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Here's the plan to sustain a green and pleasant land
by Claire Miller
Environmental Reporter

IMAGINE an economy modelled on an ecological system. First and foremost, there would be no such thing as pollution because nothing would be produced that could not be reused, reconstituted or recycled either by industry, households or natural ecosystems.

Everything from factories to housing would be designed to maximise self-sufficiency in energy and waste management. Water leaving factories would be cleaner than when it went in, while new manufacturing processes would make more from fewer materials and energy. Companies would operate closed-loop production systems in which they took back their worn-our products to renew them.

Farming would integrate biodiversity conservation with food production. Wasteful monocultures would be replaced by sophisticated mixed-crop techniques relying on genetic diversity to resist pests and diseases.

Cars, buses and trucks made from ultra-light, ultra-strong carbon fibre would run on fuel cells, emitting only water vapor.

Governments would measure the material success of this new economy by the accumulation, not depreciation, of natural assets such as clean air, clean water, fertile soil and biodiversity. Rational economic theory would dictate that economies rely on properly functioning environments to sustain growth and social wellbeing.

Everywhere, people would profit from new jobs and the improved quality of life delivered by the new system. Dubbed the green revolution, it would go down in history as the third great turning point in human affairs after the agricultural and industrial revolutions.

Utopian as such a scenario may sound, the technologies required already exist or are on their way, according to a comprehensive report on sustainable development to be released this week by the Governor-General, Sir William Deane.

Natural Advantage: a blueprint for a sustainable Australia draws on emerging international trends in trade, green consumerism and technical innovation to warn that countries that are not prepared for this revolution will be left behind to stagnate. The report by the Australian Conservation Foundation concludes that Australia must make a choice.

It can stick with its current ``hot, heavy and wet'' economy that requires large amounts of polluting fossil-fuel energy, raw materials and water per unit of gross domestic product. This is the economy that has made Australia the world's worst per capita greenhouse polluter and a leader in species extinction, not to mention undermining its agricultural base as a food exporter by seriously degrading its land and water.

Alternatively, Australia can use its natural environmental advantages to modernise its economy, in the same way as in the past it exploited natural resources to drive growth. Australia, the report suggests, is the perfect place to capitalise on the coming green revolution in environmental technologies, sustainable farming and clean energy.

``First, the image works,'' the report says. ``It is easy to perceive Australia as `clean and green'. Indeed, we have used the image without substantiation to attempt to gain market advantage.''

More substantially, Australia already has a market advantage in certain fields such as solar technology (lots of sunshine plus previous research and development), water technologies (salinity solutions are stimulating innovation) and land rehabilitation (loads of experience cleaning up the damage from mining and inappropriate agricultural practices).

``Unless we can `cool, lighten and dry' our economy, we will be stuck in the 21st century peddling the products of the 20th century,'' the report warns. ``Coal, uranium, woodchips, iron ore and even aluminium will decline in demand and value in the coming decades.

'' Some of Australia's most influential companies, individuals and groups - including BHP, BP, Southcorp, recycling magnate Dick Pratt, former prime minister Malcolm Fraser and the ACTU - share the report's concerns, and have endorsed the thrust of its proposed plan.

``Changes in technology are disproving the belief that economies face an unavoidable trade-off between jobs and the environment,'' New South Wales Premier Bob Carr says in the report. ``Inefficient production methods and costly add-on pollution controls are now being replaced by smart new processes and products that are highly efficient in their use of energy and natural resources.

``Those who see the environment as a mainstream economic concern and not just a regulatory afterthought are leading this revolution, creating enormous opportunities for investment and jobs growth.''

The blueprint offers a comprehensive plan for restructuring the economy. It is divided into 25 self-contained modules grouped into four sections: policy and regulatory change; market-based solutions; natural assets; and sustainable cities, industries and regions. Each module could be implemented in its own right; collectively they offer a pragmatic vision for an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable Australia.

The technical, scientific and intellectual base for most of the changes already exists here and overseas. Key market-based elements include taking the ``green shears'' to the economy to remove hidden taxpayer subsidies for environmentally damaging activities such as fossil-fuel consumption and woodchipping, and reforming the tax system to tax pollution, not work.

Pointing to opinion polls in which Australians have consistently favored environmental protection over economic growth, the report says the nation ``will respond positively to a big national project that has the environment as its theme, especially one aimed at prosperity, modernisation and optimism''.

It urges governments to pursue sustainability reform with as much enthusiasm and vigor as national competition policy and the introduction of the GST.

``The National Sustainable Future Policy needs teeth as sharp and as big as the National Competition Policy's,'' says the report. ``And it will find greater community acceptance than competition policy.''

The Age Publication
16 October 2000

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