Australia’s natural resources are reaching a crisis point as they struggle to support and sustain our lifestyles. But while degradation of these systems continues, research suggests the level of concern for the environment is falling. So could encouraging some national pride in our natural resources help improve the environment’s outlook?
Not our concern
Australia’s environment is under stress from increased salinity, erosion, ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity and climate change. While in 2007, 78% of Australians were seriously concerned about environmental problems such as these, by March 2013, only 59% of Australians reported similar unease.
It is not just concern that is wavering. Australians are exerting less personal effort in their daily lives in order to protect the environment. Indeed, in 2007 about 25% of Australians made effectively no effort to purchase “green” products. In March 2013 this figure rose dramatically to 41%.
These findings do not only pertain to Australia. Concern for the environment has decreased markedly across the globe during the last two decades. Polls continue to reveal widespread denial of environmental problems as well as resistance to adopting behaviours to sustain natural resources.
This recent decline in environmental concern could have a critical impact on public policy. With an indifferent population, governments are likely to face substantial difficulty securing public support for implementing environmental protection measures.
If we cannot rely on individuals to strategically manage private or public natural resources themselves, then there may be a need for increased regulation. But with regulation comes intense conflict; proposed policies are often opposed, goals are frequently contested, public dissatisfaction spills over, people refuse to participate or comply, animosity and distrust toward the government grows, appeals and litigation increase, and occasionally even physical threats and violence occur.
We know the decline in environmental concern is lower in countries with improving economic conditions, suggesting that economic growth helps to maintain higher levels of environmental concern. We also know that people with a poor understanding of environmental realities are less committed to environmental action. Poor environmental education and developing economies may explain environmental attitudes in other parts of the world but in Australia the reasons for the decline in concern are harder to pinpoint.
In America, conservation behaviour among young people has declined, as they appear to attribute responsibility for the environment to the government and to consumer behaviour rather than to themselves. The findings are similar in Australia, particularly in relation to climate change.
But recent studies suggest the public do not think that the government is acting adequately to protect natural resources. As a case in point, only 2% of Australians think that the Great Barrier Reef is looked after well enough to give a 10 out of 10 score for reef management.
Pride in our environment
Imagine if Australians believed that the greatness of our country depended on the condition of its environment.
Recent research suggests that people who identify strongly with their country and are more invested in its success, are likely to accept the socioeconomic system of that country and recognise when things aren’t quite right.
This may be important when we consider how environmental realities are perceived. If people can recognise the actual state of our natural resources, then they may be more interested in their management.
Perhaps a focus where the environment is associated with patriotic qualities could motivate those who are inclined to dismiss environmental problems. Through tying together national identity and environmental condition we might encourage Australians to recognise the realities of the state of our natural resources and how this reflects who we are as a nation.
Our research shows Australians still have a connection with many of our natural places. In particular, almost 90% of Australians recognise the Great Barrier Reef as integral to their identity and the majority believe it to be Australia’s most inspiring national icon.
In fact, 53% of Australians believe they would be personally affected if the health of the Great Barrier Reef declined.
Perhaps these are the sorts of relationships we ought to be encouraging government to focus upon, as a way to generate support for environmental policies. When weighed against the shorter term economic benefits that our resources provide, surely our national identity needs to be considered?
Australians might be losing interest in the condition of the environment – but not in the environment itself. It is important to remember that our environment is a part of who we are, and to show concern.
Concern for the environment and the constructive conservation action that accompanies it may be able to save our natural resources – reinforcing their integral value to our nation.
By Beth Fulton– Head of Ecosystem Modelling, Marine and Atmospheric Research
Australians want a future of sustainable self-sufficiency and a healthy environment supporting a robust democracy – free of poverty and inequity. That was one of our projections, as part of the Australia 2050 project for the Australian Academy of Science.
Equally, Australians fear a future in which the stability of day-to-day life has been eroded by a degraded environment, depleted resources, lawlessness or warfare, limited access to health-care and education, extreme (or even increased) economic or political inequity and the fragmentation of social cohesion.
The question “What will Australia in 2050 look like?” will not be answered for sure for another four decades. But that future depends on decisions made today, and that means it is important to get some early insights into what the alternatives really are.
Of course, the future is uncertain and the projections discussed here may change as the different components are finally linked together. But some of them run contrary to current expectation and desires. They require careful thought in any personal, community, regional or national planning exercises.
Population, society and the economy
The human aspects of Australia’s future have received a good deal of attention over the last few years. Australia’s population will increase by 50-100% by 2050. The proportion of the population living in the north and west is projected to increase at the expense of smaller southern states.
Median age will increase from the 36.8 years of 2007 to between 41.9 and 45.2 years. The proportion of the population over 65 is projected to increase by 60%, or more in the southern states.
Economic growth is forecast to continue over 2011-2050 at around 2.5% per year (a little slower than over past decades), and to shift towards services and away from primary and secondary industries (like agriculture and manufacturing).
This is despite an expected 13% increase in trade as Australia’s trade partnerships restructure – with the proportion of Australia’s total exports going to China, India and Indonesia projected to rise from 14% to 40% by 2100.
Even this rate of productivity is dependent on increasing labour force participation, facilitated by education and health programs and increased participation by people aged over 65. Despite this rising participation it is projected that the tax base will nearly halve, meaning the fiscal burden of the ageing population would lead to an accumulating and growing fiscal gap (where spending exceeds revenue) of up to 2.75% of GDP annually, with deficits reaching 20% of GDP by 2050.
Resources and industries
Australia’s resource sector has been one of the defining shapers of economic growth through the late 20th and early 21st century. Major fossil fuels (black coal, natural gas) and minerals (iron ore, bauxite, copper) are forecast to be exhausted in 60-80 years at current rates of extraction, much sooner for other resources (gold, lead, zinc, crude oil). The physical trade balance (including mining, manufacturing and agricultural sectors) is forecast to show continued growth in exports to the mid 21st century, but then to collapse rapidly to around neutral.
While Australia will be food secure, agricultural trade is projected to drop by 10-80% due to a drop in output. In the absence of any climate change adaptation in agricultural practices or mitigation, by 2050 Australian wheat, sugar, beef and sheep production is projected to drop by roughly 14-20%; with production in Queensland and the Northern Territory hardest hit.
Energy consumption will increase. Electricity generation and transport sectors remain the dominant uses. Fossil fuels are likely to continue supplying the bulk of this, despite 3.4-3.5% growth per year in renewables.
The trajectory of emissions is heavily dependent on the specific adaptation behaviour, mitigation policies and technology scenarios.
Climate, the environment and ecosystems
Air temperature will probably rise by less than 4°C by 2050, with the greatest warming in the northwest and away from the coasts. This has adverse consequences for heat stress on agriculture and urban systems, water availability in Southern Australia, the incidence of drought and fire.
Water yield from the Murray-Darling potentially drops by 55%, but the greatest increase in drought months (of 80%) is in the southwest. Substantial increases in the number of extremely hot days (>35°C) Australia wide are associated with increases in extreme fire days and area burnt. Northern settlements are particularly strongly impacted.
The impact of these changes on native terrestrial ecosystems becomes progressively worse as temperature rises. If temperatures increases are small (<1°C by 2050) only mountain and tropical ecosystems should be impacted; habitat for vertebrates in the northern tropics is projected to decrease by 50%.
If temperatures rise by 3°C or more the projected loss of core habitats is much more extensive: 30-70% or more of many habitat types, with the majority of rainforest birds becoming threatened and many species of flora and fauna projected to go extinct. Iconic freshwater wetlands, like Kakadu, are also projected to shrink by 80%. These changes are also associated with extensive compositional change and increased penetration of invading species.
The ocean is projected to change as much as the land, though with much more consistency across emissions scenarios. Most ocean warming is in the tropics and down the east coast. Sea-level will rise, potentially doubling the areal extent of flooding due to storm tides; ocean stratification is likely to strengthen, affecting mixing, nutrient supplies and productivity; hypoxic “dead zones” are likely to spread; and the rising levels of CO2 dissolved in the ocean will continue to cause acidity to increase.
While a range of species will adapt, future ecosystems may have very different composition to today. Differential capacity to adapt will lead to species mixes never before recorded.
Economically and ecologically sustainable marine industries are still possible despite the projected environmental changes. However, this is only possible if regulations, markets and social attitudes allow the industry to shift with the new ecosystem structures.
Beth Fulton was lead author for a group exploring modelling perspectives as part of the Australian Academy of Science project “Australia 2050: Towards an environmentally and economically sustainable and socially equitable ways of living”.
The Australia 2050 project for the Australian Academy of Science has just published Phase 1 Negotiating our future: Living scenarios for Australia to 2050 which emerged from 35 scientists working together to explore social perspectives, resilience, scenarios and modelling as pathways towards environmentally and economically sustainable and socially equitable ways of living. Phase 2 of this project on creating living scenarios for Australia is underway.
Beth Fulton receives funding from the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation.
Ant and termite nests could lead to hidden treasure according to research conducted by CSIRO.
Research published in science journals PLoS ONE and Geochemistry: Exploration, Environment, Analysis, found that at a test site in the West Australian goldfields termite mounds contained high concentrations of gold. This gold indicates there is a larger deposit underneath.
“We’re using insects to help find new gold and other mineral deposits. These resources are becoming increasingly hard to find because much of the Australian landscape is covered by a layer of eroded material that masks what’s going on deeper underground,” Dr Aaron Stewart, CSIRO entomologist said.
Termites and ants burrow into this layer of material where a fingerprint of the underlying gold deposit is found, and bring traces of this fingerprint to the surface.
“The insects bring up small particles that contain gold from the deposit’s fingerprint, or halo, and effectively stockpile it in their mounds,” Dr Stewart said.
“Our recent research has shown that small ant and termite mounds that may not look like much on the surface, are just as valuable in finding gold as the large African mounds are that stand several metres tall.”
Mineral resources make up $86.7 billion of Australia’s exports and new discoveries in many commodities are required to sustain production. After 150 years of mining, gold and other mineral deposits near the surface have been discovered and miners need new tools to explore deeper underground.
Insects could provide a new, cost effective and environmentally friendly way of exploring for new mineral deposits, avoiding the traditional method of expensive and often inaccurate drilling.
Dr Stewart’s work has also found that insects carry metals in their bodies.
“We’ve found that metals accumulate in excretory systems of termites,” he said.
“Although the insects may not concentrate metals in their bodies, they actively rid their bodies of excess metals. This process shows up as little stones, much like kidney stones in people. This finding is important because these excretions are a driving force in redistribution of metals near the surface.”
Dr Stewart was selected as a finalist in this year’s Fresh Science Awards.
Media: Liz Greenbank. Mb: 0408 778 189. E: firstname.lastname@example.org