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20 June 2014


Has Australia stopped short on strategic dialogue about the environment? 

The state of the environment is an important consideration in many of the 'wicked problems' facing Australia - including population, sustainable use of land and water resources, food security and even national security.
Dr Steve Cork, Adjunct Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU and Australia21 Director

Considering the environment in national strategic thinking - the report of a forum of leading ecosystems* thinkers held at the Australian National University late last year - has now been released and is available for download by clicking on the title above.

Author Steven Cork commented: "Australia has taken some steps towards better strategic dialogue about the environment and human wellbeing but it has stopped short in key ways. Yet there is increasing interest in assessing the benefits from these services – in social and/or economic terms. We need to be able to communicate this in everyday language so that information on these benefits can be used to make better decisions."

Co-sponsored by the Department of Agriculture, Australia21 and the Crawford School of Public Policy, the forum followed the development of a comprehensive discussion paper by Australia21 on ecosystem services for the then Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry in 2012.

The forum aimed to consider how the environment might feature more strongly in national thinking about Australia’s future, and what role the concept of ecosystem services might play in supporting that thinking. It was structured around a series of keynote addresses, panel sessions and small group dialogues.Speakers and other participants were encouraged to consider the conclusions of the Australia21 discussion paper, but not necessarily to agree with them.

The key note addresses were: Key areas of agreement between participants were that:
  •  The time is right to rethink how the environment is considered in national strategic thinking.
  •  Decision-making at all levels requires evidence about the importance of the environment – and such evidence is emerging.
  • There is a need for common language to support cross-government and cross-society strategic conversations – and that language is also emerging.
  • Impediments to including the environment in national strategic thinking relate largely to missing institutions, or institutions not functioning optimally.
Several participants in the forum suggested that a cross-sector working group should be established. This would bring together businesses, government and non-government organizations, researchers and others to encourage dialogue about how benefits from the environment can be integrated better into national policy and the thinking of political leaders. Australia21 is exploring how it might take a facilitation role, recognizing that several organizations are already making substantial progress.
* What are ecosystem services? 
Ecosystems are collections of living organisms and non-living components of the environment that interact with each other in highly complex ways. These interactions mediate processes that achieve major transformations of resources, many rivaling or exceeding what can be cost-effectively achieved by humans, for example regulation of atmospheric gases and large-scale water purification. The ways in which these processes lead to benefits for humans are called ecosystem services.

Although ecosystems service support and enrich human life they are often overlooked in decision making because decision makers lack information about them, and they are mostly outside economic markets and have not been ascribed an economic value. Increasingly, however, it has been found that the benefits from these services can be assessed and often measured in economic and social terms that allow them to be considered in decision making alongside more obvious financial benefits.
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