Executive Overview

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

Executive overview

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Australia in its global setting

Australia in its global setting

Condition of the environment

Australians have a high stake in the state of their environment. Our lifestyles and livelihoods depend on its health. People have used the continent's natural resources over tens of thousands of years and, following European occupation, have employed technologies which accelerated this exploitation. Our natural capital in air, land, minerals, water, oceans and ecosystems is continually encroached upon and our Indigenous and non-Indigenous heritage and traditions are often threatened or destroyed.

This Report by the Australian State of the Environment Committee (ASEC) provides an independent assessment of the condition of Australia's environment in the year 2001. The ASEC has, to the extent possible, provided information on environmental trends and changes and what these mean for more effective environmental planning and management. Despite some areas of significant improvement, Australians still have major challenges in the sustainable use of resources and in the maintenance of our natural and cultural heritage. This Report concludes, as did SoE (1996), that progress towards sustainability requires the integration of environmental with economic and social policies.

Pressures on the environment

Pressures on the Australian environment continue to grow. The seven theme reports (see http://www.ea.gov.au/soe/) that guided SoE (2001) identify such pressures, some of which arise from the political and economic conditions of Australian society.

Degradation of lands and waters remain of critical concern, especially in the intensive land use zone upon which much of Australia's agricultural production depends.

Population growth has particular effects on coastal Australia. Urban sprawl, high energy consumption, stormwater pollution of estuaries and coastal waters, and the continued decline in biodiversity as a result of land clearing all arise from population and economic pressures. Other processes such as habitat fragmentation and the introduction of pests across the continent and into marine environments threaten some terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

Beyond local pressures are those that occur on a national and global scale. These include economic and political effects which can inhibit the capacity of individuals, communities, or the nation to properly care for the environment. Australia alone cannot prevent global warming or sea level rise, nor, in isolation, create sustainable development. However, we have a responsibility to contribute to global solutions to these problems.

Responses to environmental pressures

The SoE (2001) identifies many responses since 1996 to pressures which affect the Australian environment. These include the following:

  1. More legislation that embodies principles of ecologically sustainable development (ESD) including the Commonwealth's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).
  2. Companies are factoring environmental issues into decision making. The Australian Mining Industry Code for Environmental Management is an excellent initiative. The fishing industry and the aquaculture industry are also developing codes of practice for more environmentally responsive operations.
  3. Organisations such as the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and the National Farmers' Federation (NFF) have combined in their presentations on the urgency to repair the country, including a possible costing.
  4. The Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) process has provided increasing levels of certainty in forest management for the next 20 years.
  5. Funded programs are emerging through cooperation of Commonwealth, state and territory governments to address many of the problems in a more integrated way.
  6. The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) has set about the complex task of water reform.
  7. Australia's Oceans Policy is addressing important marine environment planning and management issues.
  8. The National Action Plan (NAP) for Salinity and Water Quality, announced in 2000, proposes joint Commonwealth, state and territory funding of $1.4 billion to address dryland salinity.
  9. Natural Heritage Trust programs have engaged almost 400 000 Australians in environmental projects including Landcare and Coastcare.
  10. The commitment to a five-year budget of $1 billion from 2001-02 for the Extension to the Natural Heritage Trust is expected to be more strategic in approach.
  11. State government investments in new environmental programs are often innovative and far-reaching (e.g. the New South Wales 'coastal package' involving a RFA-type assessment, and stricter planning regime and legislative reform designed to better manage the effects of expected population growth).
  12. Vehicle emission standards and fuel quality standards, recently mandated, will ensure that air quality in the large urban centres can be maintained or improved despite a projected increase in vehicles.
  13. Announcements in 2001 that amendments are to be made to capital gains tax rules to ensure landowners who set aside part or all of their land for conservation in perpetuity will not be disadvantaged.

In addition, the ASEC notes that government interventions of various kinds, including legislation and regulations, codes of practice - formal or informal - have been effective in protecting and managing the environment. Examples are given in the Thematic findings.

An urgent need for action

Despite initiatives such as noted above, the state of the Australian natural environment has improved very little since 1996, and in some critical aspects, has worsened.

The increased area of land affected by salinity has captured the nation's attention and some action has been initiated. As well as the NAP for Salinity and Water Quality 2000, a new 15-year plan for the Murray-Darling system, and a similar plan for agricultural lands in Western Australia were announced in September 2001, each dealing with the problems of salinity, water quality and availability. The theme reports of SoE (2001) provide further information on the effect of land clearing, water extraction, forestry practices and the use of fire on biodiversity.

Throughout Australia, both physical and cultural heritage, including Indigenous languages, continues to be threatened and lost. As species are lost and habitats fragmented, degraded or destroyed, we lose our heritage and part of our life-support system. What happens on land also occurs to a lesser degree in the coastal waters surrounding Australia; sediment and pollution are threatening some habitats. Not all fisheries can be assessed as sustainable, thus posing some risk to on-going sustainability of food supply and livelihoods that depend on the sea.

Improvements are still needed because the environment provides us with essential processes that are critical to life on Earth. These processes are known as ecosystem services (Figure 1) and include soil formation, nutrient cycling, clean water supply, pollination and waste assimilation. Without these ecosystem services, the world's economy would grind to a halt.

Learning to live on this continent

Australia has responsibility for the management of 7.6 million km2 of land, one of the largest marine areas in the world (about 16 million km2) and nearly six million km2 of Antarctic interests. The diversity of climatic zones ranges from tropical in the north, to temperate in the south and polar in Antarctica. Much of our flora and fauna is unique.

The landscape has been transformed to varying degrees by human activities over 60 000 years. After European settlement in 1788, the pace of change quickened so that within a few generations, large tracts of the country were irreversibly modified and degradation beyond the capacity of individuals to restore or reverse it had begun. Indigenous peoples and cultures and land management practices received little respect during this period. The agriculture, mining, and urban settlements that form the basis of the successful economy and multicultural society that constitutes Australia today have come at a cost, some of which has yet to be paid.

As knowledge of the limits of the environment's ability to recover from damage has increased, there has emerged an awareness of the irreversibility of many actions and the need to learn how to use the environment within constraints imposed by the fragile soils and climatic extremes of drought and floods. In the extensive land use zone comprising much of semi-arid Australia, for example, some excellent examples exist of stocking practices which anticipate and cope with drought (following the early Kidman model of stock withdrawal and agistment), but use of these is far from widespread.

Severe and often irreversible degradation in many local and regional environments show, however, that we have often failed to understand the constraints on development. Indigenous Australians learnt over thousands of years to live in a sustainable and spiritual relationship with this distinctive environment. There is a growing recognition that this knowledge, attitudes and experiences can inform present day land management. Nonetheless, where Indigenous peoples are responsible for control and management of extensive land areas, poor living conditions, health and lack of educational opportunities are often seen as hampering their ability to exercise effective land management practices.

Complexities of environmental issues

Managing the activities of people in a way that conserves habitats while sustaining resources and industries is extraordinarily complex and difficult. For example, the clearing of mature forests, woodlands and grasslands for economic reasons continues to raise many environmental concerns about the consequences of such actions on river water quality, soil quality and ecosystem loss in catchments and in areas far removed from the land clearing activities. Landholders frequently operate as if what they do on their property or lease is an unfettered right. Understandably, however, many local communities fear the loss of their forest heritage and tradition when the forest industry is threatened.

There is a clear need to provide incentives to landholders, communities and local governments to achieve long-term, regional solutions to the many complex problems which individuals alone cannot solve.

Caring for our country

Fundamental to better management and planning is the recognition that the environment, including our cultural and natural heritage, is everyone's business. Caring for country has long been entrenched in the traditional beliefs and practices of Indigenous Australians. The Industry Commission (1998) presents a strong case for a more formal and widespread adoption of the concept of duty of care for our lands, waters, seas and air. SoE (2001) uses this concept as a focus to encourage all Australians to take responsibility for our actions by caring for country.

The fundamental value underlying ecologically sustainable use of resources is that current society should meet its needs in ways that ensure that the health and diversity of ecosystems, on which life depends, is maintained and does not reduce the capacity of future generations to meet their needs. Our use of resources should not cause our descendants to inherit a diminished natural and cultural heritage, less potable water, polluted air, contaminated soils, reduced variety of foods, and degraded landscapes. Environmental management in all its aspects should aim for ESD outcomes.

Landcare is an example of how an informed sector of the community has developed new attitudes and practices to land management. Such activities express what the ASEC sees as critical for Australia's future, cooperatively addressing our environmental problems so that we move towards sustainability. This task is beyond the public sector alone. All Australians need to commit themselves to achieving healthy waterways, productive soils, clean air, diversity of flora and fauna, and respect for our heritage.

The size of many of the problems demands responses that are beyond the capacity of existing institutional arrangements and individual landholders. This will be a challenge for all Australians, it will involve investments by urban Australians in the restoration of rural land, and rural Australians in a reassessment of the rights and responsibilities of landholders. We have put off this challenge for too long. This decade is the time for change, to implement the principles and objectives of ESD.