WSSD - Australian National Assessment Report

Environment Australia
ISBN 0 642 54855 2

1. Introduction

This report provides a broad assessment of Australian progress in implementing sustainable development since the Earth Summit in 1992. It is impossible to document all of the initiatives which Australia has put in place to turn the principles to which we agreed into action since that historic meeting. However, as this report describes in necessarily limited detail, Australia has made considerable progress since 1992 in assimilating sustainable development into decision making processes of government, in industry and in the wider community. This report sets out some of the most significant steps we have taken as a country. It describes some of the processes established to implement sustainable development, and some attempts to transform cultural attitudes towards sustainability and foster greater acceptance of environmental and social issues as routine considerations in economic development.

Achieving sustainable development is an ongoing task for all nations and Australia has pioneered a range of constructive approaches since 1992. Even though they have been implemented against a backdrop of unique environmental, social and economic conditions, we highlight them here in part because we hope that other countries might draw lessons from our experience. Because this is a broad national report, the focus is generally on national efforts, rather than measures taken by particular States and Territories; for most of the issues covered, however, similar examples could have been found at sub-national level.

An example of institutional innovation is the Australian Greenhouse Office, which pursues a whole of government approach in order to incorporate sustainable development into policy direction. The Australian Greenhouse Office is the world's first national agency devoted specifically to addressing Climate Change. Another world first is the National Oceans Office and Australia's Oceans Policy which is administered by it. The Natural Heritage Trust which includes Australia's largest and most comprehensive range of sustainable development programs ever undertaken has also enabled an unprecedented engagement of the community in pursuit of sustainability on the ground where it matters most. Another critically important step in Australia has been the overhaul of federal environment legislation which has, for the first time, defined the key areas of national responsibility and provided the legislative basis for the national government to deal with them.

Along with these measures, a vital step forward for Australia since Rio has been to institutionalise the collection and assessment of state of the environment data. This investment of time, resources, and commitment is now starting to provide the basis for a detailed evaluation of our progress towards sustainability. In light of this improved knowledge base and capacity to measure progress, we can be fairly certain that the quality of Australia's environment is now on a more desirable trajectory than would have been the case had the conditions prevailing in the 1980s continued.

We are confident that the rates of environmental degradation are now falling. In addressing some of the major environmental challenges facing Australia, we have invested heavily in co-operative approaches, involving all stakeholders to forge sustainable development solutions.

Our biodiversity, for example, is still under pressure, with the number of threatened and extinct species increasing every year but, with the co-operation of other stakeholders, we now have a suite of programs in place to slow or reverse historic rates of decline.

Another area in which we can be confident of progress is in combating air pollution in our cities. Emissions of some pollutants have already fallen, for example with the accelerated phase-out of leaded petrol, and they are set to fall further with the recent passage of legislation to implement Australia's first ever national petrol and diesel quality standards.

More broadly, however, our most significant achievement in the past decade has been in engaging the Australian people in community-based, collaborative activities to save the environment and foster sustainable development.

The report is divided into six chapters, including this introduction. The second chapter provides a short history of Australia's approach to sustainable development along with an overview of our principal ongoing challenges. The third chapter discusses the institutions and processes we have put in place. The next two chapters look more closely at these institutions and processes in relation to two particular areas in which Australia has some unique environmental concerns: the oceans, and our land and water resources. Successes, challenges, and options for policy reform are integrated in the first four chapters. The sixth chapter provides a list of key publications and websites which provide more comprehensive and detailed information about what Australia has done in relation to each chapter of Agenda 21.