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Less water, less waste and more local goods: how 21st-century leadership can be sustainable

Open-air irrigation: so last century. Bidge/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Less water, less waste and more local goods: how 21st-century leadership can be sustainable

Open-air irrigation: so last century. Bidge/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Australia’s new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has announced what he calls a “21st-century government”. This article is part of The Conversation’s series focusing on what such a government should look like.

Many Australians heaved a sigh of relief when told we would have a government for the 21st century, after two years of a leader who seemed trapped in an earlier epoch. But talk is cheap. After all, the previous prime minister, Tony Abbott, told us shortly after his election win that the adults were in charge and, after last February’s warning shot from his back bench, assured us that “good government starts today”.

But, politicking aside, what should we expect if our revitalised government were really to look forward to the 21st century? How can we be confident it isn’t just better sizzle but the same dodgy sausage? Let’s look at one broad concept that has rapidly become a vital consideration for this century: sustainability.

Steps to sustainability

We should be trying to manage the transition to a genuinely sustainable future. That should not be controversial. After all, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) adopted the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development way back in 1992.

The principles of that agreement include maintaining the integrity of natural systems, nurturing our biodiversity, recognising the interests of future generations, and accepting our global responsibilities.

Energy in general, and transport in particular, are obvious problems. Other contributors to this series will address the obvious priorities: urban planning, modern public transport, cycling infrastructure, a serious commitment to renewable energy and implementing the National Framework for Energy Efficiency. Released in 2003 by the Howard government, this showed we could reduce our carbon dioxide emissions 30% by cost-effective measures using existing technology.

A government that believed in a market approach would use price signals to drive the changes we need, rather than direct government intervention, and free the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to fund cost-effective new technology - but that is another issue.

Our agricultural systems depend heavily on irrigation water and groundwater, neither of which is being used sustainably. Water production from the Great Artesian Basin peaked a century ago and is now at about a third of that level. To make our strategy sustainable, we first need to recognise that groundwater is a finite resource, and then we need to use it more efficiently.

Some of the steps we can take are strikingly simple. Much of our irrigation water still flows through shallow, open channels which are really evaporation pans. Running them through pipes instead would dramatically cut water losses and should be mandatory for irrigation water.

It might sound odd that a 21st-century solution should involve humble pipes, but rolling them out across the irrigation network would reduce dramatically the water extracted from our rivers without affecting production. That is a realistic and responsible target.

We must also reduce significantly the runoff of nutrients and sediment from agricultural land, particularly in Queensland where this is a real pressure on the Great Barrier Reef.

There are three critical priorities. The first is to reduce the volume of runoff by implementing better farm practices and improved water management in the sugar industry. The second is to move away from intensive use of fertiliser in favour of the proven permaculture model. The third is to improve the management of grazing properties to curb their impact on the reef lagoon.

These are state responsibilities, but the Commonwealth should help.

Rubbish plan

We are a very wasteful society, with huge volumes of rubbish going to landfill sites. Community composting of food waste, and a serious commitment to recycling paper, glass, metals and plastics, could reduce the urban waste stream to a quarter of the present level.

We also need to reduce the energy demands of manufacturing. In fairness, this has been happening, but only as a side-effect of policies that run down local industries in favour of trade agreements that encourage imports from low-wage countries.

If we were serious about a sustainable future, we would become more self-sufficient to insulate Australia from the shocks that are likely to hit the global economic system. Rather than promoting trade agreements with dubious benefits, we should invest in innovative manufacturing that uses resources efficiently and employs Australians to produce the goods we need.

Much of our manufacturing sector is still, as former science minister Barry Jones observed decades ago, like an industrial museum. Thirty years ago we had a system of government grants to industry, aimed at improving the efficiency of energy use. A broader program of dollar-for-dollar assistance for projects that reduce resource use would kickstart a revolution in production efficiency. The goal should be to halve resources per unit of production. That would be good for the economy as well as the environment.

That raises the broader issue of our economic strategy. Australia is still positioning itself as a stupid country that exports cheap, unprocessed commodities and then uses the money to import goods that we aren’t clever enough to make for ourselves. As the new book A Banquet of Consequences by finance writer Satyajit Das shows, this strategy is fatally flawed. To repay the level of debt we have accumulated requires rapid economic growth to continue for decades, but resource limits and environmental problems make that impossible.

We urgently need a truly adult conversation about a smooth transition to a less wasteful future. Das argues that the transition will be imposed on us by forces we cannot control if governments continue to offer bland nostrums that avoid the problems. Surely we would rather change our ways on purpose, instead of doing it under duress.