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Commission on Sustainable Development


Fifth Session
High Level Segment

Statement by:
Senator the Hon Robert Hill
Minister for the Environment

New York
9 April 1997

Five years ago at Rio the international community committed itself to the principles of sustainable development - that is, the achievement of sustained economic and social advancement and environmental protection.

The acceptance of the linkages between these three critical elements, the urgency of the challenge of achieving sustainable development and the recognition of the need to do so in a global partnership were vital sub-themes.

Now, five years on, we are assessing the record and charting the course for the next five years.

The record indicates that despite the commitment, the international instruments and the many organisational structures that ensued, in many areas the international community has slipped backwards:

- continuing degradation of soils and water,

- continuing loss of biodiversity - forests are a classic example, and

- pollution of the oceans and unsustainable fishing practices.

However, perhaps this judgement is a little harsh. In much of the world, local communities through to nations have now adopted sustainable development plans, integrated land and water management policies are becoming more common, and serious efforts are now being made to more efficiently utilise energy and thus reduce the rate of increase of greenhouse gases. Bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF) have produced programs which, if implemented, will produce a better outcome in terms of both the sustainable use and conservation of forests.

There is now a recognition of the importance of drawing capital and environmental considerations together, of joining sustainable agriculture and environmental conservation, and of the critical linkages between the reduction of poverty and sustainable development. In addition, we recognise the need for investment in new and better environmental technologies, not only by governments, but by the private sector as well.

Financial mechanisms such as the GEF have been established and the World Bank, in terms of its development philosophy, has been transformed.

In other words, considerable planning has been done, conventions agreed, institutions established and indicators crafted.

What is now urgently required is a commitment to action - implementation of the programs and the achievement of better outcomes. It is critically urgent because process fatigue is already setting in.

Australia also is moving on from theory to implementation. We have established a funding basis for the largest reinvestment in Australia's natural capital that has ever occurred (a $1 billion Natural Heritage Trust), and we are now commencing implementation of the programs of environmental restoration under the Trust.

We have drawn together sustainable agriculture and environmental protection through a comprehensive Landcare program and we are achieving positive results in terms of an improved greenhouse gas outcome from our industrial sector (a win/win situation as more effective energy use not only leads to a better environmental outcome but reduces costs). In relation to forests, we are implementing a program aimed at protecting in reserves 15 percent of all forest types, based on their distribution prior to European settlement, and we are implementing sustainable forest practices.

It is true that in other areas we are still planning - for example, we are developing an oceans policy for our huge EEZ - but it will be worthwhile planning. The sustainable management of our EEZ will protect environmental values whilst at the same time allowing us to enjoy the economic benefits of the oceans' still untapped resources.

Whilst as a nation we remain committed to sustainable development we are also keen to work with others as part of the global challenge.

Five areas provide particular opportunities:

In relation to oceans, we share with the rest of the world the adverse consequences of land based pollution and unsustainable exploitation of fish and other marine resources. However, we believe we have learnt our lessons and are pleased to now be working with others toward better global outcomes for the conservation and sustainable use of our oceans. In some areas, such as coral reefs, we have developed multiple use sustainable practices which we believe lead the world. We are pleased that, by providing the Secretariat to the International Coral Reef Initiative and in other ways, we can share our experiences and enhance the global coordination of measures to protect and sustainably manage our oceans.

In addition, Australia reiterates its commitment to implementation of the program of action that emerged from the Barbados Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States and calls upon other nations to play their part.

On climate change, Australia will continue to work for a better global greenhouse outcome. We believe our approach toward achieving a fair and achievable outcome is consistent with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities accepted by all nations in Rio. We cannot accept legally binding targets when the nature and extent of such targets are unknown.

Our strong commitment on climate change is reflected in our domestic action. Key national initiatives include:

On forests, we have been pleased to work with the IPF to determine a program of action to achieve better outcomes. Particularly, we have worked on measures and indicators for sustainable forest management. We are demonstrating in Australia that it is possible to provide resource security tied to the implementation of sustainable forest practices and on and off reserve conservation measures, including the adoption of a comprehensive, adequate and representative reserve system. We will work with the international community to achieve these goals on a global basis. Whilst we support the establishment of an Intergovernmental Forum to further these goals, we have not been convinced of the need for a convention.

As the driest inhabited continent, we treasure our freshwater and have learnt a great deal about the basis for preserving the quality and quantity of this water. Our experiences demonstrate the need to address freshwater issues through integrated management at the regional or river basin level. Australia is addressing key issues - such as appropriate pricing policies and allocating water for environmental flows - through the inter-jurisdictional management of our largest river system, the Murray Darling. It is a model that translates well to the management of other river basins, such as the Mekong basin. We have cooperated with the managers of the Mekong basin, in a relationship which has proven mutually beneficial, and would be happy to expand such partnerships.

There has been less emphasis on an issue we think will raise major challenges - that is sustainable cities. I understand that in the Asia Pacific region we will see the equivalent of a new city of one million people every week until the year 2020. Whilst many flock to the cities for economic opportunity, the reality is that unsustainable cities will contribute to poverty and will raise issues associated with transport, housing, waste disposal and pollution. Cleaner production technologies; emission controls, planned transport systems and other manageable solutions are possible but will present a great challenge to the international community - a challenge within which Australia will play its part.

Apart from the areas of specific opportunity that I have discussed, better environmental outcomes will also be promoted by more appropriate economic policies. The use of government expenditure alone will not be enough to achieve the outcomes we desire for sustainable development. Governments must, in addition, increase the practical utilisation of instruments which will internalise environmental costs, improve efficiency in the use of energy and materials and appropriately modify consumer behaviour. The reduction of relevant subsidies and the full cost pricing of resources will greatly assist in this process.

The prospects for economic growth can be enhanced through the implementation of sound economic policies and the liberalisation of international trade and capital movements. Such measures will also increase the potential for private sector flows to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development. Provided these measures are supported by appropriate and integrated environmental policies, they will help alleviate poverty and enhance sustainable development.

In conclusion, UNGASS must concentrate on a program of action and implementation. Continued debate about new instruments and institutions will distract us from our real goal - the on-ground realisation of sustainable development. Individual nations and the international community must commit themselves at UNGASS and beyond to urgent implementation of the actions necessary to achieve sustainable development.

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