Policies, tools and approaches that are potentially changing the outlook


The outlook described above has both positive and negative components, although the negative tends to dominate. This balance can potentially shift, by using a variety of policies, tools, approaches and resources that are being developed and are starting to be used in Australia to support a more sustainable path of development.

Integrated policy approaches

For many years, the Australian Government has recognised that decisions made today about infrastructure, health, energy, transport, heritage, water management, fisheries, agriculture and biodiversity have lasting consequences for future generations. This was reaffirmed by Australia’s endorsement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

In 2015, the 193 member states of the United Nations unanimously agreed to adopt a new Sustainable Development Agenda covering 2015–30. The new agenda commits every country to take actions to address the root causes of poverty, increase economic growth and prosperity, and meet people’s health, education and social needs, while protecting the environment (UN 2015).

If we use the right choices, policies, management and technologies, Australia has the capacity to achieve this agenda (CSIRO 2015). Pittock et al. (2012) reviewed how the concept of ecosystem services had been incorporated into Australian policy and management. They found that ‘the full suite of services, benefits and beneficiaries if humans and the natural environment are to coexist in the long-term have not been systematically included in decision making and management’, and noted that a national, systematic, strategic approach based on an ecosystems framework is needed to manage the interactions between people and the environment (Pittock et al. 2012).

Coherent, multisectoral policy packages and other systemic approaches, including cooperating with other nations—regionally and globally—on such issues as climate change and marine debris, are at the heart of the Sustainable Development Agenda. Several positive signs are emerging of attempts to pursue integrated policy approaches in Australia and regionally:

The Australian Heritage Strategy (DoE 2015a) presents a vision in which Australia’s natural, historic and Indigenous heritage places are valued by Australians, protected for future generations and cared for by the community. The strategy positions the Australian Government to lead major change and foster innovative approaches in partnership with the states and territories, private owners and community groups.

  • The South Australian Government’s Health in All Policies initiative is about promoting health in public policy. It is based on the view that health is not merely the product of healthcare activities, but is influenced by a wide range of social, economic, political, cultural and environmental determinants of health. The initiative focuses on working across government to better achieve public policy outcomes, and simultaneously improve population health and wellbeing.
  • The Healthy Waterways initiative in south-east Queensland is working with members from government, industry and the community to protect and improve the region’s waterways by supporting shared understanding, regional collaboration and targeted solutions across the whole water cycle.
  • Australia and neighbouring countries in Asia and the Pacific are increasingly cooperating on better solutions for major common subregional and regional environmental issues. For example, in 2014, Australia along with other members of the Asia–Pacific Rainforest Summit, agreed for the first time to a regional commitment to reduce rainforest loss (Hunt 2014).

The Sustainable Development Agenda builds on earlier ideas. The 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development recognised the ‘green economy’ as a pathway to achieving sustainable development and eradicating poverty (UNGA 2012). A green economy is low carbon, efficient and clean in production, but also focused on improved human wellbeing and social equity, while significantly increasing environmental resilience, and reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities. The approach (UNEP 2016c) proposes:

  • a more strategic allocation of resources to green sectors and the greening of brown sectors (which rely on petrochemicals for economic growth)
  • more sustainable consumption
  • efficient, cleaner and safer production
  • greater equity in outcomes through public policies related to production and consumption.

Although several policies and programs operating at both the national and state and territory levels in Australia could be seen as useful contributions to a green economy, no government in Australia currently has a formally articulated, holistic and integrated policy of pursuing a green economy path of development.

Some countries are also promoting a ‘blue economy’ approach, including Australia and many of its neighbours that are large ocean states. This is very similar to the green economy initiative, but is grounded in a developing world context, and fashioned to reflect the circumstances and needs of countries whose future resource base is marine (UNDESA 2015).

The blue economy integrates conservation, sustainable use, oil and mineral wealth extraction, bioprospecting, sustainable energy production and marine transport into economic modelling and decision-making. The blue economy model therefore breaks the mould of traditional economic development approaches in which the oceans have provided a means of free resource extraction and waste dumping, with costs externalised from economic calculations (UNDESA 2015).

In 2015, the National Marine Science Committee launched the National Marine Science Plan, which outlines the science needed to provide the knowledge, technology and innovation cornerstones that will grow a sustainable blue economy. The plan identifies critical challenges facing Australia in ensuring that our coasts and oceans are both healthy and productive. It also provides recommendations about how, in a coordinated way, marine science can support Australia in meeting these challenges (NMSC 2015).

New ways of resourcing investment in sustainability

Investment in the management of Australia’s environment includes financial and in-kind commitments by all levels of government, private landowners and businesses, philanthropic and other nongovernment organisations, Indigenous Australians, and communities.

There is no single estimate of the scale of financial investment required to make the changes needed for Australia to effectively respond to (and gain from) changes to the environment. But the figure is likely to be beyond the scope of traditional funding sources.

A number of channels exist or are emerging that potentially offer greater innovation and creativity in finding the necessary financial resources. Development of these will require ongoing trial and error, time and effort.

One example is companies taking a leadership role in creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society. This concept of ‘shared value’ recognises that societal needs are more than just conventional economic needs, and that environmental harms such as wasted energy or raw materials frequently increase company costs. Addressing these harms does not need to raise costs for business, because companies can innovate by using new technologies, operating methods and management approaches, and, as a result, increase their productivity and expand their markets (Porter & Kramer 2011).

Public sources of funding also need to go beyond traditional concepts of budgetary allocations for environmental policies and programs. New approaches could include phasing out environmentally harmful subsidies that distort price signals and influence poor investment choices, thereby releasing public revenue for investment.

Numerous opportunities exist to use philanthropic or private-sector funds, or a mix of public, philanthropic and private elements, for the environment. For example, internationally, impact investment is a rapidly expanding market, growing to around US$50 billion or 0.3 per cent of global managed assets since 2007 (Saltuk & El Idrissi 2014).

Impact investment seeks to harness the power of private capital markets to achieve positive social impacts. The concept of using profit-seeking investment to generate social and environmental good is becoming more mainstream, and is being embraced by high–net wealth individuals, foundations with large endowments and the financial sector more broadly.

Whether they are private ‘conservation investments’ for philanthropic reasons or investments that are expected to deliver a positive financial return alongside social and environmental returns, the pool of available funds delivered by these approaches offers an opportunity to invest in environmental change at a larger scale than when relying on traditional public sources of funding.

As for the instruments these channels can invest in, there is potential for, and growing interest in, hybrid instruments, including green bonds. For example, in 2015, the Climate Bonds Initiative launched a guide for the public sector titled Scaling up green bond markets for sustainable development (Sonerud et al. 2015). This guide contains recommendations on green bond development for public-sector policy-makers.

Investments can also support the emergence and upscaling of niche economic, technological and social innovations that enable society to meet its needs in ways that are less harmful to the environment. Investing in research, and facilitating the diffusion of new technologies and approaches are both important.

Although this is still an emerging area, governments in Australia are looking to facilitate development of a more sophisticated marketplace for impact investment generally (e.g. the legal frameworks, performance metrics and accountability arrangements), and to support the practical use of these tools across different sectors. A good example of this is the funding model used by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to mobilise investment finance to fund improvements in energy efficiency and, more recently, to tackle the 2 biggest threats facing the Great Barrier Reef: climate change and water quality (which is being improved through the Reef Trust).

In 2015, the New South Wales Government released a Social Impact Investment Policy that sets out the actions it will take to deliver more social impact investment transactions, remove barriers to and promote social impact investment, and build the capacity of market participants. The government has also established an Office of Social Impact Investment and releases annual statements of opportunities, which identify its priorities for future social investment transactions (NSW Government 2015). To date, these opportunities have focused on social issues such as youth homelessness, employment for young Indigenous people, chronic illness management and early childhood education, but the lessons learnt, and the tools and resources being developed through this work have the potential to be used in broader fields, including supporting sustainable development.

Improving knowledge through better monitoring and data collection

Since 2011, our environmental knowledge base has improved significantly, including the information and data on which to assess the state of the environment and make environmental decisions.

Most information relating to the environment in Australia continues to be collected by public agencies through short-term projects. SoE 2011 identified one management issue as the loss of capacity as relevant Australian Government initiatives came to an end. In 2016, we have found that, although there are still significant gaps in data (e.g. in relation to many species, heritage assets and marine environment conditions), technological developments in remote sensing and cross-institutional collaborations are helping to plug them.

Technological advances in the capture, collation and analysis of environmental information are revolutionising the way in which environmental managers, agency staff, research providers and policy-makers can access and use information to support evidence-based decision-making. An example of this is the analysis of Landsat imagery to estimate changes in water quality in every Australian estuary (see the Coasts report for details).

Significant quantities of environmental data are collected by individual managers, community groups and private companies. So far, the data are rarely in information systems that are accessible to others, but there have been significant investments in building the infrastructure and capacity to facilitate sharing of data.

For example, Australian scientists are key contributors to global marine data collection, verification and analysis, and this provides Australia with access to global infrastructure, data streams and expertise that would otherwise be unavailable or prohibitively expensive to access. The largest of these initiatives, IMOS, was established in 2007 under a partnership between Australia’s major marine research institutes (Lynch et al. 2014). Data collected through IMOS are managed and made publicly available through the Australian Ocean Data Network, and have informed many of the assessments of the marine environment included in SoE 2016.

Since 2011, citizen science has expanded in Australia, and has already demonstrated that it is becoming an indispensable part of improving the effectiveness of management response to various pressures. An example of citizen science is the Reef Life Survey, which brings together scientists, managers and citizen scientists to monitor shallow-reef biodiversity in nearly 90 locations.

Innovative new tools for harvesting biodiversity observations across all environments in Australia are continuing to be developed and taken up by Australians at rates unprecedented 5 years ago. For example, many Indigenous ranger groups have taken up scientific tools such as CyberTrackerTM (see Box OVW4) and other hand-held data recorders for monitoring long-term change (Walsh et al. 2014).

Combining dedicated science facilities with citizen scientists and traditional owners empowered through recent technological advances provides one of the more promising options to improve environmental monitoring and decision-making in Australia.

Improving decisions and action through better knowledge

Although better monitoring and data collection are crucial, it is important to recognise that improving our knowledge base is not an end in itself.

Providing access to data that are comparable, comprehensive, reliable, re-usable, aggregated and timely has the potential to lead to better decisions, more cost-effective management, and better implementation and integration of policies.

For example, since SoE 2011, there has been significant and expanding knowledge of relationships between water management actions and ecological condition, which are essential for effective management. Similarly, our good understanding of broad processes of the climate system, improving confidence in climate modelling projections at national and regional scales, and an improved national greenhouse emissions reporting system all support better decisions.

Improved knowledge can contribute to all stages of management, by enabling managers to:

  • identify opportunities to create shared-value or win–win environmental and economic opportunities
  • better target actions to protect or remediate the environment
  • learn from other similar projects, sectors or jurisdictions
  • adapt management depending on progress during a project
  • provide project feedback to future projects, or other sectors or jurisdictions.

All of these mean that management actions become more effective, with less resource waste. It is important that we continue to invest in tools and processes that allow decision-makers to mainstream long-term, cumulative and global perspectives into policy and action.

Australians are increasingly moving online to connect, to deliver and access services, to obtain information, and to perform transactions such as shopping and working. Making data more accessible and usable, as exemplified in the SoE digital platform, can support decision-making tools for managers and policy-makers.

Better knowledge can also help to inform sector-specific questions of management and sustainability. For example, in the fisheries sector, national assessment and reporting of key Australian fish stocks is occurring through a collaboration across all government fisheries agencies.

Additionally, a national strategy for research, development and extension for fisheries and aquaculture is in place under the broader National Primary Industries Research, Development and Extension Framework, which is a collaboration between Australian Government, state and territory agencies, and key research providers.

There have also been advances in powerful, cost-effective methods to assess genetic diversity. These include improvements in genomic techniques that are useful for environmental studies. For instance, DNA barcoding methods have begun to be applied to natural history collections and to biological surveys. Australian researchers are now among the world leaders in cataloguing and interpreting soil microbial diversity using genetic methods (Bioplatforms Australia 2014). Whole-of-genome sequencing methods are being used across both terrestrial and marine environments, and are fundamentally changing our understanding of microbial communities in both. These methods are enabling chain-of-custody processes for fisheries and new ways to assess fisheries stocks.

During recent years, the Australian Government has invested significantly in applied research. NESP builds on its predecessors—the National Environmental Research Program, the Commonwealth Environmental Research Facilities program and the Australian Climate Change Science Programme. NESP will provide $145 million for environmental and climate research delivered through 6 research hubs and emerging priority projects (DoEE n.d.):

  • clean air and urban landscapes
  • earth systems and climate change
  • marine biodiversity
  • northern Australian environmental resources
  • threatened species recovery
  • tropical water quality.

Future opportunities exist for NESP and other national environmental research programs to contribute to a broader range of environmental themes and places, particularly natural and cultural heritage.


Box OVW4 Applied research supporting heritage management

A participatory approach to research in northern Australia supports Indigenous peoples’ strong cultural links to the environment.

Collaborating with Indigenous communities and ranger groups, researchers undertook 3 case studies to develop tools for improved management of land and sea Country. Partnering Indigenous ecological knowledge with scientific methods and facilitating access to specialist data were significant steps in monitoring and managing biodiversity in remote areas of northern Australia.

Building on the I-Tracker program undertaken by the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA), the Nyul Nyul Freshwater Research and Monitoring project developed data collection applications, and mapping and reporting capabilities using CyberTrackerTM software.

We manage our land and sea. We work with our Traditional Owners. We protect our cultural sites and heritage. We maintain our springs and coastline.—Nyul Nyul Rangers

A partnership between the Nyul Nyul Rangers, NAILSMA, Griffith University and the University of Western Australia’s Waterways Education Program enabled the community to introduce the research team to their unique Kimberley region freshwater systems. Collaboration and sharing of knowledge resulted in a management plan that incorporates natural, cultural and social values, and recommends using both western science and traditional techniques for managing freshwater ecosystems (Dobbs et al. 2015).

This case study highlights the benefits of high-level public-sector funding, and the importance of applied research to traditional land and sea management for natural and cultural heritage places.

Improved measures to account for ecosystem values

Ecosystem valuation that recognises the need for a resilient environment and the cost of degradation has the potential to become a valuable component of management.

Since 2011, there have been significant efforts at national and international levels to improve valuation of, and accounting for, ecosystems, and more broadly the environment—and to incorporate these values into national economic accounts and decision-making.

Having a clear understanding of the implications of economic growth for the environment and the contribution of different sectors of the economy to particular environmental problems enables better analysis of environmental policy and management practices. This understanding requires reliable and accurate ways of organising and presenting information that shows the links and interactions between the economy and the environment. Environmental–economic accounts provide information and an improved understanding on a range of issues, including:

  • patterns of consumption of natural resources by industries and households
  • relationships between consumption of natural resources and gross value added by industry
  • relationships between the value of natural resources and consumption
  • patterns of depletion of natural resources and its effect on the environment (ABS 2016c).

At the international level, efforts to improve environmental accounting include:

  • the System of Environmental–Economic Accounting (SEEA), developed under the auspices of the United Nations, which contains internationally agreed standard concepts, definitions, classifications, accounting rules and tables for producing comparable statistics on the environment and its relationship with the economy (UNSD 2016)
  • the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity global initiative, which has developed a structured approach to valuation that ‘helps decision-makers recognize the wide range of benefits provided by ecosystems and biodiversity, demonstrate their values in economic terms and, where appropriate, capture those values in decision-making’ (TEEB 2016)
  • the World Bank–led Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services, a global partnership that aims to promote sustainable development by ensuring that natural resources are mainstreamed in development planning and national economic accounts. Countries working in the partnership have been compiling accounts for natural resources such as forests, water and minerals, following SEEA, as well as experimental accounts for ecosystems such as watersheds and mangroves
  • the Natural Capital Protocol, developed by the Natural Capital Coalition, which is a framework to help generate trusted, credible and actionable information to support better business decisions by including specific consideration of how the business interacts with natural capital (Natural Capital Coalition 2016).

There are several Australian efforts to develop environmental–economic accounts and ecosystem accounts:

  • The Australian Bureau of Statistics, both by itself and with partners, has produced environmental accounts since 1996. For example, the Water Account integrates data from different sources into a consolidated information set, making it possible to link physical data on water to economic data, such as in Australia’s National Accounts (ABS 2014). The Water Account has been used in a range of applications, including modelling the impact of increased water prices on water use by irrigators, and investigating the impact of various restrictions on water availability; it has also been used in the Bureau of Meteorology publication Water in Australia 2014–15 (BoM 2016).
  • Victorian Experimental Ecosystem Accounts (Eigenraam et al. 2013) have been developed over the past 10 years to extend and apply market principles to the management of ecosystem assets. Models have been developed to represent the current levels of ecosystem flows and to predict the change in ecosystem flows resulting from changes in land use and management. This information, originally designed to assess the most effective management interventions, can also be used for the purposes of ecosystem accounting.
  • The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists developed a model set of Australian Regional Environmental Accounts, which measure the condition of environmental assets in several natural resource management regions. The approach focuses on physical measures of the condition of environmental assets; it does not directly assess ecosystem services or flows (Sbrocchi et al. 2015).

As the development and testing of environmental–economic accounting at national and subnational levels continue, this system is likely to provide more consistent and comparable information to support a better understanding of the links between natural capital and other parts of the economy, and the consequence of changes in natural capital on the flow of ecosystem services to society.

Innovation to further decouple the economy from the environment impact

A range of innovative approaches are being developed by individuals, businesses and communities that may lead to further decoupling of economic activity from environmental impact. For example, efforts to reduce food wastage in cities, recycling, step changes in energy-efficient technologies and the growing use of digital technologies all suggest that Australia has the opportunity to develop innovative approaches to growing the economy as well as sustaining the environment.

Fortunately, Australia has strong academic and scientific research institutions, and a growing information, communication and technology sector.

Accelerating technological change and connectivity are providing significant opportunities and potential to reduce humanity’s impact on the environment and reliance on nonrenewable natural resources, while improving lifestyles, and stimulating innovation and green growth (EEA 2015). The pace of technological change, particularly in the fields of information, communication, nanotechnologies and biotechnologies, is unprecedented. Emerging new technologies, including cost-efficient renewable energy, mobile communication and big data, are facilitating collaborative and effective solutions.

Jackson WJ, Argent RM, Bax NJ, Bui E, Clark GF, Coleman S, Cresswell ID, Emmerson KM, Evans K, Hibberd MF, Johnston EL, Keywood MD, Klekociuk A, Mackay R, Metcalfe D, Murphy H, Rankin A, Smith DC, Wienecke B (2016). Overview: Policies, tools and approaches that are potentially changing the outlook. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/overview/topic/policies-tools-and-approaches-are-potentially-changing-outlook, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65510c633b