State of the Environment Report 2016: What is Australia’s carrying capacity?

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We need to recognise Australia's very limited human carrying capacity before it's too late, writes Sue Arnold.

THE AUSTRALIAN'S Greg Sheridan writes that, as a nation, we would be better off with 40 million people 'rather than 28 million elderly people', who apparently ensure a declining economy. No surprises there.

The 2016 State of the Environment Report (SER) released by the Federal government projects a population of 35 million by 2050. In November 2013, The Australian Bureau of Statistics released a report projecting Australia's population to double to 46 million by 2075.

These are pretty scary figures. Sydney and Melbourne are predicted to reach 7.9 million each by 2053.

Treasurer Scott Morrison recently confirmed on ongoing intake of 170,000 immigrants annually.  

But at what cost? Given the current state of Australia’s environment is one of significant decline in almost all areas, the national balance sheet must now weigh up where reality lies. Without any value being placed on clean water, air, healthy forests and soil, marine ecosystems and Australia’s unique biodiversity, population increases must not be solely assessed on economic grounds. 

With a significant increase in population growth, higher infrastructure costs, lack of amenity, car dependency, poor job access and diminished agriculture are some of the costs to be paid. 

Sustainable Australia documents the impacts of rapid population growth, including:

  • housing unaffordability;
  • congestion of infrastructure including roads, schools, ports and hospitals;
  • water insecurity and expensive water options, like desalination;
  • more crowded beaches, parks and recreational areas;
  • less access to green space and fresh air;
  • more pollution; and
  • the dilution of democracy.

With no value attributed to wildlife, clean water, healthy forests and marine ecosystems, the SER is an inadequate document. The nation’s balanced sheet is deficient, one-sided and incapable of predicting the real cost of a massive increase in population. In essence, any projected population increase will be at the expense of the environment.

Limits to Growth – a website created by Professor Sharon Beder of the University of Wollongong – says that business groups have tended to emphasise the need for economic growth in their policies on sustainable development.

In contrast, Dr Ted Trainer, a well-known Australian limits-to-growth advocate, argues that our levels of resource use, production and consumption in this country are already unsustainable. For example, on average, Australians already use the equivalent energy of about seven tonnes of coal per person. If everyone in the world used this much, world energy production would have to be quadrupled. This would mean, he claims, that the world's supplies of coal, oil, gas and uranium would quickly run out, and the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would increase alarmingly.

In his paper, 'A Limits to Growth Critique of the Radical Left, The Need to Embrace the Simpler Way, 2014', Dr Trainer sums up the carrying capacity issues, or as he describes it as “the footprint” index. To provide the average Australian with food, settlement area, water and energy now requires about 8 hectares of productive land.    For a dry continent with insufficient water and fertile soil for a large population, this amount of land is completely unrealistic.

According to Dr Trainer, the core element in the limits case is that we are entering an era of intense and irremediable scarcity, which rules out notions of emancipation in terms of a centralised, industrialised, technically sophisticated or globalised systems, growth economies or affluent lifestyles.   There must be a dramatic reduction in rich-world levels of production and consumption and “ living standards.”

Australia’s population is growing faster than the global population. According to Sustainable Australia, our nation adds one person every one minute and 22 seconds, needing the equivalent of a new city the size of Canberra each year.  If we continue at this rate, our population will double every 40 to 50 years.

On the environmental side of the equation, the SER states that Australia is considered one of the world’s 17 mega diverse countries, which together account for 70 per cent of the world’s biological diversity, across less than 10 per cent of the world’s surface. 
Around 46 per cent of birds, 69 per cent of mammals (including marine mammals) 94 per cent of amphibians, 93 per cent of flowering plants and 93 per cent of reptiles are found only in Australia. The SER Report says that one of the main drivers of environmental change is human population growth.

Australia’s ecological footprint is the 13th highest globally, behind countries such as Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Denmark, the United States and Belgium. The ecological footprint is a measure of the impact humans have on the environment. Our high ecological footprint indicates that we are consuming resources at a much faster rate than the planet can regenerate.

Although climate change is acknowledged repeatedly throughout the Report and a key finding is that there is a 'good understanding of potential impacts on some Australian species (e.g. birds)', there is no recognition of the abject failure of the Federal government to deal with these impacts on the environment.

All recent SER reports from states and territories note the adverse impacts of climate change on biodiversity. Some state reports acknowledge climate change could surpass habitat modification as the greatest threat to biodiversity and that some impacts could be irreversible.

Half of all Environment Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) listed species are considered to be at risk from habitat fragmentation. In Queensland’s reef catchments, clearing rates rose by 229 per cent between 2008-2014. The SER details no systematic remote monitoring of vegetation clearing currently exists.

The vulnerability of climate change to a sample of EPBC Act listed species demonstrated nearly half of these species were likely to be impacted by climate change. According to the Report, the most vulnerable species are amphibians.

If the coal seam gas industry in Eastern Australia is expanded, further significant impacts on the remaining terrestrial diversity will occur.

Consumption is the message of western governments, increasingly reliant on persuading citizens to "buy buy buy". The USA is a consumption-based economy and America is a consumption driven society. Modern day Americans are programmed to be good consumers.  The Australian economy is in transition, with consumption, housing and mining taking the lead. A never-ending demand for more and more things ensures "jobs and growth" and the juggernaut of environmental destruction rolls on.

Government policy and plans to deal with the projected increases in population are being addressed in much the same vein as the energy crisis. Chaos and division appear to be the only identifiable actions, yet the two issues are inseparable.

Can Australian continue on this path? These are issues which urgently need to be addressed with all options on a transparent publicly accountable table, open to a wide diversity of expertise and opinion. The bottom line must be a recognition of Australia’s limited carrying capacity and a major, across-the-board, political reality check.

You can follow Sue Arnold on Twitter @koalacrisis and Koala Crisis on Facebook here.

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