Fractal Myth

Australia's progress to sustainable development.

[Michelle Whitehead ©2004]

Discuss Australia's progress in implementing Sustainable Development in Land and Water Usage from 1992 Rio Earth Summit to 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development.


The 1992 Rio Earth Summit gave Australia the opportunity to take a leading role in environmental sustainability, both at home and internationally. Australia's importance in this regard was emphasised by Maurice Strong, Secretary General of the Rio Earth Summit and first executive head of the United Nations Environment Program. Mr Strong described Australia as an environmental superpower, warning that

what Australia does or fails to do will make a profound difference in shaping this region, and this region will make a big difference to the health of the global environment.(1)

Ten years later, the positive government reports produced for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), Johannesburg, 2002, suggest that Australia has made considerable progress towards the goals declared in Rio. However, reviews from academics and non-governmental interest groups suggest a very different assessment of Australia's commitment to the sustainable development of our land and water resources.

Rio Earth Summit 1992 - The Rio Declaration

Attended by representatives from over 170 countries, the 1992 Rio Earth Summit "remains the largest gathering of world leaders in history."(2) The focus of the meeting was on sustainable development, "a forward-looking approach that integrates economic growth, social development and environmental protection."(3) This approach was unanimously adopted in the form of Agenda 21.(4) The primary principles of the sustainable development policy outlined in Agenda 21 are summarised in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.(5)

The Rio Declaration contains 27 principles, beginning with the recognition that the concept of sustainable development revolves around the entitlement of humans to "a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature."(6) States have the right to exploit their own resources providing they do not damage environments outside their jurisdiction.(7) They must abide by the principal of generational equity in order to preserve the earth's natural resources for present and future generations.(8) Developed countries acknowledge they bear a greater responsibility, due to the pressure they place on the global environment and the greater technology and financial resources at their command.(9) The primary responsibility for monitoring and reviewing the progress of signatory states towards sustainable development lies with the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD).(10) This body was created under Agenda 21, and has met annually since 1993.(11) Each year, member states report their progress towards sustainable development to the CSD "in relation to the specific themes under discussion at that year's CSD meeting."(12) In the lead-up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002, member states also prepared national assessment reports, appraising that country's approach to sustainable development over the decade since the Rio Earth Summit.(13)

Australia's position - intergovernmental cooperation

Australia is a developed nation surrounded by developing nations. It plays a leading role in the region and bears a corresponding responsibility for sustainable development. In documents produced by Australia for the CSD,(14) there is a recognition that cooperation between the different levels of government is essential for sustainable development. The federal government has constitutional responsibility for ratifying international conventions, State and Territory governments control most of Australia's land and water resources, and local governments deal with the need to use and conserve resources in their area on a daily basis. This means that "sustainable development issues need to be addressed on a local, regional, national and international scale."(15)

The Australian governments responded to the Rio Summit with the Inter-governmental Agreement on the Environment (IGAE),(16) which aimed to provide greater certainty in governmental decision-making and reduce disputes between the spheres of government on environmental issues. This agreement recognised the need for

integration of environmental and economic considerations in decision making and for balancing the interests of current and future generations.(17)

The Local Government Association was made party to IGAE even though it is not binding on local government bodies.(18) The IGAE incorporates many of the principles of the Rio Declaration, including the precautionary principle which states that "lack of full scientific certainty" does not justify postponing remedial measures "where there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage;"(19) the principle of intergenerational equity, and the principles linking economic considerations with environmental goals.(20)

Also in 1992, all Ministers of the Australian Cabinet endorsed the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (NSESD).(21) The goal of NSESD is "development that improves the total quality of life, both now and in the future, in a way that maintains the ecological processes on which life depends."(22) It provides a framework for the implementation of Agenda 21 in accordance with the obligations entered into at Rio.(23) In the Australian assessment report submitted to WSSD, it was suggested that Australia's greatest challenge is the need for a strategy which can

maintain those aspects of our economic well-being which are based on use of our land and water while reversing the damage the unsustainable use of our land and water has done to our ecological systems.(24)

The summary report on NSESD 1993-1995 confirms that the attainment of sustainable development has involved partnerships between government, industry and community groups, particularly in agriculture and some areas of mining and manufacture.(25) The major intergovernmental projects to emerge from the NSESD include the National Forest Policy Statement, and the National Action Plan on Salinity and Water Quality.

The Commonwealth, Territory and State Governments (except Tasmania) signed the National Forest Policy Statement in 1992.(26) This statement introduced the concept of joint Commonwealth and State 'Comprehensive Regional Assessments', a procedure for investigating the natural, cultural, economic and social values of Australian forests. Such assessments form the basis for negotiating Regional Forest Agreements.(27) Under the National Forest Policy Statement, Regional Forest Agreements developed between the Commonwealth and a State or Territory encompass the establishment and future management of a 'comprehensive, adequate and representative' (CAR) system of forest reserves. They aim to institute the ecologically sustainable management of forests outside those reserved for conservation, and promote the development of an efficient and internationally competitive timber industry.(28)

The National Action Plan on Salinity and Water Quality was endorsed by COAG in November 2000, following COAG's National Agenda for Water Reform, adopted in 1994. It is a 7 year programme in which the Federal Government will work with State and Territory Governments to address dryland salinity in priority areas, improving water quality and securing "reliable allocations for human uses, industry and the environment."(29) Salinity is a major problem for the Australian landscape. More than five per cent of our cultivated land is already affected, with twice that amount under threat.(30) Efforts to combat salinity are focused on the Murray-Darling Basin, which extends over four States and encompasses the ACT.(31) This program includes the separation of water entitlements from land title, the recognition that the environment is a legitimate user of water, and the introduction of full cost recovery for urban water.(32) As with the regional forest agreements, the Commonwealth takes a coordinating role, while the States retain their responsibility for water entitlements, managed as statutory rights under State legislation.(33)

National level - Commonwealth legislation

Principle 11 of the Rio Declaration states that effective environmental legislation must be enacted, which is contextually appropriate to the enacting country.(34) The primary Commonwealth legislation for sustainable development is the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999. This act reiterates the principles of the Rio Declaration and the NSESD, including the integration of economic, social and environmental considerations in decision-making, the precautionary principle, and the principle of intergenerational equity.(35) The EPBC Act institutes rigorous assessment and approval processes for actions "likely to have a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significance."(36)

The Natural Heritage Trust Act 1997 is another important piece of legislation enacted by the Commonwealth to further the goals of sustainable development. This act covers environmental protection, natural resource management and sustainable agriculture.(37) Under Natural Heritage Trust programs, landholders, managers of property and community groups are identified as agents of sustainability who are assisted in projects which are "demonstrably for the public good, and which advance sustainability."(38) This includes the provision of funding for the voluntary conservation of high conservation areas, a choice encouraged by Federal legislation reducing capital gains tax liability for landowners who enact perpetual conservation covenants. The Natural Heritage Trust is also responsible for a number of community education programs. These include the Bushcare program, which funds local community involvement in the rehabilitation of native vegetation, and the National Rivercare Program which aims to improve the condition of Australia's inland rivers and waterways. In order to judge the success of these measures, the National Heritage Trust has instituted the National Land and Water Resources Audit.(39) This program aims to assess the status of, and changes in, Australia's land, vegetation and water resources. It combines objective assessment of natural resource degradation with detailed economic analyses.(40)

Progress in NSW

Under the Australian Constitution, the states retain responsibility for management of land and water resources.(41) While Commonwealth legislation maps out strategies for ecologically sustainable development, state legislation provides for the regulation of the actual resources. In NSW, environmental legislation includes the Native Vegetation Conservation Act 1997, and the Protection of the Environment Administration Act 1991. The NSW State of the Environment Report 2003 acknowledges that under this regime "some aspects of the environment are improving, while others are getting worse."(42) Despite improvements to urban air and recreational water quality, the rate of surface and ground water extraction in the state remains unsustainable.(43) Compared to other countries, Australia has a high rate of water consumption.(44) Although legislation now attempts to balance the needs of industry, the population and the environment, the question of how much water should be allocated to the environment remains unanswered.(45) Conservation areas have been extended to cover 7.3% of NSW, but land clearing continues to be a major problem for the state's ecological health and biodiversity.(46) Community participation and individual conservation efforts by landowners are cited as major contributions to sustainable development, but there is a suggestion that their efforts have been let down by "the relative underdevelopment of economic systems as they apply to the use of natural resources and the environment."(47) The report by the NSW EPA points out that part of the problem with economic analysis of environmental progress is the use of Gross Domestic Product to measure a country's success.(48) GDP cannot provide an accurate picture of Australia's progress because it places no value on natural resources until they are harvested,(49) and because of the way it deals with natural disasters. Under GDP, natural disasters are good for the country because they entail the expenditure of large amounts on clean-up projects, while environmental harm and loss of biodiversity are excluded from the calculation.(50)

Local level - Australian Local Government Association

Strategies of sustainable development are developed at higher levels of government, but it is local councils who generally turn State and Commonwealth policies into projects on the ground.(51) The importance of this role was recognised at Rio, with clear directions for local government being set out in Chapter 28 of Agenda 21.(52) The Local Government Act 1993 (NSW) requires local governments to take ecologically sustainable development into account in carrying out their responsibilities.(53) Under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979, local councils are responsible for environmental and development control plans. According to s121B of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, the powers conferred on local councils by the Local Government Act are to be used to

properly manage, develop, protect, restore, enhance and conserve the environment of the area for which the Council is responsible, in a manner that is consistent with and promotes the principles of ecologically sustainable development.(54)

An Information Guide for Local Councils on ecologically sustainable development prepared by the NSW Local Government Association concludes that there is no single correct method for achieving ecologically sustainable development, and cites a number of 'success story' case studies.(55) These include the community scientific advisory panel instituted by the Manly Council to provide expert advice on the implementation of their conservation strategy, the adoption of the EcobudgetTM accounting system in Baulkam Hills Shire, and the investigation of management systems for urban wetlands undertaken by Camden Council.(56)

Community participation

In the decade between the Earth Summit in Rio and the WSSD in Johannesburg, the greatest contribution to Australia's progress towards sustainable development has come from volunteers.(57) Democracy is important to sustainable development, as the "participation of all concerned citizens"(58) is encouraged, and nations are required to provide "appropriate access to information"(59) and opportunities "to participate in decision-making processes."(60) Mark Hyman, an Assistant Secretary with Environment Australia, commented in the lead-up to WSSD that

Australia has had a very interesting experience with community based systems of land stewardship for example, things like Landcare, where we think there are some attributes of those programs can be shared with the rest of the world."(61)

Landcare is a collaborative effort between the National Farmer's Federation and the Australian Conservation Foundation. It commenced as a community movement in 1989 and received its first Commonwealth Government funding in 1990. Since then the movement has grown to around 3,200 local Landcare groups, with roughly one in every three farmers actively involved.(62) Waterwatch is another success story of community participation. Sponsored by the National Heritage Trust, it aims to build understanding of sustainability issues at a community level, and to encourage monitoring and constructive rectification of water quality problems at a local catchment level. Volunteer participation in Waterwatch is estimated at 50,000, with "over 3500 groups ... regularly collecting data and information from over 500 sites across Australia."(63) The National Heritage Trust also provides funding for voluntary revegetation efforts undertaken by landowners, farm managers and community groups.(64) Finally, Principle 22 of the Rio Declaration states that Indigenous people have a "vital role"(65) in achieving sustainable development.(66) Australia has adopted this policy by establishing the Indigenous Protected Areas Program, to support the efforts of native title holders to "manage their lands for the protection of natural and cultural features."(67) Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act there is provision for an Indigenous Advisory Committee, to give the Minister for the Environment and Heritage the benefit of Indigenous knowledge and experience.(68) In the Northern Territory, Indigenous groups are actively involved in the joint-management of several national parks.(69)


According to Ros Kelly, Federal Minister for Environment in 1992, now Australian Executive Director of Environmental Resources Management, Australia falls behind Europe when it comes to involving industry groups in environmental issues, due to a lack of "strong leadership in the environmental field."(70) Australian Prime Ministers tend not to attend UN environmental summits.(71) However, according to the Australian Assessment report there has been some progress. The United Nations Environment Program has recognised Alcoa's rehabilitation of a mine in Western Australia as a 'best practice' approach,(72) and the Minerals Council of Australia has developed a Minerals Industry Code for Environmental Management, to complement governmental strategies for sustainable development.(73) The Commonwealth's Business of Sustainable Development Program involves the negotiation of voluntary co-efficiency agreements between government and industry associations, and the WSSD report claims there is a good working relationship between Environment Australia and the peak industry body, Environment Business Australia.(74)


Despite the government's positive progress report, there has been considerable criticism of Australia's commitment to sustainable development. A report commissioned by a number of non-governmental organisations(75) states that Australia's WSSD Assessment Report

overstates domestic environmental policy achievements during the past decade, understates the nature of the ecological crisis faced by Australia, fails to indicate Australia's persistent and substantial contribution to worsening global environmental problems, and makes no mention of Australia's exceptionally negative role in international environmental governance over the past decade.(76)

Dr Christoff's report, In Reverse, suggests that Australia's policy makers have been more concerned with immediate economic advantage than the need to preserve the environment.(77) Dr Patricia Ranald of the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network, warns of a different danger.(78) In 1994 Australia became a signatory to the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), along with other members of the World Trade Organisation. Dr Ranald points out that the GATS agreement was signed with minimum public debate, and that unlike UN agreements, once WTO agreements are signed, they become legally binding without further domestic legislation. The Australian government is supporting the inclusion of all water services as traded goods covered by GATS, suggesting that water services in Australia may yet be provided by transnational corporations "which see water as a source of vast profits."(79) In its Assessment Report, the government admitted that globalization of international markets has retarded the progress of sustainable development in rural areas, as the "rationalization of banking, telecommunications and other public and private services"(80) has resulted in the transference of land from farmers to corporations who "have less incentive to ensure its sustainable management."(81)


In the decade between the Rio Earth Summit and WSSD in Johannesburg, Australia has attempted to address the need for sustainable development cooperatively at all levels of government. There have been commendable achievements, but there is still a long way to go. Australia is not alone in this regard. In the lead-up to Johannesburg, Kofi Annan stated that

Agenda 21 and all that flows from it can be said to have given us a What? What the problem is, what principles must guide our response. Johannesburg must give us a How? How to bring about the necessary changes in State policy, how to use policy and tax incentives to send the right signals to business and industry; how in the end, to get it done.(82)

In his report,(83) Dr Christoff suggests the institution of a Green levy similar to Medicare, a review of anti-environmental subsidies, and taxation reform to increase the costs of pollution and waste production.(84) A report released by the Australian Conservation Foundation advocates a 20 to 50 year commitment "with bipartisan support at all levels of government."(85) The past decade shows the development of rhetorical support for sustainable development at all levels of government, an enthusiastic volunteer force and some industry interest. However, criticism from NGOs suggest that much more is necessary. The future of the nation, the region, and the world are at stake!


1. ABC Online Environment News, 11/02/1999, UN environmentalist warns Australia against complacency, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, view.
2. Greenpeace, Earth Summit history, 2002, view.
3. United Nations, The Road from Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development: What Was Achieved and The Way Forward, view, p1.
4. UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division for Sustainable Development, Agenda 21, view.
5. UN General Assembly, Appendix 1, Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, view.
6. Rio Declaration, op cit n5, Principle 1.
7. Ibid, Principle 2.
8. Ibid, Principle 3.
9. Ibid, Principle 7.
10. UN, The Road from Johannesburg, op cit n3.
11. International Institute for Sustainable Development, A Brief Introduction to the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, 21/6/03, view.
12. UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs, Division for Sustainable Development, About National Information, 14/3/03, view.
13. UN, Johannesburg Summit 2002, National Assessment Reports for the World Summit, view.
14. Australian Government, Department of Environment and Heritage, World Summit on Sustainable Development, WSSD - Australian Assessment Report, view; Australia Country Profile, view.
15. Australia Country Profile, op cit n15, p22.
16. Australian Government, Department of Environment and Heritage, Inter-governmental Agreement on the Environment (1992), view.
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid, s1.11.
19. Rio Declaration, op cit n5, Principle 15; Inter-governmental Agreement on the Environment op cit n17, s3.5.1.
20. Rio Declaration, ibid, Principle 16; Inter-governmental Agreement on the Environment, ibid, s3.5.4
21. Australian Government, Department of Environment and Heritage, National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development, 22/3/04, view.
22. Australian Government, Department of Environment and Heritage, National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development, Part 1 - Introduction, 22/3/04, view.
23. Australian Government, Department of Environment and Heritage, An Overview of the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development, December 1992, view.
24. WSSD - Australian Assessment Report, op cit n15, p30-31.
25. Australian Government, Department of Environment and Heritage, Summary Report on the Implementation of the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development 1993-1995, view.
26. Commonwealth of Australia, National Forest Policy Statement: a New Focus for Australia's Forests (1992) Canberra, AGPS.
27. Australian Government, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forests (AFFA), Industry Development: Foreword (30 August 2003) view, 27 September 2003.
28. Ibid.
29. Australia Country Profile, op cit n15, p52.
30. WSSD - Australian Assessment Report, op cit n15, p31.
31. Ibid.
32. Ibid, p33.
33. Ibid, p32.
34. Rio Declaration, op cit n5, Principle 11.
35. WSSD - Australian Assessment Report, op cit n15, p16.
36. Australian Government, Department of Environment and Heritage, About the EPBC Act, 1/3/04, view.
37. WSSD - Australian Assessment Report, op cit n15, p17.
38. Ibid, p34.
39. Natural Heritage Trust, National Land and Water Resources Audit, view.
40. WSSD - Australian Assessment Report, op cit n15, p37.
41. Commonwealth of Australia, Constitution Act, s107.
42. NSW EPA, New South Wales State of the Environment 2003: Toward environmental sustainability, 13/11/2003, view.
43. Ibid.
44. Australian Government, Department of Environment and Heritage, National Urban Water Efficiency: Urban Water Use Statistics in Australia, 20/1/2004, view.
45. WSSD - Australian Assessment Report, op cit n15, p33.
46. NSW EPA, op cit.
47. Ibid.
48. Ibid.
49. Ibid.
50. Suter, K., 'Why Don't Trees Count in Economics?', Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1998, view.
51. Australian Local Government Association, Policy > Environment, 1/4/2004, view.
52. Australian Local Government Association, Sustainability, Local Agenda 21 and WSSD, 5/2/2004, view.
53. Local Government Act 1993 (NSW) s7e.
54. Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (Cth) s121B.
55. Lgov NSW, Ecologically Sustainable Development: Information Guide for Local Councils, September 2002, view.
56. Ibid.
57. Krockenberger, M., in de Blas, A., Earthbeat - 21/10/00: Natural Advantage: ACF's Blueprint for a Sustainable Australia, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, view.
58. Rio Declaration, op cit n5, Principle 10.
59. Ibid.
60. Ibid.
61. Hyman, M., in May, J., Earthbeat - 5/11/2002: Rio +10 World Summit in Johannesburg, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, view.
62. WSSD - Australian Assessment Report, op cit n15, p34.
63. Ibid p53.
64. Ibid p35.
65. Rio Declaration, op cit n5, Principle 22.
66. Ibid.
67. WSSD - Australian Assessment Report, op cit n15, p39.
68. Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth), s505B.
69. Director of National Parks and Wildlife, Annual Report 1999-2000, Environment Australia, view, p28.
70. Kelly, R., in de Blas, A., Earthbeat - 17/8/2002: The Rocky Road to Johannesburg, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, view.
71. Ibid.
72. WSSD - Australian Assessment Report, op cit n15, p63.
73. Minerals Council of Australia, Australian Minerals Industry Code for Environmental Management, 24/3/2003, view.
74. WSSD - Australian Assessment Report, op cit n15, p78.
75. Report prepared for Australian Conservation Foundation, Australian Council for Overseas Aid, Australian Reproductive Health Alliance, Conservation Council of the South-East Region and Canberra, Conservation of South Australia, Conservation of Western Australia, Environment Centre Northern Territory, Environment Victoria, Friends of the Earth Australia, Greenpeace Australia Pacific, Human Rights Council of Australia, National Parks Association of New South Wales, National Toxics Network, Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales, Oxfam/Community Aid Abroad, Queensland Conservation Council, Tasmanian Conservation Trust, TEAR Australia, and The Wilderness Society.
76. Christoff, P., In Reverse, (2002), view.
77. Ibid, p3.
78. Dr Patricia Ranald, 'Trading Away Our Water Rights?', Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network, Speech for Seminar on World Water Day, 22/03/02 view.
79. Ibid.
80. WSSD - Australian Assessment Report, op cit n15, p41.
81. Ibid.
82. Kofi Annan, in de Blas, A., Earthbeat - 15/6/2002: The Road to Johannesburg, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, view.
83. Christoff, P., In Reverse, op cit, n73.
84. Ibid, p42.
85. Australian Conservation Foundation, Natural Advantage: A Blueprint for Sustainable Australia, Module 10, Land and Water Repair, 19 October 2002, view.

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