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"Sustainable Development - Everybody's Business"


An address to the
Business Leaders Forum on Sustainable Development
by the
Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Senator the Hon Robert Hill

Canberra
October 27, 2000

If a survey was done of the Australian community to identify what was their favourite sporting moment from the Sydney Olympics, none of us would be surprised to find that the majority would nominate Cathy Freeman's run in the 400 metre final.

Freeman, of course, won the final in a time of 49.11 seconds - but in a time which did not match her personal best which she set in taking silver in Atlanta four years earlier.

Imagine for a moment what the public reaction would have been on that night in Sydney if the officials had decided that Freeman would only be awarded a bronze medal, because even though she won, they believed she could have run faster.

Now cast your minds back to the days leading up to the Games when Greenpeace handed down its official verdict on the green performance of the Olympic preparations.

In terms of environmental performance, this was without doubt the greatest Olympics ever seen;

And these are just a few of the countless environmental achievements of the companies involved in the Green Games.

As I said, the best the world has ever seen and all achieved by Australian industry. But still not good enough for Greenpeace. Their verdict - a bronze medal for Australia.

Fortunately it was not a view shared by anyone who visited the Homebush complex, particularly the representatives of the Athens Games and those countries seeking to win the 2008 games who seemed genuinely in awe of what had been achieved, knowing they will have to attempt to emulate it.

But it does represent one of the more frustrating aspects of the environment debate in Australia - that being the reluctance or inability of some Australians to acknowledge real achievements and to give credit for the good work being done both within our industries and the broader community.

Another reflection of this under-recognition of Australia's environmental efforts came in the media coverage of the recent launch of the Australian Conservation Foundation's discussion paper on sustainable development, titled "Natural Advantage".

The underlying tone of much of the coverage appeared to imply that corporate involvement in the launch somehow represented industry making its first move to seriously engage in the debate on sustainability.

Those of us here today know that's simply not the case.

The move toward sustainable development in Australian industry has been going on in many forms for a number of years now. It hasn't so much expressed itself in discussion papers or media events but rather in practical forms such as waste reduction, recycling and re-use, and energy efficiency drives. In the early stages, more often than not this improved environmental performance was a fortunate by-product of cost-saving measures. Along the way the focus switched to seeking out environmental gains such as reduced resource inputs to deliver economic savings

The role that industry can play in providing better environmental outcomes while still achieving its profit and growth goals has been central to our government's thinking and decision making.

We have worked cooperatively with industry to move down the path toward true sustainability - where our pursuit of economic growth does not deplete our natural systems or devalue the quality of life of our communities.

I would be the first to admit that there is still a long way to go to achieve that goal but again we should not make the mistake of failing to acknowledge what we have already achieved.

Our Government has sought to play a national leadership role in these efforts through providing a contemporary legislative framework, developing consistent national standards, and through targeted programs to assist and encourage industry sectors to improve their environmental performance.

The new Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act represents the first overhaul of Australia's outdated environment laws in almost 30 years. It is premised on the principles of Ecologically Sustainable Development, principles which must be taken into account in government decisions under the legislation.

Through the National Environment Protection Council we have worked with the States and Territories to deliver uniform national standards on issues such Ambient Air Quality, Contaminated Sites, Controlled Waste, Packaging, and a National Pollutant Inventory. A common approach to environmental standards across State boundaries has delivered major benefits to industries which previously were forced to operate under different rules in different jurisdictions. It also espouses the social principle that all Australians have the right to the same level of environmental protection regardless of which State or Territory they may live in.

But it is through our targeted assistance programs that we have particularly been able to achieve significant progress with Australian industry and this success has been spread across a number of important industry sectors: oil and automotive, construction and demolition, mining, and packaging to name a few. It has included promotion of the use of the tools of sustainability such as environmental reporting, product stewardship, eco-efficiency and environmental accounting.

Earlier this year, we passed legislation to underpin product stewardship in the oil industry and increase the volume of waste oil recycled through the imposition of a sales levy on oil. This was a world first and it will help bring to account the 30-to-50 million litres of waste oil that goes missing each year in Australia - no doubt finding its way into the natural environment.

We have also provided the industry with support to increase the collection of waste oil from remote and regional Australia and to develop market opportunities for the recycled product. We are now examining the possible extension of the product stewardship principle to deal with the 17 million tyres scrapped in Australia each year and to cover the major components of motor vehicles such as glass and plastics.

The Commonwealth has also required improved fuel standards and increased fuel efficiency from our motor vehicle manufacturers. The new Fuel Standards Bill is currently before the Senate.

Earlier, I mentioned the construction of Stadium Australia at Homebush. The construction company responsible for this project, Bovis Lend Lease, was one of 14 of Australia's largest building companies who have been involved in our WasteWise Construction Program. All of the partners from this program have reduced their waste to landfill by more than 50 per cent and for some construction projects waste reduction levels have reached 95 per cent. Along the way these companies have made major savings in waste management costs, further confirmation that good environmental performance can deliver a better bottom line profit.

We are also working with the building industry to incorporate energy efficiency standards in the Building Code of Australia - a move which will lead to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. These higher standards will help direct business towards sustainable industries involved in building and plant design, and manufacture and installation of insulation, windows, lighting, airconditioning and other elements of building systems.

The mining industry, the traditional bete noir of green groups, has also made significant progress in addressing sustainability issues. The Best Practice Environmental Management in Mining Program, developed by the industry and the Commonwealth, is recognised as a world benchmark in the mining industry. This series of 21 modules has also been translated for use overseas, particularly in developing nations in our region. The program helps mining operations in these countries to improve their own environmental performance while assisting regulators to develop and enforce more rigorous environmental standards.

Also, through its Code of Environmental Practice, the industry has been at the forefront of the use of public environmental reporting. Environmental accounting and public environment reports are key tools for sustainable development. They help companies deliver the win-win outcome of better environmental outcomes and better bottom line profits of which I have spoken. They act as internal disciplines to identify and eliminate waste, reduce resource use and cut energy consumption. They also act as an external check to give greater confidence to both shareholders and the broader community about the environmental performance of the company's operations.

Again, the Commonwealth has sought to build on this initiative. We have developed and released a National Framework on Public Environmental Reporting and we are helping to fund officers in three peak business groups to develop models suitable to their members and encourage their use.

The Commonwealth has also worked successfully with industry in tackling the issue of waste from packaging. The result has been the National Packaging Covenant which again is the first of its kind in the world. The Covenant is a voluntary agreement that involves the entire packaging chain in actions to reduce the environmental impact of packaging products. It also seeks to close the recycling loop by developing markets for recovered material and providing an economical, sustainable basis for kerbside collection services. Already there are 130 signatories to the Covenant including 104 industry organisations.

Environment Australia is also working in partnership with key industry sectors to spread the eco-efficiency message. This is being pursued, among other means, through cooperative agreements with peak industry groups. Our work with the Housing Industry Association is progressing well and we are about to enter a new partnership with the Australian Food and Grocery Council.

The cooperative agreements are a commitment by these industry associations to promote and increase the uptake of eco-efficiency and improved environmental performance of their members. The Associations establish within their membership leaders in sustainable development that can demonstrate to others the economic and competitive advantages of eco-efficiency. We will soon be announcing a number of new partnerships founded on the same principles.

As I referred to earlier, Australia's environment management industry has recently had its expertise on show to the world through the Sydney Olympics. The Commonwealth has worked with the Environment Management Industry Association to further develop the massive potential market for Australian environmental expertise in our region. We are developing a national capability statement for the industry as well as an Action Agenda to assist the industry to capitalise on both domestic and export business opportunities.

Lastly, sustainable development is, of course, particularly relevant to our agriculture industry. Through the $1.5 billion Natural Heritage Trust we have supported a range of environment and sustainable agriculture projects and in particular recognition of the reality that you can't have one without the other.

Again, the Prime Minister's recently announced National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality will provide the basis to further repair the damage of the past and move the industry toward a sustainable footing.

In conclusion, the experience of the past four years is that the most effective way forward is to engage all industry sectors in the debate, focus on the win-win outcome of a better environment and a better bottom-line profit, and work together to identify and fully utilise all opportunities to deliver that outcome.

The Business Leaders Forum is an opportunity to appreciate what has been achieved, to draw on each others experiences to fine tune the tools of sustainability, and commit to even better outcomes for the future.

I thank you all, and in particular our overseas guests, for your participation.

Commonwealth of Australia