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Minister for the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts 2001-2004

The Hon Dr David Kemp, MP



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Australian Minister for the Environment and Heritage
The Hon Dr David Kemp, MP

Australian Academy of Science 2004 Fenner Conference
Australian National University, Canberra
Monday, 24 May 2004

Understanding the population/environment debate: bridging the disciplinary divide

Thank you very much Professor Fenner for your kind welcome and the invitation to open this conference on population and environment.

Before I start I would like to acknowledge your outstanding record of academic and scientific leadership. Your role as patron of this Fenner Conference is yet another demonstration of your dedication and long-standing contribution to Australian science.

Governments are already grappling with issues of population and environment, and the advice coming out of this conference will help to create sound and effective policies and programmes.

Any debate about population and the environment should recognise the complexity of the issue. Population trends concern the number of human beings impacting on the resource base and the ecological systems upon which all life and well-being depends.

The impact of population trends will vary, depending on geographical, distributional, technological and importantly, cultural factors. There is no simple equation between population growth and environmental damage, no mantra about development and environmental impact. Indeed, one of the primary goals of policy is ecologically sustainable development - a concept which connotes the compatibility of development with the maintenance of ecosystem functioning.

As Dr Butler stated in his June 2003 paper on Population and Environment for the Academy, the issue of population and environment - especially when projected to the future - cannot be separated from that of sustainability.

The worst drought in a century has brought home to Australians from Albany to Sydney the need to manage our natural resources on a long-term and sustainable basis.

Genuine efforts to put this continent on a sustainable basis require a rounded environmentalist impulse which recognises that no quality of life can be maintained, and no decent community life continued, unless we value the natural environment which supports and sustains us, and take it into account in our decisions.

Environmental sustainability is very much at the top of the national agenda of priorities.

Australia is a fragile land where past practices have had environmental consequences. As we plan for the future, Australia must consider the impact of our economic activity on our continent, especially in relation to issues such as:

I would like to take a few moments to focus on the urban environment to illustrate the nexus between the economy, society and the environment underpinning sustainability.

In our urban centres the historical patterns of growth are changing. Population growth on the peripheries is no longer a given as the centres of our cities are revitalised with apartments and medium-density housing.

To some extent, there are now two opposing forces at work shaping our urban lifestyles - reurbanisation in the centre, and suburbanisation on the outskirts. Each has its own implications for our lifestyle and for our environment.

It is important that we identify and understand the forces encouraging growth in the major cities if we are to anticipate future changes in population growth and achieve a basis for sustainable cities.

Achieving a sustainably-built environment will require effective partnerships between governments, architects, engineers, landscape architects, planners, builders and developers - partnerships that are being encouraged in 2004 by the Year of the Built Environment.

The Year's events and activities are encouraging the community to appreciate and achieve built environments that are sustainable, are practical and provide us with an improved lifestyle. The Year's activities hopefully will provide the impetus for the community to address the challenges of sustainable development, energy efficiency and public amenity in the years to come.

The Year of the Built Environment builds on some real successes across the country as a result of Government action:

Sustainable development is at the heart of the Howard Government's approach, with systems and processes in place at the highest level to enable us to apply an integrated, whole-of-government approach to environmental problems. The Treasurer, in his Budget speech two week's ago, identified "sustainable development as a cornerstone of Australia's continuing prosperity". The environment is an equal partner to the triple bottom line, and has a key place at the table in government's decision-making.

The Prime Minister set up and chairs the Sustainable Environment Committee of Cabinet to ensure that environmental considerations are central to decisions on economic growth and development. As you know, a Sustainable Australia is one of the nation's top research priorities. I am excited by our current work on energy because it is making decisions about economic growth and development while fully taking into account the environmental and social angles. It is about sustainability in action.

Over the past decade, Australian governments have adopted ecologically sustainable development principles to guide our management of the environment and decision making. The Howard Government has put sustainable development principles into action, providing a solid foundation for sustainability through its Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

The $3 billion The Natural Heritage Trust and the $1.4 billion National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality - Australia's largest environmental rescue programs - have as their key objectives the mobilisation of the community to achieve the sustainable use of natural resources.

The Government has invested more resources than ever before into environmental programmes:

In the coming financial year, total spending by the Australian Government on the environment across all portfolios will reach a record $2.4 billion.

At the heart of these activities has been the partnership with the Australian community.

Industry has a process to cultivate awareness, to utilise science and to encourage the ownership of Australia's environmental values and natural capital.

The more people realise the economic value of our catchments in the supply of clean water, or the costs of dryland salinity not only to agricultural productivity but to infrastructure, the broader our pathway to a Sustainable Australia will become.

The more we account for the environmental status of our lands, waters and air, whether through Greenhouse Gas Inventories or the National Carbon Accounting System, the mapping of Marine Protected Areas, or regular State of the Environment Reports, the more we become aware not only of the issues, but also of the progress and the challenges we still face.

The more we expand our knowledge of this fragile land and apply that knowledge to the problems we face, the more sustainable Australia will become.

And the more we invite Australians to take ownership of these issues, the more they will take ownership of their solutions.

So how can a conference like this one help us identify and address the important challenges relating to population and the environment so that we can achieve sustainability?

Recognising the complex and multidisciplinary nature of the issues is a very good start. This conference provides an opportunity for the integration of a whole range of disciplines and will encourage vigorous debate and interaction between different disciplines looking at the real problem - population AND environment.

Benefits arise when different disciplines come together to share their knowledge and expertise. Breakthroughs in understanding occur where disciplines intersect.

The understanding of the natural world we obtain through the sciences needs to be supplemented by the understanding of the functioning of the economy and culture we obtain from the disciplines of economics and the other social sciences. And while the social sciences will help us to understand how human society handles questions of values, we will need to resort also to the insights of philosophy to formulate the most appropriate questions we need to answer.

I place considerable faith in innovative technology to solve some of the physical environmental problems. But we must still face the public policy questions of economic organization and planning challenges to achieve sustainability.

Our political democracy and our flexible economy give us great advantages in the drive to sustainability. Our democracy ensures that community ownership of the need to integrate environmental with other issues is seen as a key requirement of a successful sustainability strategy. Our more flexible market economy means we can more easily integrate environmental considerations into an economic growth strategy.

While governments of all jurisdictions have been at least partly successful, creating a sustainable Australia will require significant institutional and individual changes. It is, essentially, a challenge that is everyone's responsibility.

We need to consider collectively the strategic approaches necessary for sustainable development.

We are putting in place a strategic framework to address environmental issues of national concern. The Government's aim is to achieve integrated natural resource management across all of Australia's catchment regions (56 in all) and throughout Australia's Exclusive Economic Zone and continental seas by means of regional marine planning.

Across Australia, regional communities and individuals, with support from the Australian Government, are doing outstanding work to address our environmental challenges.

How people can live on this planet sustainably and the policies needed to encourage them to do so, is a guiding philosophy behind policies to enlist communities in practical efforts to clean up our air and water, use energy efficiently, economise on scarce resources, cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, plant native vegetation to combat salinity, fish sustainably, manage forests, encourage recycling and a range of other measures designed to attempt to put human community and the natural environment together sustainably.

Debates like this year's Fenner Conference are essential for ensuring our current and future strategies to manage population and the environment are effective.

I am delighted that this conference provides you with an opportunity to recognise and to interact on the multidisciplinary nature of the issues. I look forward to reading your Conference Action Plan which, I hope, will provide some suggestions on how to manage the future challenges posed by population and environment.

Commonwealth of Australia