Knowledge and institutional arrangements


National SoE reporting began in 1996. In 2006, the third national SoE report concluded that, because of the lack of accurate, nationwide environmental data, the SoE Committee was still not in a position to give a clear national picture of the state of Australia’s environment. The lack of information not only affects the assessment of our environment, but also limits management effectiveness by restricting accurate planning and monitoring of management strategies. The situation has improved for some aspects of the environment since then; for example, in the terrestrial carbon, water and marine systems. However, it is now widely acknowledged that Australia has a fragmented, incomplete and inefficient set of systems for mapping, monitoring and forecasting the condition of our land.114-116 The problems are particularly acute for components that require field-based measurement (e.g. soil and regolith). The reasons for this situation are complex, but two important factors are current institutional arrangements and market failure.

Institutional arrangements for environmental information

In Australia, most environmental information relating to the land is collected by public agencies through short-term projects; very few enduring programs have a strategic focus. There have been losses of capacity in relevant Australian Government initiatives, such as the end of the NLWRA in 2008. The exceptions are in weather, climate, economics and, to a lesser extent, the geosciences. Significant quantities of environmental data are collected by individual land managers, community groups and private companies (e.g. to support environmental impact statements), but the data are rarely captured in information systems for others to use.

State and territory agencies have traditionally had the primary responsibility for acquiring and maintaining land resource data, although the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has also had a significant role. The scientific capacity of state and territory agencies has declined during the past two decades, despite intermittent programs for surveys of vegetation, land use, salinity and soil resources. These programs have been initiated and funded to a large extent by Australian Government programs.

The consequences of intermittent and project-based funding were discussed by Campbell,114 among others, and are now very clear:

  • Few agencies have been able to maintain the core scientific and technical capabilities necessary to build robust environmental information systems.
  • Corporate memory is poor. As a result, resources are wasted, because lessons learnt are forgotten as teams are disbanded and then reformed several years later to continue work on the same problem (e.g. monitoring of land condition).
  • The lack of stable career paths causes a high rate of turnover in the professional ranks, and a consequent loss of capacity. Most field scientists develop skills during programs of survey and monitoring, but they are then forced to move when short-term funds cease (see Section 4.4).
  • Most agencies have not been able to maintain the critical mass necessary for building and maintaining the sophisticated databases and geographic information systems that are now essential for web-based delivery of information.
  • Those commissioning programs of land resource survey and monitoring are often separated from associated technical programs, and they rarely have long-term custodianship of the resulting information.
  • Large, short-term investments in acquisition or analysis of environmental information have not returned the expected benefits. Some of the best quality information on soil, vegetation and land use has been produced by small, enduring teams with a sound strategy, and good scientific and technical credentials.
  • There are blurred distinctions between investments in environmental research and operational environmental management. Research agencies (e.g. universities, CSIRO) are not resourced or judged on their ability to provide routine environmental information, although they are important sources for innovation and new technology.

Investment has increased in monitoring, evaluation and reporting, such as through the Monitoring, Evaluation, Reporting and Improvement initiativei under the Caring for our Country program, and state programs such as that conducted by the Natural Resources Commission of New South Wales.117 However, inadequate investment in monitoring to inform adaptive management remains a major constraint across the land environment.118

Market failure

Investments in land resource information (e.g. soil and vegetation surveys, monitoring networks) have a very high return on investment.114 In Australia and many other countries, the demand for this information is strong and increasing. This is because of the urgency of the issues, and the opportunities for information collection and data analysis presented by new technology. Despite this, many programs of primary data collection have come to a virtual standstill. Figure 5.31 shows one indicator of the dramatic decline for soil information.

Demand and supply are disconnected, and market failure appears to be distorting both public and private investment in environmental information. There are several factors at play:

  • The beneficiaries of environmental information are many and varied, but individual users rarely buy the information from those who bear the cost.
  • There is often a mismatch between the time needed to gather appropriate data (years) and the timescale of the decision-making process (days to months).
  • Environmental information has a long life, and the stream of benefits is unpredictable; all costs are incurred at the beginning, but benefits are not. For example, maps produced by land resource surveys across northern Australia 50 years ago are still used today.
  • Purchasers of environmental information may not appreciate how valuable the environmental information is, particularly when it comes to costs avoided. For example, land management may change as a result of new information, but the user may never be aware of the full extent of environmental costs that have been avoided.
  • The benefit from environmental information is greatly increased when surveys and monitoring programs fit together to form a broader regional or national view. These benefits are rarely considered when funding is allocated to individual projects.

The absence of clear market signals to investors has resulted in governments at all levels failing to have effective strategies for obtaining environmental information. Similarly, private sector and community efforts are generally fragmented, and the substantial amount of environmental information they collect remains underused.

The changing nature of mapping, monitoring and forecasting

Environmental information has traditionally been supplied as static maps and reports. This is inadequate for many contemporary problems, because most require insight into rates of change. Measuring and forecasting landscape dynamics involves integrating data from field observations, mapping and monitoring programs and, in many cases, applying computer simulation models to provide forecasts on a range of timescales (e.g. daily, weekly, seasonal and decadal intervals). Decision-makers also need to understand trade-offs—for example, can revegetation strategies in rural landscapes be optimised to resolve often conflicting objectives of conserving biodiversity, storing carbon, securing stream flows, and maintaining viable agriculture and forestry? Other examples of important questions requiring technically demanding analyses are:

  • What changes are likely in species distributions (e.g. pests, disease vectors, threatened species) and how will these affect the national reserve system?
  • Will large-scale revegetation achieve desired outcomes relating to carbon sequestration and biodiversity?
  • How secure is Australia’s food supply system, and can it help alleviate problems with food security in our region and globally?
  • How serious are existing threats to ecosystem services (e.g. soil acidification, biodiversity decline, soil erosion by wind and water)?
  • What are the trade-offs between biofuels and other forms of agriculture?

Addressing each of these questions demands good-quality environmental information. The information needs to be collected according to consistent standards to enable integrated analysis. While this need may seem obvious, accessing such environmental information is difficult in Australia.

Technological advances (e.g. the advent of generally accessible imagery, such as that provided by Google Earth) have transformed the acquisition, analysis and potential use of environmental information. However, taking full advantage of the digital revolution again requires discipline and adherence to standards in the collection and management of environmental information. This is the Achilles heel of Australia’s current environmental information system. Although anecdotal evidence suggests that lack of consistent and standardised information is a constraint on economic efficiency and environmental performance, these costs have not been quantified in any systematic way.

Reform and integration

The Australian Government’s announcement in May 2010 of a new initiative to address the environmental information needs of the nation represents a significant and welcome development to address the issues discussed above. The National Plan for Environmental Informationi is the beginning of a long-term commitment to reform Australia’s environmental information base. It establishes the Bureau of Meteorology as the Australian Government authority for environmental information. The initiative will produce environmental information standards, build national environmental datasets and provide the infrastructure to deliver information online. The Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network,j established in 2009, and other recent initiatives in water information and carbon accounting provide an indication of what could be done for other aspects of the environment.

The need for reform goes beyond our national boundaries. For example, the carbon dynamics of Australian landscapes and our capacity to produce food are part of much larger global considerations. Our information systems need to be integrated with the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems k if we are to measure global environmental trends and provide a basis for analysis and informed policy.

Kanowski P, McKenzie N (2011). Land: Knowledge and institutional arrangements . In: Australia state of the environment 2011, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b6585f94911