Progress in accessing environmental data and information

Integrative commentary
Department of the Environment and Heritage
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006


Governments, landholders, science agencies, businesses, industry and the community need environmental data to gain an understanding of the environment, make decisions on environmental issues, and plan for a sustainable future. Environmental data are used for a range of purposes, including:

  • to understand interactions between the natural environment and human systems
  • to identify environmental issues and to provide a basis for the development of actions, strategies and policies aimed at addressing these issues
  • to ascertain the effectiveness and efficiency of interventions and investments in environmental issues
  • to benchmark environmental performance (for example, by companies and government)
  • to report on the current state of the environment and monitor spatial and temporal changes that have occurred over time, as required for state of the environment reporting and sustainability reporting
  • to meet international reporting obligations (for example, to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)).

Adequate and reliable data and the capability to analyse them are key elements in supporting the formulation of good environmental policy and decision-making.

In their 1998 Environmental Performance Review of Australia (OECD 1998), the OECD noted that, despite progress in reporting on the state of the environment, environmental data and environmental monitoring in Australia are often inadequate in terms of coverage and consistency. The need to develop Australia-wide assessment and reporting systems was also stated in some of the first National Land and Water Resources Audit (the Audit) reports (for example, NLWRA 2000; 2001; 2002a).

The environment is intrinsically complex. There are a multiplicity of environmental issues, and many parameters for some variables that make environmental management complex at many scales. Consequently, the identification and collection of relevant data at national, regional or local scales is an enormous challenge. The use of spatial data is an essential element in the assembling of a national picture of the Australian environment and its responses to pressures and management actions.

Australia is a large continent with outstanding natural heritage and a relatively small human population. Commonwealth agencies compile data and information and use it to develop and implement national policy, programmes and legislation. State and territory agencies retain the responsibility for much of the collection and maintenance of environmental data in Australia, while local governments, industry, independent agencies and science agencies are also important sources of information. Regional natural resource management processes are now in place, with 57 regional organisations each having an accredited investment strategy and reporting framework. It is important that Australia applies, as much as is possible, a systematic, coordinated approach and makes informed, collaborative decisions on how to use the limited available resources to maximise the benefits to be derived from environmental data collection, monitoring and reporting.

Australia's environment is not only vast, it is diverse and unique. Effective environmental data programmes will always benefit from the use of modelling and remote sensing. Australia has led the way in using these techniques to analyse vegetation change, rangeland systems and species distributions. It has also used these analyses to support better outcomes with regional land managers, underpinning land management practice with the best available data and information. This has provided a much improved information base, enhanced scientific capability, and effective mechanisms to translate that scientific information to community use.

This paper focuses on the current status of environmental data available for state of the environment reporting and the advances in data collection and accessibility that have been made in the last five years.