Australia has made solid progress in many areas covered by the five-yearly report, but population pressures, invasive species and climate change still present huge challenges
March 6, 2017 — First established in 1996 and occurring every five years, the State of the Environment report is prepared by independent authors and provides a report card across nine thematic areas – the Antarctic environment, atmosphere, biodiversity, built environment, coasts, heritage, inland waters, land and the marine environment.
The report will this year for the first time be available in an interactive digital format, expanding its reach and ensuring greater use and engagement from the academic and broader community.
Like previous reports, this year’s document has its bright spots while also indicating a number of areas where there is much more to do.
Good progress has been made in the management of the marine and Antarctic environments, natural and cultural heritage and the built environment, while pressures are building in relation to invasive species, climate change, land use and coastal protection.
The number of people in Australia has doubled over the past 50 years. Growing urbanisation (two-thirds of the population live in our capital cities and 90% of people live in 0.22% of Australia’s land area) and heightened economic activity (Australia is experiencing its 26th year of consecutive economic growth) have combined to contribute to additional pressures on the environment.
The message, however, is not that development and sustainability are locked in a zero-sum game. Far from it. Rather, we must be conscious of these pressures, prepare for them and put in place a coordinated, comprehensive, well-resourced long-term response.
Failure to do so will have a direct and detrimental impact on our quality of life and leave a legacy to future generations that is inferior to the one we have inherited. This is why reports such as this are important and why we must continue to upgrade our capacity to collect and analyse critical environmental data.
It’s also why last November I committed – along with state and territory environment ministers – to develop more detailed environmental accounts for Australia to build this capacity to better understand our environment and how best to protect it.
The report indicates that the Antarctic is in “generally good condition”, with evidence that the phasing out of powerful synthetic greenhouse gases, in which Australia has played a lead role under the Montreal protocol, is leading to improvements in the ozone layer.
Macquarie Island, which has seen rabbits and rats in plague proportions, is also recovering well following a successful invasive species eradication policy.
Invasive species more generally are a growing problem. We are all familiar with the devastation that has been unleashed across our continent by the arrival of cane toads, feral pigs and yellow crazy ants. But feral cats should top this list because their population growth and diet of marsupials, birds and reptiles make them one of the biggest threats to a number of nationally listed species.
The good news is that the federal government has acted in implementing a new threatened species strategy and appointing the first threatened species commissioner. However, there is a big task ahead with the addition of 44 animal and five plant species to the threatened species list, meaning there are now 545 animal and 1,312 plant species under threat.
One notable mention in the report was that humpback whales are increasing in number to a point where their current listing as “vulnerable” may need to be reconsidered.
Australia’s 108 national and 19 world heritage sites are admired both here and abroad and are integral to our cultural history and values. They remain, according to the report, “generally in good condition”, but the Great Barrier Reef last year was subject to a significant bleaching event, with climate change and the El Niño effect to blame.
Conscious of the threat to this natural wonder of the world, the federal government is jointly investing with the Queensland government $2bn to support our Reef 2050 plan to improve water quality and preserve the health of the reef.
Australia has a strong reputation in management of its national reserve system. Since 2011, the Ningaloo Reef has been added and extensions made to the Tasmanian wilderness and Kakadu properties on the World Heritage List. Since 2012, 12 new places have been added to the National Heritage List, including the Snowy Mountains scheme in New South Wales and Lesueur national park in Western Australia, ensuring that our historic places are preserved for future generations.
The report indicates that the impact of changing weather patterns is affecting biodiversity and species habitat.
While carbon emissions per capita have declined from 24.1 tonnes in 2011 to 22.2 tonnes in 2015, and energy efficiency improvements are reducing electricity demand, the report makes clear that, for the world to meet its Paris goals, there is much more to do.
Land clearing also comes in for attention in the report. With the exception of Queensland, land clearing rates over the past five years “have stabilised in all states and territories” and Indigenous protected areas have substantially increased.
Since 2008 there have been an additional 42 agreements and 20.6m hectares which are now covered under the Indigenous protected areas. The national reserve system, protecting important natural assets, has expanded to cover 17.9% of Australia’s land are, compared with 13.4% in 2011.
These are all significant improvements which are felt right across the environmental food chain as pollination, seed disposal and species’ survival rely on an ecosystem where vegetation and habitat are protected.
Despite the growth in urban population, air and urban water quality remain “good” according to the report, with “noticeable local improvements in water quality in the Murray Darling basin”. Sustainable diversion limits and water efficiency are having a positive impact on the fish and water bird stocks as well as natural vegetation.
There is no room for complacency. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, we all have a vested interest in protecting our commons.
The Coalition track record in this regard is strong. The Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, like the Natural Heritage Trust and the first mandatory renewable energy target, were all initiatives of the Howard government.
The 10-year Murray-Darling basin plan was implemented by Malcolm Turnbull.
Former prime ministers Tony Abbott, Malcolm Fraser, William McMahon, John Gorton, Harold Holt and Robert Menzies all too had significant achievements to their name.
The task now is to build on this proud Coalition tradition and to use this report to continue the good work the government is doing across so many areas of environmental policy.