Economist Ross Garnaut has warned against over-playing the dangers of economic growth damaging the ecosystems that are important to life.
Current patterns of economic growth had those effects, he said, but “economic growth is not inherently in conflict with conservation of the natural environment”.
Garnaut, who did much of the groundwork for Labor’s carbon pricing, was launching a booklet of essays titled “Placing global change on the Australian election agenda”.
It has been issued by Australia21, a non-profit group, chaired by a former secretary of the defence department, Paul Barratt, that promotes research on big issues.
The aim of the booklet is to “stimulate a constructive discussion between voters and political aspirants from all parties about the kind of Australia we will leave to our children in an increasingly hazardous, globalised and resource-constrained world”.
The essays have a heavy emphasis on climate change but also cover such topics as defence, the global financial future and the threat from chemical and antibiotic overuse.
Garnaut said that increases in material wellbeing (“economic growth”) derived from increases in population, in the amount of capital each worker used and in productivity.
While an inexorable increase in population was by definition in conflict with finite natural resources, experience showed that rising living standards reduced fertility, in a process that was stronger “than the edicts of imans as well as popes”.
Increases in capital per worker could be resource-saving or resource-using - and he suggested China would provide an example of the former, Garnaut said.
The same went for productivity growth which came from technological change – much technological improvement resulted in less pressure on natural systems per unit of economic value.
“When we see economic growth in this light, we do not need to make enemies of the whole of the developing world’s people as they seek higher standards of living.
"When we see economic growth in this light, we recognise that the important thing is to make sure that we put in place policies that encourage resource-conserving and discourage resource-using capital intensification and technological change”.
That was what Australia had done in a small but so far effective way with its carbon pricing and associated clean energy policies.
He conceded that the linking of the Australian price to the European Union from 2015 would probably lead to lower carbon prices for a while and diminished pressure for the use of carbon-conserving investments and technologies.
“However, the pressure of the carbon pricing causes firms to consider the likelihood that European prices will rise in future, and to think twice about the carbon intensity of future output from investments that they are making now”.
In a shot at the opposition, which is pledged to remove the carbon tax, Garnaut said: “To expect Australians to put the welfare of future Australians near the top of their priorities may be too much to ask as we live through what I hope are the later days of the great Australian complacency.
"But surely it is not too much to expect that we will not make things worse, by retreating on the modest steps forward that we have made in addressing one of the great challenges facing our people”.
In the preface to the booklet Barratt and editor Bob Douglas, former director of the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at ANU, have framed a dozen sets of questions that they hope “become part of the political discourse in the lead up to the election of our next government”.
If you want to grill your local candidates during this election, here are some of the questions. (Good luck with them.)
GREENHOUSE GASES. Do you believe we should radically curtail energy production from fossil fuels? If so, over what timeframe? Should we also curtail our mining and export of fossil fuels to other countries?
ECONOMIC MANAGEMENT AND GROWTH. Do we need to develop a more “steady state” approach to economic management, in which we can maintain full employment without rapid growth in the demands placed upon our resources and the biosphere?
DEFENCE POLICY. Are we spending enough on defence for the Australian Defence Force to be able to meet your expectations? Are you concerned about the prospect of strategic competition emerging between China and the US, and how should Australia respond?
FOOD FOR OUR FUTURE. What are the prospects of Australia feeding itself in the context of rising temperatures, declining extent and health of croplands, and rising food prices and international famine?
OUR DEPENDENCY ON OIL Should the government adopt policies to ensure we have specified stock levels of fuels and lubricants in-country?
PROSPECTS FOR THE GLOBAL ECONOMY What is the likelihood of another global financial crisis? What should we do to prepare for such an eventuality?
PROTECTION AGAINST TOXINS AND ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE. What role should government play in protecting the community against exposure to toxins and deterioration in antibiotic sensitivity?
THE VALUATION OF SERVICES PROVIDED BY ECOSYSTEMS. Should we include in our evaluation of proposed developments or changed land use the economic value of the services provided by local ecosystems to human communities and to industry?
ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINTS AND EQUITY. How can we reduce our per capita footprint in a way that both assists developing countries and makes limited resources more equitably available to all Australians?
ENVIRONMENTAL REFUGEES. How should we best integrate provision for refugees from the results of climate change into our immigration policy?
DOMESTIC TRAVEL. Do you think that the rising demand for rapid movement between our major cities can be met into the indefinite future by increasing civil aviation capacity?
RESPONDING TO THE NEEDS OF THE COMING GENERATION. Is Australia preparing its younger population adequately for the likely risks ahead as climate change and resource scarcity challenge the conventional wisdom of endless economic growth?