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.
Assessing the management context component of management effectiveness considers the availability of information to understand and address environmental issues (understanding) and the adequacy of plans and policies (planning). In relation to biodiversity management, we would expect that managers would have access to adequate information on:
- the environmental and social significance of biodiversity
- current pressures and emerging risks to biodiversity
- resilience of biodiversity to expected and unexpected risks.
We would also expect that policies and plans are in place to clarify objectives, roles and responsibilities for managing biodiversity.
All jurisdictions have reported concerns about the adequacy of information on which to base assessment of the state and trends in biodiversity and to identify priorities for action. We conclude that not only is information inadequate nationally, but that investment in filling gaps is also inadequate in relation to the potential benefits of having that information. Box 8.7 provides some insights on monitoring and prioritisation of investment from a leading researcher in these fields. One key point made is that there is a need for strategic thinking in the collection of information. Where information collection is not strategic—or worse, is used as an excuse to delay decisions—there is a high risk that it will simply document ongoing decline. Every recent state and territory report has:
- argued that halting the decline in biodiversity (and eventually enabling an increase) is important for ethical and moral reasons, and for the survival and wellbeing of humans
- identified the same set of driving factors (except that awareness and concern about climate change has risen)
- expressed concern that levels of information are inadequate to make robust assessments of states and trends and, hence, to assess the effectiveness of mitigation measures
- recognised that measures taken in the previous reporting period have not achieved their objectives of slowing or reversing drivers of biodiversity decline.
An exception to the inadequacy of biodiversity information is the substantial collection of data held by Birds Australia and collected by its volunteer network. However, while monitoring is detecting trends in bird populations, it may not be frequent enough to isolate the underlying causes.85 Furthermore, monitoring to assess whether management interventions work is either lacking or not strategic, and may be better done using targeted bird monitoring.85
As part of the implementation of the National Plan for Environmental Information,16 data held by government agencies are being reviewed to improve the relevance and scope of data collection, and to make it available to the public. A recent review of datasets held by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences149 is an example of this approach.
Decision science, policy projection and monitoring
Concerns about ongoing rates of decline in biodiversity, and increases in those rates due to climate change, has caused scientists in diverse fields to call for a move from documentary and predictive science to decision science.150 By integrating information and ideas from ecology, economics and other social sciences, decision science provides the tools necessary for rational decision-making in uncertain or complex situations.
Decision science has many specific applications in conservation and environmental management. It has been used to identify the best places to locate conservation reserves,151-152 to develop strategies for learning about and managing facial tumour disease latency in Tasmanian Devils,153 to evaluate recovery planning expenditure,154 to determine when to declare a weed species eradicated,155 to prioritise spending on global biodiversity hotspots156 and many others.
One of the great opportunities for improved conservation investment outcomes at a national level is in the use of scientific decision-making methods for predicting, monitoring and evaluating the benefits of biodiversity policy and investment. The role of monitoring and reporting in policy evaluation is becoming more widely acknowledged. Scenario modelling is a less widely acknowledged key to successful policy implementation. Thomas et al.157 provide a sample of models for predicting extinction rates under various global warming scenarios. Their work suggests that 36% of biodiversity is likely to become extinct by 2050 under status quo warming scenarios. Recent developments in extinction-risk modelling158 show promise as tractable methods for predicting the fate of biodiversity and likely response to policy initiatives at a range of scales, including national and state. Such models could be used to evaluate the cost-efficiency of broadscale climate adaptation options, such as initiatives to connect habitat or environmental stewardship or broadscale restoration programs.
Our ability to develop and test models such as these will depend on the choice of indicators and metrics measured and collated through state of the environment reporting and the National Environmental Accounts initiative. The data that are useful for long-term policy evaluation may not necessarily exist already and may need to be collected. Monitoring can absorb a large amount of resources, so care must be taken to ensure that measured indicators provide the best information for policy evaluation and improvement.
Source: Brendan Wintle Applied Environmental Decision Analysis Commonwealth Environment Research Facility (www.aeda.edu.au ), now the ARC Centre for Excellence for Environmental Decisions (ceed.edu.au )
Harnessing continent-wide biodiversity datasets for prioritising national conservation investment
A recent project between the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC) modelled and mapped fine-scale patterns in biodiversity composition across the Australian continent based on millions of records for more than 20 000 species of plants, vertebrates and invertebrates (from DSEWPaC’s Australian Natural Heritage Assessment Tool database) and best-available climate, terrain, soils and vegetation layers.159 The project showed strong potential for linking this mapping to remotely sensed land-cover and land-use data to assess change in biodiversity status,160 and to downscaled climate scenarios to forecast potential climate change impacts on biodiversity.
CSIRO, in collaboration with the National Plan for Environmental Information and the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA), is currently exploring the potential for extending this approach to take advantage of major recent advances in data availability for the Australian continent. These include primary biological observations (and environmental variables needed for modelling these observations) through the ALA, and remotely sensed land-cover change data gathered through initiatives such as Geoscience Australia’s dynamic land-cover mapping.
Source: Simon Ferrier, CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences
As well as understanding the state and trends in biodiversity, it is important for planning that we understand the pressures and risks to biodiversity. All jurisdictions appear to be successfully identifying the main risks to biodiversity, even if there is not enough information on these risks to assess trends or identify effective prevention and mitigation measures. Despite this good work, mechanisms for anticipating plausible future risks appear to be very poorly developed (see Section 5.3). While some regional bodies and industries have invested in longer term exploration of future challenges and opportunities,161-162 most SoE reports usually only include short-term extrapolations of the recent past. In contrast, SoE reports in a number of other countries have included sophisticated scenario-development processes aimed at preparing their jurisdictions for multiple plausible futures.163-164 This current report attempts some minimal consideration of alternative futures for the first time in national SoE reporting.
We noted in Section 1.2 that assessing the capacity of ecosystems to provide benefits for humans requires an assessment of the functionality of Australian ecosystems, as well as an assessment of the demands and needs of Australians. Several experts have highlighted the need to make substantial progress in the next few years on understanding, and taking action about, the benefits that people derive from the environment and the consequences of our impacts on the environment. The need to understand this relationship is critical to major policy decisions, such as immigration and population policy, as well as environmental policy.58,165
Dealing constructively with the pressures of the future will also require improved understanding to be communicated to the public so that innovative policies can be enacted with public support. Overall, the general public has only limited understanding of the demands that Australians place on the environment,166-168 despite a very well-developed understanding among some groups, including regional natural resource management groups and an increasing number of landowners and land managers.
All jurisdictions have biodiversity management plans in place that set high-level goals consistent with achieving sustainability and resilience.15 To at least some degree, all of these plans recognise the need to address the major pressures of land clearing, invasive species, adverse effects of land-management practices, altered fire regimes and altered hydrology through combinations of:
- improving knowledge
- engaging with a range of stakeholders
- balancing on-reserve and off-reserve conservation
- setting strategic objectives
- making the best use of a range of incentive and regulatory mechanisms to assist conservation
- taking account of climatic variation now and climate change in the longer term
- coordinating efforts of all individuals and groups engaged in biodiversity conservation
- taking account of Indigenous values and expertise
- working at ecosystem and landscape scales.
At a national scale, the Caring for our Country programc recognises all of the above and has made resilient communities and ecosystems part of an overarching goal. Resilience is also emerging as an objective in many plans at state and territory level. The collective objectives of plans for biodiversity management around Australia, if achieved, should put Australia in a strong position to use the full range of skills and resources of its people to:
- cooperatively address risk, uncertainties and trade-offs between biodiversity conservation and other objectives for land use
- bring most native species back to a state for which sustainable management is possible
- make it possible to manage strategically rather than reactively.
From 2004–05 to 2010–11, the Australian Government invested in a series of Commonwealth Environmental Research Facilities (CERF) to investigate better approaches to biodiversity management. (CERF has since been replaced by the National Environmental Research Program.) The Landscape Logic CERF (Box 8.8) investigated planning and management at landscape scales; this is one of the key challenges for future management, especially in the face of climate change.
Over the past 15 years, four audits have cast doubt on the effectiveness of the $4.2 billion of public funds invested through public environmental programs since 1997. There are several reasonable explanations for this lack of effectiveness. The scale of intervention has been too small and fragmented. There are long lag times between intervention and response. Human intervention is frequently overwhelmed by forces outside our influence, such as climate variability, markets and extreme events. We are frequently dealing with complex, nonlinear processes that involve undefined thresholds of change, and all this is occurring in a social context with many different managers, often with competing interests and values.
The Landscape Logic project, a partnership between six regional organisations, five research institutions and state land-management agencies in Tasmania and Victoria, was set up to see whether we could measure the effects of past human intervention on the environment using a combination of biophysical and social evidence, and the experience of land and water managers. The types of evidence available for retrospective studies include historical aerial photos; long-term datasets from stream-gauging stations; water quality and vegetation surveys; historical records of land tenure, land use and land management; and contemporary studies capable of assembling landscape histories from experiments, social surveys and interviews. There are also the historical records laid down in the landscape itself that can be interpreted through techniques such as stable isotope analysis of lake, stream and estuarine sediments, groundwater and vegetation.
Five key messages emerged from this experience:
Have clear end points or goals. It was not possible to track the state of the environment or the effects of intervention where there were no clear objectives or measurements. In our case, water quality was more clearly defined and measurable than vegetation condition, which generally lacks agreed definitions and measures. However, setting goals is not a task for researchers only, because it almost inevitably involves a mixture of fact and value.
Develop conceptual models. A model of how a system works, particularly graphical models developed in collaboration with managers, helps us to agree on the key processes and variables that need to be understood and the interventions that are most likely to have been influential.
Investigate at multiple scales. To measure response to intervention and attribute change, we found it was necessary to investigate at three scales: at the landscape scale to establish patterns of change such as correlations between ecosystem response variables and human and natural drivers of change; at the property scale to distinguish between human and other influences (who did what, when and why); and at the site scale to understand the ecological processes responsible for the observed change.
Understand the social context. Being aware of the social context in which natural resources are used and managed helps to identify cost-effective pathways for change. For example, we found that demographic change is resulting in a substantial cohort of land managers who have high conservation values but are not commercial farmers by occupation and have relatively low levels of conservation knowledge or activity. This suggested an untapped audience for environmental programs.
Manage expectations. A major challenge for researchers and environmental managers is managing the expectations of government at all levels regarding the timescales within which they are likely to see response to intervention. Our studies provide evidence of 30–40-year timescales required to achieve measurable change in indicators of vegetation change (e.g. recruitment opportunities in a variable climate, survival to maturity) and water quality (e.g. revegetation to filter sediment, shade streams to shut down algal production and restore trophic pathways).
Source: Ted Lefroy, Landscape Logic Commonwealth Environmental Research Facility (www.landscapelogic.org.au and www.landscapelogicproducts.org.au ). For more details, see the forthcoming book to be published by CSIRO Publishing in late 2011, Landscape logic: integrating science for landscape management by Lefroy, Curtis, Jakeman and McKee.
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