National Stategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development in Australia

Essay by aussie_phoenixUniversity, Bachelor'sA+, March 2004

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The concept of Sustainable Development gained prominence in 1987 with the publication of the Brundtland Report: "Our Common Future", according to which:

'Sustainable development seeks to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future.'

This report was produced by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) set up by a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly in 1983 (Common, 1995).

The Australian Government has defined Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) as using, conserving and enhancing the community's resources so that ecological processes, on which life depends, are maintained, and the total quality of life, now and into the future, can be increased (COA, 1991).

By following an ecologically sustainable path of development, we should be able to reduce the likelihood of serious environmental impacts arising from our economic activity. The number of divisive and damaging confrontations which have characterised some of our development projects should also decrease.

More practically, Ecologically Sustainable Development will mean changes to our patterns of resource use, including improvements in the quality of our air, land and water, and in the development of new, environmentally friendly products and processes (NSESD, 1992).

Ecologically Sustainable Development is a concept that was born from the notions of the green revolution, but is also one of the very last hurdles for man to achieve, if this species intends to survive. The very land we depend on, the air we must breathe, and the species diversity that surrounds us is under threat of being lost forever. With our ignorance will come the destruction of life, unless we embrace the knowledge that is being presented daily and globally agree, that for now and future generations, this unique planet must be preserved in all its glory and more (Kirkby, 1995).

Methods and materials:

With reference to the online report of the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development, and continual reference to published texts on the subject, I was able to compile this report.

The following resources were consulted to gain greater insight into the subject and related topics. Use of the internet to access the National Strategy was my primary source. I also utilized published texts on a variety of subjects to gather greater depth to my discussion and for evidence to back my criticisms. With the aid of library staff, I was able to locate a variety of other sources to which provided good background knowledge, but was not used in this report.

The access to the online report made it quite simple to utilize this resource, and allowed for greater access for the general community. Published texts were readily available.

National strategy for ecologically sustainable development background:

This Strategy has evolved over several years and through extensive consultation with all levels of government, business, industry, academia, voluntary conservation organisations, community-based groups and individuals. The Strategy's origins stem back to release of the World Conservation Strategy in 1980, the National Conservation Strategy for Australia in 1983, and perhaps more importantly, the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development Our Common Future (the Brundtland Report). The Brundtland Report recognised that sustainable development means adopting lifestyles within the planet's ecological means. The Report also made it clear that the world's current pattern of economic growth is not sustainable on ecological grounds and that a new type of development is required to meet foreseeable human needs (NSESD, 1992).

In June 1990 the Commonwealth Government set about the task of identifying comprehensively and systematically what Australians need to do to ensure that our patterns of economic development are compatible with environmental sustainability and the well-being of the community over the long term, and thus to achieve Ecologically Sustainable Development (Beder, 1996).

The National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (NSESD) was originally prepared by an Ecologically Sustainable Development Steering Committee (ESDSC) made up of senior officials from the Commonwealth and State, Territory and Local Governments. The strategy presents intergovernmental responses to the overwhelming demand for sanctions on Ecologically Sustainable Development from the Ecologically Sustainable Development Working Group (NSESD, 1992).

The strategy outlines a number of actions which governments could take- or have already taken- in response to the Ecologically Sustainable Development Working Group Reports. While it is clear that many areas require further investigation, the strategy has already had a major impact on government policy and many initiatives to further Ecological Sustainable Development have been, or are being, introduced (NSESD, 1992).

Concerns have been expressed about Ecologically Sustainable Development for many years and various courses of action have been proposed. However, in recent years the issue of sustainable development has attracted increasing attention and priority:

*Internationally, the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (the 'Brundtland Report') concluded that current world patterns of economic development are not environmentally or socially sustainable and that the world needs to live within its ecological means. This in turn was the catalyst for the convening of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) and the negotiation of a range of international treaties and conventions on environment and development issues; and

*Domestically, there has been both increasing evidence of serious environmental impacts associated with current patterns of economic activity, competing social values and highly divisive and damaging confrontation over the economic and environmental impact of particular development projects. Attempts to address concerns and to reconcile different viewpoints have been bedevilled not only by major disagreements about values but also about the factual basis of the debate. The outcomes have often not been satisfactory from either an economic or environmental perspective (NSESD, 1992).

Goal, core objectives and guiding principles

'The goal of ESD is development that improves the total quality of life, both now and into the future, in a way that maintains the ecological processes on which life depends.'

- Brundtland Report, 1992

There are two main features that distinguish the sustainable approach to development. First, there is the need to consider in an integrated way the wider economic, social and environmental implications of decisions and actions. Second, it is necessary to take long-term rather than short-term views in regard to those decisions and actions. Both features require the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of what is being proposed (NSESD, 1992).

Many environmental and economic development problems have resulted from an inadequate approach to obtaining and integrating information and longer-term perspectives in decision-making. Many of our environmental problems have resulted from insufficient consideration being given to environmental factors in economic development while, conversely, some businesses have been affected by decisions made primarily for environmental reasons with inadequate consideration of their impact on the economy. As a result our quality of life has suffered (NSESD, 1992).

Three core objectives have been identified within the Brundtland Report for the achievement of Ecologically Sustainable Development in Australia. These are:

-To enhance individual and community well-being and welfare by following a path of economic development that safe guards the welfare of future generations;

-To provide for equity within and between generations (that is, intragenerational equity); and

-To protect biological diversity and maintain ecological processes and systems (NSESD, 1992).

In seeking to reach the right balance between these objectives some key principles need to be adopted by individuals, community groups, industry organisations and governments. These principles provide the framework for the development of a national strategy. Each core objective is designed to be used in conjunction with one another, and with a balanced and planned approach, the goals of Ecologically Sustainable Development can be met (COA, 1991).

The following principles take into account those that have been endorsed by governments, in the context of the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment:

Effective integration of economic, environmental and social considerations in decision-making processes;

Paying due regard to the precautionary principle. That is, where there is a high probability of severe or irremediable damage to an environment, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a basis for failing to act in order to prevent possible environmental degradation. In the application of the precautionary principle, public and private decisions should be guided by careful evaluation to avoid, wherever practical, serious or irreversible damage to the environment and by an assessment of the risk weighted consequences of various options.

Recognition of the global dimension of environmental impacts and the need to maintain and enhance international competitiveness in an environmentally sound manner.

Development of a strong, growing and diversified economy, which can enhance the capacity for environmental protection.

Adoption of cost effective and flexible policy instruments, such as improved valuation, pricing and incentive mechanisms. Environmental goals, having been established, should be pursued in the most cost effective way, by establishing incentive structures, including marketing mechanisms, which enable those best placed to maximise benefits and/or minimise costs to develop their own solutions and responses to environmental problems.

Acknowledgement of the value and necessity of consulting and involving the broad community (that is, individuals, groups, and businesses) in decisions and actions, which affect them. It is imperative to address environment, economic and community issues in a cooperative and consultative manner, recognising the shift to Ecologically Sustainable Development will require time, continuing support and regular exchange of information.

Recognising the need to maintain and enhance international competitiveness in an environmentally sound manner which does not directly detract from company achievements, and allows for greater economic exploration and advance, but without hindering the natural requirements of nature to diversify (COA, 1991).

Governments and the private sector in Australia have already taken a number of important initiatives to make economic development more ecologically sustainable. Nevertheless more needs to be done. The Ecologically Sustainable Development Steering Committee recognises the need to refine and further develop policies and programs for the longer term (NSESD, 1992).

It is apparent that many of the strategies outlined within the report are long-term achievements. Further research into the implementation and maintenance of these guidelines are recognised by all contributing groups. Significant attitude changes are required if we are to move Australia towards sustainability. Careful consideration will need to be given to the optimum mix of economic, regulatory and educational policies to ensure Ecologically Sustainable Development is implemented in a manner that is as efficient and cost effective as possible (NSESD, 1992).

Urban and transport planning- a critical analysis

The Intersectoral Issue Report recommended that moves to promote higher urban densities be pursued and investment in urban transit infrastructures be undertaken. A number of Working Group Reports also contained specific recommendations on urban issues. In particular, the Transport Report covered issues of urban consolidation and urban transport measures, while the Tourism Report contained recommendations on regional land-use planning and environmental impact assessment procedures which have extensive urban implications (Bateson, 2000).

Existing urban planning and development practices and associated patterns of transport infrastructure and behaviour are sources of significant environmental stress. In particular, long distances for travel to work and heavy reliance on private cars exacerbates problems of localised air pollution and noise as well as increasing greenhouse gas emissions. The Ecologically Sustainable Development Steering Committee therefore considers that governments should seek:

To achieve more sustainable use of energy and natural resources in urban areas through integrated urban and transport planning and more efficient sub-division and building design (Carney, 1998).

The strategies outlined in the Brundtland Report are concerned with addressing environmental problems with greater emphasis on economic and social problems associated with the current urban and transport planning regimes. The strategies primarily involve urban consolidation, the adoption of an integrated intergovernmental approach to urban development and improvement in government planning and coordination (Brundtland Report, 1992).

Improving the efficiency of land supply and infrastructure provision, could achieve higher densities while promoting affordability and equity. Desired mechanisms of achieving this, which are supported by Planning Ministers, include development of a national higher density code, and incorporation of minimum density requirements and the Australian Model Code for Residential Development or equivalent in strategic plans for new urban developments (NSESD, 1992).

A range of initiatives are already in place which address urban planning issues. Through the Building Better Cities Program funded by the Commonwealth Government, with $816m over a five year period, area-based initiatives are developed and administered by the States and Territories. The area strategies supported under the program have the potential to demonstrate ways to make better use of infrastructure and natural resources such as land (Drummond, 1999).

Governments are also working towards more efficient urban forms through the work of the Australian Housing Industry Development Council. The council is an advisory body for a number of initiatives, such as the Australian Model Code for Residential Development, the Green Street Joint Venture and the Local Approval Review Program, which are encouraging the integration of economic concerns with the need for greater density and efficiency in the shape of our cities (NSESD, 1992).

The Ecologically Sustainable Development Steering Committee state that governments should support the reform agenda of Planing ministers including initiatives such as urban villages to act as an energy efficient approach to planning new urban development. This could encompass both small infill sites and larger redevelopment sites (NSESD, 1992).

In order to know whether governments and the private sector are on a new course that will incorporate environmentally sound practices and technologies, we need to understand why they have failed to do so in the past. The Ecologically Sustainable Development Working Group on Transport Planning points out that government agencies and business firms 'do not appear to have made full use of available technology and management practices with respect to energy and efficiency' (ESD Working Groups 1991a, pp.98) .

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics have commented that:

'It is not clear why efficiency measures which are said to be both available and cost-effective are not currently being implemented. It may be that there is some form of energy market failure ... governments and private sector consumers are not aware of the potential benefits of more efficient technologies or practices, or they do not know the full costs of continuing to use inefficient technologies and practices.'

-ESD Working Groups, 1991a, pp.99.

The various reasons for failure to implement new technologies, particularly energy saving technologies that are currently available, include:

Reasons for failure from government to implement new technologies:

*The initial cost of these measures.*Insufficient competitive Pressure.

*Lack of awareness of energy costs and potential savings.*The belief that savings would be uncertain or insignificant.

*The length of time required to get a return on the investment.*Capital constraints and interest rates.

*The life-span of technologies already installed.*The low turnover of housing and building stock.

*The lack of energy performance standards.*Present low costs of obtaining electricity (especially off-peak electricity).

*The vested interests of the utilities that supply present resources.*The political power of the coal and gas industry.

*The lack of government funds for research, development and demonstration of alternatives.*The overcapacity in the grid.

-Source: ESD Working Groups 1991a, pp.99; Industry Commission 1991, pp.118-19; Diesendorf, 1992.

In the Australian State of the Environment Report of 2001, it claims that 'State and Territory Governments are upgrading urban public transport, including the rehabilitation of urban rail systems and integration and coordination of different modes of transport; and are improving service quality. They are also implementing measures to improve the efficiency of the operations of their urban road networks through coordinated traffic signals, transit lanes, bus lanes, driver information systems, network upgrading, and driver training and education' (Aus. SOER, 2001).

The Working Group for Urban and Transport Planning clearly identify the current trends of design are having adverse effects on our environment, of which are unsustainable. Yet, since the release of the National Strategy, very little improvement projects have commenced. New South Wales government have proposed plans to assist the continuing struggle for sustainability, but have not followed through on these strategies. The lack of funding towards scientific research has limited the level of study into the effects that the standards of today will have on tomorrow's system (Aus. SOER, 2001).

The National Strategy is outdated and lacking the flexibility of a changing nation. As employment patterns change in our urban centres, families are engaging in more out-of-home activities. These trends lead to increases in travel plus increasing time pressures and complexity in travel patterns, making public transport use less attractive.

The Australian population is ageing and average household size is falling. However, the anticipated greater call on public transport may not occur as the elderly are making a greater proportion of trips by car and retaining their licence to drive (O'Riordan, 2002).

The National Strategy is in great need of an amendment as with changing urban patterns, comes unforseen responses whether it be social, economic, or environmental. Greater reliance on the infrastructure today has seen urban noise levels increase dramatically. Not only does the noise effect the native environment but detracts from the housing sector (COA, 1995).

The following table identifies what initiative actions have been implemented since the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development was first adopted and what areas are still in need of attention:

*Urban Infill*Noise reduction

*Traffic calming*Infrastructure maintenance

*Creation of pedestrian malls*Controlled emissions

*Bicycle and pedestrian walkways*Greater use of legislation

*Encouragement of car pooling*Stronger regulation in housing developments

*- Source: Trainer, 1995.*Improving public transport

*Greater conservation of localised resources

*Further funding to scientific study

*Promoting awareness through education

*Organised approach to traffic congestion

*Creation of guidelines for patterns of urban development

*Examination of taxation policies

*Examination of charging policies

*Greater input from community

*Rate of train derailments

*Sewage system overhaul

*Airport delays and congestion

The intergovernmental Working Group on Patterns of Urban Settlement reported to Heads of Government in July 1991 on ways to improve the efficiency and equity of Australia's cities. Promotion, planning and support for urban consolidation was one of three broad strategies for improving our cities endorsed by Heads of Government.

That is one of the greatest problems with the National Strategy, that it is far too broad and human based. It fails to specify any solid actions to take, and nor does it accommodate our natural environment (Huckles, 1996).

Fragile Foundations: Australia's ageing infrastructure

High speed rail, broadband networks and high-rise buildings are significant new infrastructures in the 21st century Australian settlement. Australia's economic performance and quality of life is, however, heavily dependent upon the standard of urban infrastructure laid down in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Langmore Report (Langmore, 1988) was among the first of many to draw attention to the fact that the National Strategy failed to accommodate today's practices, and the decline in the public sector expenditure (capital and operating) on infrastructure. Over the past 40 years, national spending on public sector infrastructure generally has declined from 8% of gross domestic product to 2%, which is insufficient to keep pace with demand and obsolescence. This represents a problem for a country which has among the highest ratios of infrastructure to population in the world (Aust SOER, 2001).

The Institution of Engineers Australia recently warned that the corporatisation of the government departments and utilities that provide the services has put greater emphasis on the return on capital, often to the detriment of maintenance. Government trading enterprises are under pressure to maximise returns to government coffers, often by reduced spending. The institution's report on infrastructure rated the nation's roads, bridges, railways, and water and sewage networks as relatively poor. Suburban roads are clogged with excessive traffic and congestion, rural roads are in extreme demand for maintenance and resealing, and worst of all is the condition of the railway system. Ageing sewer systems are considered a major problem; many to which are 50-100 years old, and sewage treatment and disposal systems are often below Ecologically Sustainable Development Steering Committee expectations (IEAust, 2000).

Sydney Water Corporation's oldest sewer pipes are more than a century old and lie below 19th century residential areas. Sydney Water Corporation's costs for operating, maintaining and replacing water mains has increased from $273.6 million in 1995-96 to $364.6 million in 1998-99, and in 1999-2000, the corporation spent more than $500 million maintaining and rebuilding the sewer and water system (Sydney Water Corporation, 2001).

The social, economic and environmental implications of inadequate creation and maintenance of urban infrastructure is reflected in interruptions to gas supply and electricity supply, issues of water availability and quality, train derailments, airport delays, and traffic congestion. All these discordant issues may have been remedied long ago if government strategies were effective enough to cope with the pressures of population rise and demand. Further exploration and review are needed today to ensure tomorrow's generation can live within the society we create today, and learn to better the standards of life for humans, and for the environment on which we depend (IEAust, 2000).


Like liberty, justice and democracy, sustainability has no single and agreed meaning. It takes on meaning within different political ideologies and programmes underpinned by different kinds of knowledge, values and philosophy. Its meanings are contested and a key function of education for sustainability is to help people reflect and act on these meanings and so realize alternative futures in more informed and democratic ways (Hardoy, 1993).

Brundtland's analysis of the present state of the world starts from the identification of a mismatch between the capacities of the natural systems of the earth and humanity's ability to fit its activities into this framework. This has led to an interlocking series of crises of environment, development, security and energy. This interaction between global economy and global ecology entails environmental degradation, fuelled by a dramatic growth of population, particularly in developing nations, to a large extent the product of international and national economies, and is the agent of environmental destruction (Ayres, 1994).

The National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development suggests that the catastrophe of environment and development could be averted through sustainable development within a framework of equity. However, inequity "is the planet's main environmental problem; it is also its main development problem" (WCED, 1987, pp.6). Power, the other side of the equity coin, is thus also the planets main development problem: too much power in the West, and too little power in the East (Pearce, 1993).

We rationalise the future and endeavour to communicate our ideals through a policy that we trust governments and even the community to exercise. The National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development was born from the reality that our interaction with this planet is having catastrophic consequences that will continue to come about until full implementation of the guiding principles are imposed. Since the recognition of this policy, there has been little advance, hopefully governments and community alike can resolve the issues of Ecologically Sustainable Development before it is too late (Rogers, 1993).


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