NEWS FROM THE FRONT DESK: First came the fires, then the pandemic, then the floods. After the collective trauma of the past few years, it is no wonder that the focus has been sharpened on people and our communities’ resilience and wellbeing. 

Climate change and the housing crisis are proof of the damage that can result by placing too great a focus purely on continual economic growth regardless of the cost. 

While at times it may have certainly felt like nothing was happening, behind the scenes the momentum has been picking up speed on a more human and nature-centred approach to governance and business, and how we measure success.

We say human-centred, because, let’s be clear – healthy people and communities rely on well-functioning ecosystems to survive and thrive.

The collective upheaval of the past few years has led to a change in what is considered valuable – not just in the eyes of the general public, but in industry and governance as well. 

For a start, let’s take for example the recent conversations we have been hearing around nature-based targets. Since more than half of global economic output is dependent on biodiversity and ecosystem services, organisations are starting to assess their impacts on the natural system as a whole, not just carbon emissions alone. 

“Nature positive”, referring to economic activity that improves the condition of nature (such as biodiversity, soil quality, and water), and therefore society, is starting to enter the lexicon as “the new net zero”. 

It’s one of the key issues we’ll be looking at our tickets are now available for our upcoming Urban Greening Event next month where Pollination who’s got the jump on a lot of other consulting houses has notched up considerable insights already. (Yes they will be at our event). 

Tim King, chief investment officer of impact investor Melior Investment Management, told AFR not long ago: “I’m telling companies this is moving rapidly. Investor expectations are moving extremely rapidly, as are customers’ and employees’ expectations.”

The pressure is mounting on the government and industry to set stronger targets and find better ways to measure and improve our impact on the environment.

Simon O’Connor, chief executive officer of the Responsible Investment Association Australasia (RIAA) told The Fifth Estate recently that momentum is growing both Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand “to better account for and value assets on the basis of nature-related risks and how they are managed”. 

Just this week for example, Accounting for Nature (AfN) announced that it’s accredited the first regional-scale methods under its standard for environmental accounting that monitors the condition of native vegetation, fauna, aquatic vertebrates, and waterways cost-effectively. 

Dr Adrian Ward, chief executive of AfN says it’s an exciting new step for environmental accounting to help us track how the condition of our environment changes over time, and its relationship with our economy. 

It is also a strong new method to counteract the plague of greenwashing that seems to be so pervasive. 

“New methods have been added to Australia’s toolkit for understanding the condition of our natural environment, it is exciting progress for the emerging practise of environmental accounting but more importantly the opportunity to make real and measurable steps towards the bigger picture; our impact on climate change,” he said.

Take a look also at the new Taskforce for Nature-related Disclosures (TNFD) stakeholder consultation initiatives announced at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland last month. This includes a new consultation group convened by RIAA to help Australia and New Zealand expand outreach and engagement. 

The TNFD is working towards a risk management and disclosure framework for organisations to report and act on nature-related risks, with final recommendations set to come out in September 2023. 

This month, the Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions at the National University of Singapore joined the initiative, bringing expertise on nature-based solutions for climate mitigation and adaptation in the Asia-Pacific region, while the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University will strengthen expertise in Europe. 

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has also joined the initiative to strengthen policymaking for financial markets, nature and biodiversity, and green finance and investment.

These kinds of initiatives show that nature-related activities are attracting real attention at the highest levels and gaining momentum. 

And make no mistake, we need it here in Australia. 

To add to Australia’s embarrassing climate record (we ranked dead last out of all developed countries on climate action according to a 2021 report from the Climate Council), Australia also has been bestowed the high (dis)honour of scooping the gold medal in worst mammal extinction rate of any country in the world according to the World Wide Fund for Nature. Wow, what an achievement! 

Australia has an incredible level of biodiversity, with most species entirely unique and not found anywhere else in the world. 

However, as of 2020 Australia has lost 34 mammals (and counting) as a result of human-induced environmental changes since colonisation, which is about the same number as the rest of the world combined over the past 200 years.

“Healthy communities rely on well-functioning ecosystems,” WHO published all the way back in 2015. 

All this buzz around nature-based targets comes out of growing awareness that nature is important to our continued existence on the planet. 

Biodiversity loss directly impacts human health, they say.

What does it say about us as a species, if we continue to pursue economic growth at the cost of our own well-being?

Alone, economic measures of success mean nothing. Let’s try these as well: 

These are also other alternative measurements of success that are relevant to our future, that are now being heralded as the way to go – with the embrace of non-economic measures to guide federal policy finally being explored by the government. 

Treasurer Jim Chalmers called the upcoming budget a “wellbeing budget”.

Whilst traditional indicators such as GDP are widely acknowledged as a valuable indicator of economic success, GDP does not measure work-life balance, unpaid work, environmental aspects, life expectancy or infant mortality. It does not measure wellbeing, safety, happiness or quality of life. 

“What I’ve committed to is a program of measuring what matters. One of my personal obsessions is that we need to get better at measuring what matters,” Dr Chalmers stated on ABC radio.

“In addition to the really important economic data that we already collect – in addition to that, not instead of that – we should be measuring progress in this country more effectively so that we can have a proper national conversation about what really matters to us and what matters in an intergenerational sense as well.

“What I’m hoping to do in the October budget is to get the ball rolling on that so that we can have proper consultation with a lot of people who are interested in this.”

In its recently released 2022-23 budget, the NSW Treasury has included a greater focus on health, early childhood investment, stronger climate resilience and environmental sustainability 

An Economic Stewardship Framework is also set to be included into the NSW government’s formal program reporting system, covering the state’s natural, social, human and economic assets: “elevating consideration of these factors in Treasury’s development of policy advice, and supporting future extensions of the outcome budgeting framework”.

“A stronger focus on environmental, social and governance (together known as ESG) principles is fast becoming an essential part of prudent economic and financial management,” NSW Treasury said. 

This idea is not new. 

About half of OECD countries all have well being measures, with statistics bureaux developing new data methods to measure outcomes such as housing affordability, family violence and unpaid work. 

The good news is that OECD Better Life Index puts Australia above the average in income, jobs, education, health, environmental quality, social connections, civic engagement and life satisfaction, of available data. 

When asked to rate general life satisfaction on a scale from 0 to 10, Australians gave it a 7.1 grade on average, higher than the OECD average of 6.7.

At the same time, the Australian population level of psychological distress increased significantly from 2001 to 2017/18, with a recent paper reporting that mental healthcare expenditure also increased in that period. 

And although the 2022 World Happiness Report found that Australia is the 12th happiest country in the world, a survey during the lockdowns found more than 40 per cent of young people reported severe levels of anxiety and depression. 

Additionally, other wellbeing indicators such as family and domestic violence skyrocketed in Australia during the pandemic. 

Way back in 2012 recommendations for the parliament of NSW were put forward to develop a wellbeing indicator system.

New Zealand already has such a system. It focuses its wellbeing data collection around three areas: individuals and collective wellbeing, institutional and governance health, and the wealth and welfare of the country.

“To undertake robust analysis and provide good advice, we need to think broadly around what it means for us to progress as a country and how we understand the impact of current or potential policies,” NZ Treasury said in April after updating its Living Standards Framework Dashboard.

“We see it as robust economics to draw on a broad range of data and evidence in our definition of progress and in our policy advice.”

Dr Katherine Trebeck, former senior adviser for the Wellbeing Economy Alliance told AFR: “The other aspect of wellbeing is what I describe as system change. This is a conversation on understanding the drivers of people’s sense of anxiety, why there are inequalities, who’s feeling most content and most in control of their lives, the circumstances that create dignified lives, the quality of jobs.” 

“It’s important to help people survive and cope, but we also need to look upstream.” 

Victoria has also been exploring the development of a roadmap to “promote societal wellbeing and consider both human and planetary health, now and for future generations”.

In 2020, former treasurer Josh Frydenberg called the wellbeing budget idea “a yoga matt [and] beads”.

Well it seems that among environmental, housing, and other woes we have faced in recent years, a yoga matt and beads is exactly what humanity needs to ensure that we thrive into the future.

— BY ROSE MARY PETRASS

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  1. More than 50 years ago the late senator Robert Kennedy gave an address where he exposed the weakness of GDP as an indicator but he was ignored because GDP can be used to approve any project, even the most terrible like the ADANI MINE.