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Australia's economic, social and environmental future

By Chris Lewis - posted Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Entering a new decade in 2020, can Australia improve its economic, social and environmental policy mix at time of unprecedented policy difficulties?

First, Australia clutches to a hope that Western primacy will prevail and limit the growing influence of authoritarian nations while still looking to authoritarian China to purchase more of its exports and services.

Second, beyond the growing importance of services to the economy, Australia hopes to maintain export diversity beyond being a quarry for the world by remaining a major global food producer, yet the recent mass fires is a timely reminder that water resources are precious in a drought ravaged country where farmers already confront higher water prices.


While Australia produced just 1.3% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, although much higher if the consumption of its mineral fuel exports are counted, any hope for a cooler climate in the near future is unlikely as more Chinese and Indians alone (with a combined 2.7 billion people) acquire a more energy intensive way of life.

With global greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 rising at its fastest rate for a decade, with "a young fleet of coal-fired power plants in Asia accounting for a large proportion of the increase", India alone had a 6.3% increase with 59% of its power generation coming from coal.

In other words, while the best hopes for free trade over many decades were indeed justified to encourage peace and prosperity between nations, and Australia did benefit in recent decades from high demand for mineral exports, new policy difficulties were largely unforeseen or downplayed by policy leaders with regard to environmental problems and the rise of authoritarian nations.

Nevertheless, Western societies (such as Australia) still have a capacity to lead by example in terms of their economic, social and environmental policy mix, especially when compared to authoritarian and other societies that disregard the importance of public debate to encourage sensible policy outcomes.

For example, while one cannot dispute the problems faced by many Australian producers through unaffordable high water prices, authoritarian China, despite building many dams at the sources of 10 major rivers that flow through 11 countries, has long suffered from the artificial low pricing of water which encouraged poor water management, inefficient use by industry and agriculture, and the pollution of scarce freshwater supplies.

In environmental terms, given that technology has brought both economic benefit and environmental degradation, it remains to be seen to what extent Australia (and other liberal democracies) will take heed of the International Monetary Fund's 2015 call for countries to consider carbon pricing "to accelerate progress toward a green world".


After all, with a 2018 article pointing out that the US had reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by about 8% since 2000, the US still increased its greenhouse gas emissions by 3.4% during 2018, a higher level than China's 2.3%.

As it stands, 2018 analysisindicates that Germany, the United Kingdom, and France did the best of the twenty largest greenhouse gas emitters since 1990 in terms of lowering emissions yet achieving economic growth.

But balancing economic, social and environmental policy needs is an extremely difficult task for any liberal democracy as government and society debate where resources should be spent.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis, who completed a First Class Honours degree and PhD (Commonwealth scholarship) at Monash University, has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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All articles by Chris Lewis

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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