SoE 2016 content and processes

SoE 2016 follows the structure of SoE 2011. This section describes the contents and framework of the reports and the approach used to make assessments. 

SoE 2016 reports

SoE 2016 comprises a suite of reports:

  • Overview is a synopsis of all the material included in SoE 2016, including the SoE 2016 drivers paper and 9 thematic reports. It highlights what has changed over the past 5 years, explores the main pressures and risks facing Australia's environment today and provides an overall outlook for our environment. This document was tabled in Parliament in early 2017. 
  • Drivers is an examination of the main factors that generate the pressures on the environment, particularly those associated with changes in population and economic activity. The drivers report provides context for the pressures detailed in each of the thematic reports.
  • Thematic reports (see below).
  • Approach is an outline of the context and approach used to develop SoE 2016, including legislative requirements and details on the methodologies used to conduct the assessments presented in each of the thematic reports.
  • Peer review is a description of the principles and processes relating to the process of peer review of the thematic reports. It documents the key issues that were raised by the reviewers of drafts of each thematic report and how this feedback was addressed and incorporated into the final versions of each of the thematic reports.

The 9 thematic reports represent biogeographic or conceptual aspects of the Australian environment. Each thematic report follows a common framework (See SoE 2016 framework). ‘Key findings’, ‘At a glance’ sections and assessment summaries condense the wealth of material presented in each thematic report to support understanding and use of information. The 9 reports comprise:

  • Atmosphere, which considers changes to Australia’s atmosphere, particularly greenhouse gas emissions and climate change and their effects on Australian environment, as well as ambient air quality.
  • Built environment, which considers the impacts of population and economic growth, and climate change on Australia’s urban environments, and issues of strategic management across jurisdictions in a time of change.
  • Heritage, which considers the extent and condition of Australia’s rich natural, Indigenous, and cultural heritage, the threats each faces from natural and human processes, and the challenges of management.
  • Biodiversity, which considers the condition of Australia’s living resources and highlights the challenges of management in the context of human dependence on biodiversity for ecosystem services.
  • Land, which considers the state of our soil and terrestrial vegetation resources, the pressures they face, and issues and priorities for management.
  • Inland water, which considers the evolving state of surface and groundwater resources in the world’s driest inhabitable continent, in the context of the breaking of a major drought and ongoing water policy reform.
  • Coasts, which considers features of the interface between the ocean and land, the challenges to coasts posed by climate change and ongoing coastal development, and management responses to pressures on our coastlines.
  • Marine environment, which considers the condition of Australia’s oceanic habitats, communities and species group; the existing pressures on our marine environments and current management.
  • Antarctic environment, which considers the global importance and evolving state of the Antarctic environment, the ongoing changes to marine and terrestrial ecosystems resulting from human activity, and the significance of climate change in the region.

SoE 2016 contains data and information up to 30 June 2016, except where otherwise noted. It is acknowledged that there have been a number of recent developments between this date and the publication of SoE 2016, however these were not always able to be included in the report (see Information and data).

Assessment summaries

As in SoE 2011, each of the SoE 2016 thematic reports present assessment summaries for the pressures, state and trends, and management effectiveness of the theme. The summaries comprise a short synopsis and graphical representation of the key results of the assessments, providing an at-a-glance view of our environment. The summary text in the assessment tables should be read in conjunction with the explanatory text in the theme reports.

soe2016_syn_fig2_assessmentsummary-03.png

Diagram of assessment summary example
Diagram of assessment summary example
Assessment grade levels for each section were based on the SoE 2011 grading systems:
  • For pressures (see Pressures), there are:
    • 4 grades of level of impact (very low impact, low impact, high impact, very high impact)
    • 4 grades of change over time (improving, stable, deteriorating, unclear)
  • For state and trend (see State and trend), there are:
    • 4 grades of state (very poor, poor, good, very good); these 4 grades are used in all of the thematic reports except for the Atmosphere report, where 5 grades are used to describe ambient air quality in line with nationally agreed reporting practice
    • 4 grades of change over time (improving, stable, deteriorating, unclear)
  • For management effectiveness (see Management effectiveness), there are:
    • 4 grades of effectiveness (ineffective, partially effective, effective, very effective)
    • 4 grades of change over time (improving, stable, deteriorating, unclear).

Definitions of each grade are theme-specific and described at the end of the assessment summaries in the thematic reports.

Information supporting the assessments was drawn from a wide range of data sources (referenced in the reports), and from extensive consultations with experts and representative organisations in a variety of scientific disciplines and government agencies across Australia. In many cases, consultation was in the form of expert workshops facilitating information gathering, discussion of issues and gauging of opinions. In some cases, experts across disciplines provided direct input into the assessment process.

The strength of the conclusions reached in the assessments is indicated with a ‘level of confidence’ which has been expanded in 2016 from 3 to 5 grading statements to provide more information. If adequate high-quality data were available or consensus was high, confidence is indicated as high. If there were only limited data or consensus to determine grades, confidence is indicated as low. Where data are insufficient to attempt scores, this is also indicated, and the component remains on the list to remind readers that it is still an important aspect of the Australian environment, and that more information is needed to improve our understanding and capacity to respond to environmental challenges.

In 2016, SoE Digital presents both the 2011 and 2016 assessments. This means that, for the first time, readers will be able to compare findings and identify trends across 2011, 2016 and the future. Indications of the comparability between the current and previous assessments of the grade and trend of components of the environment are included. Where the assessments use the same data and the same methods and are therefore directly comparable, comparability is indicated as high. If the method and approach are somewhat comparable (e.g. slight changes to methods), comparability is indicated as moderate. If datasets or methods used in the assessment vary substantially, comparability is indicated as low. The reports indicate where a component was not previously assessed.

Supporting information about how assessments were conducted and the degree of comparability between the 2011 and 2016 assessments is available by clicking on the assessment summaries in SoE Digital. These supporting information, a new feature of SoE 2016, provides improved transparency in the assessment process and will improve the repeatability of the assessment process in future SoE reporting.

SoE 2016 framework

SoE 2016 builds on the internationally accepted approach for reporting on the environment—the drivers, pressures, state, impact, response (DPSIR) framework—to structure its assessments:

  • Drivers are addressed in the Drivers report.
  • Pressures are discussed in the ‘Pressures’ sections within each theme and the Overview report.
  • State and impact are discussed in the ‘State and trends’ sections within each theme and the Overview report.
  • Response is discussed in the ‘Management effectiveness’ sections within each theme and the Overview report.

The Overview and thematic reports also examine the future outlook for the environment, taking into account the drivers, pressures, current state and trends, and management response, along with the resilience of the environment and the remaining risks that threaten it.

This framework reflects that adopted in SoE 2011. Please refer to SoE 2011 for further information on the development and approach of the framework (State of the Environment 2011 Committee 2011). 

The SoE 2016 framework acknowledges the complex interactions between the environment, human society and the economy, and that these interactions are dynamic, and subject to cumulative and historical effects (Figure APP1).

The framework is based on the concept that drivers (underlying natural and human-caused forces) exert pressures (immediate factors) on the environment that lead to changes in the state of the environment. These changes can result in impacts on society. Society responds to changes and impacts through policy and management actions.

The links between drivers, pressures, the environment and human society are not simple cause-and-effect relationships, but involve complex and dynamic interactions, including cumulative and historical effects. For example, a combination of demographic change and economic growth can increase the demand for food, fibre, minerals, transport and energy in ways that generate pressures on the environment. Human efforts to reduce the negative impacts of drivers by decoupling economic growth from environmental harm can, however, mitigate or even reverse some of the negative effects of increased production and consumption. Technological and institutional innovation, and changes in human behaviour will help to facilitate this decoupling.

Figure APP1 State of the environment conceptual framework

Drivers

Drivers  are the underlying natural and human-caused forces that exert pressures on the environment. As in 2011, SoE 2016 focuses on the human-caused drivers that have the greatest influence on Australia’s environmental sustainability: population (demographic change) and economic activity, including through their influence on climate change. The Drivers report examines the main factors that create the pressures on environmental systems, and looks at the trends in these.

Pressures

Each thematic report examines the pressures that arise from the drivers of environmental change discussed in the Drivers report. The legacy impacts of pressures, and new and emerging impacts are also examined. Assessment summaries provide a snapshot of the impact and trends of current pressures.

State and trends

Each thematic report identifies and describes the current condition of important environmental components relevant to the theme, and recent trends. Assessment summaries provide a snapshot of the current condition and trend of the various components within the theme.

Management effectiveness

In each thematic report, management responses to each of the pressures identified are described and then assessed according to 6 elements: understanding of context, planning, inputs, processes, outputs and outcomes. The elements are based on an evaluation framework initially established by the World Commission on Protected Areas of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (Hockings et al. 2000, 2006, 2015), and trialled worldwide as a framework for assessing initiatives related to conservation and sustainable resource use, and identifying strengths and weaknesses in management efforts.

Management effectiveness as used in this report generally relates to environmental issues at a national scale. It should be noted that very few management actions (or assessment methodologies) are designed for national delivery, such as implementing national-scale legislation or delivering funding programs. Most management actions towards conserving and sustaining Australia’s environmental values are delivered locally. States and territories lead much of the environmental management aimed at regulating business practices, and local government bodies lead much of the management of urban and rural development. Therefore, assessments in the reports include consideration of the cumulative contributions, or gaps, of smaller-scale management activities. Specific case studies are included throughout the reports to illustrate important points, but they are not presented as surrogates or indicators of how management programs are faring more broadly.

Resilience

Resilience is the ability of the environment to withstand or recover from a shock or disturbance. Although the concept of resilience was developed, and is mainly used, in relation to ecosystems, it is a valuable concept across the environment and in environmental management.

In each thematic report, the resilience of the environment is generally examined by discussing 3 components:

  • what constitutes resilience in the context of the theme, and what features or characteristics identify resilience
  • the main factors affecting resilience, such as vulnerability and exposure
  • the ability of systems and their associated functions to cope with current and future disturbances, whether acute or chronic, regular or sporadic in nature.

Discussions within each thematic report are framed around the relationship between particular disturbances, and their likely impacts on the functionality of a particular system in the immediate and long term. Both specific resilience (to known pressures) and general resilience (to unknown or future pressures) are discussed, and case studies are used to illustrate key points.

Risk

Even after management actions and resilience are taken into consideration, some pressures can continue to pose a risk to the environment—residual risk. Identifying and assessing the residual risk to the environment involves examining both the likelihood that the impact will take place and the severity of anticipated consequences if it does occur. Risk assessment provides valuable information for determining the need to adjust policies or adapt management approaches to mitigate risks.

In the thematic reports, residual risks were assessed based on 2 factors:

  • the likelihood of an event, action or activity occurring that will create an impact
  • the extent and severity of the consequences of that impact on environmental values if it does occur.

Grades of risk were qualitatively assigned within each thematic report via selection of the most appropriate descriptor by the thematic report authors from a scale of 5 categories for each of the 2 factors (Box APP2).

Results of the residual risk assessment are presented in a summary likelihood–consequence matrix that provides a visual snapshot of the significance of the risks.

Assessments within each thematic report highlight key challenges in managing pressures on the Australian environment, many of which are then examined further in the ‘Outlook’ section of each thematic report.

Outlook

The final section of each thematic report focuses on the long-term outlook for the environment, including a discussion of the key factors that are likely to have the greatest influence on future status and trends. These discussions are based on current understanding of how environmental and cultural systems have reacted to pressures in the past and how they might continue to change if these pressures persist. Management of the environment under current approaches is discussed in the context of the challenges presented by the major drivers of environmental change. It is not the role of SoE reporting to make recommendations. Scenarios are, however, provided to facilitate well-informed decision-making about the Australian environment.

Box APP2  Assessing risk

Definitions and grading scales for risk assessments were interpreted by authors of each theme according to the nature of the values, impacts and management responses that are dealt with in each thematic report. Although every effort was made to ensure that treatment was consistent across and within themes, the reader should keep in mind that the qualitative nature of the assessment of risks resulted in some subjectivity in the approach.

Overall residual risk of activities on environmental values was determined by examining both the likelihood that the impact will take place and the severity of anticipated consequences if it does occur. The following definitions are used as a national-scale framework for residual risk assessments across the thematic reports:

  • Risk = likelihood × consequence.
  • Likelihood is the probability (expected frequency) of an impact as a result of a pressure.
  • Frequency refers to how often each impact is expected to occur.

The likelihood of an impact is assessed on a scale of 5 levels of frequency, adapted from those used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Parry et al. 2007). The reports cover a wide range of environments, so the time periods between impacts are equally diverse and are adapted to be theme specific (see Table APP2).

Table APP2 Relationship between risk likelihood and frequency

Likelihood

Frequency

Almost certain

Expected to occur almost continuously throughout the year, or expected to occur at any time in the near future

Likely

Not expected to be continuous, but will probably occur at least once each year; or could occur at any time in the near future

Possible

Expected to occur 2–3 times within a 10-year period

Unlikely

Not expected to occur regularly within a 10-year period, but are expected to occur 1–3 times within a 100-year period

Rare

Not expected to occur within the next 100 years

Consequence is the extent and severity of impacts. Consequence is assessed on a scale of 5 levels of severity and extent. The nature of consequences at local and regional levels is considered, but the analyses in the thematic reports represent the results of a national-scale assessment (Table APP3).

Table APP3 Relationship between consequence, and severity and extent of expected impacts

Consequence

Severity and extent of expected impacts

Catastrophic

Impact will seriously affect environmental values, disrupting major environmental structures or functions. Potentially irreversible

Major

Impact will seriously affect environmental values, disrupting many environmental structures or functions. Long periods of recovery

Moderate

Impact will affect environmental values, disrupting some aspects of environmental structures or functions. Recovery periods are relatively short

Minor

Impact will be limited and affect only minor environmental values. Recovery periods are relatively short

Insignificant

Impact will be very limited and have no discernible effect on environmental values, including sensitive populations, communities and assets

Variation across themes

All thematic reports follow the overall approach to assessing and reporting described above. Assessments are theme specific, and reflect values, pressures and measures that are meaningful for the particular systems being reported on. Assessments and reports necessarily vary between themes according to differences in:

  • precedents for national reporting (e.g. there are existing protocols for assessing ambient air quality, which are used in the Atmosphere report)
  • the selected assessment components (e.g. drainage divisions are a practical choice for the surface water–related assessments in the Inland water report but do not work for the Atmosphere report)
  • appropriate timescales for establishing trends (e.g. much longer time periods are required to track changes in climate than to assess trends in land-use practices)
  • significance of common pressures (e.g. assessments of the effects of pollution are common to many themes, but the results vary according to theme, depending on the level of impact)
  • maturity and scale of management responses (e.g. the Inland water report considers national reforms in water management, and the Land report includes analyses of local and national-scale conservation and restoration initiatives)
  • definitions of resilience (e.g. interpretations reflect differences in the nature of the systems being assessed, and the range of spatial and temporal scales relevant for discussing system functions).

Quality assurance

By using subject-matter experts tasked with collating and interpreting the best available evidence, incorporating extensive consultation, and undertaking a peer-review and fact-checking process, SoE 2016 provides a series of credible and robust reports.

Information and data

The best available information has been used to inform the thematic reports, select assessment components, and determine grades for state and trends. Information has been used from a wide range of data sources (referenced in the thematic reports) and from extensive consultations with experts in a variety of scientific disciplines across Australia. In many cases, experts contributed directly to the assessments in the reports. Expert workshops were also held to gather evidence and information, discuss issues and gauge opinion. It should, however, be noted that limitations on the collection of, and access to, data are an ongoing issue for environmental reporting.

The authors have indicated the strength of the evidence and consensus for their conclusions within each set of assessments.

SoE 2016 contains data and information up to 30 June 2016, except where otherwise noted (e.g. most data for Australia’s reserve system are until the end of 2014). It is acknowledged that there have been a number of recent developments between this date and the publication of SoE 2016, but it was not always possible to include these in the report.

Readers seeking more detailed information, evidence and further references are encouraged to explore the thematic reports and information available on SoE Digital. In addition, SoE Digital has leveraged the capacity of NationalMap and data.gov.au to provide a central portal that supports access to data, and a coordinated and consistent approach to data collection and dissemination.

Peer review and fact checking

Content review, fact checking and independent peer review were used to validate and strengthen the content of SoE 2016. All draft reports were reviewed by key stakeholders from the Australian Government, state and territory governments, academia and industry before undergoing independent peer review by subject-matter experts.

Each report was peer reviewed by 2 independent experts, selected on the basis of their relevant expertise in the area. Independent reviewers were asked to provide an anonymous and objective assessment identifying omissions of relevant data or analyses, and any issues with methodology, clarity or objectivity. The Peer review report details the peer-review process for the SoE 2016 reports, and includes comments provided by peer reviewers on each report and the responses from the SoE 2016 authors.