Carbon, Water and Food

Yesterday I was at the official opening of my Faculty’s new Centre for Carbon, Water and Food. It was a marvelous occasion, with the Prime Minister of Australia doing the honors, accompanied by couple of ministers and MPs, the Chinese Ambassador to Australia, and delegations from our Faculty’s partner institutions in China, as well as the full suite of University’s leadership .
The Centre itself is an excellent, state of the art facility, where world class research on many scientific aspects of carbon and water cycles and their essential linkages to the agricultural production will be investigated. This will no doubt lead to greater understanding of the complex environmental questions that we are facing today.
However, better knowledge of water and carbon cycles, their bio-physical and chemical characteristics, their spatial and temporal dynamics will not, in its own right be sufficient to lead to better long term environmental and natural resource management and improved environmental quality. To achieve this, we also need improved understanding of how people and their economic system interact with these important natural cycles, and how are they likely to respond when circumstances change. Perhaps most of all we need to understand how to facilitate change in the way people govern the environment and natural resources, i.e. how to foster timely institutional innovation in this area. This is very complex (perhaps more complex than the science of water and carbon cycles), and cannot be answered in the usual simple way: ‘government needs to do something about it’. We only need to look at the Minerals Resource Rent Tax to see that even when government does something, nothing much changes if the understanding of how the economic system will respond is missing.
Only a sustained, significant and substantial research effort in understating economic drivers and human institutions that shape carbon and water cycles would enable the translation of scientific advances in understanding these complex natural cycles to better environmental and natural resource management outcomes. Unfortunately, I could not see evidence of commitment to this type of research in the new Centre. Even less fortunately, I couldn’t even say that I am really surprised!

Author: Tiho Ancev

Tiho Ancev is a Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics in the School of Economics, University of Sydney. His main research areas are agricultural, environmental, natural resource and energy economics. Tiho’s main contributions have been in water economics and policy, economics of energy, economics of air pollution and climate change policies, and economics of precision agriculture and agricultural input use. He has published widely on these topics in top international peer reviewed journals. Tiho has led and contributed to national and international research projects in these research areas. He is currently the Managing Editor-in-Chief of the Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics.