A conference on “water, waste and resource recovery, energy efficiency, climate change response and planning and urban design”, all of which affect Mopoke and her mob’s lives.

By Liz Morgan

Mopoke left the comfort of her warm, but sparsely lined, nesting hollow high up in a towering she-oak after a letter arrived by pigeon post, inviting her to attend the NSW Sustainable Development Conference in Sydney this month (May 12 and 13).

Being a principally solitary soul, this was an intimidating proposition to consider: flying six kilometres into the CBD; finding the Cockle Bay venue and making sure to enter through an open door and not go splat into a plate-glass window; introducing herself to other delegates; minding her manners at lunch (would there be anything live to eat, she wondered) and thinking of something wise to ask the speakers.

Her instinct was to tuck her head under her wing and stay in her safe, known world, but after reading what the conference was about, she had to go; no question. The future of her own small universe depended on decisions made by the kinds of people who attended such important functions.

Here was an opportunity to hear, at first hand, what they did, what they believed in, what they planned to do, how they envisaged the future. Better still, maybe there was the teeniest chance for her to tell them how things looked from up high in the casuarinas.

The conference, the invitation said, was to be an opportunity to take stock of how NSW, and Australia more generally, is meeting its sustainability objectives, a sort of report card on progress on “water, waste and resource recovery, energy efficiency, climate change response and planning and urban design”, all of which affect Mopoke and her mob’s lives. She reports that the findings were a mixed bag.

Tim Rogers, acting deputy director general, climate change, policy and programs with the NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change (DECC), kicked off the proceedings with some good news: DECC’s latest “Who Cares About The Environment” research (which informs the State Plan) shows citizens’ concern about the environment (on an aggregate measure of climate change, water supply, environmental health, etc) coming in at a strong third place after health and transport. So we do care.

It seems that no matter how much we say that we care about the environment and sustainability, and want to do something about it, real action is thin on the ground.

Speaker after speaker reminded delegates of Australians’ heaviest carbon footprint, per capita, in the world; our still largely unchallenged reliance on coal for the bulk of our electricity generation; our profligate use of energy and water (while much progress is being made on the latter front, our consumer-driven economy, plus a growing population, is driving up demand for energy).

Phil Harrington, executive manager, climate change at pitt&sherry professional services, said Australia “lagged the world’s best practice by decades in energy efficiency” and now was the time to concoct a national sustainability policy.

Time and again we heard how (despite having policy documents, pieces of legislation, reports, frameworks, blueprints, etc to rival the number of beads in a bean bag), untrammelled consumption of finite resources is still rising, despite decades of sustainable development initiatives.

The Nature Conservancy Council’s executive director, Cate Faehrmann, warned that if, like her, we thought NSW’s 2006 State of the Environment report was shocking, we ain’t seen nothing yet when the 2008 report is released at the end of this year.

The NCC expects all key indicators to have gone backwards since the last report. Warning that it is time for governments and business to tackle untrammeled consumption, she asked rhetorically: “When does the stop button get pushed?”

This is, she says, a question that is being seriously asked by Britain’s Sustainable Development Commission, in an exciting, up-to-the-minute, post-global financial crisis, report entitled Prosperity Without Growth? The transition to a sustainable economy.

Written by an economist, no less, its raises intellectually challenging questions, with chapter titles such as “The Age of Irresponsibility”, “Redefining Prosperity” and “Flourishing – within limits” https://www.sd-commission.org.uk/publications/downloads/prosperity_without_growth_report.pdf

We meandered up and down a theoretical supply chain and were invited to wonder at the sustainability opportunities to be found at each link. Whooo whooo! This is 2009 and Mopoke finds it profoundly depressing that this is what we are still talking about at a high-level gathering of public and private representatives.

Of course there are some fantastic initiatives out there. The national Landcare program is a prime example. Water initiatives in the Werribee Plains, (cutting Shell refinery’s use of potable water to almost zilch, for example, when it once consumed a third of Geelong’s potable water supply) as outlined by the indefatigable Ian Blair of Quadraco Asia-Pacific (at 72, by far the most energetic and inspirational presenter, in Mopoke’s eyes) stand out.

But, at the end of the day it’s the yawning absence of a “thinking outside the square”, the lack of political courage and will, that most alarms us.

While Mopoke understands the frustrations of the private waste industry in comingling with the public sectors (arguments well presented by industry experts like Mike Ritchie of the Waste Management Association of NSW and WSN’s Ken Kanofski), in having to wait on regulatory signals and planning approvals from governments to develop their businesses, one might cynically wonder if Australia’s growing waste tips present an opportunity to such companies.

And, of course, if we finally get our act together here, they can always move offshore. But what if offshore, wherever that may be, has already cleaned up its act? As Andrew De Montemas of the Australian Industry Group pointed out, already we have seen much of the cutting-edge photovolvic technology drift from our shores.

So it was a rather weary little owl who flew home, guided by the bright, waning moon. A busy night’s hunting lay ahead: there had been little enough food for thought in the speeches, and nothing alive on the (otherwise excellent) luncheon buffet.

Feedback? send your feedback to editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

“The mopoke,” Liz Morgan tells us,”also known as the Southern Boobook, is Australia’s most common owl; a lovely little creature that still thinks our cities and towns are worthwhile places in which to live, and a fantastic indicator that these urban environments can still provide adequate food and shelter for a fairly high-order predator.