In Brief | Drivers of Australia's environment

Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Australian State of the Environment Committee, Authors
(2011 Australian State of the Environment Committee), 2011

In Brief

This is a summary of Australia state of the environment 2011, which is an independent report presented to the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities by the State of the Environment 2011 Committee

Drivers of Australia's environment

Main messages

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. 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.

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 depends 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 southwest and south-east when compared with natural variability, and winter season rainfall in the southwest 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.

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

This figure may reach only 30.2 million if there is less net migration and continuing low fertility rates. The projected development of infrastructure (e.g. housing, transport, water supply, energy, communications) strongly correlates with anticipated population growth, reflecting the longstanding pattern of association between these variables. In the absence of effective policies to reduce the impacts of population growth, this will remain a good indicator of future pressures.

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. As Australia's economy expands, it is likely that our resource consumption and waste production will also increase. However, improved efficiencies in resource use have weakened the link between economic growth and energy use over recent decades.

Trends and impacts

The condition, trend and outlook for the Australian environment are subject to some major drivers of change. Understanding and quantifying these drivers is fundamental to understanding the past, present and future state of our environment.

Climate change is a direct driver of change. Population growth (with associated growth in the built environment) and economic growth (with associated increases in resource consumption and waste generation) are indirect drivers. As a direct driver, climate change has direct and ongoing effects on the environment—higher temperatures and changing rainfall regimes in some areas can be expected to have profound and pervasive effects on a host of natural processes that underpin the condition and trend of ecosystems. The effects of indirect drivers are mediated by other processes, including the policies, culture and technology that we bring to bear on our use of our environment. For example, population growth is likely to continue to drive the need for expanded suburban development. The size of this impact will depend on the sensitivity of planning towards local environmental assets and values, and the effectiveness of policies to improve the energy efficiency of housing and transport.

Historically, a higher population has generally translated into an amplified demand for resources, a larger physical 'footprint' for our settlements, and more waste and emissions going back into the environment. At the global scale, the Millennium Ecosystem report states that, over the past 50 years, humanity has changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable time in human history, largely to meet increased demands for resources.

In the future, population and economic growth will probably still increase demand for energy and other resources, as well as increase waste generation. Alternatively, economic growth may be largely decoupled from increased consumption of resources and increased production of waste. Improvements in the efficiency of resource use have weakened the link between economic growth and energy use over recent decades. For example, tens of millions of tonnes of solid waste were successfully diverted from landfill to productive uses between 1996 and 2009, as a result of government policy (strongly influenced by a growing community desire to recycle) and improved technology. This saved large quantities of valuable materials, and significant amounts of embodied energy and water.

Changes in our economy will also change our environmental impact. Over the past century, the structure of the Australian economy changed markedly: the significance of agriculture reduced, manufacturing declined from peak levels reached in the 1950s and 1960s, and there has been a steady rise of the already dominant service sector since 1950. Since different industries exert different pressures on the environment, future structural changes in the economy can be expected to have an impact—either positive or negative—on the environment.

Understanding the trends and environmental implications of environmental drivers is fundamental to establishing what a sustainable Australia might be like. However, establishing clear relationships between drivers and environmental impacts is not easy, particularly when we are projecting outlooks. There are strong and diverse interactions among climate change, economic growth and population growth that make predictions uncertain. In addition, climate change and economic growth—and, to a smaller extent, population growth—are subject to global processes that are largely outside Australia's control.

In the short term, continued growth can be expected to further increase demand for energy and production of waste. In the long term, while significant policy and technological change (in some cases requiring global adoption) will be needed to break this relationship, there is substantial room for hope that we will be able to minimise the negative environmental impacts of a growing nation.

Indigenous land and sea management

Indigenous land and sea management, also referred to as 'caring for country', includes a wide range of environmental, natural resource and cultural heritage management activities undertaken by individuals, groups and organisations across Australia. These activities have their origins in the holistic relationships between traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies and their customary land and sea estates—or 'country'—that have existed for at least 50 000 years. These cultural rights and practices have adapted and evolved over time and now encompass a diversity of local, regional, state, territory and national institutional arrangements. These include Indigenous employment in government agencies, such as national parks and natural resource management organisations, and increasingly, the establishment of Indigenous land and sea management agencies and ranger groups. There are now several hundred community-managed Indigenous land and sea management groups or organisations around Australia.

Indigenous land and sea management initiatives are contributing to a conservation-based economy with significant social, health and cultural benefits, especially in remote regions. All levels of government, recognising the high biodiversity and other environmental values of Indigenous management lands, have responded to caring for country initiatives through funding, partnerships and other support. Ongoing financial support and some institutional reform, including greater recognition of Indigenous management of sea country, will be required to enable these opportunities to reach their full potential.