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Sustainability is a balancing act

Balancing Act: A triple-bottom-line analysis of the Australian economy

Balancing Act looks across 135 industry sectors of the Australian economy and quantifies the impacts and contributions across ten social, environmental, and financial indicators.

  • 1 July 2005 | Updated 14 October 2011

Accessing the report

The Balancing Act report is divided into four volumes available for download as separate Adobe Acrobat pdf files.

Each volume is a large file and may be slow to download across low bandwidth Internet connections.

Download the volumes of Balancing Act:

For a four page overview of the report, read the standalone Balancing Act Executive Summary.

About Balancing Act

Balancing Act is a CSIRO technical report by Barney Foran (ex CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems), Manfred Lenzen and Christopher Dey (Sydney University). The report was released in 2005.  Balancing Act looks across 135 industry sectors of the Australian economy and quantifies the impacts and contributions across ten social, environmental, and financial indicators.

The (triple) bottom line

Corporations, non-governmental organisations, governments at all levels, and the general public are all engaging with the concept of sustainability. The environmental movement brought the tensions between economic development and environmental quality to public attention over 30 years ago. Recently, the developed world has struggled to expand the original concept of sustainable development - meeting environmental concerns whilst maintaining economic development - to a more holistic concept where environmental, social and economic considerations are identified and can be considered concurrently in decision making.

Breadth and depth

Balancing Act provides an overview of the Australian economy using a set of ten environmental, social, and financial indicators. The environmental indicators are water use, land disturbance, greenhouse emissions and energy use; the social indicators are employment, government revenue and income; and the financial indicators are operating surplus (or profits), exports and imports.

The indicators are referenced against one dollar of ‘final demand’, roughly the consumption dollar we spend in everyday life. Balancing Act therefore tells us how much energy, water, land, employment (and so on) is embodied in every dollar in the Australian economy. The report is a resource for government and corporate decision-makers, as well as individual consumers. Balancing Act reveals some of the social and environmental implications of financial flows in the economy, and provides an indication of the resource intensity of different goods and services. It facilitates more informed decision making, and could provide direction for further research. By identifying direct effects (within the farm or factory fence) as well as the indirect effects (in the full supply chain), the innovative methodology shows us where environmental, social and economic impacts occur across the full production chain. This can highlight opportunities to increase benefits and reduce adverse impacts through individual and collective action.

The boundaries

Balancing Act uses the Australian system of national physical, social and economic accounts to provide reliable, empirical and comparable data. The report is based on the national accounts from the mid 1990s – the most recent complete set of data available when the project commenced. The results therefore provide a snapshot of the economy’s performance for this point in time. The methodology is reproducible, and could be used to prepare annual accounts revealing changes in Australia’s TBL performance over time. Because it is based on the Australian national accounts, Balancing Act is limited to resources used and activities taking place within Australia. It does not quantify resources used overseas which are embodied in imported goods and services. This would require preparation of similar accounts for all our major trading partners.

Jumping to conclusions

Balancing Act should not be read in isolation. A ‘below average’ indicator (eg high water use or low employment) does not necessarily indicate a problem or inefficiency. Different sectors perform different functions in the economy and all sectors have a mix of above and below average results. For example, agricultural sectors tend to be physically intense, with ‘below average’ environmental indicators, yet they generate ‘above average’ employment and exports. In contrast, many services sectors are physically light, with ‘above average’ environmental indicators, yet they generate ‘below average’ employment and exports. Thus information on the state of Australia’s environment, society and economy must also be considered when interpreting these results.

Read some of the media releases that were published at the time Balancing Act was released: