A healthy environment sustains our economy and wellbeing
The environment provides significant intrinsic values to society, and many consider that the natural world has innate worth regardless of whether or not it has values that benefit humans.
At a more practical level, the environment is fundamental to Australia’s economy and wellbeing—without a healthy environment, we cannot thrive.
Understanding the effects of environmental degradation on economic activity and social wellbeing is therefore critical to creating a sustainable future. This includes understanding how ecosystem modification, resource extraction, production, consumption and waste disposal can affect the health and resilience of our natural capital and the ecosystem services it provides.
Natural capital is the stock of natural assets, including geology, soil, air, water and all living things, from which humans derive ecosystem services that make human life possible (World Forum on Natural Capital 2015). Ecosystem services are the benefits that people obtain from ecosystems (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005). The most obvious ecosystem services include the food we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the plant materials we use for fuel, building materials and medicines (‘provisioning services’). Native ecosystems also provide many less visible ecosystem services, such as climate regulation and natural flood defences (‘regulating services’), formation of soil and the pollination of crops by insects (‘supporting services’), and recreational, aesthetic and spiritual benefits (‘cultural services’) (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005).
The complexity of natural and cultural systems, and the irreversibility of some environmental change (e.g. species extinction) mean that replacing natural capital with manufactured or human capital is often expensive, difficult or impossible, or carries significant risks.
We need to fully understand the value of our natural capital and the consequences of its loss. This understanding will fuel the drive to get our environmental policies and management right to ensure that our natural capital is maintained.
The Commonwealth EPBC Act recognises the importance of promoting ecologically sustainable development—which fosters economic and social wellbeing while maintaining natural capital—through the conservation and ecologically sustainable use of natural resources. One of the principles of sustainable development is that the present generation should ensure that the health, diversity and productivity of the environment are maintained or enhanced for the benefit of future generations.
On a global scale, the issue of sustainable development has been on the agenda for decades. In September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly (including the Australian Government) adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2030 Agenda; UNEP 2016a) and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which cut across disciplines, sectors and institutional mandates. The Sustainable Development Goals are relevant to Australia’s efforts to promote ecologically sustainable development. SoE reporting provides one means to assess Australia’s progress against the 86 targets in the 2030 Agenda that are concerned with environmental sustainability (including at least 1 in each of the 17 goals). (See sustainabledevelopment.un.org for a description of the Sustainable Development Goals.)
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, achieving the 2030 Agenda will require a new paradigm for sustainable development. This means that work on issues such as health, education and, critically, the environment will be no longer conducted in silos, but will be intrinsically linked (UNEP 2016b). In agreeing to the 2030 Agenda, the world’s governments, including Australia, observed that progress on one goal cannot be achieved if there is no progress on others. A healthy environment, social development, and sustained and inclusive economic growth are all essential for achievement of each of the goals.
In Australia, the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy has policy responsibility for implementing 2030 Agenda targets linked to energy, climate change, sustainable consumption and production, oceans, and terrestrial ecosystems. Importantly, however, environmental policies and programs also make strong contributions to social and economic targets related to sustainable cities, health, agriculture, clean water and sanitation, and disaster resilience.