Generations of capitalism, consumerism and environmental degradation will take a lot of undoing to move humanity back to operating within our ecological limits.
All those involved in the built environment have their work cut out for them. First, it was operational and embodied carbon. Then it was biodiversity, and soon it will be embodied water.
The Fifth Estate’s Urban Greening 2023 event on Thursday highlights the top thinkers, researchers and practitioners of biophilic design and integrating nature back into our homes, workplaces and places of leisure.
And what better way to kick off the day with appreciation of earth-centred governance with a keynote from Earth Laws Alliance of Australia national convenor, Michelle Maloney?
The earth jurisprudence expert framed the discussion with research from Will Steffen on the “Great Acceleration” – a 2015 study which visualises how the acceleration of industrial system development since the 1950s impacted our socio-economic and planetary wealth in 24 economic and earth system trends.
As the graphs of earth system trends in the image below indicate, increased economic output and development occurs in tandem with stratospheric rises of all indicators, from population to GDP, CO2 to ocean acidification, and tropical forest loss to coastal nitrogen levels.
These trends describe planet Earth’s transition from the Holocene, where all beings live in harmony with each other, to the Anthropocene, where human survival dominates that of all other living things.
The result is that humanity has created an “over-extractivist way of being influenced everything we all do,” Maloney said.
“And not one of us can change it on our own. But there’s an entire body of work that’s out there that’s challenging these systems. And great acceleration…was entirely manmade, entirely reliant on fossil fuels. And something that is entirely capable of being changed into something much better.”
Before launching into what most would consider radical ideas for changing our mindsets and improving our stewardship of the planet, Maloney refers to her work with leading Indigenous thinker Mary Graham to emphasise the importance of working with Indigenous governance systems and the laws of Country to build better futures.
“And that’s why we call ourselves Future Dreaming. Because yes, we’re a little bit out there. But is it weird or unusual to think that we should try to live within ecological limits?”
In her search for what she terms “alternative governance models”, Maloney was enchanted by Graham’s construct of “sacralised ecological custodianship” which has driven much of her focus as an environmental lawyer on “nature personhood” where human rights are conferred on things like mountains, rivers and the like.
The threads of how to modify our governance, financial and economic systems to build a better world carried over into a fascinating discussion featuring panellists from EY, KPMG, NSW government and GHD.
As KPMG head of social and sustainable finance Carolin Leeshaa pointed out: “We tend to think of nature as free, but it’s really not.”
The World Economic Forum, she said, estimates that nature directly contributes $US125 trillion to the world economy every year, and around 50 per cent of global GDP is either moderately or highly dependent on nature.
On the flip side, we now realise that if we degrade nature through deforestation, water pollution and species loss, it carries significant material financial risks.
She pointed to a growing realisation among corporates that preserving nature needs to be part of investment and strategic decision-making. “We’re bounded by nature because we simply cannot grow beyond our planetary boundaries.”
The need to incorporate nature into economic language and terminology gives Rasika Mohan market lead for sustainability, resilience and ESG for GHD Advisory, “a twinge of discomfort because it seems like this is the only way we can preserve and protect nature.”
Her most depressing example of this is that in land valuation, a patch of land is worth more if it is cleared than if it is rich in natural diversity, because cleared land is thought to be economically productive, “whereas land that has wilderness on it is considered to be a poor return.”
Mohan pointed to GHD’s recent work on the Fishermans Bend redevelopment in Melbourne where the company studied ways to implement biodiversity sensitive urban design to revegetate and rehabilitate former industrial spaces, and a rehabilitation at the aptly named Boggy Creek in Victoria’s Otway Ranges, a former sand quarry and creek. Finding quality data is a recurring issue, she added, even in the face of advancements such as digital twins and LIDAR (light detection and ranging).
Amy Croucher spoke about NSW Treasury’s Sustainability Advantage program that works with businesses to undertake a Nature Health Check and an action plan to implement change.
The program developed a natural capital accounting framework for the Wollondilly Shire Council, a peri-urban development area to the south of Sydney, which [tp1] is home to critically endangered ecological communities, where the aim was to quantify the amount and type of native vegetation that might be impacted by development.
Emma Herd, partner with EY, likened the process of incorporating natural capital into existing economic and financial systems as a “translation exercise.. it’s about taking the large amorphous and turning it into things that business must and can be doing, and measurable impacts and outcomes from them.
“Getting business to do things is often giving them the language and the tools they need to make decisions and act as well. The challenge is, how do we do that in a way that doesn’t throw out all the new, by bringing it into the fold?”
Mohan said it wasn’t capitalism that felt uncomfortable, rather it was the fear of the unknown. “You can’t really predict the future, but you can only be resilient enough to be able to adapt to it and bounce back from it…so I think it’s a deeply uncomfortable space.”
We need to conserve 30 per cent of nature by 2030
Leeshaa described the signing of the Gulf Biodiversity Framework at COP 15 last year, which stipulates that 30 per cent of nature must be conserved by 2030, as a landmark development for the nature positive movement because it will translate into new national legislation, as is occurring with the federal government’s new Nature Repair Markets Bill.
Having the tools to assign a monetary value to nature is one thing, but it will all be for naught if consumers are unwilling to pay for it.
What the developers think
No one knows this more keenly than large-scale property developers. The Fifth Estate managing editor Tina Perinotto, moderated a panel that included Mulpha head of developments Tim Spencer, who observed a general flight to quality towards sustainable buildings but argued that to achieve better outcomes, it was necessary to push architects harder to allocate space for green infrastructure because they tended to want to maximise the amount of built form on a given site.
Melissa Schulz, general manager of sustainability at QIC described the fund manager’s master plan to develop green spaces around the Castle Towers shopping mall in Sydney’s northwest. “I think I’m speaking to the converted when I say that Western Sydney has a problem with the urban heat island effect. So [adding green infrastructure in that location is really, really important.” QIC is also pushing the green envelope at its office tower in Albert Street, Brisbane, one of the above-station developments as part of the Cross River Rail project.
Not to be outdone, Mirvac senior sustainability manager Andrew Scerri pointed to a master-planned community in Western Australia where the developer had managed to preserve 600 established trees. “And it’s actually a cost saving as well because transplanting them within the site was a lot cheaper than buying them.”
But the property developer‘s curse is that no matter how much you flex your green credentials and no matter how many trees you plant, someone will always point to flaws in your track record. Mirvac’s Scerri was painfully reminded of this when a Hornsby Shire councillor in the audience took the floor in a fiery exchange to ask how this could be reconciled with the company recently cutting down “hundreds of trees” at a recent project in her municipality.
With time running out before the Taskforce for Nature-Related Financial Disclosures releases its framework guidance in September, developers, fund managers and consultants alike are scrambling to find the data and tools they need to measure and manage the ecological footprint of their operations.
While it’s clear that some have a lot of catching up to do, it’s also apparent that even in the short space of a year since Urban Greening 2022, the industry’s approach to listening, understanding and working with nature has significantly evolved.
It feels like the “translation exercise” is well underway.