In Brief | The Australian environment in 2011

State of the Environment 2011 Committee. Australia state of the environment 2011.
Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.
Canberra: DSEWPaC, 2011.

In Brief

This is a summary of Australia state of the environment 2011, which is an independent report presented to the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities by the State of the Environment 2011 Committee

The Australian environment in 2011

Much of Australia's environment and heritage is in good shape, or improving. Other parts are in poor condition or deteriorating. Some of the pressures on our environment arise from past decisions and practices that have left an ongoing legacy of impact. Our changing climate, and growing population and economy, are now confronting us with new challenges.

The consequences of our past environmental and heritage management are reflected in a number of environmental issues that continue to cause concern. Introductions of feral animals and weeds, widespread land clearing, drainage of wetlands, intensive harvest of fish stocks and a host of other past actions will continue to exert pressures on our environment, regardless of environmental policies and management that now prohibit or minimise such actions, and regardless of our management of the drivers of climate change, and growing population and economy. For example, even if we did not add one more person or business to the nation, the ongoing impacts of feral goats, rabbits, cane toads, land clearing and vegetation dieback would continue to be significant.

In general, environmental and heritage management in Australia reflects a sound understanding of this historical context, and translates to environmental and heritage planning with clear intent. Future environmental impacts will not necessarily be based on historical relationships between growth and resource use, biodiversity loss or environmental degradation. There is evidence that we have the means to disconnect, at least to some degree, the relationship between growth and environmental impact that has been seen in the past. While our population and economy have continued to expand, we are no longer subjecting the continent to wholesale land clearing or unmitigated industrial pollution, and sea-floor trawling is now limited. We no longer develop water resources without any reference to the needs of the environment. We attempt to recognise and protect Indigenous heritage. And while we have had only limited success in controlling introduced weeds and pests, we now take biosecurity very seriously so that we might not have as many new pests to deal with.

However, the resources required to reverse or reduce historical impacts are, in many cases, beyond the means of even a wealthy nation like Australia. Conservation investments and interventions tend to focus on our environmental and heritage assets that are of greatest value and under greatest threat. With this focus, significant restoration of the environment towards its pre-settlement condition will continue to be elusive.

If we consider the major environmental challenges we now face, the most confronting is the prospect of a changing climate. In part, this is because climate is such a direct and pervasive driver of environmental response, in part because global warming is something beyond our near-term or local control, and in part because of the uncertainties of scientific prediction and global policy. Climate change is now widely understood as a prime risk to both our environment and our society, and is clearly a major item on our national agenda. The Climate Commission's 2011 report, Climate science, risks and responses, makes the reality, certainty and implications of our changing climate clear and immediate.

The growth in global greenhouse gas emissions since 2005 is tracking above the middle of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (2000) scenario range. The inertia in the atmospheric–oceanic system will drive climate change for centuries to come, even if global mitigation efforts dramatically reduce emissions. Together, these factors mean that we are facing climate consequences for the foreseeable future. Key sectors of the Australian environment are vulnerable to relatively small increases in temperature or drying, or to projected increases in sea level. There is evidence that early action by Australia to reduce emissions and to deploy targeted adaptation strategies will be less costly than delayed action. To the extensive analyses and national dialogue on this issue, we will only add that we can expect to be surprised by both the vulnerability and resilience of different parts of our environment and heritage.

The other major drivers that put our environment and heritage at risk are the impacts of population and economic growth. These drivers are more directly under our influence than climate change. More people and more economic activity may mean more resource use, but the actual impact on the environment depends on where and how the growth occurs, and how we live our lives. Australia is making progress in lowering per-person water use and landfill waste. There is strong evidence that while our economy has grown, we are generating more wealth per unit of water or energy used. But if we are to succeed in meeting even the least ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, we need to achieve far more substantial reductions in the energy intensity of our economy.

Australians will continue to do what we can to redress the legacy of our mixed history of environmental and heritage management, while ensuring we mitigate or wisely adapt to the ongoing drivers of climate change, population growth and economic growth. To support this, we will need to choose our environmental (and sustainability) indicators with equal wisdom. These indicators need to measure the effects and effectiveness of our current and future approaches to environmental sustainability to allow us to improve our strategies.

Assessing the state of Australia's environment is inherently difficult. It is a big country, with a wide variety of ecosystems and heritage. There are many unconnected means by which we gather and store information on our environment, and accessing this information at a national scale is tremendously complicated and not always possible. We look forward to continuing improvement of environmental information systems across jurisdictions, industries and communities. There is also great value in the information we have already collected if we can access it more efficiently and effectively.

Although more and better information is essential, it is not all we need to meet our challenges. It is clear that the complexity of environmental management in a changing world demands a more integrated approach to planning, and management that focuses on achieving and maintaining environmental and heritage values.

The inadequacies of environmental data in Australia are, in part, a symptom of a lack of national coordination. Australia is a federation with nine major jurisdictions and hundreds of local authorities, plus thousands of individual government departments and nongovernment organisations. The responsibility for environmental governance is shared among the three levels of government, and with the community and private sector. Furthermore, jurisdictional divisions establish precise spatial boundaries of control, each with their own focus and purposes. Developing and implementing integrated approaches to address common objectives can therefore be challenging because the Australian environment crosses jurisdictional boundaries and its management needs rarely reflect our organisational and administrative structures.

Because of this complexity, the Australian Government has an important role to play in environmental management. This role is leadership—partly through the government's own actions and partly through national coordination. This leadership extends to priority setting, funding and handling of policy on national issues; information gathering and sharing; and coordination of programs, guidelines and standards. National programs such as the Murray–Darling Basin Plan, Caring for our Country or the National Reserve System are also important in providing overarching systems for particular aspects of our environment. The prognosis for the environment at a national level is highly dependent on how seriously the Australian Government takes its leadership role.

We can harness our increasing power to influence environmental processes to achieve positive outcomes. The key to achieving this will be national policy and management decisions that improve Australian environmental outcomes, cooperation and coordination of all governments and stakeholders, and the support of the Australian people to drive environmental change for the better.