Key findings

Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Beeton RJS (Bob), Buckley Kristal I, Jones Gary J, Morgan Denise, Reichelt Russell E, Trewin Dennis
(2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee), 2006

2. Key findings

This section presents key findings drawn from the data and other information available to the Australian State of the Environment Committee. It is an assessment of Australia’s environment in terms of the pressures on it, the state it is in, and the responses that Australia has made. In addition, the Committee presents suggested future directions on the basis of its experience of assembling SoE2006. Collectively, all these findings are important for future policy, but they are not intended to be prescriptive.

This is the third independent state of the environment report for Australia since 1996, but it is still impossible to give a clear national picture of the state of Australia’s environment because of the lack of accurate, nationally consistent, environmental data. This has particularly serious consequences for identification and management of Australia’s biodiversity, coasts and oceans, and natural and cultural heritage. Better time-series and spatial data are needed across almost every environmental sector.

The biggest improvements in condition are seen in relation to atmosphere. There is evidence to suggest that the global response to reduce the use of ozone-depleting substances 18 years ago is having an effect. The size of the Antarctic ozone hole has not changed in the last ten years and the overall amount of ozone in the stratosphere appears to have increased from 2000. Also, air quality in both urban and regional areas, in most cases, is meeting agreed national standards. There are some concerns for air quality in some cities where serious air pollution episodes still occur.

Climate change is an important issue for Australia. While there is debate about scientific predictions, it is almost universally accepted that temperatures are rising. The extent of rise is uncertain and continuous adaptation of environmental and sectoral policies, in an uncertain environment, is the key.

The recent drought was particularly severe because it was hotter than previous droughts, and because it affected almost the entire continent. It demonstrated that some of the water resources for our cities and irrigation-based industries, which are already stressed and over-allocated, are particularly vulnerable to ‘natural’ climate variability, let alone the increased climate variability that is expected over the coming decades. One result is that Australian governments, companies and citizens have started to recognise the issues around climate variability far more than they did in 2001.

There has been a major shift in the approach by governments and the community towards environmental management during the last decade. This is seen in an increasing financial investment in Australia’s environment by all levels of government; for example, the Australian Government spent more than $10.3 billion during 2001–05 to address environmental problems through a variety of programmes. Tangible evidence of this shift includes:

  • steps were taken to bring an end to broad-scale vegetation clearing between 2001 and 2006 in most states and territories
  • changes to oceans and fisheries management, with a major industry restructure to reduce the total catch in Commonwealth-managed fisheries, the increase in no-take zones in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Queensland’s nearshore waters, and the creation of a number of marine protected areas in some state and territory waters
  • increasing cooperation between governments and the community in environmental stewardship through regional environmental management arrangements, such as regional natural resource management entities; there are concerns about the differences in the capacity of local government and regional groups to adequately undertake and fund their responsibilities
  • since Australia State of the Environment 2001 (SoE2001), the Council of Australian Governments has further advanced its water reform agenda, with its National Water Initiative using market-based reforms and agreed policy platforms to seek improvements in water use and allocation, by humans and the environment
  • clarification of the responsibilities of the three levels of government, improved protection of Commonwealth-owned heritage assets, establishment of a National Heritage List and promotion of a holistic view of heritage as part of the environment through amendments to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act)
  • the establishment of the National Collections Council in 2001 and the establishment of significance assessment methods for collections - important response measures for conserving cultural heritage
  • an increasingly cooperative approach between most states and territories and the Australian Government in developing a consistent approach to threatened species listing and the protection of threatened species and ecological communities
  • the increasingly active role in environmental stewardship by the philanthropic and business sectors, with several organisations actively managing large areas of land to either restore or manage for biodiversity outcomes.

Many of the pressures that were reported in SoE2001 still exist, and some have intensified. The demands this places on the broader environment, through increases in use of energy, land, water and other materials, are also significant, particularly because individual consumption of most resources is increasing to support the Australian lifestyle. The advances in recycling some forms of urban waste, such as paper and glass, are positive but they do not offset the environmental costs of net consumption. Australia has to do better in recycling and in the reuse of critical resources such as water, energy, construction materials and organic waste from gardens, sewage, residual food, industrial and livestock sources.

Of continuing concern for Australia’s immediate future is continued population growth along the coastline. The formation of mega-metropolitan centres with increasing population density on Australia’s coasts has the potential to displace much valuable biodiversity and ‘high-value’ agricultural land.

Much urban environmental progress can be achieved by adopting strategies that reduce the harmful impacts of unsustainable consumption on the environment and nationally recognising that urban form and liveability have a powerful influence on human settlements. The development and implementation of an Australian Government policy on cities would provide leadership and guidance to the other two levels of government, as well as to developers, producers and consumers so as to achieve a common approach to the creation of sustainable settlements.

Future directions

The following points are derived from the Committee’s insights from preparing this report. They are the opinions of the Committee, and are offered as a contribution to the policy debate in Australia.

This report initially used 263 indicators to establish the data reporting system. They were selected by the Committee from the original 500 indicators that were proposed for state of the environment reporting in 1999 (DEH 2006i). Their selection was on the basis of measurability and usefulness of information. There are useful national data for 37 per cent of them, some data for 51 per cent and no data for 12 per cent. Each of land, biodiversity, coasts and oceans, inland waters, and natural and cultural heritage lacks more than half the data needed to make a comprehensive national assessment.

It is the emphatic opinion of the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee that the future role of a national state of the environment committee should be to provide data interpretation and commentary, using accessible, up-to-date, relevant national data. The year 2006 must be the last state of the environment report that starts with a committee-initiated process of indicator and data selection. Environmental data should be continuously updated and made publicly available on the web. This will require strategic responses that are tailored to national, state and territory and regional needs, and that are sufficiently understood and accepted to be sustained into the future.

Such a system will equip Australia with a national capacity to monitor and assess the condition of the environment on an ongoing basis, not just every five years. It will also illustrate the returns on investment in the environment and changes to environmental governance. This knowledge will allow Australia to measure, for example, the anticipated improvements in river systems from existing and foreshadowed investments. It will allow greater leverage of private sector inputs, including capital, information and knowledge, to better integrate production systems with natural resource management.

The capacity of some environmental sectors and rural communities, including local government, needs urgent attention. They need equipping to meet the new challenges posed by new monitoring systems. Another very significant issue is the continuing national decline in Australia’s capacity in biological taxonomy. A third is the need to improve the quality of environmental education in general.

Environmental stewardship by Indigenous Australians is of increasing importance, and governments have a lot more to do to support the capacity of Indigenous communities in this respect. The very poor health and employment prospects of many Indigenous Australians significantly affect their ability to contribute to their culture and country, and to manage Australia’s environment. This is especially the case in remote areas, many of which do not meet minimally acceptable standards for human settlements.

Community perceptions of heritage, and the relationships between cultural and natural heritage, and Indigenous and non-Indigenous stories, are likely to continue to change. Better outcomes for Australia’s heritage will require a shift in the emphasis by governments on statutory responses to a better alignment between heritage and environment policies and programmes. This will also need greater focus on the development of effective and efficient measures for resourcing heritage conservation, including through better integration of heritage investments and outcomes with regional environmental investments.

The Committee supports systems that encourage stewardship by accreditation, certification and, where appropriate, markets for environmental services. Regulations work best when either dealing with common property resources or situations where market failure occurs. Incentives work best when a private good is involved, provided they do not mask disincentives and providing their performance is measured and their use is adapted in light of their effectiveness. Regulation and incentives are appropriate tools for environmental management.

Adaptive management will make a significant contribution to Australia’s environment and long-term sustainability. It requires further investment in improving the capture of successful examples of its application and environmental monitoring and data availability. This will come from a national environmental reporting system that is coordinated in its timing, reporting and has improved data management, sharing and aggregation protocols across all jurisdictions.

Fire illustrates the need for adaptability. The debate following the major 2001 and 2003 bushfires in south-eastern Australia has challenged approaches based on reasoned, adaptive science. The development of appropriate fire regimes remains a national priority. This is because fire is a risk to public life and property, a critical factor in the survival of many plant communities, an important variable in the adaptive set of many species and the one manipulative management tool over vast areas of Australia.

A further illustration of the need to better adapt is in Australia’s urban areas, in which a reduction in net individual consumption and waste is required. This will involve greater population densities in our cities and major urban areas than currently is the case, significant increases in building material recycling, the capture and use of stormwater, the recycling of wastewater and biological waste, and improved urban form and urban structures.

Benefits derived from Australia’s investments in the development and deployment of environmental technologies (such as better urban systems, water management, water and land restoration, and recycling) will require increasing emphasis so that they are in proportion to the investment in environmental policy and management.

The Australian State of the Environment Committee has drawn attention to significant issues, to which responses cannot occur without government leadership and public support. Australia’s collective sense of national stewardship and shared responsibility requires a recognition that environmental services are needed and valued by all and so must be paid for by all. This can occur only from a strong economic base and in a social context of individual and collective responsibility.