Australia is ‘free to choose’ economic growth and falling environmental pressures

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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Figure 1: Economic activity (GDP) and national income (GNI) continue to rise strongly in all scenarios.
Figure 2: Decoupling of emissions, water stress, and native habitat from the supply of energy, water and food, respectively, for 18–21 scenarios, 1970–2050.
Figure 3: Comparing living standards and emission outcomes across multiple scenarios.

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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.

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Authors

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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Steve Hatfield-Dodds.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Australian economic activity, income and living standards, and material and energy intensive industries to 2050.

Projections for 20 scenarios for nine indicators, and touchstone scenarios for one indicator. Income, consumption, and average working hours provide indicators of living standards. PES refers to payments for ecosystem services (carbon sequestration and habitat restoration). Definitions of scenarios and scenario assumptions, details of scenario sets, a full list of indicators, and references for historical data are provided in the Supplementary Information.

Extended Data Figure 2 Australian energy use to 2050.

Projections for 18 or 20 scenarios for three indicators, and touchstone scenarios for two indicators. Definitions of scenarios and scenario assumptions, details of scenario sets, a full list of indicators, and references for historical data are provided in the Supplementary Information. CCS, carbon capture and storage.

Extended Data Figure 3 Australia water use to 2050.

Projections for 20 scenarios for two indicators and 18 scenarios for six indicators. Total water use is made up of extractive use plus interceptions of surface flows by new plantings that would otherwise contribute to streamflow. Water use in water-limited catchments provides an indication of water stress. Definitions of scenarios and scenario assumptions, details of scenario sets, a full list of indicators, and references for historical data are provided in the Supplementary Information.

Extended Data Figure 4 Australian agriculture output values, volumes and land use to 2050.

Projections for 21 scenarios for 12 indicators. Food grains are a sub-set of crops. Protein calculation based on agricultural output volumes for all food commodities (including cereals, beef, sheep, legumes and dairy milk), weighted using USDA (2014). Definitions of scenarios and scenario assumptions, details of scenario sets, a full list of indicators, and references for historical data are provided in the Supplementary Information.

Extended Data Figure 5 Australian land sector output values, volumes and land use to 2050.

Projections for 21 scenarios for eight indicators. Total land sector activity is made up of agriculture (detailed in Extended Data Fig. 4) and payments for ecosystem services (carbon sequestration and habitat restoration) (see Extended Data Fig. 1i, j). Definitions of scenarios and scenario assumptions, details of scenario sets, a full list of indicators, and references for historical data are provided in the Supplementary Information.

Extended Data Figure 6 Australian greenhouse gas emissions and abatement to 2050.

Projections for 18 scenarios for four indicators, and touchstone scenarios for one indicator. Domestic net emissions are defined as direct emissions less carbon sequestration (CCS and biosequestration) before trade in international emissions units. Calculations for Extended Data Fig. 6e are set out in Supplementary Methods, ‘Calculations for Fig. 3 and assessment of potential economic performance with different levels of global and national action to reduce greenhouse emissions’. Definitions of scenarios and scenario assumptions, details of scenario sets, a full list of indicators, and references for historical data are provided in the Supplementary Information.

Extended Data Figure 7 Maximum and minimum contributions of individual and collective choices to differences in projected greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, and non-agricultural water use in 2050.

Calculations based on 20 scenarios, as described in Supplementary Methods, ‘Assessing the contributions of individual and collective choices’, drawing on data from Extended Data Figs 6a, b, 2a and 3b, c. Scenario assumptions and characteristics of the modelling framework prevent meaningful analysis of other indicators of environmental pressure for this purpose, such as total water use including agricultural extractions. Definitions of scenarios and scenario assumptions, details of scenario sets, a full list of indicators, and references for historical data are provided in the Supplementary Information.

Extended Data Figure 8 Australian population, 1970–2050.

Population trajectory assumed in all domestic National Outlook scenarios. Information on age structure and dependency ratios is provided in ref 1. Definitions of scenarios and scenario assumptions, details of scenario sets, a full list of indicators, and references for historical data are provided in the Supplementary Information.

Extended Data Figure 9 World population, economic activity, energy, emissions and agriculture to 2050.

Projections for four global context scenarios for 11 indicators, and for three global context scenarios for two indicators. The global scenarios assume different combinations of population and cumulative greenhouse gas emissions, implying different levels of global abatement effort as well as different patterns of global demand and supply of energy and agricultural products. To give a wider range of contexts, the M2 (medium population, moderate abatement) global scenario also assumes higher global agricultural productivity, resulting in lower agricultural prices than would be projected otherwise. Definitions of scenarios and scenario assumptions, details of scenario sets, a full list of indicators, and references for historical data are provided in the Supplementary Information.

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Hatfield-Dodds, S., Schandl, H., Adams, P. et al. Australia is ‘free to choose’ economic growth and falling environmental pressures. Nature 527, 49–53 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature16065

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