Development, Economics and finance, Environment & energy, Government and governance, Food & water | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

17 September 2019

This month, Policy Forum is delving deeper into what ‘sustainability’ actually means through a special Sustainable September: In Focus section. Patrick Cooney starts us off by explaining how we could go about thinking of the relevant issues.

Sustainability is large and complex concept, but it can be considered from three different perspectives: resources, institutions, and societies.

These aspects of sustainability flow into one another. When the consumption of resources is unsustainable, institutions suffer. Those institutions are crucial to a functional society, and when they don’t function properly, society is damaged.

Australia is placed in an important and tricky position as part of this global challenge. Its resources are profitable but finite, its institutions are functional but at risk, and its society is yet to feel the worst of these growing set of sustainability issues.

This should encourage the country to think about solutions that make it more sustainable, as well as strategies that can be applied across the region.

So, what are governments doing about it?

State governments across Australia are introducing initiatives to reduce waste and use resources in a viable way. The ACT government’s carbon neutral framework, for instance, is working towards crucial environmental goals. Sustainability Victoria, a government agency that coordinates with local government to reach its goals, is another example.

Just recently in Victoria, $4.7 million was allocated to waste and recycling infrastructure, and V/Line –  Victoria’s regional transport network – built its very first railway sleepers made from recycled plastic.

Other governments in the region are responding too. From 2017, the Indonesian government established a moratorium, for the sake of sustainable land use, on the building of new palm oil plantations. The Pacific Island Forum Fisheries Agency has also been a huge success for the feasibility of the Pacific fishing sector.

The Asia-Pacific is ready for these efforts. Some 26 per cent of employment in the region is in agriculture, which the International Labour Organisation identifies as the industry highest in ‘green jobs potential’. The sector presents a space where policymakers must promote economic and environmental sustainability.

Of course, things are not all rosy. While the abovementioned initiatives are very welcome, with the scale of the issue in mind, more must be done – especially with some problems only growing.

Across Asia, the threat to native species and the environment of land clearing, deforestation, and pollution are critical, and a struggle for sustainability permeates the region.

The environment is not the only thing at risk of becoming unsustainable. Ageing populations – both in Australia and across the region – and high migration of young people from rural regions to cities also pose a threat to society. The rapid urbanisation that results, in turn, makes sustainable development difficult to achieve.

With stagnant wages and with some countries – Australia included – experiencing their slowest growth since the Great Recession, economic viability is often called into question. A transition to economies that support a sustainable society is crucial.

Moreover, all of these factors are affected by institutions as well, whether they be governments, private companies, or non-governmental organisations like non-profits or universities. Not only are their actions crucial to creating a sustainable society, but they themselves can be at risk of becoming unsustainable.

Institutions build a viable future by strengthening participation in society. But if they fail, a sustainable society will be extremely difficult to achieve.

This can happen a number of ways: the breakdown of norms, the inability to adapt to sudden change, the influence of greed and rent-seeking, and general incompetence. But, with good policy, it can be avoided.

Responding to issues of this size presents a serious problem for policymakers. Identifying the forces creating this pressure, however, will bring us one step closer to the necessary solutions.

Governments alone can’t undertake the fundamental changes required to make our resources, institutions, and societies sustainable. The forces of capital and private investment must be corralled to act responsibly as well.

Private industry and its growth will be as transformative in Asia in the next five decades as it has been in the last five. To see progress on sustainability, governments in the region must formulate policy responses that incentivise capital to contribute to the public good.

Whether it be to produce less carbon or to encourage sustainable innovation, policymakers must rethink their current strategies in a way that encourages collaboration between governments and businesses. Only then do we stand a real chance against the world’s greatest challenges.

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