Abstract

Over two centuries of economic growth have put undeniable pressure on the ecological systems that underpin human well-being. While it is agreed that these pressures are increasing, views divide on how they may be alleviated. Some suggest technological advances will automatically keep us from transgressing key environmental thresholds; others that policy reform can reconcile economic and ecological goals; while a third school argues that only a fundamental shift in societal values can keep human demands within the Earth’s ecological limits. Here we use novel integrated analysis of the energy–water–food nexus, rural land use (including biodiversity), material flows and climate change to explore whether mounting ecological pressures in Australia can be reversed, while the population grows and living standards improve. We show that, in the right circumstances, economic and environmental outcomes can be decoupled. Although economic growth is strong across all scenarios, environmental performance varies widely: pressures are projected to more than double, stabilize or fall markedly by 2050. However, we find no evidence that decoupling will occur automatically. Nor do we find that a shift in societal values is required. Rather, extensions of current policies that mobilize technology and incentivize reduced pressure account for the majority of differences in environmental performance. Our results show that Australia can make great progress towards sustainable prosperity, if it chooses to do so.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank CSIRO Land and Water, CSIRO Energy, CSIRO Agriculture, and CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere for funding and support, and J. Dowse of Clarity Thought Partners for assistance in preparing this paper and the National Outlook report.

Author information

Author notes

    • Ian Prosser

    Present address: Bureau of Meteorology, Childers Street, Canberra, ACT 2600, Australia

Affiliations

  1. CSIRO, Black Mountain Laboratories, Acton, ACT 2601, Australia

    • Steve Hatfield-Dodds
    • , Heinz Schandl
    • , Francis H. S. Chiew
    • , Tom Harwood
    • , Rebecca McCallum
    •  & Ian Prosser
  2. Victoria University, Flinders Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000, Australia

    • Philip D. Adams
  3. CSIRO, Julius Avenue, North Ryde, NSW 2113, Australia

    • Timothy M. Baynes
    •  & Alex Wonhas
  4. CSIRO, Energy Centre, Mayfield West, NSW 2304, Australia

    • Thomas S. Brinsmead
    •  & Paul W. Graham
  5. CSIRO, Waite Campus, Urrbrae, SA 5064, Australia

    • Brett A. Bryan
    •  & Martin Nolan
  6. CSIRO, Queensland Biosciences Precinct, St Lucia, QLD 4067, Australia

    • Mike Grundy
  7. CSIRO, Ecosciences Precinct, Dutton Park, QLD 4102, Australia

    • Rod McCrea
    •  & Lisa E. McKellar
  8. CSIRO, Yarralumla Laboratories, Yarralumla, ACT 2601, Australia

    • David Newth

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Contributions

S.H-D. led the National Outlook project and oversaw all analysis, and led the drafting of this paper. All authors contributed to the analysis and interpretation, and commented on the draft paper, focusing as follows: S.H-D., study design, integration, and interpretation; H.S., material flows; P.D.A., CGE modelling; T.M.B., efficiency potential; T.S.B., transport; B.A.B. and M.N., land use; F.H.S.C. and I.P., water; P.W.G., stationary energy; M.G., agriculture; T.H., biodiversity; R.McCa., model linking, data integrity, analysis and charts; R.McCr., historical consumption trends; L.E.M., data integrity, analysis and charts, land and water analysis; D.N., global economics and climate; A.W., interpretation.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Steve Hatfield-Dodds.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature16065

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