Long after the Rio Earth Summit, a chance for sustainable Australia?

Jan 10, 2021

With climate change and biodiversity losses continuing, Australia’s Environmental-Economic Accounts channel fresh ideas on our stewardship of the land, testing our success or failure.

South-eastern Australia’s broad, sweeping box gum grassy woodlands are a critically endangered ecosystem, writes eminent ecologist David Lindenmayer. “More than 95% has been cleared for agriculture and development, and what remains is highly degraded by grazing.”

Once were woodlands. In colonial times the first settlers acquired the world of nature free. Since then, nature and its services to us have remained largely exterior to the monetary economy, and often an expendable asset.

We drive species to extinction, their habitats gone. Two-thirds of Australia’s soil carbon – itself a habitat – have been lost.

Sue McIntyre writes of the importance of limiting intensive land uses in rural landscapes. Her graphic below describes how our extensive grassy woodlands might look if the landscapes were to be managed sustainably – supporting production in the long term and conserving native biodiversity.

Sue McIntyre: Intensive farming is eating up the Australian continent – but there’s another way

Her research shows that intensified agriculture depending on fertilizer causes problems in Australia and around the world, propelled by the growing population. She is a plant ecologist with forty years’ experience researching and managing grassy woodlands, having worked in Queensland, CSIRO in Canberra, now at the Fenner School of Environment and Society ANU, and writing her website and book ‘Managing and Conserving Grassy Woodlands’.

Gradually, Sue’s work is bearing fruit and is expanded by Sue Ogilvy’s study ‘Graziers with better profitability, biodiversity and wellbeing’. The sixteen graziers in the study group have taken the land back to deep-rooted perennial native grasses, which are adapted to poor soils. Gone are the introduced grass species with their shallow roots which fail to survive droughts, exposing the soil to erosion and to be blown away in storms. The re-established native grasses lower the water table, restoring the soil from barren salt scalds. No need for costly crop-dusting – the graziers shun fertilizer and herbicide. They don’t need to buy fodder during droughts; they are more secure than their conventional peers, and more confident in managing a biodiverse landscape.

The study’s statistics will contribute to EEA, the Environmental-Economic Accounting being assembled by the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment, the Australian Bureau of Statistics and ABARES.

Hold on, we need to digest more acronym soup here: EEA is the Australian brand of the United Nation’s SEEA, its System of Environmental-Economic Accounting. SEEA is the international standard taken up in about eighty countries for integrating environmental services such as water, clean air and pollination into economic models. We really need it because our economy lives within nature, and if we don’t understand that we can’t manage it.

SEEA was inspired by the UN’s Rio Earth Summit in 1992, which recognised that nations were grossly exploiting their natural assets. To counteract this, SEEA expands the National Accounts to include ecosystem services which can be monetised and made visible.

SEEA’s metrics can also be non-monetary. They express the way people put a value on nature… how they deplore species extinction and animals being incinerated in bushfires… how they feel spiritually uplifted by nature. These values are hard to judge, but are an essential part of policy-making for the environment.

The nation’s EEA can measure the risk of species extinction. And It can record the changes in ecosystem degradation or renewal over time. To do this, a nation is mapped and divided into reporting units in various ways, on a grid patten, by the type of land-cover, by biosystem, or the habitat of a specific critical species.

Since Rio, Australians have made ground-breaking contributions to the SEEA. In 1993 Michael Vardon, then at the Australian Bureau of Statistics, joined an international group of experts to plan it. He was later the Director of the ABS Centre of Environment and Energy Statistics, and these days continues the work at the Fenner School in Canberra. Carl Obst, another Australian, was SEEA’s lead author. After five years as head of the Australian National Accounts he co-founded the IDEEA Group, consulting on natural asset accounting.

SEEA is a game changer, especially for us in Australia who have a continent to look after.

In 2002 the Murray Darling basin was drying out. One dust storm crossing Australia blew away an estimated seven million tonnes of irreplaceable topsoil. By then the Millennium Drought had spurred WWF Australia to convene some of Australia’s leading scientists to form the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists. They soon published ‘Blueprint for a Living Continent’, advocating fundamental political action to counteract environmental degradation and climate change. It was a breakthrough in using ecological economics to focus on land clearing and water reform. Looking back, this was the Wentworth Group’s first step in developing ecosystem services accounts.

Heavy criticism soon followed. Writing in the Institute of Public Affairs Review, Alan Moran declared “Drought is a natural phenomenon which signals no trend…. The so-called Wentworth Group [are] enthroning themselves as environmental dictators … using sensationalist factoids devoid of real meaning.”

It would be easy to dismiss this stuff as a parody of climate change denial and far right ideology. In reality it was the tub-thumping sound of business-as-usual.

Bringing together its members’ science, economic and statistical skills in 2008, the Wentworth Group readied for a trial on a continent-wide scale – ‘Accounting for Nature’. Working with Regional Natural Resource Management in ten diverse regions in the six States, it created a common index to measure a variety of environmental conditions. Because it was harmonised with SEEA, the method and findings could go international.

At the heart of the trial was a new metric, the Econd. It scores environmental assets such as land, fresh water, species numbers and marine conditions on an index of zero to 100. The 100 score represents the asset’s natural condition, its undegraded state. The zero score means completely degraded.

The trial reported in 2016 that “we now know it is practical to produce robust condition accounts” for any size of reporting area from small ecosystems up to the nation.

The Wentworth Group was soon invited to present ‘Accounting for Nature’ to a meeting of Commonwealth, State and Territory Environment Ministers. All agreed to develop a common national approach to environmental accounts starting in 2017.

Australia had signed the Convention on Biological Diversity in Rio, 1992. To halt species loss they agreed that “traditional conservation interventions such as protected areas and species conservation will only be part of the solution for the future.”

At the Biodiversity Conference in Aichi, Japan in 2010 Australia recommitted to the Rio-successor, the Biodiversity Strategic Plan 2011-2020. This is now morphing into the UN’s Post-2020 Agenda to be decided in May 2021 at the COP 15 Biodiversity Convention in Kunming, China.

Pressure for action has been building. In their hard-hitting piece ‘Putting biodiversity into the national accounts’ nearly three decades after Rio, Australian scientists Micha Pel Vardon, Heather Keith, Carl Obst and David Lindenmayer write that “The human use of the environment is reaching dangerous levels. It demands a paradigm shift in the way humanity measures, values and makes decisions about the environment.”

SEEA has been growing and bedding down, and ecosystem accounting should be adopted by the UN Statistical Commission in March 2021. But so far it has struggled to be noticed by governments and business, let alone make an impact.

Michael Vardon points to the disparity between ‘accounting push’ and ‘policy pull’. Over the decades since Rio, he writes, the benefits of internationally agreed environmental accounting have been largely forgotten by those who commissioned the work. “In short, the ‘accounting push’ has not been matched by the ‘policy pull’.” One likely reason, he says, is that “Policymakers were not involved in the detailed and very technical process.”

“Perhaps a deeper reason for a lack of ‘policy pull’ is political… Intuitively, the clearer and more comprehensive the picture of environmental resources, the more likely that government will be confronted with difficult and hard-to-avoid decisions, reaching beyond the environmental to affect the economic and traditional notions of human wellbeing… But those decisions are likely to be more robust and defensible with regular accounting.” The Australian government has a plan for environmental accounting, but this is ‘push’ far more than ‘pull’.

Vardon and David Lindenmayer are pulling together a wide-ranging study of box gum grassy woodlands from the Riverina to the Central Tablelands of NSW. It builds on the earlier work like that done in the Central Highlands of Victoria, and McIntyre’s, as illustrated in the graphic above. The project will demonstrate the value of investing in biodiversity on Australian farms, promoting nutrient cycling, water yield, control of erosion and salinity, and carbon sequestration. Centrally important is developing ecosystem accounts for this threatened ecological community. Studies like this build EEA to inform environmental policy.

The Australian government funds an amazing trove of land and sea information from research groups including The Soil and Landscape Grid of Australia, Digital Earth Australia, the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network, CSIRO’s aclep, and its Habitat Condition Assessment System. There are at least fifteen satellite-view datasets which can complement land-based ecosystem studies across the continent. This national enterprise is releasing huge amounts of ecosystem data.

This continent is one of the world’s megadiverse countries, with responsibilities and problems to match.

The Federal Government is taking its Biodiversity Strategy 2010-2030 to this year’s UN Convention on Biodiversity, with priorities to engage all Australians and improve and share knowledge with us on biodiversity. The strategy document also recognises “the growing demand for integrated environmental-economic accounting in Australia” – a good fit with engaging and sharing knowledge, but sadly the idea gets buried at the end of the document. Why such low billing?

Environment Minister Susan Ley has an opportunity internationally to highlight Australia’s EEA. We can be a world leader, backed by top-flight environmental science. Catch the spirit of 1992 and go to Rio… Now make that Kunming, China in May ‘21.

Oliver Howes was a writer-director at Film Australia and an independent producer, making documentary and feature films. He has worked for the PNG government, in Japan and in Pacific states.

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