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Agenda 21: From Global Vision to Local Action

Senator the Hon Robert Hill
Minister for the Environment

Pathways to Sustainability Conference
5 June 1997
(World Environment Day)


It's a pleasure to join you this morning, particularly on World Environment Day, (and on the bicentenary of Newcastle). I'd like to contribute to your proceedings by offering a federal perspective on Australia's progress towards environmental sustainability five years after Rio.

World Environment Day, is an apt occasion to pause and reflect on what has been achieved, and on the challenges that remain.

Agenda 21: Not Rushing to Judgement:

Can I start by saying that we ought to resist the temptation to rush to judgement on the implementation of Agenda 21. It was never designed, nor did it ever promise, to deliver immediate results.

Agenda 21 was a global commitment to change attitudes towards the environment in our governments, boardrooms and households -- a commitment to make environment part of political mainstream. It was a task requiring cultural, institutional and behavioural changes of such magnitude it might be compared to a tectonic plate shift.

While we might like to have seen more action on the ground, to the extent that environmental factors are now routinely part of the equation in decisions by governments, businesses and individuals, we have come a long way this decade.

I think that the title of this conference, "Pathways to Sustainability" is very appropriate because it recognises that the journey to sustainability is a long one, and it also recognises that there is more than one path.

But the longer we take to act, the more those pathways to sustainability will deteriorate, and the more difficult our journey becomes. So, while we accept that attitudinal change is a vital prerequisite to environmental change, much of that groundwork has been done, and the nations of the world must now focus on a program of implementation and action. They will have that opportunity when they meet later this month to assess the implementation of Agenda 21, at a special session of the United Nations General Assembly (or "Earth Summit 2").

Any objective assessment would conclude that Australia's performance on the Agenda 21 priorities has been mixed. But, before turning to our domestic position, its important to put it into regional and global context.

Putting our Problems in International Context:

Most of our environmental dilemmas are not nearly as daunting as those confronting many of our near Asian neighbours. This is largely because we have not experienced anything like the same explosion in population and associated industrial activity, nor are we subject to the environmental consequences of poverty in the same way.

The Asia-Pacific region will see the equivalent of a new city of one million people every week until the year 2020. The consequent environmental pressures are already doing enormous damage to urban communities, particularly through increased household and industrial waste, and declining water quality and air quality.

In extreme cases, air pollution has been so bad in Asia that satellites have been unable to detect large industrial cities.(Reference: Rheinhardt & Veitor -- Harvard Business School -- Business Management & the Natural Environment, 1996 -- Case 23 - "China - Energy & the Environment")

Environmental degradation in the Asia-Pacific region is not confined to urban settings, with deforestation, and other unsustainable land use practices exacting a heavy toll on rural ecosystems.

That we are not experiencing the same pressures as many of our neighbours is fortuitous, but it is no cause for complacency. Indeed the greatest environmental challenge for future Australian governments may be helping our neighbours to implement Agenda 21. The better our domestic record is in meeting the challenges of environmental protection and repair , the greater our capacity will be to contribute to solving regional problems.

State of the Environment Report 1996 -- A Mixed Assessment:

According to the 1996 State of the Environment Report (SOE), the first comprehensive assessment of the condition of Australia's environment, our domestic environmental record is ambiguous.

On the one hand, the environment has become part of the political mainstream, with governments, business, and individuals now accepting the reality that economic and environmental goals must be integrated -- that we simply cannot pursue them in isolation. Major legislative and institutional changes since 1992, particularly at the State level, have substantially increased our capacity to protect and restore our environmental assets.

In terms of tangible positive changes to our environment, we have had a number of successes: like dramatic reductions in the use of CFCs, reductions in lead emissions, and isolated successes in saving endangered species.

However, many of our environmental problems have not abated and some have even worsened since 1992. The health of our Inland rivers has deteriorated, land degradation and land clearing continues to be a major problem, and our successes in saving some endangered species has been offset by a continued overall loss of biodiversity .

In summary, our "natural debt" remains at least as serious as our national debt. The crucial difference between the two, and the reason why we must now focus on implementation is that some of the natural debt can never be repaid -- for example, when species are lost, we are forever "in the red".

Although when we think of environmental damage we often focus on rural and regional Australia, it's important as we consider this year's World Environment Day theme "For Life on Earth" to remember that for most Australians, life revolves around our capital and provincial cities.

At the global level, the parties to Agenda 21 have identified many urban environmental issues as priorities, the major concerns being air and water quality, waste management, energy and transport issues. When the APEC Environment Ministers meet in Toronto next week, sustainable cities will be high on the agenda.

A close look at these issues in the Australian context reveals some disturbing trends.

Sustainable Urban Living -- The Next Priority:

Our suburbs continue to expand ever-outwards, exacerbated by a fall in the average number of people per household.

More of us are choosing to live near our coasts, even though 17 in every 20 Australians are already there. As a result, our many coastal provincial cities are growing as fast, or faster than, our capitals -- and as they increase in size so do their environmental problems.

Despite some impressive gains in domestic recycling, much of which has been achieved through innovative Local government programs supported by industry, our urban waste creation and management patterns are still unsustainable.

Large problems remain in how we deal with stormwater and sewage in and around our cities, and our inland and coastal waters are suffering as a result.

Transport trends also give us cause for concern. We use more fuel per head than most developed nations, our average fuel efficiency is low, and unlike many other comparable nations, the number of Australians using public transport is falling.

Partly as a result of our reliance on the motor vehicle, air pollution continues to be an important environmental threat. There have been some dramatic improvements in reducing carbon monoxide and lead levels in our air, however there has been little progress with respect to other pollutants like small particulates and airborne toxics, and growing medical evidence about the adverse health effects of these and other pollutants has fuelled increasing public concern.

Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth, but you wouldn't know it from the way we consume water. Over the past 40 years, domestic consumption has increased significantly, in part due to higher per capita rates.

In order to quench the national thirst, we need to store far more water per capita than other countries, in part because of our high degree of weather variability. This places even more pressure on our scarce water resources, already heavily stressed by agricultural and industrial use.

A final matter of concern in our urban environment is the deterioration and depletion in the remaining areas of remnant vegetation and habitat. Some of our threatened species happen to choose the same places as us to call home, and we must do more to ensure their survival by protecting their remaining habitat.

Key Commonwealth Actions on Urban Sustainability - - "Investing in Implementation":

1) The Natural Heritage Trust:

The centrepiece of our environmental agenda is the $1.2 billion Natural Heritage Trust, the biggest program of environmental protection and repair in Australian history -- which moves from concept to action.

The Trust will provide the impetus needed to tackle major environmental threats to native vegetation, rivers and catchments, biodiversity, land quality, and our coasts and oceans. Furthermore, by funding the NHT through the part sale of Telstra, we are providing unprecedented security for Commonwealth environment funding.

The NHT is a partnership and Local Government is an essential partner in ensuring that the potential environmental gains of the program are realised. I would hope that other states would follow Queensland's lead where a formal agreement between the State Government and local authorities is being established to ensure maximum involvement of councils in the NHT process. But apart from the "green" agenda, the NHT, will also help to tackle some of the urban environmental threats I've mentioned.

For example, as part of the $100 million Coast and Clean Seas Initiative, we will help ameliorate the impact of sewage, stormwater, and other land based marine pollutants by collaborating with Local Government to fund capital works and improved management technologies.

The National Vegetation Initiative will help fund the protection of remnant urban vegetation, and assist with efforts to re-establish urban vegetation and habitats.

We recognise that far more needs to be done to tackle the environmental issues that we confront in our cities and towns.

2) N.E.P.C -- Raising Environmental Standards and Human Health:

We are committed to better outcomes through the National Environmental Protection Council which also has local government input. Within 4 months of the Howard government's election, we convened the first meeting of NEPC.

As a result, we are now well on the way to establishing nationwide improvements in environmental protection through National Environmental Protection Measures for Ambient Air Quality, and for the National Pollutant Inventory.(NPI)

By requiring public disclosure of toxic chemical releases, the NPI will satisfy the public's "right to know," improve our knowledge about the extent of pollution, and provide an incentive for continual improvements in environmental business practice.

By finalising national ambient air quality standards we will have delivered national consistency and equivalent protection to all Australians, regardless of their location. This work is being complemented by an independent Commonwealth funded inquiry into Air Pollution aimed at finding practical and cost-effective ways to improve urban air quality.

In addition to its work on Air Quality and the NPI, work by NEPC is well under way to develop appropriate protection measures with respect to the transport of hazardous waste and contaminated sites. This will be followed by the development of NEPMs for water quality.

Through NEPC, sustainable urban priorities will finally be subject to a nationally consistent framework designed to ensure desirable environmental gains at the local level. .

3) ANZECC -- Improving Waste Reduction & Management:

Additionally, through the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC) we are pursuing a national target to reduce waste by 50% by the year 2000. The development of a global packaging agreement with all parts of the packaging chain is a key component of our efforts to reach this target.

We recognise that when it comes to waste, prevention is always better than a cure.

Comprehensive waste prevention means going beyond a "life-cycle" approach to waste management. That is, rather than simply aiming to reduce the waste impacts of a product from "cradle to grave," we want to ensure that "waste" never reaches the grave -- that it returns to the "cradle" as a resource for another product.

Prominent American environmentalist and business management author , Paul Hawken, puts it well when he suggests that our production processes need to mimic nature, where everything is recycled in some way -- thereby forming a perpetual cycle in which there is ultimately no waste. Rather than thinking about waste in a linear "cradle to grave" way, Hawken says, "A cyclical, restorative economy thinks cradle to cradle, so that every product or by-product is imagined in its subsequent forms even before it is made." (Hawken, P. "The Ecology of Commerce," Harper, NY 1993 pp.38,71)

The benefits of this approach were obvious to the ten Australian companies which participated in the Federal Government's Cleaner Production Demonstration Project. This pilot program which involved ten companies from different industry sectors demonstrated that it is entirely possible for Australian businesses to prevent waste and save money at the same time. Later today in the Newcastle City Council Town Hall I will be launching the results of the Pilot Project in a manual called "Environment and Business: Profiting from Cleaner Production.

In addition to providing the practical proof of the profitability of cleaner production, we are working with ANZECC to develop a National Strategy for Cleaner Production. This will help ensure that Australia's one million odd companies have the information, incentive and capacity to move to sustainable production practices that are more resource efficient and reduce pollution and waste.

These measures will have a "flow-on" effect by reducing the amount of waste collected by Local Government, and ultimately reducing the impact on our environment.

4) Responding to Climate Change:

Also vital is our partnership approach to climate change. The new National Greenhouse Strategy, which is being developed with co-operation of local government, will set in place a framework for a better domestic response in the years ahead.

Local Government can help the national effort by joining the Commonwealth's Greenhouse Challenge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by Council activities across the country.

I note that Newcastle City Council recently joined the Greenhouse Challenge -- the first local authority to sign on -- I encourage other local authorities to follow Newcastle's lead to find ways to save energy, save ratepayers money, and help the environment at the same time

In addition to reducing the impact of Council operations, Local Government is ideally placed to work with communities to reduce greenhouse emissions. It is estimated that Local Government has direct impact over the sources of over 50% of Australia's greenhouse emissions. (Source: CCCPC Brief to RMH from EPG)

In recognition of your key role, I am pleased today to announce funding to facilitate Australian local government implementation of the Cities for Climate Protection Campaign -- a highly successful campaign which is currently under way in over 150 cities worldwide.

The objective of the program is to help Local Government reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their communities, through increasing energy efficiency, and by developing creative transportation management, building policies and land-use strategies.

In addition to complementing the Greenhouse Challenge program by achieving additional emission reductions at the local level, the Cities for Climate Protection partnership with councils has the potential to lead to significant and continued savings for businesses and ratepayers.

Working with Local Government to Help the Environment:

It's obvious, therefore that we believe in "thinking globally, acting locally."

The chain of environmental policy administration is only as good as each of its links, and in so many instances, local government is the last and most crucial link in the chain. Local Government is at the "coal-face" when it comes to urban planning, environmental health, water supply, pollution control, sewage treatment, waste management and disposal, and natural resource management.

For this reason, the best national strategy or the biggest funding package is useless without the commitment to act at the local level.

When local government is committed we see innovations in environmental management that give the community the best possible environmental return on each dollar of public money spent.

Because Local Government commitment and innovation is such an important part of translating policy into this sort of local action I am committed to strengthening the Commonwealth relationship with local government to achieve the best possible environmental result.

In addition to the NHT, and the Cities for Climate Protection Campaign, the Commonwealth is building other environmental co-operative links with local government.

For example, we fund skilled Environmental Resource Officers who, in conjunction with State Local Government Associations, work in support of local environmental innovation. These officers provide a critical link between my department and local authorities. They ensure that Commonwealth environmental programs are practical, and they assist local councils to achieve environmental best practice .

Recognising the value of this scheme, I am pleased today to announce that it will be expanded. Another two ERO's will be funded by the Commonwealth, one to be based in the Northern Territory, and one to work with Councils on national issues such as greenhouse gases.

The Importance of Local Agenda 21:

Finally, I'd like to reinforce the importance of Local Agenda 21.

Agenda 21 provides councils with a comprehensive list of priorities to make sustainability a reality at the local level. The Local Agenda 21 concept is particularly useful in that it dovetails well with the commitments made by national governments in Rio.

Local Agenda 21 offers councils great scope for networking and exchange of expertise, and nothing illustrates that better than this conference.

Local Agenda 21 is a flexible framework -- not a "one-size-fits-all" set of rules -- so in that sense it too recognises that the best pathway to sustainability may vary from council to council.

According to Environs Australia, at least 119 of Australia's 750 councils in Australia have either established or are developing local sustainability strategies. At least 33 have a Local Agenda 21 process in place

There is no denying the impressive increase in environmental awareness and commitment in Town Halls across the country since 1992.

We strongly encourage all local authorities in Australia to use the Local Agenda 21 framework. However, we must not forget that implementation of environmental improvements and action on the ground is what really counts.. Outcomes are more important than process.


In closing, I am positive about the outlook for Australia's environment.

Through national leadership, secure funding, and partnerships with other governments, business and the community, we are providing the "catalytic" policies necessary to translate the global vision of Agenda 21 into local action in Australia.

I am encouraged by the continued rise in the level of environmental commitment and initiative demonstrated by local authorities in Australia, and by the adoption of Local Agenda 21 programs by many individual councils. This conference is strong evidence that the growth in local government's concern for environmental quality is indeed a global phenomenon.

A strong partnership between the Commonwealth and Local Government is vital if we are to start paying back our debt to the environment. We are committed to working together to pass on to future generations an environment in better condition than that we inherited.

Commonwealth of Australia