Back in 1997, a group of respected economists and ecologists estimated that the environmental services provided by our planet are worth more than $33 trillion per year, with wetlands and rivers providing $4.8 trillion of those services (http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/independent_reviews/stern_review_economics_climate_change/stern_review_Report.cfm ). The ecology of the planet underpins the world economy and the social well-being of the world’s population, as recognised in the concept of triple-bottom line accounting, which accounts for social and environmental benefits, as well as economic benefits.
In 2013, these fundamental facts seem to have been totally dismissed by the Australian government in its first 100 days of office, as it races to fast-track development projects and scrap what it calls ‘unnecessary green tape’. Not only is it facilitating new projects which threaten sites of national and international importance, like new shipping ports adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef, but it is also reducing the level of protection for previously conserved Tasmanian forests and undermining the hard-won agreements between foresters and conservationists for those forests.
Among other actions undermining national environmental protection, the listing of the River Murray as a threatened ecological system was scrapped by the national Environment Minister, one day before the listing process would have been completed. The legal listing was arbitrarily cancelled, in spite of a process which took 5 years, involving a rigorous scientific assessment, technical workshops and opportunities for public input. The protective listing was described as rushed and unjustified, when the opposite was true. The fact that the process of nomination was completed one day before Labor went into caretaker mode was deliberately misrepresented as a hasty, unsubstantiated decision. Listing the River Murray (from the Darling junction to the sea) as a threatened ecological community would have provided a valuable mechanism to take an effective national approach to the whole system, across landscapes and state borders, to conserve habitats and biodiversity in this river system which supplies so many essential environmental services to support communities and irrigation industries. The Coalition government has described the listing, made with due diligence under the environmental laws introduced when they were previously in power, as unnecessary green tape. The Environment Minister dismissed the science-based evidence and listened to lobbying from irrigators to make their own hasty decision to scrap national protection for the River Murray. This action totally contradicts the process started by former Coalition Prime Minister John Howard in 2006 to bring national coordination into management of the precious resources of the Murray-Darling Basin.
Australian ecosystems provide clean air, clean water, soils and unique vegetation and animals which are the basis of our healthy and lucky way of life. Ensuring that those ecosystem services continue into the future is a critical investment in the future of all Australians. Our New Year’s resolution in Australia should be: value our environmental services more and act to protect and maintain them for the future!