About the Talk
November 29, 2013 1:20 AM
The Victorian 2013 State of our Environment Report opens by paying respect to Aboriginal people because this is a report that considers how people live in the environment and we all know that some live more sustainably than others. Our record since colonisation is not good and we now live with the legacy of our land, water and human settlement management practices. With leadership, application and the implementation of sound environmental policies we can and should be working to remedy this legacy. Strategic policy development and implementation will generate solutions. My report reflects the fact that the task is vast and the need urgent. Report after report tells us to expect deeply confronting climate change impacts. And, if, as the Bureau of Statistics projects, Australia's population doubles in the next 60 years, with significant increases in Victoria, business as usual will not be sustainable environmentally or economically. Advertisement The 2013 report is intended to form a plank of the remedial environmental processes we need to promote. It is in two parts: environmental trends, and goals with associated recommendations. It focuses on the ecosystem services the environment provides, without which we are at best poorer and shabbier, and at worst nothing. Ecosystem services are about the environment and us – people in a landscape. We can't live without clean water, fresh air, the pollination services of bees and butterflies, healthy soils, food and the fibre which other species provide. It is imperative that we fundamentally adjust our thinking and our actions to respect and recognise the services our environment provides. This report, like all previous ones, reinforces that message. It is confronting to reflect on how little has changed since the last Victorian report in 2008. The science is in. Climate change is a monumental threat. Data presents mixed messages. Our per capita emissions are down but our total emissions are up. We continue to be among the highest per capita greenhouse emitters on earth. Our climate is becoming hotter and drier; heat waves will become more frequent; the risk of extreme events is increasing. On our eastern seaboard, ocean temperatures are rising at four times the global average. Addressing greenhouse gas emissions, given our resource use and consumption patterns, will require us to work really seriously to develop a modern energy system that promotes efficiencies and the reduction of emissions. The report's recommendations address this and the process by which we can progress this agenda. We need a constructive discussion about this and leadership from government to facilitate it. In relation to biodiversity and land we know that much of Victoria's vegetation now falls outside tolerable fire intervals and that the conservation status of species continues to decline. We also know that we require monitoring to fill gaps and properly inform management efforts across the spectrum and in respect of pest plants and animals and soil condition. This report calls for the persistent and thorough audit of monitoring. A statewide ecological processes management plan is a necessary foundation for orderly management, the establishment of targets and data protocols. The community expresses legitimate concerns about species survival and extinction and ecological processes and if we can't measure what is going on we certainly can't meaningfully manage it. Strategic adaptive management is recommended. Native vegetation clearing regulations need to be reconsidered, to promote a return to the hierarchy of "avoid, minimise, offset". Support for the blunt instrument of a 5 per cent planned burning target should be replaced with a risk management mechanism that involves burning regimes on private as well as public land. Burning processes in the public domain should be reported for their biodiversity and other implications. A range of mechanisms will be needed to arrest environmental decline and these will include incentives in promoting sustainable farming practices and bio-links. Ecosystem targets should be determined then implemented. Sustainable food production in urban and agricultural settings will form part of the jigsaw, complementing soil health improvement strategies. The Victorian community is embracing sustainable food production and governments will increasingly be challenged to consider how best to promote this emerging sector in systemic and sustainable ways. Food sensitive urban planning offers a pathway. My report also reflects on the need to take more care in managing environmental water by the establishment of environmental water targets. The environmental water reserve now is inadequate to maintain the ecosystem health of many inland water systems. Freshwater biodiversity continues to decline and native fish species are under pressure. We lack the data to provide a comprehensive statewide assessment of water quality. Again, monitoring and data collection is failing us. Comprehensive data on the condition of coastal and marine systems is unavailable, invasive species are a continuing threat, and we still know little about estuary condition. As climate change provides conditions conducive to invasive and other species our marine estate will change in ways we will understand even less, as we lack a baseline. Land use, housing, transport and water and energy use policies and processes, compounded by population growth and climate change constitute continuing challenges to sustainable development. We need our elected representatives to provide leadership. I recommend a number of actions – not only policy positions but implementation. Life cycle assessment, product stewardship, materials reclamation, water sensitive urban design, statewide urban forestry strategies, a review of tax arrangements, social housing efficiency, road transport pricing, bus rapid transit, the formalisation of a transport working group and an independent infrastructure authority to deal with the emerging cities agenda all form part of the strategic vision that underpins this report. Underscoring our discussion of housing, land use and transport issues, all of which are interconnected, is a discussion about design and its critical role in assisting us to deliver meaningful and responsive changes to the way we plan our cities and affect the environment. Government is urged to inform the public properly about environmental issues, taking up the potential that electronic media offer, developing awareness, engendering interest and sponsoring informed opinion in the public. In all the community consultation conducted by my office – and it has been extensive and inclusive – people from all walks of life have observed that they require access to information about the environment and our impact on it. We have never been as technology rich. The opportunity for government to feed this interest is enormous and clearly beneficial to the extent that an environmentally informed public will be more sympathetic to the sorts of changes we need to make to our consumption patterns and other environmentally insensitive practices. Since the last report the wicked problem of climate change has more insistently insinuated itself into the discussion about environmental issues. Rigorous scientific method has been used to enable us to understand the challenges we confront. It is irresponsible to suggest we not assume a significant role in addressing this critical challenge. We have to do our bit. In fact, given our alarmingly high per capita contribution to greenhouse emissions, it is retrograde if we don't. There will be opportunities. Innovators will be able to seize them. We have to get clever about adapting to climate change, which we know is inevitable. And we must continue to urge our governments to actively sponsor mitigation efforts. We need leadership to do this. Government must assume the role of responding proactively and purposefully to the challenge of the century, climate change. It will affect every part of our lives and the environment. I look forward to this State of the Environment Report advancing a progressive, responsible agenda in respect of climate change, terrestrial and marine biodiversity, ecosystem services and human settlements.