Australia's environment in context (Challenges faced by Australia)

Independent Report to the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Australian State of the Environment Committee, Authors
CSIRO Publishing on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06745 0

Australia's environment in context (continued)

Challenges faced by Australia

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Although Australia is the world's smallest continent (7.6 million km2) it assumes further responsibility for about 16 million square kilometres of marine area and some 5.9 million square kilometres of Antarctica, totalling about 29.5 million square kilometres. This is an enormous area of land and sea and presents a huge management challenge to the resources of Australia's estimated population of 19.3 million people (in 2001). In this regard, Australia is proportionately worse off than Canada, another country with a vast area (about 10 million km2) but a population of 30.5 million people (in 2000).

In much of the country, there are simply not sufficient numbers of people to monitor, assess and manage the environment. Australia is information rich yet data poor and has partially overcome the challenge by using information technology and technological means to gather data and information. For example, remote sensing of the environment has become essential to monitoring the condition of the extensive land use zone, covering some six million square kilometres.

Selected data are collected in some states and territories in a comprehensive way but not in all. Information about the condition of the land and oceans is often 'patchy' and concentrated in more populous parts of the country. In preparation of many of the 2001 theme reports, there have been difficulties in accessing national scale data and information.

The cumulative effects of many small decisions

The cumulative effects of innumerable small developments can severely affect our natural and cultural resources especially as many decisions on land use, water use and lifestyle, in the past as well as at present, have been made independently of any consideration of broader regional or environmental issues.

Toilet block on Cape Byron, NSW, obstructing a superb view of Tallow Beach

Toilet block on Cape Byron, NSW, obstructing a superb view of Tallow Beach

Source: Jane Lennon.

In urban and near-urban Australia, local councils help assess and approve development applications. Pressures for ad hoc approvals, at times involving legal proceedings, are intense, often at the expense of strategic outcomes. Recent population growth in cities and in coastal areas has exacerbated these pressures. Frequently, development-oriented councils or state governments will put aside controls in order to fast-track individual developments without appropriate environmental impact assessment. This behaviour is particularly apparent in coastal areas experiencing population and tourist growth.

Similarly, the effects of individual choice for personal mobility can be seen in the information on total vehicle kilometres travelled (VKT) by residents of Sydney. The VKT increased by 24% between 1991 and 1998. Motor vehicles and particularly diesel vehicles emit pollutants such as particulates which are known to be injurious to health. Continued growth in vehicle use, either by taking more or longer vehicle trips adds to the cumulative pressure on urban air quality.

The effect of many small decisions on cultural heritage is apparent everywhere. For instance, harmonious and pleasing 19th century streetscapes can be seriously damaged by one demolition or development, removal of post offices from a main street can contribute to its demise, and improving the road surface can bring unwanted tourism pressure to an Indigenous site. Integrated planning, which aims to conserve the whole landscape and all its values, is still lacking across most of Australia.