Budget in surplus, nature in deficit

Bronte McHenry
June 26, 2024
May 20, 2024
min read

Budgets are all about priorities — and according to the Australian Federal Government’s 2024-2025 Budget, defence is a big priority. The budget allocates an additional $50.3 billion over ten years to implement the 2024 National Defence Strategy. Overall funding for Defence will reach $765 billion over the decade.

But what about our defence against ecosystem collapse? 

The government has allocated approximately $492 million to halting and reversing the nature crisis — which sounds like a lot until you compare it to our military defence spending, or realise it is 0.1% of the overall spend. While national security, affordable housing, poverty alleviation and infrastructure development are critical, they're not the only issues of urgency. The nature crisis is urgent too. With each passing day, more species are pushed to extinction, ecosystems continue to unravel and the delicate balance of life on Earth is further destabilised. 

Truly “responsible economic management”

The Federal Government is proud of its expected $9.3 billion surplus — saying it’s indicative of “responsible economic management”. But this statement falls apart when we acknowledge that nature underpins our economy. 

A World Economic Forum report shows that more than half of the world’s GDP is moderately or highly dependent on nature and its services — which equates to US$44 trillion. This dependence on nature is inevitable and wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if we paid for what we use. But we don’t. Our exploitation of nature is so entrenched that analysis shows none of the world’s top industries would be profitable if they paid for the nature they use.

Our economy is dependent on nature — so the government can’t logically claim to be undertaking “responsible economic management” without prioritising responsible resource management too. For the economy to be in good health, nature needs to be healthy too. And nature is not healthy. 

In Australia, 38 native mammal species and 12 native plants have been driven to extinction since colonisation. Today, a further 52 mammal species are classified as either critically endangered or endangered, and about 206 plants are listed as critically endangered.

What good is a budget surplus if nature has been in deficit for centuries? 

A win for the climate doesn’t necessarily help the environment

In addition to defence spending the government has allocated $3.2 billion over the next decade to make Australia “a renewable energy superpower”. 

This initiative is great news, as we need to decarbonise the economy and do it fast if we want to halt and reverse climate change.

But stabilising the atmosphere won’t stabilise the biosphere if we don’t address all the threats facing nature.

Climate change is just one of five drivers of the nature crisis. 

These drivers are:

  1. Climate change;
  2. Changes to land and sea use;
  3. The overexploitation of resources;
  4. Invasive species; and
  5. Pollution. 
Credit: Defenders of Wildlife.

The government’s focus on the renewables transition only addresses one of five drivers of the nature crisis (climate change). Moreover, the material-intensive, land-intensive transition to renewables could actually further drive changes to land use and (overexploitation of resources. In this worst-case scenario, our hyper-fixation on making Australia a renewable energy superpower will blind us to the non-negotiable need to protect the critical forests and habitats marked as development sites. 

Indeed, the government has allocated $134.2 million to better process development proposals for priority renewable energy and critical minerals projects. The government says this means better planning in priority regions and more funding for threatened species research. 

The problem with this process is that development is presumed. It’s a ‘systems-go until proven irresponsible’ method, with the onus always on the regulator. It might be inconvenient, but we shouldn’t be rushing these assessments. We can’t reverse a decision to clear a woodland or destroy a critical breeding habitat.

If we are serious about protecting our critical ecosystems, we should have a robust Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act that enables governments to strategically think about where projects are located and whether the trade-off is worth it for the environment, climate and community. This is not about stopping the building of much-needed renewable infrastructure, it is about more consideration being given to where infrastructure is built.

Budgets are all about priorities

We need to invest in halting and reversing all five drivers of the nature crisis — focusing on renewables and green infrastructure to tackle climate change isn’t enough. We need to invest in solar and mangroves, green fuels and forests, wind farms and watersheds, batteries and bandicoots. 

As outlined in Timothy Neal’s piece in The Conversation:

  • $1.7 billion a year is the expert estimate for how much it would cost to bring all of Australia’s threatened species under active management and recover their numbers; and
  • $2 billion a year for 30 years would restore 13 million hectares of degraded land, without touching farms or urban areas (about twice the size of Tasmania); and
  • A one-off spend of $5 billion would fund the purchase of private land for conservation and long-term management. (Australia previously had a fund like this, which is why our protected area estate has grown so much.)

This seems like a lot of money, until we remember that funding for military defence will reach $765 billion over the decade. Or, that $1.7 billion plus $2 billion plus $5 billion equals $8.7 billion — which is less than the government’s expected $9.3 billion surplus.

We need the government to act. 

However, we need to take responsibility too. Over the last decade, we’ve become accustomed to talking about climate change, demanding action and voting for climate-friendly policies. If the government is missing the bigger picture for nature then we are too. It’s time for all of us to zoom out and broaden our understanding of the nature crisis and how it is more than having carbon tunnel vision.

Budgets are all about priorities — constituents’ priorities. It’s time we made ours clear. 

Relevant reads

If you want to dive deeper into Australia’s budget, we recommend this article on why the budget is for people, not nature, this analysis of the funding allocated for clean energy versus fossil fuels, and this article on why the budget is far from nature-positive. 

Since the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act was established in 2000, more than 3,000 projects have been approved, and 31 have been rejected, according to this ABC article. Out of the energy projects rejected, two involved fossil fuels and five were renewable. 

The Guardian has summarised a new report which shows the economic damage from climate change is six times worse than we predicted it would be. A 1℃ increase in global temperature will lead to a 12% decline in world GDP and a 3℃ temperature increase will cause economic losses of a severity “comparable to the economic damage caused by fighting a war domestically and permanently”. 

And finally, if you don’t have the time to read the 600-page Dasgupta Review? Relatable. Thankfully, this five-minute video does a great job of explaining the key concepts. 

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