with only “low to moderate” environmental payoff.

Can we curb water misuse?

Science reports rising temperatures, drying southern regions and worsening fires. The Government responds with “drought and dams”. Despite Basin Plan intentions, still the Murray-Darling struggles. NSW has barely regulated or colluded with irrigators. Jested federal officials, environmental water flows must have “2” in front, meaning under 3,000 gigalitres.

With 25-50% of the Darling unmonitored, mates-friendly water policy includes preferential access to agribusiness, grants to corporates for private dams and a profligate $80 million buyback. “Drought”, they told Barkandji, triggered momentous river failures and fish kills

Collieries are still vying for Sydney’s water. Discounting water liabilities, 2050 urban plans for Sydney, Melbourne and Perth near-double city populations. Facing 20% rainfall decline and collapsing runoff, desal plants and aquifer recharges supposedly drought-proof Perth. Wholesale clearing gave world-class salinity to the southwest biodiversity hotspot. The Northern Australia White Paper envisions booming northern population and big dams. 

Surveyor George Goyder figured rain doesn’t follow ploughs. Contemporary Australia wishes rain followed plans. Or dams. Controlling water recklessness looks “high” difficulty, but could bring “high” environmental payoff.  

What of emissions and warming?

Australia creates nearly 1.5% of global emissions. Before gas exports, before Adani, coal exports treble this. No small player.   

Since the 1992 Rio summit, mostly Australia’s physical emissions have topped 500-550 megatonnes annually, in CO2 “equivalents”. Before dodgy “offsets”, the physical 2030 projection is an (optimistic) 560-plus. The population is up 40% since 1992. Growth looks “decoupled” from emissions.  

Similarly, as global population and emissions surge, the global economy is less emissions-intensive. The problem here is we have the same size planet with no geo-inflation valve. Post Rio, atmospheric CO2 levels and land-ocean temperatures keep rising fast.

Corporate playbooks have disarmed the growth concerns of 1970s–1980s environmentalism. Now, the United Nations and polite society abjure limits to population (economic) growth. Similarly, government and science have curtained sobering 1990s appraisals of Australia’s carrying capacity. Channelling geographer Griffith Taylor, Tim Flannery estimated a realistic or “optimum” capacity of 20-30 million.

Economists’ emissions-trading solutions have generated as much heat as light. Their growth paradigm works against capping temperatures. Realistically, cutting Australian emissions (or global warming) looks to be “high” difficulty, if “high” payoff environmentally.

Tackle climate change — but also endless growth

Australia’s historical economic habits have been dubbed statist developmentalism. Undifferentiated or subsidised “growth”, with scant regard for the local ecology.

Colonial (also 20th century) policies encouraged ruthless clearing and British-style farming. Hyper migration and environmental conversion are esteemed yet, for “jobs and growth”. Are there liabilities, then, in a singular focus on climate change? 

25 years of global climate policy haven’t stopped planet-warming or rich-enriching. Greta Thunberg isn’t alone, saying future climate is sold off to plutocrats. Yet the 1% is less troubled by the heat and will continue to drive economic “growth” and ecological decline.

Two million Australian households use rooftop solar. Australians want tougher emission targets. But the Coal Quexit signals a weariness of top-down climate moralising. Research suggests “climate emergency” discourse doesn’t always resonate.

Though Australia’s median wealth still impresses, LibLab “jobs and growth” ventriloquises for wealth concentration. Not for the environment or wages and not necessarily for a clever economy.

This endless growth intensifies environment (and climate) stressors. In the illustrations above, managing these stressors is said to incur differing levels of “difficulty” and “payoff” with unpredictable side-effects and climate-feedbacks.

Yet Central Planning dictates exceptional 21st-century population growth, goes hard on land-clearing and fossil-fuel extraction, chafes at Australia’s uniquely variable biodiversity and water conditions. On top of all that, they’ll prune emissions.

To me, “saving” Australia’s fragile environment is more like a gruelling and interminable campaign on diverse eco-fronts. Says mainstream journalism, if I dare to include the booming population, that’s comparable to demanding Brexit or a White Australia.

Stephen Saunders is a former public servant, consultant and Canberra Times reviewer. 

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