World Environment Day 2000

Opening address at lunch for Mr Klaus Töpfer, Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme

Welcome to our guest, Mr Klaus Töpfer, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme. It is a pleasure and an honour to welcome you to Australia and we look forward to hearing later your perspectives on the international environmental agenda.

And welcome also to Senator Robert Hill, Minister for the Environment and Heritage, and to our other guests.

Mr Töpfer’s visit is a timely reminder that, increasingly, the environment agenda in Australia is being dominated by international developments. The most obvious example of this is greenhouse, with the discussion and debate in Australia on if and how we should respond to the threat of climate change dominated by our expected obligations under the Kyoto Protocol or its successors.

Australian business understands the imperative of climate change – importantly however, we do not underestimate that the adjustment task we face as a nation in making a fair contribution to the global effort is daunting. As business we fully support the position our government is taking in international negotiations on the difficult issues of the flexibility mechanisms, compliance and sinks. We believe that the position being carried is one that will maximise the global environmental outcome, in a way that ensures minimal distortion to international trade and disruption to the social fabric and continued prosperity of all nations.

Beyond greenhouse, we are witnessing the growing impact of community concerns on areas such as trade negotiations and liberalisation. The recent demonstrations in Seattle and at the World Bank/IMF meeting are not going to be isolated events. During any period of change there will be real and deeply felt concerns among the community. However, these concerns are presented, as environmental, social or political concerns, they have to be taken seriously and governments and business need to work together to ensure the benefits of globalisation are achieved in a way that is broadly supported by the societies affected by these changes.

The growing influence and reach of international environmental instruments has been a particular phenomenon of the 1990s, starting with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. That gathering of world leaders set an ambitious program for the world to meet the rising challenges of environmental degradation and protection. It is already eight years this month since the Earth Summit and there will be a Rio + 10 [‘Rio plus ten’] conference in two years time that will assess our progress since the first Earth Summit.

I am sure we would all be interested in Mr Töpfer’s views on Rio+10 and the issues that are likely to dominate the agenda. I should also note that events such as Rio +10 have the potential to affect the international agenda for years to come, just as the original Earth Summit did. It is therefore critically important that both governments and business are well prepared in advance of these events, and we would welcome the opportunity to work closely with the government and other interested parties in the lead up to Rio+10.

If Rio+10 does involve an examination of our achievements since the first Rio conference, I have no doubt that there will be many who will be critical of the progress made, and will point to the continuing environmental problems we faced as evidence of our failure. But we should not underestimate the fundamental changes that have taken place that are greatly enhancing our capacity to achieve sustainable development, that sought after balance of economic, social and environmental aspirations.

One of the biggest changes since the first Earth Summit has been in the role of industry. The Rio Conference was a conference for governments and was led by political leaders. Business and community NGOs were certainly present, but only as lobbyists seeking to influence the government players. Business at that time was not seen as a leader in this area. That has now changed.

Today, few would argue that there can be an answer to the environmental and social challenges we face without engagement from the business community. This shift can be seen both in the relationship we have with government and in our relationship with the community and conservation groups.

Ten years ago, the environment debate went something like this. The conservation movement lobbied government and the community to act on a perceived environmental concern. Industry would respond by raising concerns of lost economic and employment opportunities. Both sides sought, indeed fought, to influence the government, which made the final decision, more often than not guided by its own political agenda. We had an adversarial approach to reconciling economic, environmental and social issues and it did not work.

There are still times when this old formula is played out, but we have also seen fundamental change in the environment debate. Today, many companies and conservation groups work together to find mutually acceptable solutions to development and environment concerns. Both sides have come to accept the legitimacy of each other’s concerns and expectations.

In environment reporting, for example, a number of companies have worked closely with conservation representatives to develop credible public environment reports. These reports are now delivering real commercial benefits to those companies that have shown leadership in this area. This engagement also highlights that, increasingly, conservation groups are accepting that they can no longer just identify perceived problems, they also have to be part of finding realistic solutions.

The Greenhouse Challenge program is another example of a co-operative approach, this time between business and government. By allowing business to take the lead in determining the most appropriate way of moderating its greenhouse gas emissions, the program ensures we achieve environmental goals at least cost to industry and the community.

The community is also playing its role. Australians are great at sorting and putting out their recyclables, with more than 70% regularly participating in domestic collection programs. The challenge now is to get consumers, companies and governments to get better at “buying recycled” and closing the loop. This challenge is being met by the Buy Recycled Business Alliance of Australia, an organisation with more than 30 business members working to increase the purchase and use of recycled content products and materials. The Alliance is another example of how business and government can work together to harness market forces for environmental improvement and get a better result than relying on a prescriptive, regulatory approach.

One of the important lessons the business community has learnt over the past decade is that sustainability is an opportunity, for individual companies and for whole economies. In areas such as water and land management, sustainable agriculture and minerals development, Australia has a lot of environmental expertise to offer the world. We need to be positioning ourselves now to capitalise on the everchanging needs and demands of world markets.

The importance of the change in the relationship between business, government and the community should not be underestimated. It is a change that is critical and a fundamental step in moving our society to a more economically, socially and environmentally sustainable footing. Without broad recognition that business is an essential part of the solution and that business can and will show leadership in this area, we will not achieve our goals as a society.