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At the weekend, environmental achievers from around the world gathered in Adelaide for the international celebrations of World Environment Day.
They will rightly take their place on the prestigious UNEP Global 500 Roll of Honour for Environmental Achievement.
These first laureates of the new millennium have been recognised for their efforts over a wide range of environmental issues - animal conservation, land management, industry innovation, energy efficiency, and indigenous involvement in environmental issues.
Australia should feel justifiably proud that three of the 14 new Global 500 laureates hail from our nation - the Australian Trust for Conservation Volunteers, Fuji-Xerox Australia, and the Adnyamathanha Nepabunna community from South Australia's mid-north. These three Australian winners have each made their own distinctive mark on environmental efforts - a mark which sets the standard for international excellence.
The Australian Trust for Conservation Volunteers manages a force of volunteers across Australia working on conservation projects. Working with the community, the ATCV completes more than 4,000 projects each year. Just one measure of its success has been its record of planting more than 7 million trees in the past decade.
The Adnyamathanha people of Nepabunna in the Flinders Ranges declared the world's first Indigenous Protected Area in August of 1998. This area, known as Nantawarrina, covers 58,000 hectares and allows for the continuation of traditional land uses while promoting conservation efforts. The involvement of the indigenous community in this conservation task has already seen a dramatic recovery in vegetation cover and habitat, mainly through the removal of feral animals. The success of Nantawarrina has seen a further five areas of Aboriginal land declared as Indigenous Protected Areas, with even more to follow.
The award to Fuji Xerox Australia has provided further acknowledgment of the role that Australian companies can play in protecting the environment by encouraging industry innovation. Fuji Xerox Australia developed a cost-effective form of recycled copy paper for use in digital equipment. The paper uses recycled waste from Australia's cotton industry along with wood pulp from sustainably managed forests. In doing so it protects our forests and reduces waste which would have normally gone to landfill.
Individually, these three award winners represent Australian environmental excellence to the world.
Taken collectively, their success underlines the new direction of environmental commitment which has developed in Australia over the past decade.
The late 1970s and the early 1980s were a time of environmental activism most often characterised by single-issue protests and political lobbying. All of this played a significant role in raising environmental awareness in Australia.
The 1990s and beyond has seen the community take hold of the environmental agenda - no longer satisfied with talking about the problems, the community is now part of the solution through on-ground efforts to protect our beaches, restore our waterways, reduce our waste, repair degraded lands and conserve our native species.
Some of the old guard of the environment movement haven't been willing or able to keep pace with the changing mood of the community.
I note that after the Global 500 Awards, the ABC's on-line news service quoted Green Senator Bob Brown as saying the UN awards had been a "greenwash" of deeper environment issues. Senator Brown was reported as saying the awards should have recognised the use of political and community power to influence changes to international environment policy.
So the efforts of indigenous Australians to conserve their traditional lands, the efforts of Australian industry to cut waste and reduce its impact on the environment, and the efforts of an Australian organisation in directing hands-on environmental repair efforts around Australia are not worthy, in Senator Brown's eyes, of international recognition.
It is always disappointing that there appears to be a small, noisy minority who refuse to give the Australian people any credit for the range of good work they do in the environment.
One only had to be at the award ceremony to see the graciousness and immense pride of the Adnyamanthanha-Nepabunna representatives to understand how much working for the environment means to their community and to see how the acknowledgment of their efforts is a significant boost to their people.
Similarly, the Australian Conservation Foundation could only find space for ten words in its World Environment Day media release to thank the Australian people for their environmental efforts. Needless to say the rest of their statement was dedicated to a political attack on the Howard Government. They have become more predictable than a "Neighbours" story line.
In contrast to the ideologically driven and mean-spirited approach of the noisy minority, our government believes that World Environment Day should be a day when we acknowledge what we do well, think about what we could be doing better and begin mobilising our efforts in that direction.
The Howard Government has sought to support the community in its on-ground efforts through the Natural Heritage Trust - itself an unprecedented effort to protect and restore our natural environment. The Trust - funded through the part-sale of Telstra - has already invested $870 million in almost 9,000 projects across Australia.
Among those projects has been financial support for the award winning efforts of the Adnyamathanha at Nantawarrina. Our Government has also been able to support the Australian Trust for Conservation Volunteers efforts to involve young people in environmental work through the successful Green Corps program.
The scope of the Natural Heritage Trust's work has been enormous, reflecting both the size of the environmental challenges facing Australia and the enthusiasm of our people to be involved in the solution.
The Trust has funded:
It's a long list and by no means exhaustive. In fact, as an indication of just how much the Trust does, the most recent edition of our Natural Heritage Trust journal contained a lift-out listing all of the community-based projects to be funded by the Trust in a single financial year (1999-2000). Even using small print, the list ran to an impressive 36 pages.
Through the Natural Heritage Trust we have recognised that our greatest asset in the fight against environmental degradation is in fact the community.
The Trust has allowed us to build partnerships with the community to the extent that we now estimate that more than 300,000 people have been involved in Trust projects.
We have also sought to mirror this effort through building partnerships with industry.
Since its election in 1996 the Howard Government has achieved a remarkable record in managing the economy. We have achieved economic growth rates which are the envy of the developed world and have overseen the creation of almost 700,000 new jobs.
But public surveys tell us that the community rates environmental protection as being of equal importance to economic growth.
So we have sought to work cooperatively with industry in key areas such as waste minimisation, energy efficiency, air quality, and greenhouse gas emissions.
Our aim has been to encourage industry to grow responsibly and sustainably - producing more goods and services while reducing its "footprint" on the natural environment.
Again the results achieved in a relatively short period of time have been remarkable - the Global 500 award to Fuji Xerox Australia being but one high profile achievement of Australian industry.
It also reflects the changing politics of the environment. In the 1970s, battle-lines on environmental issues were usually clearly drawn between industry and environmental lobby groups.
That has changed with environmentalists now more likely to achieve the outcome they are seeking by working with industry - a fact which does at times appear to be lost on some of the old guard environmental groups who still like to view issues in terms of black and white.
Industry is benefiting from our education system which really took hold of the environment as a mainstream education issue in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The children who so willingly learned about their environment, the problems it faced and how to be a part of the solution through such simple exercises as milk carton recycling have now moved into the workforce and, in many cases, into positions of responsibility in industry. The environmental lessons they learned through school now influence their decision-making processes in the workplace. Subjects such as Environmental Law and Environmental Science have also gained prominence in our tertiary education sector.
Industry has also, no doubt, read the mood of the public. Consumer power and the need to project and maintain a responsible corporate image have been significant drivers in the move of industry to a more sustainable basis.
And they have learned that good environmental practice is good economic practice - less waste and more efficient use of resources can contribute significantly to the bottom-line profit of any industry.
That is not to say, of course, that no more needs to be done. There is actually great scope for even further improvement and some would argue that we have only just scratched the surface in terms of what can be achieved through responsible resource use.
Leading environmental theorists are already articulating a strong case for a move toward even greater resource efficiency. They argue that for the world to continue to sustainably support its growing population, industry will need to at least double its output while halving its use of resources.
The next challenge for industry will be to radically rethink the way it goes about producing and supplying goods and services in line with achieving such a goal. But World Environment Day gives us the opportunity to acknowledge the significant steps that have already been taken.
Our nation's success in recycling is one example of government, industry and the community working together to achieve a world class outcome. Australia's newsprint industry has consistently exceeded the targets set for collection and recycling of newsprint. As at the end of 1999, the industry had achieved a recycling rate of almost 70 per cent - this rate is the world benchmark, exceeding even the United States. A new industry waste reduction agreement to be signed next month sets an even more ambitious target.
The Government has also been able to work with industry to spread the word on recycling. The construction industry is now achieving remarkable rates of waste reduction through better planning and greater recycling of waste. The Government's Wastewise Construction Program has seen construction companies such as the John Holland Group achieve a recycling rate of almost 90 per cent of all waste produced by weight throughout its national operations. At one construction site in Cronulla where Multiplex was demolishing one building to make way for 160 new apartments, 93 per cent of the demolition waste stream was recycled. It's not the sort of thing that makes headlines but it is a significant win for the environment and showcases another example of Australian industry achieving world's best practice.
The challenge of global warming will also require innovation and commitment from Australian industry. To date, the response from industry has been generally positive. Through the Government's Greenhouse Challenge program Australian companies have already committed to reductions totalling more than 20 million tonnes of carbon off business as usual projections. The Greenhouse Challenge is being expanded to include small businesses - that expansion is already running ahead of the target laid down by the Prime Minister in 1997.
Again, more will need to be done and the Government is working to support these efforts. The Commonwealth has established the world's first national greenhouse office and has committed almost $1 billion to programs to combat global warming and improve air quality. We have moved beyond "no regrets" measures and have instituted a mandatory target to increase the amount of electricity sourced from renewable energy sources. At the same time we are supporting the development and commercialisation of renewable energy technology. We have brought forward the phase-out date for leaded petrol.
We are also actively involved in the international negotiations under way to resolve the outstanding issues from Kyoto with the aim of removing any obstacles to ratification of the protocol.
While the more radical elements of the green movement still try to portray Australia as a laggard on greenhouse issues, the global community is prepared to acknowledge the significant steps we are taking and the seriousness with which Australia approaches its obligations.
At a recent conference held by the prestigious Pew Centre on Global Climate Change in Washington, Jonathan Pershing, the Head of the Energy and Environment Division of the International Energy Agency, was asked about countries' progress toward Kyoto targets.
He responded, "In terms of a country taking action with climate change as the driver, Australia, with expenditures of approximately US$500 million for a population of about 20 million and a broad mix of policies and measures that include voluntary action, regulations, taxes and market mechanisms, is clearly taking a lead in domestic action towards meeting the Kyoto target."
You would, of course, be hard pressed to find an environment group in Australia willing to give Australia any credit for the large amount of work we have already done in relation to climate change.
Australia has also gained global recognition for its efforts on a host of other environmental issues.
We have developed the world's first National Oceans Policy, provided $50 million to support its objectives and established a National Oceans Office to implement it. The policy has become to be viewed as something of an international benchmark for the protection and management of the marine environment. The United States, for example, has lavished praise on our work in this area.
We have also become a world leader in promoting the concept of marine protected areas in international waters, legally enforced under international laws of the sea. This has been a natural progression from our Government's management of our own marine protected areas, having declared two new areas covering the Great Australian Bight and the Tasmanian seamounts.
I have also been heartened by the growing international support and recognition of Australia's efforts to bring an end to the killing of whales. Later this year we will host the 52nd annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission where we will try to establish a South Pacific Whale Sanctuary. Our ultimate aim is, of course, to create a global sanctuary so these magnificent creatures can roam the waters of the world free from the threat of the whalers' harpoon.
We are also take a leading role in the protection of the world's endangered species through international bodies such as the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species and the Bonn Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Wildlife. As another example of industry and government working together, Australia successfully listed 14 species of albatross for protection under the Bonn Convention. We have since developed a threat abatement plan for Australian waters and are now leading the development of a similar plan for our region. The Australian fishing industry is playing its part by developing and trialling by-catch reduction devices. Already it appears that considerable progress has been made.
The Howard Government has also developed a Commonwealth Wetlands Policy and is viewed internationally as a key player in the preservation of wetlands of international significance under the RAMSAR Convention.
Australia is a world leader in the destruction of ozone depleting gases under the Montreal Protocol. We have destroyed more tonnes of halon 1211 than any other country, established a halon bank as a national and regional centre for the collection, recycling and destruction of halon gases and contributed more than US$17 million to assist developing nations in their efforts.
Australia's expertise in the sustainable management of forests is also considered to be a benchmark for world's best practice with the World Bank seeking our assistance in developing sustainable forestry practices in the developing nations of our region. Our Government has now established a series of Regional Forest Agreements across Australia, striking a sensible balance between conservation and resource security. These agreements have already seen 2 million hectares of forests added to reserve systems, an increase of almost 30 per cent.
We have also attracted international attention with our new Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act which comes into force next month. This new law represents the first overhaul and comprehensive updating of Australia's environment laws since the early 1970s. Already it has been hailed by environment groups as "the biggest win for the environment in 25 years." International biodiversity expert Dr Thomas Lovejoy hailed the Act as being among the most innovative he had seen anywhere in the world. The new law gives Australia the legislative framework it will require to protect the environment and promote sustainable economic development in the new millennium.
Later this week the Olympic flame will touch down at Uluru, with the world heritage listed National Park providing a breathtaking backdrop for the beginning of the torch's journey around Australia. Australia's management of its world heritage areas - ranging from the spectacular beauty of the Great Barrier Reef to the remote wilderness of the sub-Antarctic Heard and McDonald and Macquarie Islands - is regarded as world's best practice. In fact, the World Heritage Bureau has asked Australia to establish an Asia-Pacific Focal Point for World Heritage Managers so that we can share our expertise with the nations of our region.
The Olympics will also showcase the credentials of Australia's environment management industry through the range of "green" achievements incorporated in the development of the Homebush facilities - the remediation of contaminated soils, the regeneration of sensitive wetlands, and an athletes village and sporting facilities which set new standards in energy efficiency and water conservation. The expertise of Australia's environment management industry is highly regarded internationally and I had the pleasure of recently leading the first delegation of industry representatives to China. The potential for growth in this industry is enormous with the global market place worth an estimated US$500 billion.
In providing our expertise to the nations of our region we are playing our part in ensuring they develop their economies in a sustainable and environmentally responsible manner.
In doing so we will hopefully be helping them to avoid the mistakes that we have made in the past. Because, as I mentioned earlier, apart from acknowledging the things we do well, World Environment Day is a time when we should give serious thought to what we could be doing better.
Australia has made mistakes in the past in the management of its natural resources. We still face challenges in this regard, some of which unfortunately appear to be the result of some parties refusing to learn from the past.
We still clear our land at an unsustainable rate and we still over-allocate water from our key rivers, both of which are major causes of the major salinity problem facing our nation.
We can do more to reduce our waste-stream, particularly in the area of packaging, and increase the rate of recycling.
We need to do more to ensure that the environment is a core issue in all industry decision-making processes.
What gives us confidence that we can meet these challenges is the track record of our people - the Australian community is a world leader in environmental awareness and action.
In a speech I gave earlier this year, I said I hoped that on World Environment Day that Australia would take the time to give itself a bit of a pat on the back and celebrate its outstanding environmental achievements.
Today is a day for the everyday heroes of the Australian environment - we should acknowledge and thank them for their work. In doing so we will inspire them to even greater efforts.