Australia held a general election on 2 July 2016. The Liberal/National coalition narrowly won in the House of Representatives, gaining a substantially reduced majority of 77 of the 150 seats, to Labor’s 68 and other parties’ 5 seats. One campaign issue for all parties was the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, which is seen as an environmental disaster. Each party had proposals for tackling the problem and we examine some of them here.
The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world. As the BBC’s iWonder guide states:
One of the world’s seven natural wonders, the Great Barrier Reef contains some 900 islands and 3000 smaller reefs. It is larger than the UK, the Netherlands and Switzerland combined, home to around 10% of the world’s marine fish, over 200 bird species and countless other animals, including turtles and dolphins.
But this iconic Reef system is facing unprecedented threats. Together with governments, scientists are playing a key role in the battle to preserve this vulnerable ecosystem before it’s too late.
The Reef is 2300km long. In the northern third, around half of the coral is dead. Few tourists see this, as they tend to dive in the southern third, which, being cooler, is less affected.
The bleaching and destruction of coral reefs has a number of causes. These include: rising water temperatures, generally from global warming and more extreme El Niño events (rising warm waters that periodically spread across the Pacific); pollution, including that from coal mining, industrial effluent and run-off of pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers and sediment from farming, leading to acidification of waters; more frequent and more violent cyclones; rapidly expanding numbers of coral-eating Crown of Thorns starfish; and over fishing of some species of fish, leading to knock-on effects on ecosystems.
The Barrier Reef and the oceans and atmosphere around it can be regarded as a common resource. The warming of the atmosphere and the oceans, and the destruction of the reef and the wildlife on it, are examples of the ‘tragedy of the commons’. With no-one owning these resources, they are likely to be overused and abused. Put another way, these activities cause negative externalities, which do not appear as costs to the polluters and despoilers, but are still costs to all who treasure the reef. And, from a non-human perspective, it is a cost to the planet and its biodiversity. What is in the private interests of the abusers is not in the social or environmental interest.
The Australian government had sought to downplay the extent of the problem, afraid of deterring tourists – a valuable source of revenue – and under pressure from the coal and farming industries. Nevertheless, in the run-up to the election, the destruction of the Reef and what to do about it became a major debating point between the parties.
The Coalition government has pledged A$1bn for a new Reef fund, which will be dedicated to tackling climate change and water quality.
The fund will also help coastal sewage treatment plants to reduce ocean outfalls with efficient pumps, biogas electricity generation and next-generation waste water treatment. Improving water quality will enhance the Reef’s resilience to climate change, coral bleaching and outbreaks of the destructive crown of thorns starfish.
But how much difference the fund can make with the money it will have is not clear.
The Labor Party pledged to follow every recommendation in the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce’s Final Report, released in May, and to pass laws to prevent farm pollution flowing into the waters around the Reef and to have a more rapid shift towards renewable energy.
The Green Party goes the furthest. In addition to the Labor Party’s proposals, it wants to impose taxes on coal firms equal to the cost of the damage they are causing. The tax revenues would be paid into a multi-billion dollar fund. This would then be spent on measures to rescue the Reef, invest in clean energy projects, stop damaging industrial development, improve farm management and stop polluted run-off into the Reef catchment area by investing in water systems.
Promises at the time of an election are all well and good. Just how much will be done by the re-elected Coalition government remains to be seen.
Interactive Videos and presentations
David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef: an Interactive Journey, Atlantic Productions, David Attenborough (2015)
Global Warming – the greatest market failure Prezi, Yvonne Cheng (5/12/12)
The Great Barrier Reef: a catastrophe laid bare The Guardian, Michael Slezak (7/6/16)
The Guardian view on the Great Barrier Reef: the crisis they prefer to downplay The Guardian (7/6/16)
Fight to save Great Barrier Reef could cost billions, secret government modelling estimates ABC News, Mark Willacy (2/6/16)
Great Barrier Reef: government must choose which parts to save, says expert The Guardian, Joshua Robertson (8/7/16)
This election, what hope is there for the Great Barrier Reef? The Guardian, Michael Slezak (1/7/16)
Coalition will protect Great Barrier Reef with $1bn fund, says PM The Guardian, Gareth Hutchens (12/6/16)
Great Barrier Reef election explainer: how do the parties compare? The Guardian, Michael Slezak (2/6/16)
Five things we can do right now to save the Great Barrier Reef The Guardian, John Pandolfi (13/6/16)
We’ve scored the parties on the Reef My Sunshine Coast, Australian Marine Conservation Society (29/6/16)
Our Most Iconic Places Are Under Dire Threat From Climate Change Huffington Post, Nick Visser (26/5/16)
There are bright spots among the world’s coral reefs – the challenge is to learn from them The Conversation, Australia, Joshua Cinner (21/7/16)
- Explain what is meant by the Tragedy of the Commons. Is all pollution damage an example of this?
- What can the Australian government do to internalise the external costs to the Great Barrier Reef from (a) farming; (b) mining; (c) global warming?
- Why is it difficult to reach international agreement on tackling climte change? What insights can game theory provide for understanding the difficulties?
- What are the recommendations in the Final Report of the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce? What mix of tools does it suggest?
- What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of taxation, laws and regulations, public investment, education and international negotiation as policy instruments to protect the Reef?
At the G7 conference in Bavaria on 7 and 8 June 2015, it was agreed to phase out the use of fossil fuels by the end of the century. But despite this significant objective, there were no short-term measures put in place to start on the process of achieving this goal. Nevertheless, the agreement contained commitments to further developments in carbon markets, elimination of fossil fuel subsidies, incentives for the development of green energy and support for developing countries in reducing hydrofluorocarbons.
The agreement also sent a strong message to the 21st United Nations International Climate Change conference scheduled to meet in Paris from 30 November to 11 December 2015. The G7 communiqué states that binding rules would be required if the target was to be met.
The agreement should enhance transparency and accountability including through binding rules at its core to track progress towards achieving targets, which should promote increased ambition over time. This should enable all countries to follow a low-carbon and resilient development pathway in line with the global goal to hold the increase in global average temperature below 2°C.
But many environmentalists argue that a more fundamental approach is needed. This requires a change in the way the environment is perceived – by both individuals and politicians. The simple selfish model of consumption to maximise consumer surplus and production to maximise profit should be rejected. Instead, the environment should be internalised into decision making.
What is more, there should be an integral ecology which brings together a wide range of disciplines, including economics, in analysing the functioning of societies and economies. Rather than being seen merely as a resource to be exploited, respect and care for the environment should be incorporated into our whole decision-making process, along with protecting societies and cultures, and rejecting economic systems that result in a growing divide between rich and poor.
In his latest encyclical, On care for our common home, Pope Francis considers integral ecology, not just in terms of a multidiciplinary approach to the environment but as an approach that integrates the objectives of social justice and care for the environment into an overarching approach to the functioning of societies and economies. And central to his message is the need to change the way human action is perceived at a personal level. Decision making should be focused on care for others and the environment not on the selfish pursuit of individual gain.
With a change in heart towards other people and the environment, what would be seen as externalities in simple economic models based on rational self-interested behaviour become internal costs or benefits. Care and compassion become the drivers for action, rather than crude self interest.
A key question, of course, is how we get here to there; how society can achieve a mass change of heart. For religious leaders, such as the Pope, the approach centres on spiritual guidance. For the secular, the approach would probably centre on education and the encouragement for people to consider others in their decision making. But, of course, there is still a major role for economic instruments, such as taxes and subsidies, rules and regulations, and public investment.
G7 leaders agree to phase out fossil fuels by end of centuryEU Observer, Peter Teffer (8/6/15)
Integral Ecology Approach Links ‘Welfare of God’s People and God’s Creation’ Catholic Register (11/6/15)
President’s Corner Teilhard Perspective, John Grim (May 2015)
In his encyclical on climate change Pope Francis reveals himself to be a master of scientific detail Washington Post, Anthony Faiola, Michelle Boorstein and Chris Mooney (18/6/15)
Pope Francis Calls for Climate Action in Draft of Encyclical New York Times, Jim Yardley (15/6/15)
Pope Francis letter on climate change leaked: Draft Vatican encyclical released three days early Independent, Kashmira Gander and Michael Day (15/6/15)
The Pope is finally addressing the gaping hole in the Judaeo-Christian moral tradition Independent, Michael McCarthy (15/6/15)
Pope Francis warns of destruction of Earth’s ecosystem in leaked encyclical The Guardian, Stephanie Kirchgaessner and John Hooper (16/6/15)
Explosive intervention by Pope Francis set to transform climate change debate The Observer, John Vidal (13/6/15)
Pope Francis’ Leaked Encyclical Draft Attributes Climate Change To Human Activity Huffington Post, Antonia Blumberg (15/6/15)
Pope Francis’ Integral Ecology Huffington Post, Dave Pruett (28/5/15)
Pope Francis: Climate change mostly man-made BBC News, Caroline Wyatt (18/6/15)
Pope urges action on global warming in leaked document BBC News, Chris Cook (16/6/15)
- What do you understand by ‘integral ecology’?
- Is an integrated approach to the environment and society consistent with ‘rational’ behaviour (a) in the narrow sense of ‘rational’ as used in consumer and producer theory; (b) in a broader sense of making actions consistent with goals?
- Can cost–benefit analysis be used in the context of an integrated and cross-disciplinary approach to the environment and society?
- What types of incentives would be useful in achieving the approach proposed by Pope Francis?
- Why do many companies publicly state that they pursue a policy of corporate responsibiliy?
- To what extent does it make sense to set targets for the end of this century?
- In what crucial ways might GDP need to be adjusted if it is to be used as a measure of the success of the approach to society, the economy and the environment as advocated by Pope Francis?
The governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, made an important speech in New York on 25th October. The Governor’s speech was a wide-ranging discussion of the banking system. At the heart of it was a fundamental economic concept: market failure. The market failure that King was referring to stems from the maturity transformation which occurs when banks borrow short, say through our savings or wholesale funds from other financial institutions, and then lend long as is the case with mortgages. Of course, the positive outcome of this maturity transformation is that it does allow for funds to be pooled and this, in turn, enables long-term finance, something which is incredibly important for business and households. However, King believes that banks have become too heavily reliant on short-term debt to finance lending. Indeed he went so far as to describe their levels of leverage as ‘extraordinary’ and ‘absurd’. He argued that such a system can only work with the ‘implicit support of the taxpayer’.
In elaborating on the market failure arising from maturity transformation in today’s financial system, King notes
…the scale of maturity transformation undertaken today produces private benefits and social costs. We have seen from the experience of first Iceland, and now Ireland, the results that can follow from allowing a banking system to become too large relative to national output without having first solved the “too important to fail” problem.
In the speech, King considers a range of remedies to reduce the risks to the financial system. These include: (i) imposing a tax on banks’ short-term borrowing which could, to use the economic terminology, help internalise the external cost arising from maturity transformation; (ii) placing limits on banks’ leverage and setting capital requirements as outlined in the recent Basel III framework (for a discussion on Basel III see Basel III – tough new regulations or letting the banks off lightly?; (iii) functional separation of bank activities to safeguard those activities critical to the economy. King argues that whatever remedies we choose they should be guided by one fundamental principle: “ensure that the costs of maturity transformation – the costs of periodic financial crises – fall on those who enjoy the benefits of maturity transformation – the reduced cost of financial intermediation”.
Mervyn King’s speech makes considerable reference to our banks’ balance sheets. So to conclude this piece we consider the latest numbers on the liabilities of British banks. At the end of each month, in its publication Monetary and Financial Statistics, the Bank of England publishes figures on the assets and liabilities of Britain’s banking institutions or ‘MFIs’ (monetary and financial institutions). The latest release showed that British banks had total liabilities of some £8.15 trillion at the end of September 2010. To put it into perspective that’s equivalent to around 5½ times the country’s annual Gross Domestic Product. Of this sum, £3.75 trillion was classified as Sterling-denominated liabilities, so largely reflecting operations here in the UK, while £4.39 trillion was foreign currency liabilities reflecting the extent of over-seas operations.
The Sterling liabilities of our financial institutions are dominated by two principal deposit types: sight deposits and time deposits. The former are deposits that can be withdrawn on demand without penalty whereas time deposits require notice of withdrawals. Sterling sight deposits at the end of September totalled £1.16 trillion (31% of Sterling liabilities and 80% of annual GDP) while time deposits totalled £1.52 trillion (40% of Sterling liabilities and 105% of annual GDP). The next largest group of deposits are known repos or, to give them their full title, sales and repurchase agreements. Repos are essentially loans, usually fairly short-term, where banks can sell some of their financial assets, such as government debt, to other banks and this can help to ease any shortages in funds. Sterling-denominated repos totalled £197.8 billion at the end of September (8% of Sterling liabilities and 21% of annual GDP).
To conclude, the growth in our banking system’s liabilities has been pretty staggering. Compared with today’s liabilities of nearly £8.15 trillion, liabilities 13 years ago totalled £2.35 trillion. So over this period the banks’ liabilities have risen from a little below 3 times Gross Domestic Product to over 5½ times GDP. That is certainly worthy of analysis.
Mervyn King’s speech
Banking: from Bagehot to Basel, and back again The second Bagehot lecture, New York City (25/10/10)
Mervyn King mobilises his tanks Independent, Ben Chu (26/10/10)
Get tougher on banks, says banking governor Mervyn King’ Daily Mail, Hugo Duncan (26/10/10)
Mervyn King attacks ‘absurd’ bank risk BBC News (26/10/10)
Mervyn King says banking must be reinvented BBC News blogs: Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (26/10/10)
Data on banks’ liabilities and assets are available from the Bank of England’s statistics publication, Monetary and Financial Statistics (Bankstats) (See Table B1.4.)
- What do you understand by the terms: (i) market failure; and (ii) maturity transformation?
- What is the external cost identified by Mervyn King arising out of maturity transformation?
- What does it mean to internalise an external cost? Can you think of examples from everyday life where attempts are made to do this?
- Consider the various ‘remedies’ identified by Mervyn King to reduce the riskiness of our financial system. (You may wish to download the speech using the web link above).
- Distinguish between the following deposits: (i) time deposit; (ii) sight deposit; and (iii) repos.