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Publications archive - International Activities and Commitments


Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application. Many archived documents may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available.

Australia's report to the UNCSD - 1995

Implementation of Agenda 21
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, 1995
ISBN 0 6444 3152 0

Background - The Australian context

Australia's response to the challenge of sustainable development - its priorities and approaches - must be seen against a background of national circumstances which are briefly outlined in this section.

Agenda 21 recognises that policies for sustainable development must be informed by, and made in the context of, local circumstances. Resource endowments and economic and social conditions, no less than political structures and ecological processes, must be taken into account by communities and institutions when acting to give effect to the shared objective of global sustainability. This is true of nations and of regions and local communities.

By world standards, Australia enjoys a high standard of living, a robust economy, a peaceful and well educated society, an open and democratic political framework and a high level of personal freedom. Australians value these characteristics, just as they value their unique natural heritage.

Geography and natural environment

Australia is the only nation to occupy an entire continent. In land area (7 682 300 square kilometres) it is the world's sixth largest nation. Australia lies in the Southern Hemisphere between the Pacific and Indian Oceans and has seven external territories including the Australian Antarctic Territory. Its closest neighbours are New Zealand to the east, Papua New Guinea to the north and Indonesia to the north west.

Australia has a tropical monsoon climate in the north, a Mediterranean climate in the south and a vast, arid interior. The continent has a generally flat land surface, with relatively low precipitation and runoff rates. Mountain ranges in the south-east are often snow covered in winter, but Australia generally experiences mild winters and hot summers. Drought is a recurring climatic feature over most of the continent.

Many Australian soils are derived from ancient material and the rate of soil formation is slow. As a result, soils tend to be shallow and infertile.

Significant deposits of minerals are found across the continent. These include oil, coal and gas, iron ore, bauxite, copper, nickel, zinc, gold, mineral sands, manganese, diamonds and uranium.

Australia has been geographically isolated from other countries since it separated from Antarctica 35 million years ago. A unique and diverse biota has evolved. Australia is classified as one of around a dozen 'megadiverse' countries. The continent has a high degree of endemism - many species, genera and families of animals and plants occur nowhere else.

Most major terrestrial ecosystem types are represented in Australia - temperate and tropical forests, rangelands, deserts, wetlands and alpine meadows can be identified, along with a wide range of less common habitat types. A complex range of vegetation communities and habitats has evolved to exploit local scale variation in soil type, topography and climate. The occurrence of fire and the low fertility of many soils have played special roles in the evolution of Australia's unique sclerophyllous flora.

Australian society

Evidence of human settlement in Australia is dated at more than 50 000 years ago. The ancestors of Australia's aboriginal people are believed to have entered the continent from the north as a hunter gatherer people skilled in the use of wooden tools and fire.

European settlement dates from 1788, eighteen years after the continent was claimed for Britain.

Australia's population in December 1994 is estimated to be approximately 18 million. Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders account for 1.6% of the total population. Australia's population has more than doubled in the last 45 years, with immigration accounting for about half of the increase. Today, over 22% of Australia's population was born in another country, contributing to its multicultural character.

The Australian population is projected to increase to 26 million in 2031 assuming a continuation of current fertility, mortality and migration levels. Population growth rates have been declining over the past few years from 2.07% in 1970 to 1.06% in 1992. The average life expectancy of Australian males is 72 years and of females 78 years. Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have mortality rates more than twice the national rate, in all age groups.

Although Australia covers a land area of 768 million hectares, which is several times greater than that of Western Europe, the population of Australia is only about 5% of the population of Western Europe. The population density of Australia is two people per square kilometre. The population is, however, highly urbanised with more than 6 million people, about 35% of the total population, living in the two major cities, Sydney and Melbourne. Nearly 75% of Australians live in or within 50 kilometres of Australia's coastal cities.

The Australian economy

The Australian economy has performed well through the last century and reflects a country that has grown from a small totally resource-based economy to one with a diversified manufacturing and services sector with a significant export orientation. The Australian economy has undergone considerable diversification and expansion over the last 30 years, much of the expansion being related to the tertiary sector. There has been significant investment in export oriented mining and energy products.

The Australian economy has recently been affected by recessionary influences similar to those affecting most of the world's economies. The soundness of the economy is well demonstrated by the strength of its emergence from recession with an annual growth rate around 6%, one of the highest of the OECD countries. This growth rate, however is not uniformly spread geographically throughout the country with some States and Territories, notably Western Australia and Queensland expanding at greater rates than other areas of Australia. An important feature of growth in the economy is that it is accompanied by a low rate of inflation.


Australia's political system is a stable, democratic, constitutional monarchy which encourages a role for a free press and community groups.

Australia is a federation of six self-governing States and two self-governing mainland Territories. The Commonwealth (Federal) Government's powers and responsibilities are defined in the Australian Constitution and the State and Territory Governments are responsible for all other matters. The Commonwealth Parliament is bi-cameral with a House of Representatives and a Senate, and its powers encompass, among other things, trade and commerce, taxation, postal and telecommunications, defence, external affairs, banking, immigration, and social welfare.

The State and Territory Governments also have established systems of local government and there are around 770 of these authorities throughout Australia. Local government is responsible for the provision of local services such as environmental health regulation, road building and maintenance, municipal waste management, land use planning and development control, pollution control and monitoring, traffic management, parks and open space, recreation facilities and community services.

Environmental powers are not specifically dealt with in the Australian Constitution and are not the sole province of any one sphere of government. Most environmental legislative responsibilities rest with the State and Territory Governments, although the Commonwealth does have substantial powers to enact laws affecting the environment and sustainable development.

Policies on sustainable development

There is a recognition in Australia that many environmental and ecologically sustainable development (ESD) issues need to be dealt with on a local, national and international scale. A consultative approach is the cornerstone to Australia's policy development and considerable effort is devoted by all three spheres of government, non-government organisations and community groups to cooperative approaches to these issues. This is reflected in the development of national strategies, agreements, and organisations and fora which specifically deal with national and international environment and sustainable development matters.

The national strategies

Australia has a number of key strategies in place to support sustainable development. The principal and overarching Strategy is the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (NSESD) which seeks to address sustainable development issues from a distinctly Australian perspective.

Recognising a core goal of 'development that improves the total quality of life, both now and in the future, in a way that maintains the ecological processes on which life depends', the NSESD has three core objectives:

Other key strategies and programs which focus on the sectors being reviewed by the UN Commission on Sustainable Development in 1995 include the National Forest Policy Statement, the National Landcare Program , the National Drought Policy , the draft National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity and a proposed National Strategy for Rangeland Management.

In order to oversee the development and implementation of national strategies and other policy issues concerning the environment and ecologically sustainable development, there are mechanisms which provide an administrative and ministerial framework for coordinating input and advice. The Intergovernmental Committee for Ecologically Sustainable Development (ICESD) provides the forum for governments to meet at an administrative level, while Ministerial Committees such as the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC), and the Agriculture and Resource Management Council of Australia and New Zealand (ARMCANZ) provide for a political focus.

(for ESD is available)

The InterGovernmental Agreement on the Environment (IGAE)

The Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment (IGAE) is an agreement between all spheres of government concerning their roles and responsibilities in the decision-making process and sets out mechanisms for resolving national issues. The Agreement outlines the roles and responsibilities of the three spheres of government and provides for the establishment of mechanisms that are aimed at contributing to a more cooperative approach to environmental decision making.

The IGAE establishes an approach to environmental policy making and program implementation which recognises the need for effective integration of economic and environmental considerations. The IGAE is based on the acceptance of ecologically sustainable development principles by all Australian Governments. It includes nine schedules that deal with a range of issues such as data collection and handling, resource assessment, land use decisions and approval processes, environmental impact assessment, establishment of the National Environment Protection Council (NEPC), climate change, biological diversity, national estate, world heritage and nature conservation.

(More information on the IGAE is available)

ESD and the development cooperation program

Over the past two years, Australia has undertaken substantial measures to integrate and promote the principles of ESD throughout the development cooperation program. The original policy basis was set out in the 1991 interim policy statement on ESD in international development cooperation prepared by Australia's aid agency, AIDAB. This drew on the World Commission on Environment and Development's report, Our Common Future.

Australia's revised policy statement on ESD and the development cooperation program, Towards a Sustainable Future, was released in October 1994. This updates Australia's policy in light of Agenda 21 and the release of the National ESD Strategy. The updated ESD policy focuses on the key themes of Agenda 21, namely: the economic and social dimensions of development, the conservation and management of resources for development, and strengthening the role of major groups. The policy paper also identifies the ESD priorities for the developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region. The aid program provides a flexible vehicle for the provision of Australian expertise and technology to assist the countries of our region achieve their ESD goals. Finally, the paper outlines how the ESD policy will be implemented and monitored by AIDAB.

For further information about the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development and the InterGovernmental Agreement on the Environment contact:

The Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories