By Peter Burnett
Last week, Treasurer Jim Chalmers released Measuring What Matters, the first version of Australia’s national wellbeing framework. Several other comparable countries, including Canada, New Zealand and Germany, have adopted similar frameworks in recent years.
The basic idea is to shift from our narrow focus on key economic indicators, such as GDP and inflation, to embrace a wider suite of indicators that measure our overall quality of life.
The Australian framework has 50 indicators, grouped under five themes: health, security, sustainability, cohesiveness, and prosperity.
These groupings are very broad. To avoid going down a policy rabbit hole about what ‘sustainability’ means and how it should be measured, I’ll focus on the environment.
If we look at the indicators and ignore the groupings, the report tells us that, over recent decades, 20 indicators show improvement and 12 show decline, with the remaining 18 showing little change or mixed results.
What do the environmental indicators reveal?
The environmental indicators in the report cover (urban) air quality; biodiversity; climate resilience; emissions reduction; protected areas; and resource use and waste generation.
Given the report’s aim of measuring wellbeing through 50 indicators, these six seem like a representative environmental selection. They cover the two biggest environmental issues — climate change and biodiversity decline — while also addressing the biggest driver behind these problems, which is human consumption.
The headline has to be that the threatened species index, which tracks the abundance of a selection of threatened species, shows a decline of 55% from a 1985 baseline to 2019, a period of just 34 years. While the index has its limitations, including being based on less than 15% of Australia’s 2000-odd threatened species, this is a shocking number.
On a more positive note, the area of land and sea allocated to protected areas has increased substantially to achieve high levels, though this should be taken with a large grain of salt — see below.
Climate issues are measured by measuring both emissions reduction and climate resilience.
While greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 24.7% since the 2005 Paris baseline, our emissions per capita are higher than the OECD average and ‘substantial further progress’ is needed to reach our current national target of a 43% reduction by 2030.
On resilience, the Australian Disaster Resilience Index shows that 52% of the population live in areas with moderate capacity for disaster resilience, while 32% live in areas with high capacity and 16% in areas with low capacity.
Air Quality, measured for urban areas, was broadly stable, although the disastrous Black Summer bushfires in eastern Australia plunged air quality in some areas to depths never seen here before.
On resource use and waste generation, per capita waste generation declined marginally, from 3.05 tonnes in 2006-07 to 2.95 tonnes in 2020‑2, while, for the same period, waste recovered for recycling, reuse and energy generation increased significantly, from 50% to 63%.
Could we measure something more useful?
In my view the main issue lies not so much in the scope of what the indicators address, but in how they do it.
Ideally, we should measure species and ecosystems that are in good health as well as those that are threatened, but we don’t have enough data for this in the short term.
Also, land clearing may be a better indicator than threatened species as it is a proxy for habitat loss for all species. It is also a measure of climate impacts.
As to protected areas, measuring area alone is superficial as it speaks to quantity, not quality. The policy standard for protected areas looks at comprehensiveness, adequacy and representativeness.
This suggests we need to measure not just the size of the area protected, but the degree to which all bioregions are represented adequately. At present, many are not.
Also, ideally, we could measure progress on climate issues against our fair share of the work to be done globally. For example, Australia contributes around 1.2% of the world’s carbon emissions but because of our wealth, equity of effort with poor countries would demand we do more than 1.2% of the work needed to keep the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.
As you can imagine, ‘fair share’ is a politically-charged and hotly-disputed concept in climate policy. Progress against national targets is probably as good as we’ll get.
Urban air quality is a reasonable thing to measure, as it affects the health of 80% of the population. It does represent something of an easy goal as the switch to renewables and take-up of electric vehicles will drive further improvements without further specific measures from government, but so be it.
In addition to measuring resource-use efficiency through recycling, it could also be measured by comparing inputs to outputs in selected sectors (eg, energy used per widget produced).
What does it all mean and how should we respond?
Despite the limitations of the threatened species index, the numbers are certainly good enough to justify a major response to the significant decline that has been highlighted. While the government has major environmental protection reforms in the works with its Nature Positive Plan, some pieces of the policy jigsaw remain missing, most notably a major investment in environmental restoration.
Even though proposals to invest in restoration must compete with many other priorities, one recent study has argued that an extra $1.6 billion per year, a relatively small amount for federal and state governments combined, would turn things around for threatened species.
This is one of those issues where the costs, even if painful, must be met, because the impacts of not acting are immeasurably greater.
As to protected areas, a more comprehensive measure would show that our National Reserve System does not make the grade: some bioregions are over-represented, while others barely appear.
Our greenhouse emissions numbers tell us that, while we are making progress, we are not making enough progress. This is already documented elsewhere and is hardly new, so at best, this indicator reinforces existing messages.
In a similar vein, the figures from the Disaster Resilience Index reinforce what disasters such as the 2022 Lismore floods have already told us intuitively, that we have a long way to go here. Perhaps the Index will focus attention on the areas with the least resilience.
On resource use, we are consuming much the same, but doing significantly better on recycling and the circular economy.
The question however is what we should be aiming for. I think we need to commission deeper analysis on how much resource use efficiency. In a sparsely populated and geographically dispersed country like Australia, there will be limits to circular economy gains.
Measuring What Matters is a welcome initiative that needs to be entrenched in our policy system, and improved progressively.
On environment issues, this first iteration does a reasonable job, though I was disappointed with two things in particular.
The first was the way in which the government used a superficial measure (area alone) and some rosy language to imply that the contribution of the National Reserve System to biodiversity was a real positive, when the reality is less than ideal.
The second was the underplaying, by using the briefest possible description, of the shocking decline in the Threatened Species Index. It is as if the number is so bad that the government doesn’t quite know what to say.
As others have already warned, the government’s ‘no new extinctions’ commitment is headed for failure without urgent action.