Developing a sustainable Queensland

This article was originally posted on an Australian IPP hosted blog site which is closing soon

The  article appeared on 4 August 2010 in the Courier Mail Viewpoint section in a series entitied “Future Fix” about what needs to be done to shape Queensland’s future.  It was called “Green is only way for state to go”. 


Next week two thousand people living somewhere else in Australia or the world will make Queensland their home.

They will be the first of another 3 million people who will join us over the next 20 years .

Most of them will want to settle in the south east corner of Queensland which is already caught in a “growth emergency”.

There a massive $134 billion public investment is upgrading just about everything – transport, health, education and training, energy, water and community facilities.

In the coal and gas districts of regional Queensland, a similar picture is emerging of a rush to riches with associated growth and infrastructure pains and shortfalls.

At such a dynamic time with so much in the project pipeline we can usefully ask: “What needs to be done for Queensland to develop sustainably?”

The idea of a “sustainable Queensland” means making sure that the things that really matter continue indefinitely.

For most Queenslanders a sustainability shopping list would include having good jobs, a clean environment, nice quality of life, and reasons to be hopeful for their children’s future.

Pitched as a policy agenda that same list could include improving the productivity of our farming communities, preventing urban sprawl, protecting our waterways and the Great Barrier Reef, encouraging clean green industry and reducing spiralling amounts of consumer waste, as well as respecting the rights of indigenous communities to their sustainable development.

On everyone’s list there should be a compelling call to take climate change seriously and reduce the carbon intensity of our economy and lifestyle.

There is good reason to do so. Of the many places on Earth to be affected negatively by climate change, Queensland presents among the highest on the risk profile for drought, summer heat stress, severe storms, and coastal inundation impacts.

Climate change also threatens the Great Barrier Reef and much of our native flora and fauna.

It follows that Queensland cannot be sustainable environmentally while our economy increasingly concentrates on the extraction and production of fossil fuels that cause global warming and climate change.

Of special relevance to Queensland at the recent Copenhagen Climate Summit was the commitment given by two of our big energy markets, China and India, to significantly reduce the carbon intensity of their economies by 2020.

With more than $120 billion in oil and gas projects slated for development over the foreseeable future, over the coming decade Queensland will find itself in the schizoid position of markedly boosting its greenhouse impact while working to diversify away from fossil fuels.

That is the toughest sustainability challenge for Queensland, because our greatest source of economic strength in the short to intermediate term is the root of our longer term vulnerability – economic, social and environmental.

Addressing this dilemma though could feature in achieving a cornerstone of a sustainable Queensland – a diversified and decentralised economy.

A carbon decoupling strategy for our economy emphasising renewable energy could deliver real development opportunities for regional Queensland with up to 20,000 new clean energy jobs.

To do that we will need to source at least 20% of our energy from renewable sources by 2020 and the strength of Queensland’s energy utilities as well as existing subsidies should be directed to making it happen.

Queensland is the state with sunshine everywhere, hot rocks for geothermal out west, biomass along the coast and lots of wind in places from the Bunyas all the way to Mt Isa.

The building of a transmission line from Mt Isa to Townsville could be the start of a rush of up to $9 billion in cleantech investment in regional Queensland.

The second cornerstone of Queensland’s sustainable development must be to take climate change seriously and to get real about reducing our carbon footprint – one of the highest per capita in the world.

By losing their right to vegetation clearing, Queensland’s farmers are the only group to have done anything significant about carbon emissions.

The rest of us have squandered those savings in suburban McMansions, air-conditioned electricity guzzlers which double as the modern Queensland home.

Thankfully the Queensland Government has taken important steps toward making housing growth pay its way through efficiency and smaller footprints by upgrading building and development codes.

But with another three quarters of a million homes to be built over the coming decades, it is imperative more is done to drive consumer efficiency by charging the true cost of utilities.

To avoid the ‘socialisation’ of wasteful inefficiency, a sustainable utilities system should be paid for by customers not taxpayers.

Already Queensland taxpayers have had to cough up for the $7 billion water grid just installed in south east Queensland and face further exposure in the $15 billion our energy utilities will have to spend over the next decade upgrading the network just so we have the power we want anytime of the day anytime of the year.

A smarter more sustainable alternative to spiralling cost blow-outs can be achieved through energy conservation and demand management initiatives.

Over the next ten years these could save us a new power station, and up to $4 billion in network expenditure – as well as 24 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions and lots of water.

Fixing our carbon footprint also means tackling the disgrace that is the state of waste minimisation in Queensland with less than a quarter of our waste being recycled.

Waste volumes have spiralled by 40 per cent over the past five years for the simple reason Queensland has not joined other eastern States and imposed a waste levy to encourage waste minimisation and recycling.

The polluter pays principle has been around for nearly 50 years and it is time we Queenslanders applied it to ourselves in our management of waste.

That these anomalies of modern environmental management exist in Queensland reflects disappointingly a gap between what Queenslanders understand about sustainable development and what actually has to happen for our State to be assured of a sustainable future.

In part that has been the result of governments of all political persuasions traversing over these issues by promising certainty, little change and no pain and the result has been predictably under-performance and public scepticism on the issues framing Queensland’s sustainability.

Governance for sustainable development requires more than government; it needs most of all a well informed, engaged and constructive people accepting of the obligations of citizenship and willing to innovate to solve the defining issues of our future.

Author: Professor John Cole OAM

Professor Emeritus and founder of the Institute for Resilient Regions at the University of Southern Queensland and Honorary Professor, UQ Business School, The University of Queensland.

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