The 2006 State of the Environment Report

address at the launch of the report
6 December 2006
Associate Professor Bob Beeton, Chair, 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee

Minister, distinguished guests thank you for joining us at the launch of Australia's State of Environment 2006.

Members of the SoE2006 Committee present today are: Ms Kristal Buckley, Professor Gary Jones, Ms Denise Morgan, Professor Russell Reichelt, Mr Dennis Trewin and Mr Sean Sullivan. Mr Geoff Gorrie apologise for not being able to join us.

Minister, SoE2006 is the third independent report on the state of Australia's environment since 1996 and the second prepared under the EPBC Act.

The report is a modest document that sits on a very large web based environmental reporting system developed over the last few years.

The SoE2006 system includes individual reports on

  • 263 environmental indicators
  • 8 theme commentaries
  • 10 integrative commentaries on important environmental issues for Australia
  • 33 short reports on important but discrete current or emerging issues.

77 people have authored material, 52 have acted as referees for each piece of work. A further 11 acted as an expert critical friends group for the Committee. In all 146 eminent Australians have contributed to SoE2006. Our editor Cathy Nichol has made the report accessible to all potential readers and the Committee owes a special thanks to Cathy.

A group of five Department of Environment and Heritage staff, lead by Jenny Boshier, acted as our secretariat. This group's contribution has been huge - Australia owes them a debt for working well beyond the call of duty. The DEH public affairs and web teams have produced the report and web site - we thank them the result is wonderful.

These thanks are important, but the SoE2006 Report tabled today is the work of the SoE2006 Committee and as required by our terms of reference it has been compiled entirely independently. The Committee alone is responsible for its contents.

In completing our task we have commissioned a range of work, parts of which the Committee have not necessarily agreed with, nor do we expect others to agree with us. The reason for this is that we recognise that the environment and our response to issues are always the subject to debate. The Committee's position has been to apply the discipline of science to our interpretation of data.

Our extensive use of independent referees for the commentaries and the report is consistent with this approach. SoE2006 puts on the public record all the material we had before us and what we have concluded. We hope that this report, the associated commentaries, boxes and the data reporting system with its information base will promote informed public debate and contribute to the quality of environmental policy and management in Australia for the next few years.

The system we have created uses the power of the web and the intellect of out writers to help people explore the State of Australia's Environment. It can be added to and extended.

We have used the pressure, state and response model of OECD as our general framework.

The system we have built has many levels and is open to all on the web.

The SoE 2006 committee have a few key messages that provide a snapshot of the State of Australia's Environment. These are also summarised in the distributed booklet:

Environmental Data

It is still not possible to give a comprehensive national picture of the state of Australia's environment. This is because we the lack accurate, nationally consistent environmental data. The evidence for this is in the completeness of our indicator system.

Consumption

Many of the pressures from human activity that were reported in the 2001 State of the Environment Report still exist, and some have intensified.

Australia's Variable Climate

Australia has always experienced a climate that is naturally extremely variable and in the last 200 years we have not seen the full range of this variability. Yet we have to learn to live in this environment and there are consequences that need acknowledging. The recent (and continuing) drought has shown that our cities, lands, biodiversity and rural industries are vulnerable.

Climate Change

Climate change compounded with climate variability adds to this important finding. The future nature and extent of climate change is uncertain its existence is not.

We need to make sure that our response focuses on adaptation in the context of our variable climate, the need for environmental restoration and any climate changes that we may reasonably anticipate in the future.

Uncertainty should not inhibit the taking of appropriate steps to address the issue.

Achievements over the last decade

Increased Expenditure

There is an increasing financial investment in Australia's environment by all levels of government.

Australian Government environmental expenditure has increased significantly over the reporting period. Other governments, the philanthropic and the business sectors are also contributing significantly to environmental management.

Co-operation

There has been increasing cooperation between governments and the community. Environmental stewardship has been enhanced through the establishing of regional natural resource management entities. However, these are not without challenges.

Our cities and towns

The condition of most human settlements continues to be generally good. The exceptions are many remote indigenous communities.

Air Quality

Urban air quality continues to be generally good although photochemical smog is an issue in some urban areas. Ironically in some localities ozone is an air quality issue.

Ozone levels

After 18 years of global action, ozone levels in the upper atmosphere are increasing and the ozone hole over the Antarctic appears to be shrinking. However, very recent data suggests variability from unknown sources so we should not celebrate too soon.

The marine environment

Continuing improvement in protection of the marine environment has been achieved by changes to fisheries management and a substantial increase in marine protected areas.

Water management

The national water reform agenda has been enacted and its implementation could greatly improve Australia's water management with consequential environmental benefits.

Land clearing

Positive steps have been taken across all jurisdictions to reduce land clearance with one consequence being to slow biodiversity decline in those areas. This reduction in land clearing has also had a positive impact on net greenhouse emissions.

Heritage systems

The 2003 heritage amendments to the EPBC Act have improved the system for identifying and managing many aspects of Australian heritage, making responsibilities among governments clearer. Conserving cultural heritage will improve through the increased focus of heritage collections.

Working together

The importance of managing diverse aspects of the landscape in an integrated way requires us to work together using a mix of volunteerism, incentives and regulation. This is now widely recognised.

There are a number of issues relevant to Australia's environmental performances that are of concern

Governance

Local government and the new regional natural resource management bodies appear to be under-resourced, in terms of capacity and skills to deliver improved environmental results.

Clarified responsibilities and an appropriate level of funding at all levels of government are necessary for improved environmental management.

Coastal lifestyles

People are continuing to move to the coast to live and the cumulative impacts are now obvious in some coastal areas. If this trend continues, we risk further damaging the natural and cultural values of the coastal environments that historically have made them so attractive.

Waste reduction

A reduction in net individual consumption and waste is required through significant increases in recycling and re-using critical materials. The latter includes building material recycling, the capture and use of stormwater, the recycling of wastewater and biological waste.

Urban design

Although a positive step, the greater attention being paid to urban design and consolidation in Australia's major cities cannot fully address the legacy issues of previous poor urban planning and building design. Improvements will take time to make a difference to the environmental performance of Australia's human settlements.

Legacy effects

We need to be patient so see our efforts rewarded.

Environmental and heritage systems do not respond quickly, especially when climate variability and biological systems are involved.

Australia has many legacies from past actions. The condition of our heritage, fisheries biodiversity, land and water will continue to decline for some time, in some areas, before current investments either arrest or reverse change.

The SoE2006 committee has some observations on the way forward

Preparing the SoE2006 report requires data and information collected over time and from different places that are consistent and reliable. There is still not enough good quality accessible data and information on the condition of Australia's environment to prepare unambiguous environmental reports.

Knowing if environmental change is caused by people, by the variable climate, climate change or by investments in restoring environmental assets is important. However, the primary concern is that Australia should build its capability to live with its environment and respond appropriately to changes in that environment. An adaptive approach to environmental issues where we learn by doing and modify approaches as needed should be the underlying basis of actions and policies. Cooperation across all levels of governance is critical for this to be effective.

Governments should continue to encourage environmental stewardship through appropriate investment, governance and regulation at the right scale of intervention. New approaches to stewardship, including accreditation, certification and, where appropriate, markets for environmental services, should continue to be urgently explored.

Some of the present regulation is not targeted at the appropriate scale and some regulations and incentives encourage environmentally perverse results. Management at a whole-of-landscape level integrated with the local actions of all agencies, landholders and people is necessary to achieve broader landscape objectives.

Environmental progress will depend on having more technologies, knowledge and skills. Investment strategies that turn scientific knowledge into practical products are needed. For example Australia will need to improve water use, re-use and recycling systems very quickly.

The environment is not something that is only the responsibility of rural and regional people. Building understanding, knowledge and skills in environmental management for urban people, Indigenous people in their country, and rural and regionally located people would allow all sectors and people to play their part.

Australia's environment is valuable for practical reasons, such as producing food, as well as being important for its natural and cultural values. One of the implications of accepting this premise is that environmental services valued by all must be paid for by all.

We can expect future pressures on the environment from population growth and from economic growth. These pressures will continue to increase unless there is some decoupling of growth from non-sustainable consumption of resources, particularly energy, land, water and products dependent on limited natural resources (such as forestry and fisheries). This is a major adaptive challenge.

Minister, thank you for your support and encouragement; we also especially express our thanks, through you, to the Government for resourcing a report over which it has no control. This is perhaps internationally unique in the environmental field.

We hope we have done the right thing by Australia and look forward to the dialogue created in the Government, the Parliament and with the Australian people on the State of Australia's Environment 2006.

Let us hope that as we move from data to insight in an uncertain world we do so with wisdom.

Thank you all for coming.