OLIVER HOWES. Net-zero carbon, CSIRO and Big Australia

While net-zero carbon needs our nation-wide commitment, an older national ambition competes for primacy – Big Australia. CSIRO reports have plans for our future, but can’t please everyone.

From a limestone crag high in the mountains of East Timor you can look across the Timor Sea and imagine seeing Australia as a Timorese might – a continent of limitless wealth and security. Below in the valleys farming families are planting and weeding their food gardens, hoping for a harvest to take them through the Hungry Season. Your guide says “We’ve had wild weather. If that’s climate change, how bad can it get?”

On the bar chart of nations’ ecological footprints per capita, East Timor’s impact is vanishingly small. Australia is at the opposite extreme, in the top tier of national footprints, with the highest carbon emissions per capita. Multiply that by our highest population/immigration rate amongst developed countries, and Australia goes straight to the naughty corner.

The 2019 federal budget forward estimates put Net Overseas Migration at 263,000 in 2022. Aside from the temporary suspension of immigration due to COVID-19, the plan is to grow the Australian population by 16 million by 2060. This growth would make it especially hard for Australia to meet its Paris Agreement carbon reduction target. It requires a reordering of our economy within our ecology.

The opportunities and costs are vast: an unending outlay on old and new infrastructure, the creation of a net-zero carbon revolution in the cities and on the land, and now the COVID-19 crisis with the ensuing unemployment and long-term debt.

How does growing full-speed to Big Australia rank amongst competing national challenges? CSIRO research has teased out answers, but they can’t please everyone.

In 2000 CSIRO began to develop a quantitative model of Australia’s natural and human resources and energy – ASFF, the Australian Stocks and Flows Framework. It’s a biophysical model using real world facts rather than purely economic ones, describing how we live off the continent and overseas trade.

The Department of Immigration was interested and sponsored the project, which became known as Future Dilemmas – Options to 2050. It posed the question “What impact will the size of Australia’s future population have on the environment, the physical economy, and the quality of life?” Three scenarios for Net Overseas Migration projected populations of 20, 25 and 32 million by 2050.

At a household level, the study reports on environmental and resource impacts mounting with immigration/population growth and its consumption: bedsheets, TVs, cars, hospitals, public transport, sports ovals… At a national level there are growing impacts from water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Speaking recently, CSIRO Future Dilemmas team leader Barney Foran described how “The Immigration Department controlled us. They specifically said we were not allowed to report on economic and social things – a range of social ills that came out of the data – though we had the capacity to do that. We were only allowed to present stuff in the biophysical realm.”

Not just that. “I was under intense pressure to say that population growth didn’t harm soil quality and water resources, as most of our farm produce was exported and was nothing to do with the number of people we had at home… Ignoring the fact that we export those things to pay for imports, and the more people there are, the more imports. Policy-wallahs still like to cut that sort of stuff out, and deal with what they can see from their windows in Canberra.”

Foran left CSIRO in 2006 for a life in the regions and took up a position at Charles Sturt University. “The writing was on the wall”, he said. Government work had become “You give us the money and we’ll give you the answer you want.”

Immigration policy was changing. Australia’s Net Overseas Migration (NOM) had been below 100,000 pa till 2003. By 2006 it had risen to 300,000, and has since averaged around 245,000.

The Immigration Department sponsored another study in 2010, this time by Jonathan Sobels at Flinders University School of Environment. It used an improved CSIRO ASFF biophysical model, integrated with economic models used by Immigration. Called The Long-term Physical Implications of Net Overseas Migration, it covered NOM rates from 50,000 to 260,000.

It’s a lucid trove of information on continent-wide environmental impacts of human settlement as it grows with the population, predominantly from migration. The analysis describes effects in selected regions and the big cities, their physical limitations and sensitivity to human use. Reading it now, ten years after publication, brings on a frustrating sense of familiarity and déjà vu: The Darling River will face nil net flow…. Increasing sensitivity to bushfires…. Loss of habitat and animal and plant species….Traffic congestion and lengthened commutes…. Biodiversity reduced by polluted creeks in the Western Sydney Basin…. City water deficits….

The report shows the nation’s wealth increases with immigration/population growth, but “Importantly, there is only a marginal difference in per capita wealth between [the low and high migration] scenarios, and that difference only tends to appear after about 2040.”

The Immigration Department tried to bury it.

“Why would the Immigration Department release the report two days before Christmas, without any press release?” asked Foran. “The Immigration Department then employed some attack-dog economist to attack it because it wasn’t an economic model, and any physical-economy model was wrong. The Department sought to demean the science and to limit public access for future generations.”

In 2010 Foran warned: “There is always an immediate crisis, a flood, a fire, a drought, a cyclone that steers public policy away from the fundamental reforms that refurbish our rivers, remake our soil, augment our biodiversity and set us on the low carbon transition path.”

CSIRO’s latest plan for Australia’s future is the Australian National Outlook 2019, showcasing impressive scientific innovations. It offers two alternative scenarios to 2060: an optimistic Outlook Vision, or a pessimistic Slow Decline. The Vision foresees the nation embracing a low-carbon revolution in energy, industry and agriculture. Slow Decline warns us against our ‘Lucky Country’ complacency.

Buried in the wealth of scientific work and quantitative models is a single invariable assumption: Net Overseas Migration at 240,000 pa for the next forty years, to bring on the government’s Big Australia target.

The earlier CSIRO reports had factored in a range of NOMs from zero to high migration. Now for the CSIRO to chose only the highest NOM band is extraordinarily ill-advised. Added to natural increase, 240,000 pa NOM requires us to build another Canberra every year for forty years, largely on top of Sydney and Melbourne.

The vast expense of doing this has to be weighed against the national effort and vital investment needed over the same period to decarbonise Australia, all while Australia’s trading partners and neighbours are wrestling with the same world-threatening climate demands.

The cost is also in carbon. New housing estates and tower blocks require steel and concrete. Blast furnace steel production is a very big carbon emitter, and photo-voltaic smelting is yet to happen. Portland cement contributes 10% of world carbon emissions, and decarbonised cement has not been accepted.

CSIRO Outlook Vision’s call to rescind Local Government planning powers so that medium to high-density settlement becomes “the dominant form of habitation in Australia” has no remit.

The report’s proposals for a carbon revolution are admirable. But to bend this to support the addition of 16 million people to Australia’s population is unconvincing and not justified in the science. It smacks of bureaucratic coercion.

A Big Australia of crowded megacities is widely resisted. Better we build our skills and savvy, and cap immigration between 75,000 and 100,000, at least until carbon-busting technology is doing a thorough job. Now’s the time to plan a greener future for the nation, fit to meet the challenges of climate change.


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

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7 Responses to OLIVER HOWES. Net-zero carbon, CSIRO and Big Australia

  1. To add to Oliver’s valuable article, some discussion is needed of the forces driving Big Australia. These seem to include the property and retail industries, and governments wishing to boost GDP and so avoid their economies being identified as in recession.

  2. Avatar john austen says:

    Mr Howes: Thank you. I am not sure what to make of this e.g. Why didn’t Immigration seek this advice from the Environment Dept?; average v. marginal per capita resource use? Despite our need to do much more, aren’t global problems more about aggregates than assumed outlier marginal per capita rates of low populations? And I suspect our ‘big city’ angst is overdone, even if Sydney was ‘full’ a generation ago. Our cities aren’t in wiki’s(?) top 81(!). And Australia’s population is around that of Tokyo’s – 50 years ago. Tokyo’s population is 60% higher now. Thanks again

  3. Avatar Stephen Saunders says:

    Oliver, in the 1990s, science and government actively discussed our carrying capacity. Now, the scientific and academic classes of Australia feel that net zero is “woke” but discussing population is “unwoke”. This is ideology not science.

    If you actually scrutinise it at all, net zero is an unsatisfactory concept, that also relies on bold assumptions re power grids and fossil fuel transition, and quite heroic assumptions re the environment as a supercharged carbon sink:

    By comparison, controlling our net migration, therefore in effect our population growth, is straightforward. It doesn’t require heroic scientific assumptions, only the mundane and non-racist assumption that it is our sovereign right to populate as we choose. At any time at all, and not just in the case of a global pandemic emergency.

  4. Avatar Kien Choong says:

    I don’t think it is tenable for Australia to determine its population policy without considering the effect on the rest of the world. Humans have long migrated to flee various deprivations, including famine, war, climate, etc.

    Australia is one of the few countries in the world that has the capacity to take in refugees, and it would be wrong to seek an “ecological nirvana” in Australia by closing our doors to the refugees of the world.

    • Avatar David Higham says:

      Quite right. Why have over-populated ,ecologically devastated hellholes in only parts of the world,when we can spread the joy here too ?

    • Pre-Covid-19, Australia has had one of the highest rates of population growth among OECD countries. Refugees are only a small fraction of immigrants. We could (and should) double our refugee intake and still reduce total immigration.

  5. Avatar Andrew Glikson says:

    “Net zero carbon” …
    The political classes and their media mouthpieces continue to ignore the physical reality that the atmospheric level of CO2 (416 ppm) + methane (CO2-equivalent exceeding 50 ppm) and Nitrous oxide are already triggering amplifying feedbacks from land and oceans and that only attempts at CO2 down-draw stand a chance of arresting ongoing global warming. Climate science, ignored for over 40 years, continues to be ignored by politicians, economists and journalists.
    Andrew Glikson, Earth and climate science.

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