Inspire : Public Works July Aug 2012
29 THOUGHT LEADERS DR STEPHEN LEES IPWEA NATIONAL DIRECTOR SUSTAINABILITY IN APRIL THIS YEAR, THE SYDNEY MORNING Herald ran the provocative headline: ‘Nation now 'indifferent' to environment'. The article reported that a recent university study had found that public interest in the environment has declined sharply compared to the results of an identical study in 2007. According to the study, What matters to Australians (by the University of Technology Sydney), food, health, crime, safety and public ser vices are now the dominant national concerns, with pollution, climate change, renewable energy and resources depletion plummeting. Parallel studies in the US and UK have found similar concerns. The study authors speculated that the 2007 results might have been an aberration, with the latest results closer to the long-term trend. The reported decline in public interest and, by implication, support for sustainability initiatives, coincides with an apparent pull back in the level of sustainability activities by local councils. In the economically buoyant decade leading up to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), local councils around Australia were very active in undertaking projects to make their operations more sustainable. The severe drought from 1997 to 2009 in eastern Australia and dwindling water supplies gave credibility to climate change warnings. This made the public very supportive of measures to address both the cause and impacts of climate change. It also prompted the Federal and State Governments to respond with a wide range of grant programs to encourage local councils to undertake sustainability projects -- such as water conser vation, stormwater har vesting and re-use, energy conser vation and waste minimisation. However, by 2008 local councils had completed the most obvious sustainability actions and, except for a few very well-resourced councils, further improvements seemed far more challenging. Changing light bulbs in council buildings is one thing, but building a co- generation or tri-generation plant is a much more daunting step. Several factors combined to create headwinds to further sustainability initiatives: the GFC in 2008, the end of the drought in 2009 and, crucially, the Federal Opposition's about-face on the emissions trading scheme in 2010 and strident criticism of the subsequent Carbon Tax. The latter destroyed the bi-partisan support for a price on carbon emissions and encouraged scepticism. Another more recent cr ucial factor has been the winding down of many grant schemes for local councils, as governments have sought to balance their budgets. So, what factors are likely to prompt renewed interest and support for sustainability generally, and at the local government level in particular? RETURN TO DRIER WEATHER The past two years have been much wetter than average in eastern Australia. In many areas, the 'worst-in-a-generation' drought has been replaced by some of the worst foods on record. Dams that were almost empty are now brim full or overfowing. This makes it harder to generate enthusiasm for new water conser vation projects. However, the current La Nina cycle is waning, so drier conditions will soon retur n. Water conser vation measures will gradually return to favour. RESOLUTION OF THE CARBON TAX DEBATE The Federal Opposition's strident demonisation of the Government's Carbon Tax has prompted a dramatic fall in public support for pricing carbon pollution. @ Placing sustainability back under the spotlight While sustainability has seemingly been placed on the back burner in Australia, Dr Stephen Lees explains some of the factors that make it a key area of action once again. Changing light bulbs in council buildings is one thing, but building a co-generation or tri-generation plant is a much more daunting step.
Public Works Sept Oct 2012