The drivers of the condition of Australia’s environment (including heritage) are both historical and contemporary. Historical pressures, such as a legacy of land clearing and changes in land use, cannot be addressed through short-term management. Other pressures, such as rising temperature or changes to rainfall patterns or fire regimes, warrant responses even though the root cause cannot be removed.
Contemporary pressures such as climate change, population growth and economic growth affect Australia’s heritage generally, and have some specific consequences for natural, Indigenous and historic heritage. The effects of environmental drivers are interrelated—for example, altered fire regimes or invasive species directly affect natural heritage, but may also have consequences for cultural heritage, because of their effect on Indigenous cultural heritage practices, and historical land-use patterns and cultural landscapes.
Climate change is leading to higher temperatures, more rainfall in northern Australia and less elsewhere, rising sea level, increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires, more soil erosion, additional damage from extreme weather events, and degradation caused by intensified ocean acidification. These climate change pressures have high impact and will irreversibly damage Australia’s heritage in the absence of remedial action.
Changes to population may reduce resources for conservation in rural areas while creating pressure for change and development in coastal and urban areas. Development pressures create tension between economic values and cultural values. Both inconsistent decision-making and differing perceptions of heritage value between communities and governments can lead to statutes, policies and outcomes that adversely affect heritage. Individual sites may also be subject to neglect and vandalism or, conversely, damage from increased visitation.
Economic growth affects heritage through development projects that threaten heritage places, large-scale resource extraction and growing tourism—which may itself be associated with heritage values. Economic growth can have positive effects, including creation of employment, and support for communities and traditional cultural practices, but can also lead to altered resource allocation, such as an emphasis on providing visitor facilities or opportunities within reserved lands at the expense of conservation of heritage values. Localised decline may also result in the loss of significant original uses of heritage buildings, works, places and landscapes.
Pressures particular to natural heritage include invasive species, progressive loss of habitat (including loss of ecological connectivity), conflicting land use, and tension between the potential economic value of land and its dedication for conservation purposes.
Indigenous heritage in Australia remains under pressure from loss of knowledge and tradition, despite resurgence and reconnection in some areas and communities. Intangible Indigenous culture also continues to be threatened by disconnection between people and place, loss of language, and discontinuation of cultural practices, particularly where changing values and expectations of the growing proportion of young Indigenous people may not align with traditional values or systems. Indigenous sites continue to be threatened by incremental destruction associated with urban and industrial development, which is often approved despite heritage impacts being identified.
Historic heritage is particularly at risk from pressures for redevelopment on both large and small scales. The impacts range from complete destruction to inappropriate change and adverse effects on associated attributes such as visual setting. Other pressures include those that arise from population shift, including redundancy, neglect and decay. However, there is also greater recognition of the value of historic buildings and opportunities that can be provided by their adaptive re-use. The decline in professional and trade skills in the historic heritage sector, and the ageing specialist workforce and rise of nonspecialist tradespeople present a looming threat.