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Triple Bottom Line, Down Under

ba_logo.jpgAustralian national research institute CSIRO and the University of Sydney have just published a report entitled Balancing Act -- A Triple Bottom Line Analysis of the Australian Economy, which looks at sustainability and the ways in which it can be embedded in the Australian economy. (Triple Bottom Line Analysis explicitly includes ecological and social costs and benefits in addition to traditional economic measures.) The report is massive, four PDF volumes amounting to nearly 100MB total, and is a wide-ranging look at the intersection of economic development and environmental responsibility.

Balancing Act provides an overview of the Australian economy using a set of ten environmental, social, and financial indicators. The environmental indicators are water use, land disturbance, greenhouse emissions and energy use; the social indicators are employment, government revenue and income; and the financial indicators are operating surplus (or profits), exports and imports.

The indicators are referenced against one dollar of ‘final demand’, roughly the consumption dollar we spend in everyday life. Balancing Act therefore tells us how much energy, water, land, employment (and so on) is embodied in every dollar in the Australian economy. The report is a resource for government and corporate decision-makers, as well as individual consumers. Balancing Act reveals some of the social and environmental implications of financial flows in the economy, and provides an indication of the resource intensity of different goods and services. It facilitates more informed decision making, and could provide direction for further research. By identifying direct effects (within the farm or factory fence) as well as the indirect effects (in the full supply chain), the innovative methodology shows us where environmental, social and economic impacts occur across the full production chain. This can highlight opportunities to increase benefits and reduce adverse impacts through individual and collective action.

I've just started digging my way through the volumes, but already I can tell that the report, while written with an Australian audience in mind, will be extremely valuable for decision-makers throughout the developed world.

The odd aspect is the ways in which the report has been promoted. The CSIRO press release garnering the most attention is one arguing that "drinking less" is a better way of saving water than "showering less" -- undoubtedly analytically correct, but both medically dubious (most researchers say we should be drinking more water, not less) and a minor part of a larger concern (water usage in drought-prone regions). Another release, somewhat more serious but still not reflecting the breadth of the report, argues that banks and financial institutions can play a significant role in making sustainability a key part of financial and economic analysis. This matches well with what we've argued here at WorldChanging, and is certainly worth talking about at greater length, but I'm a bit surprised that it's one of the first elements of the report to be given greater play.

So far, the only news report about Balancing Act which notes the wide range of issues is the deceptively-titled "Mining 'not bad', cattle-raising 'worse'" from Australia's The Age (deceptive in that the article doesn't focus only on the mining/ranching issue).

Balancing Act does not make for light reading, but it does appear to be useful reading -- especially for those trying to figure out how to make certain that our economic choices and our environmental choices are mutually-reinforcing.

(Thanks to Jonathan Harker for the heads-up!)


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Worldchanging: Triple Bottom Line, Down Under. The author notes how little press the report has garnered here (and how what little coverage has occurred has mis-represented the report). I recall reading reports of plans by the government to reduce fund... [Read More]

Comments (10)


thanks for running this article.

Could you implement a link from 'the University of Sydney' in 'Australian national research institute CSIRO and the University of Sydney have just published a report entitled ...' above to the site www.isa.org.usyd.edu.au ?

Thanks and kind regards



Jamais, I think your remark "medically dubious (most researchers say we should be drinking more water, not less)" is a reaction to a headline - I don't believe the CSIRO made any mention of drinking less water. Rather, they refer to the amount of water used in the production of other drink products, eg juice or milk on your cereal.

eg: "While a shorter stint in the bathroom could save 25 litres of water, about 200 litres of water are needed to make a $2 soft drink, according to a study of the Australian economy. But 21,000 litres of water are needed to produce a kilogram bag of rice worth $2.50 - a venture that generates only six minutes of work." Source: http://www.smh.com.au/news/National/Go-figure-one-swig-costs-buckets-of-water/2005/05/24/1116700714828.html

Australia, the dry country, allegedly has the highest per capita use of water in the world. Most of this water consumption is by industry & agriculture -> 70% according to Crikey.

Therefore it's appropriate that the CSIRO is analysing these processes, and communicating some of the results as tangible soundbites, such as water used in, and employment created by, the production of a glass of juice or a bag of rice. Not "odd": I think this is a powerful bit of framing work. It's timely too, given yet another dry spell and tigher water restrictions. It's also good if urban-centric bankers are being informed about how their activities have far-reaching consequences for the entire country and exposed to the concept of splitting consumption dollars as dollars with positive effects v's those with negative effects. As usual, thanks for this story!

Janelle, the figures on water usage are very interesting. Thanks for that!


On a tangent, this popped my bubble: a (Fairfax) newspaper is running a campaign for sustainable reforms. The Herald today launched a campaign to fix Sydney. "A campaign to fix its water, air, urban development and transport. It is time for a boldness lacking for 50 years."

"We have consulted many of the city's best brains to put the blueprints together. We are inviting many to write for us to help mount the case, we're commissioning studies and we'll hold public meetings. This is a campaign we hope earns a life outside the Herald."

I'm half wondering if this is a ruse by the Yes men!

"Clearly, Sydney cannot continue living, consuming and travelling in the same greedy, unsustainable way. Rain fell on just eight days; most of it uselessly went down the drains into the sea. Dam levels have dipped below 40 per cent capacity for the first time .... People cannot control the weather, but there are things that are within their control."

All good data and etc.

I do think that throwing in the "21,000 litres of water are needed to produce a kilogram bag of rice" might be a little misleading.

I hope we (as a species) are sensible enough to grow rice in those special environments that have water to spare.

It might even be a good plan, to be enjoyed, when rice production can be done in such places ... and the finished product enjoyed in drier locales.


Climate changes and with it all sorts of silly stupid cities get hosed because gee someone forgot the water was temporary.. or worse the LACK of lots and lots of water was temporary.

In the end the ausies are likely gona have to either desalinate alot of water or pipe it in from wetter climes to the north via undersea pipeline. No matter what they do its gona be spendy as all heck.

Not only will Australia have to make better use of finite water supplies, but it will have to revegetate vast areas of cleared farmland in order to prevent dryland salinity decimating it's agriculture and contaminating it's drinking water supplies.

The profound climate change is already having, and will continue to have, on Australia's rainfall also makes the need for sustainable water use all the more urgent.

Unfortunately, the environmental problems facing Australia are vast and rather hard to detect in any city. I personally worry about the long-term viability of Perth, Adelaide and Gosford which already have tainted water and/or severe water shortages.

I don't believe desalinisation or water pipelines are the answer. It is far better to prevent existing supplies being wasted or contaminated. This means bringing an end to extensive agricultute, which often encourages dryland salinity, and unsustainable crops such as cotton and rice.


You dont get it there is no water supply there never was. There simply was some water. The rest was temporary climate conditions and is now HISTORY. So if they want water they will have to find some from the outside.

Francis Donnelly:

I recently lived in Australia for a couple of years. There was a debate going on at the time about potential for re-cycling water (as in done in London where I grew up). I remember people being horrified to learn a typical glass of London water had passed through someone else's kidneys between 5-7 times. People on TV said no way would they accept this in Aus.

Well why not? it's been done in London, New York and other big cities for decades?


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