Australia ‘free to choose’ economic growth and falling environmental pressures

Published in Nature. Underpins Sections 2.1, 3.2 and 3.6 in the Australian National Outlook 2015 report.

Over two centuries of economic growth have put undeniable pressure on the ecological systems that underpin human well-being. While it is agreed that these pressures are increasing, views divide on how they may be alleviated.

Some suggest technological advances will automatically keep us from transgressing key environmental thresholds; others that policy reform can reconcile economic and ecological goals; while a third school argues that only a fundamental shift in societal values can keep human demands within the Earth's ecological limits.

Here we use novel integrated analysis of the energy–water–food nexus, rural land use (including biodiversity), material flows and climate change to explore whether mounting ecological pressures in Australia can be reversed, while population grows and living standards improve. We show that, in the right circumstances, economic and environmental outcomes can be decoupled.

While economic growth is strong across all scenarios, environmental performance varies widely: pressures are projected to more than double, stabilize, or fall dramatically to 2050. However, we find no evidence that decoupling will occur automatically. Nor do we find that a shift in societal values is required. Rather, extensions of current policies that mobilize technology and incentivize reduced pressure account for the majority of differences in environmental performance.

Our results show that Australia can make great progress towards sustainable prosperity, if it chooses to do so.

Authors

Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Heinz Schandl, Philip D Adams, Timothy M Baynes, Thomas S Brinsmead, Brett A Bryan, Francis HS Chiew, Paul W Graham, Mike Grundy, Tom Harwood, Rebecca McCallum, Rod McCrea, Lisa E McKellar, David Newth, Martin Nolan, Ian Prosser and Alex Wonhas

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