2 Drivers | Key findings

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.

2 Drivers

Key findings

The principal drivers of Australia’s environment—and its future condition—are climate variability and change, population growth and economic growth.

Our challenge is to mitigate the degree and potential impacts of climate change, and to decouple national growth from increased pressures on our environment.

Climate variability and climate change have a direct impact on the condition of Australia’s environment.

As the driest inhabitable continent, Australia is particularly vulnerable to the potential effects of climate change. We face a significant challenge in understanding the environmental implications of climate change, and how we might mitigate those impacts or adapt to them.

Australia’s exposure to climate change is dependent on global greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2000, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change developed emissions scenarios to guide global climate projections. Since 2005, global emissions of greenhouse gases have continued to track above the middle of the scenario range. Based on our current understanding of atmospheric processes, the implication is that current policies will not achieve the significant reductions needed to mitigate profound climate change.

It is likely that we are already seeing the effects of climate change in Australia.

Australian average surface temperatures rose by nearly 1 °C between 1910 and 2009. Warming was modest in the early part of this period, declined slightly between 1935 and 1950, and then rapidly increased. The decade 2000–09 was the nation’s warmest on record. Some regions have had temperatures increase by 2 °C since 1960. The frequency of hot nights has increased and the frequency of cold nights has declined. Rainfall trends are more difficult to distinguish, given the large natural variability across regions and over time. During the past few decades, cool season (April to November) rainfall has largely decreased in the south-west and south-east when compared with natural variability, and winter season rainfall in the south-west of Western Australia has declined by about 15% since the mid-1970s. Climate models project that, by 2030, average annual temperatures across Australia are likely to warm by 1 °C (above 1990 temperatures), with warming of 0.7–0.9 °C in coastal areas and 1–1.2 °C inland. Drying is likely in southern areas of Australia, especially in winter, and in southern and eastern areas in spring. Changes in summer tropical rainfall in northern Australia remain highly uncertain.

The Australian economy is projected to grow by 2.7% per year until 2050.

Higher labour productivity gains could increase this to 3% per year.

Under the base scenario, Australia’s population of 22.2 million people in 2010 is project to grow to 35.9 million by 2050.

This figure may be 30.2 million under a scenario that assumes less net migration and historically low fertility rates. The projected development of infrastructure (e.g. housing, transport, water supply, energy, communications) strongly correlates with anticipated population growth, reflecting the long-standing pattern of association between these variables. In the absence of effective policies to reduce the impacts of population growth, it will remain an effective indicator of future pressures.

We have opportunities to decouple population and economic growth from pressure on our environment.

There is ample historical evidence of a strong correlation between population and economic growth, and increased resource use and waste production. However, we are not necessarily bound by this history. The opportunities to decouple this relationship through innovation and improved efficiency are many and varied.