"Alternate measures of economic prosperity"
Submission from Doctors for the Environment Australia to the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities on the Population Strategy Issues Paper 28 February 2011 Doctors for the Environment Inc. David Shearman, Hon Secretary 5 Fitzgerald Road PASADENA SA 5042 Phone: 0422 974 857 Email: email@example.com And firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.dea.org.au The following are members of our Scientific Committee and support the work of Doctors for the Environment Australia Prof. Stephen Boyden AM; Prof. Peter Doherty AC; Prof. Bob Douglas AO; Prof. Michael Kidd AM; Prof. Stephen Leeder AO; Prof. Ian Lowe AO; Prof Robyn McDermott; Prof. Tony McMichael; Prof. Peter Newman; Prof. Emeritus Sir Gustav Nossal AC; Prof. Hugh Possingham; Prof. Lawrie Powell AC; Prof. Fiona Stanley AC; Dr Norman Swan; Professor David Yencken AO Submission: Issues Paper on a Sustainable Population Strategy for Australia Background: The “Sustainable Population Strategy Issues Paper” (November 2010) draws on the reports of three selected advisory panels, namely: Demographic Change and Liveability, Productivity and Prosperity, and Sustainable Development. Its stated intention is to “draw out community views about the challenges and opportunities created by changes in Australia's population”. The document outlines and discusses many of the factors involved and affected by population growth. Community and stakeholder input is sought to assess the consequences of population growth so that future change might be better managed. Summary: It is our view that this process is fundamentally flawed, as it seeks to establish the dimensions of population growth without first understanding the determinants of sustainability, or indeed the consequences of our current activities on future equity and natural capital. As such, assumptions are being made when predicting what is, or what will be, sustainable. In particular, the relationship between growth and future sustainability is clearly central to this discussion. Without an understanding and inclusion of the consequences of natural boundaries and limits to growth, any further discussion about sustainability is purely speculative. Our recommendations therefore are; a) to define precisely what is meant and understood by the terms “sustainable “ and “sustainable population” b) establish the scientific basis for sustainability with regard to transitional and long-term populations including the assessment of the carrying capacity of Australia under both current conditions and the range of scenarios expected from climate change, oil depletion and other inputs, and c) that a broader view is taken to incorporate global factors; as we live in an increasingly interdependent world, external, international events and developments, such as water and food shortages, directly affect our sustainability. To enable this process, DEA recommends that a national task force be formed to prepare a scientific report on an environmentally sustainable population for Australia. Discussion: Regarding sustainability and sustainable populations: These are important concepts, as without clear and meaningful definitions, the scope and direction of this discussion is limited and compromised. In this report (p3) sustainability and sustainable population are described as follows: “..Sustainability refers to the maintenance or improvement of wellbeing now and for future generations.” “A sustainable population is one where changes in the population's size distribution or composition are managed to provide for positive economic, environmental and social outcomes.” These terms are rather loose and biased. Although there is no uniformly agreed definition of sustainability, the common theme is one of balance and the ability to meet current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. It is also unusual to change the focus of the definition to include, let alone highlight, demography as a determinant of outcomes. Whilst demographic characteristics may be one factor that affects the sustainability of a population, there are many other and more important factors which are not included in this definition. Neither does sustainability imply a net gain (improvement) nor a net loss (deterioration) in any of these components. It implies a steady state. To be sustainable, a population must be able to exist in both the present and the future, without compromising or eroding its natural resource base. There must therefore be a balance between the use and replenishment of resources and energy, and waste production and management. The relationship between growth and future sustainability is clearly central to this discussion. It should be clear that if we transgress natural environmental boundaries, either through current activities or as a consequence of growth, we will be unable to guarantee future generations the same opportunity of meeting their needs. Determining Australia's carrying capacity and the effects of further growth are prerequisites in defining a sustainable population. Limits to growth: The paper explicitly avoids discussion on limits to growth - as evidenced by this statement on (p6) (and the fact that there is neither further explanation nor discussion on this topic within this paper); “Since the 1970's all population inquiries sponsored by Australian Governments have rejected the notion of a population target or national carrying capacity”. In contrast, a preference for a “growing population” is implicit from the terms of reference, meaning the environmental, social, economic and infrastructure considerations are considered within this framework. The paper assumes growth as a given, rather than defining and delineating a sustainable population first and then working from that perspective. We also hold concerns that absolute physical limits to growth are not given their due relevance in this paper, as they are treated equally with relative or political prerogatives. For example, we have an absolute requirement for fresh water, but dependence on our economic growth is relative. The report however does not discriminate. Community input: In his opening remarks, the Minister calls for community input (p2): “I strongly encourage you to have your say on how we can shape and respond to changes in our population to build a sustainable Australia”. A view which is further underlined by the subsequent questions posed to the public: “What do you think are the key indicators of an environmentally sustainable community?” “What lessons have we learnt that will help us to better manage the impacts of population change on the environment?” The implication of these questions is that “sustainability” can or will be defined or amended by public consultation, rather than by expert advice. These repeated calls for community consultation may be useful to determine current perceptions, opinions and concerns, but they will neither define “sustainability” nor a “sustainable population”. As such it is not a valuable exercise when determining what a “sustainable Australia” would look like. The limits to Australia's carrying capacity and environmental constraints must rely on expert opinion and scientific fact. They cannot be discovered by focus groups nor determined by vested interests nor the popularity or otherwise of policy. Environmental sustainability DEA questions the assertions in the paper by the Sustainable Development and the Productivity and Prosperity Reports in referring to work by the Water Services Association of Australia, which concludes that Australia’s urban water needs can be sustainably met, even with significant population growth. We support the views expressed in the “Sustainable Development Panel Report” that notes declining rainfall trends in South West and South East Australia, in combination with higher temperatures, evaporation and decreased run off. This, with projections for significantly increased frequency of extremely hot years means that water security will continue to be a major challenge for Australia and any complacency regarding food and water security puts the existing and future populations at risk. It could be reasonably argued that the trend in building desalination plants is proof of the uncertainty surrounding urban freshwater security. Biodiversity: Biodiversity loss is one of the “planetary boundaries that define a safe operating space for humanity”. It is one of 3 boundaries already exceeded, species are being lost at a rate of 100 -1000 times the natural background rate, Australia's included. The effects of biodiversity loss are non-linear and threaten the integrity of land and marine ecosystems on which our health and sustainability depend. The statement (p11) recognises that better planning can reduce the damage of development; “Through clever urban planning, adopting greater infill while protecting urban green space and improved regional planning across all levels of government, it is possible to achieve more sustainable urban settlements and mitigate the significant loss of biodiversity.” However, it ignores the fact that urban expansion inevitably results in the loss of cultivated and naturally vegetated land and that population growth is a scaling factor that results in increased waste generation, power and resource consumption, all of which have a negative impact on natural habitats and biodiversity, both locally and more distantly. Any discussion regarding food security should also include a detailed evaluation of impacts of biodiversity loss, which affect agricultural productivity in numerous ways. Climate change: Whilst recognising climate change as “an additional dimension of risk for a range of issues including the environment”, the paper’s suggested response is: By building a sustainable and resilient environment, the level of risk from the impacts of climate change can be mitigated. (p11) We can reduce risks through adaptation, but mitigation of “climate risk” is only achieved through reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. A degraded environment is indeed less resilient to stresses and shocks, including those arising from climate change and we can improve environmental resilience through changing our behaviour. But the notion we can “build a sustainable and resilient environment” with our current technology is fanciful at best. Moreover there is no evidence to suggest that we have ever contemplated let alone tried to achieve this. The assertion is made that Government is working to reduce carbon emissions, but that population isn't a driver: Prosperity and the Sustainable Development Report indicate population growth does not result in dramatic differences regarding the level of per capita reductions required to meet a specified carbon target. This is because projected population changes constitute a relatively small proportion of the total population. (p.1) This would seem to represent “creative accounting”, as per capita emissions are not the determinant of national targets. A doubling in population is likely to increase our emissions by a similar amount meaning that we would have to halve carbon intensity over the same period just to keep emissions constant, never mind achieve the reductions that will be required to address climate change. It also ignores the fact that most immigrants come from countries that have significantly lower per capita emissions* and that these new arrivals will tend to increase their consumption to “Australian” levels. Australians have the largest per capita green house emissions, therefore increasing Australia's population is particularly unhelpful for global emissions generally. * Australians have approximately double the “per capita” emissions of Europe and between 5 and 250 times the “per capita” emissions of underdeveloped nations. Other environmental concerns; The report identifies the following "other environmental concerns" (p11): • rates of depletion of renewable resources such as through over-fishing • production and disposal of pollutants and their impacts on water and air quality, and • land and soil degradation resulting from poor management practices. These are appropriate factors that need due consideration, but instead they are followed by the statement: “The Australian Government is keen to consider all these issues in addressing the environmental sustainability of our changing population.” This would imply that limiting population growth has been excluded as one of the mechanisms for addressing these “concerns”. Economic sustainability: “Along with productivity and participation, population is a key element in growing Australia’s economy.” Australia's economic growth is being used here to justify population growth. This statement similarly underlines the basic premise in this report that Australia's population growth is a given. Doctors for the Environment Australia rejects this assertion and offers evidence to suggest that rapidly growing populations have a lower per capita increase in wealth and well-being, and nations such as Scandinavian countries have strong economies without population growth. While a growing population contributes to an increased GNP, it does not necessarily lead to increased per capita wealth. Again, we would endorse the statements made by the Sustainability Development Panel that: “There is no relationship between population growth and economic progress.” The evidence for this statement is discussed on (p21) of the Sustainability Development Panel Report. However, in contrast to this statement, the Minister’s report gives prominence to the assertions of the Productivity and Prosperity Panel that supports population driven economic growth (p14): The Demographic Change Report acknowledges the need for population growth because of increased demand for workers, but also notes that environmental pressures can be exacerbated by population growth. In contrast, the Productivity and Prosperity Report considers that a larger, more prosperous economy can devote more resources to repairing past environmental damage and investing in public goods. Similarly, the Productivity Report highlights the impacts of declining workforce participation and argues that “migration can smooth the transition to an older population” (p16). But is this really correct? Using migration in this way to “correct” this demographic imbalance has the consequence of deferring the same problem to the next generation. Worse, that problem becomes magnified by the now greater numbers involved, resulting in greater immigration being required in 30 years to address the recurrent demographic imbalance and so on. Addressing this “imbalance” now, in times of relative economic prosperity, is the more responsible approach, rather than allowing the next generation to face a larger problem with the risk of greater economic and environmental uncertainty. Infrastructure, housing and liveability: There has been a growing “infrastructure debt” over recent decades, despite economic and population growth (the scale of which is discussed in the Productivity and Prosperity Report but not included in the main report). However, the case made for population growth as “an opportunity for infrastructure renewal” is included despite its very tenuous links to economic, social or environmental sustainability. The growing gap between supply and demand for housing, now and over the next 20 years, is recognised in the paper, but “whilst posing challenges for our cities”, it asserts they can be overcome with “more responsive housing supply and continued innovation in urban planning”. The report continues to detail adverse effects on infrastructure, health and wellbeing (p18 /19): “Not all Australians are benefitting from this prosperity, and some continue to experience disadvantage.” “…education, housing, food security and infrastructure are important contributions to liveability and that many of Australia's disadvantaged communities are located on the fringes of major cities and in regional and remote areas.” “...for example, it is estimated that the avoidable cost of road congestion across Australian capital cities was approximately $9.4 billion in 2005, and projected to increase to $20.4 billion by 2020... Constraints in infrastructure can also appear in health, electricity and communications..” “Beyond the specific issues relating to community liveability and infrastructure discussed above, there are clearly many other community issues that may be impacted by our changing population. These include: • obesity and other health concerns • social cohesion • the social implications of ageing, and • green space areas in and around our communities.” Identifying these relationships is highly relevant to this debate. Collectively they would seem to challenge the notion of increasing and equitable prosperity in relation to population growth, perhaps even suggesting that we have an unsustainable society now. They certainly do not provide an incentive for continuing growth. Despite this, the report's concluding statement appears to sidestep these concerns: “The Australian Government is keen to examine all these issues in addressing the impact of a changing population and continue on the sustainability of our communities and infrastructure.” Alternate measures of economic prosperity: The Sustainability Development Panel Report also discussed the issue of using GDP as a proxy for economic progress. It is even less accurate as a measure of the standard of living, health or wellbeing. “The measures of economic activity do not capture the intangibles relevant to well being, such as community connections and the enjoyment of the environment, nor do they capture the distribution of wealth” Overcrowding, rising real estate prices and rent, and social instability from population growth can all lead to decreased quality of life and adverse health effects. For example, much of the population is working more hours than a generation ago, so has less time for family and recreation. We will not be able to measure or determine sustainability unless we develop and use accurate markers of standard of living, health and wellbeing. Without these it will be impossible to gauge if we are really making progress, or whether our society is becoming relatively impoverished or adversely affected by the decisions we make today. Clearly deterioration in these indices would suggest unsustainability. In conclusion: Food security and its importance are identified within the report as is the loss of arable land to expanding cities. But there is minimal, if any, discussion of future constraints that may arise in relation to climate change, ocean acidification, phosphate depletion or peak oil thus unwisely assuming the future will be much like the past. The issue of energy shocks relating to oil depletion over coming years and the economic ramifications have not been considered, in fact, not even mentioned. Despite the fact that world oil supplies on which we depend, are limited and demand is increasing with clear implications for both price and availability. The paper has not set out to determine the carrying capacity of Australia or examine the environmental limitations of population in Australia under current or future scenarios. As such it does not contain the basic underlying information required to determine a sustainable population for Australia. This makes little sense. It is abundantly clear that consideration of the limits or boundaries of a biological system are a primary consideration when defining the size or population of that system. Therefore, before progressing further down this path, there is an absolute need for a scientific review to form the basis for a sustainable population for Australia. Any other course of action would be unable to provide any useful real world guide to future population size or growth. Worse still a flawed analysis could lead to complacency and commit Australia to an unsustainable future population. But perhaps the biggest omission in this paper is the failure to question the overriding paradigm of perpetual growth. It must be patently obvious to all, that neither our population, nor our consumption can continue to grow indefinitely. It is also apparent that we are close to, if we have not already traversed, some of these limiting boundaries. A sustainable population must be defined by our regional environmental limits, therefore at some point, this will mean following a different economic and population trajectory: one of a “steady state”. The transition to this state will take considerable planning and will require adequate time. This is why defining a sustainable population as far in advance as possible is so important. To this end, by failing to define sustainability and ignoring the absolute constraints on population growth, the paper fails to address the real implications and significance of sustainability. Similarly, the concept that a vitally important scientifically based issue, key to our future prosperity, will be guided by community consultation and political consideration, rather than scientific and appropriate expert opinion, must be opposed in the strongest terms. Doctors for the Environment Australia’s population policy is at http://dea.org.au/images/general/Doctors_for_the_Environment_Australia_population_poli cy_with_endnotes.pdf