Action News Vol 3 no 3 Winter 1995
Australia's Leaden Approach To The Environment
The following article by Ian Lowe appeared in New Scientist on 22 July 1995
On the international stage, Australia claims to be one of the more enlightened countries when it comes to environmental matters. But its record of late suggests otherwise. In April, at the climate change conference in Berlin, Australia joined a handful of industrialised countries opposing a target date for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. Now we have blocked a move to phase out lead in petrol, paint, toys, food tins and other products.
Australia's stance on the use of lead has gone unrecognised in the country's daily press, but it was reported in last week's New Scientist. 1 made some calls to Canberra this week to find out more. To say people are tight-lipped and running for cover is an understatement. This is obviously a sensitive issue within government departments.
Perhaps a reason for the sensitivity is the potential embarrassment of the issue for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade which is already reeling over the way opposition to the French tests at Muroroa atoll was handled. One can only speculate.
This is the story as I understand it. Last month in Paris, at a meeting of OECD countries, Australia and Canada blocked a plan, supported by the US and the European Commission, to reduce the amount of lead in the environment. The Australians and Canadians advocated a so-called "voluntary action plan" whereby industry would finance a database on lead use and health risks and advise governments accordingly. Research would be conducted to find out ways of using lead that were not environmentally harmful.
I have a number of problems with this approach. It promotes short-term profits at the expense of health, and encourages wasteful use of a limited resource. It would be business as usual while more data are collected. Why do we need more research when the choices are already well known?
Lead should be kept for constructive purposes which preserve its useful characteristics. Lead-acid batteries, for example, allow storage of electricity from sources like the sun and wind. But when lead is blended into petrol or paint, it is dispersed and effectively lost, as well as being a health hazard.
Adding to the confusion is Australia's contradictory role. Long-term research at Port Pirie, a lead smelting town in South Australia, linked lead exposure with retarded intellectual development of children. As a result the Australian government moved quickly and responsibly to reduce the use of leaded petrol with a new tax structure to reward drivers who switch to unleaded fuel.
Why the change of heart overseas? The problem, 1 believe, is a bureaucratic one. Australia's international relations, long the province of the Department of Foreign Affairs, now comes under a combined Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Australia is the world's largest exporter of lead. Its use is an issue which could easily lead to conflict between these two branches. In terms of Foreign Affairs, there is no reason for Australia to block international moves to protect young people. But the Trade section still promotes economic development by exporting minerals. That line doesn't make economic sense in a world of failing commodity prices.
The Canberra bureaucrats tried to persuade me that disagreement in Paris was just over the best tactics to reduce exposure to lead. We won't have to phase out lead, they suggested, if its use can be restricted to applications which pose no health risk. Maybe, but the rest of the industrialised world sees the issue as far more urgent and one requiring immediate action. Ministers from OECD countries meet again in February. The government has some serious thinking to do in the meantime.
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Updated 16 November 2012