Mitigating the drivers of environmental change


Since the first SoE report in 1996, a great deal of effort has been focused on improving environment-related policies and associated management actions. However, these are often focused on reducing pressures on the environment. For example, Australia’s regulatory regime related to conserving biodiversity, protecting heritage values and minimising pollution aims to mitigate pressures on the environment.

Although laudable and necessary, addressing environmental pressures is unlikely to be sufficient unless the underlying drivers that create the pressures are addressed at the same time. However, establishing policy that is designed to address drivers of environmental change is challenging because:

  • establishing clear and precise relationships between the drivers, pressures and environmental impacts is complex
  • drivers cut across jurisdictions and sectors, and thus present significant management challenges
  • not all drivers are subject to Australian policy, culture or technology; some drivers and pressures, such as climate change and globalisation, operate at an international scale.

We need improved knowledge, integration and cooperation to address these challenges.

Improved knowledge

It would be convenient if we could attribute simple cause-and-effect relationships, whereby drivers generate pressures that lead to effects on the environment. However, drivers, pressures, ecosystems and humans interact in complex and dynamic ways, and are subject to cumulative and historical effects. For example, a combination of demographic change and economic growth can increase demand for food, fibre, minerals, transport and energy in ways that generate pressures on the environment. Conversely, human efforts to decouple population and economic growth from environmental harm can mitigate the negative effects of increased production and consumption, particularly through technological and institutional innovation, and changes in human behaviour that mitigate or reverse environmental impacts.

Improved knowledge about the links between drivers, pressures and environmental impacts has the potential to lead to better decisions, more cost-effective management, and better implementation and integration of policies.

For example, having a clear understanding of the implications of economic growth for the environment and the contribution of different sectors of the economy to particular environmental problems enables better analysis of both environmental and economic policy and management practices. This requires reliable and accurate ways of organising and presenting information that shows the linkages and interactions between the economy and the environment.

One approach is to use environmental–economic accounts that provide information and an improved understanding of a range of issues, including (ABS 2016c):

  • patterns of consumption of natural resources by industries and households
  • relationships between consumption of natural resources and GVA by industry
  • relationships between the value of natural resources and consumption
  • patterns of depletion of natural resources and their effect on the environment.

Australian efforts to develop environmental–economic accounts and ecosystem accounts include the production of environmental accounts by the ABS, both by itself and with partners, since 1996. For example, the Water Account integrates data from different sources into a consolidated information set, making it possible to link physical data on water to economic data, such as in Australia’s National Accounts (ABS 2014b).

Development and testing of environmental–economic accounting will continue at the national and subnational levels. This is likely to provide more consistent and comparable information to support a better understanding of the linkages between the environment and other parts of the economy, and the consequence of changes in natural capital on the flow of ecosystem services to society.

Integrated approaches

Coherent, multisectoral policy packages and other systemic approaches—including cooperation with other nations, regionally and globally, on such issues as climate change—are at the heart of sustainability. Several examples are emerging of positive signs in attempts to pursue integrated policy approaches in Australia:

  • The South Australian Government’s Health in All Policies initiative is about promoting health in public policy. It is based on the view that health is not merely the product of healthcare activities, but is influenced by a wide range of social, economic, political, cultural and environmental determinants of health. The initiative focuses on working across government to better achieve public policy outcomes, and simultaneously improve population health and wellbeing.
  • The Healthy Waterways initiative in south-east Queensland is working with members from government, industry and the community to protect and improve the region’s waterways by supporting shared understanding, regional collaboration and targeted solutions across the whole water cycle.
  • The Australian Heritage Strategy (DoE 2015b) presents a vision in which Australia’s natural, historic and Indigenous heritage places are valued by Australians, protected for future generations and cared for by the community. The strategy positions the Australian Government to lead major change and foster innovative approaches, in partnership with the states, territories, private owners and community groups.

International approaches

Australia is connected to the world through many complex and interdependent systems. A constant flow of economic transactions, materials, energy, financial resources, people, ideas, technology and innovations affects and shapes our economy and culture. It also allows us to influence activities and ideas throughout the world.

Likewise, our environment is influenced by a range of factors beyond our borders, including globalisation and:

  • the global climate system, ocean currents and eddies
  • the actions of other countries in relation to climate, migratory species and the marine environment
  • the potential for invasive species to enter Australia
  • implementation of new governance arrangements, technologies and management systems.

This means that addressing drivers requires not only taking action in Australia, but also cooperating with other nations, regionally and globally. At a regional scale, Australia and neighbouring countries in Asia and the Pacific are increasingly cooperating on better solutions for major common subregional and regional environmental issues. At a global scale, nations are coming together to address climate change. Further cooperation would help to mitigate the effects of a growing global population and economy.

Jackson WJ (2016). Drivers: Mitigating the drivers of environmental change. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b659517ce65