During the past 5 years, environmental policies in Australia have had some notable success in improving the state and trends of parts of the Australian environment.
Australia’s built environment, natural and cultural heritage, and marine and Antarctic environments are generally in good condition. The condition of the environment in certain areas is, however, poor and/or deteriorating. These include the more populated coastal areas and some of the growth areas within urban environments, where human pressure is greatest (particularly in south-eastern of Australia); and the extensive land-use zone of Australia, where grazing is considered a major threat to biodiversity. Details can be found in each of the state of the environment (SoE) thematic reports.
The main pressures affecting the Australian environment today are the same as in 2011: climate change, land-use change, habitat fragmentation and degradation, and invasive species. There is no indication that these have decreased overall since 2011. Some individual pressures on components of the Australian environment have decreased (e.g. commercial fisheries), and there is evidence that some pressures have increased (e.g. dumped wastes in the marine environment and invasive species generally). The impacts associated with many, however, remain unclear. In addition, the interactions between pressures can result in cumulative impacts, amplifying the threat faced by the Australian environment.
Climate change is an increasingly important and pervasive pressure on all aspects of the Australian environment. It is altering the structure and function of natural ecosystems, and affecting heritage, economic activity and human wellbeing. Climate change will result in location-specific vulnerabilities, and people who are socially and economically disadvantaged are most sensitive to climate change. Evidence shows that the impacts of climate change are increasing, and some of these impacts may be irreversible.
A legacy of extensive land clearing and the current clearing policies in some jurisdictions continue to cause loss of biodiversity (including the loss and fragmentation of native vegetation). These factors also impact on soils, waterways and coastal regions.
Invasive species have a major impact on Australia’s environment, threatening biodiversity by, for example, reducing overall species abundance and diversity. They represent one of the more potent, persistent and widespread threats to the environment.
A new and emerging pressure in the coastal and marine zones is the increasing amount of human litter, which affects coastal and marine ecosystems and food webs. Approximately three-quarters of the debris found along the Australian coast is plastic.
Australian's rainfall has been variable during the past 100 years, particularly the past 40 years, with declining long-term rainfall observed across much of southern Australia.
Australian average temperatures have increased by 1 °C since 1910.
Air quality is generally good in our urban areas, with some local areas of concern.
Adverse human health impacts appear to occur at lower concentrations of air pollution than previously thought.
Australia’s urban amenity is generally good. Our urban populations continue to consume significant resources, but are using energy more efficiently than in 2011.
Population growth in our major cities, along with Australia’s reliance on private cars, is leading to greater traffic volumes, and increasing traffic congestion and delays.
Australia’s extraordinary and diverse natural and cultural heritage generally remains in good condition, despite some deterioration and emerging challenges.
In some places, natural, Indigenous and/or historic heritage values have been affected, including destruction of significant sites.
Australia’s biodiversity is continuing to decline (with some exceptions noted in SoE 2016 thematic reports), and new approaches are needed to prevent accelerating decline in many species.
Rapid improvement in technology is likely to lead to significant improvements in our understanding of Australia’s species and genetic diversity. Improved tools and technical advances are becoming more available for biodiversity assessment, monitoring and management, including for organisms that have previously been difficult to identify and monitor.
We continue to lose agricultural land through urban encroachment.
In the past 5 years, land-clearing rates have stabilised in all states and territories, except Queensland, where clearing has increased.
Although mining developments have slowed in recent years, the ongoing environmental impact of former mining sites and the expansion of unconventional gas extraction are emerging concerns, particularly because of concerns for safety and competition with other land uses.
Since 2011, there have been significant gains in the extent of Australia’s terrestrial conservation estate. The National Reserve System now covers 17.9 per cent of Australia’s land area, compared with 13.4 per cent in 2011.
Indigenous Protected Areas and conservation covenants on private land are playing an increasingly important role in our protected area estate, although concerns have been expressed regarding the availability of ongoing funding for Indigenous Protected Areas.
Since 2011, there have been noticeable local improvements in water quality in the Murray–Darling Basin. In more populated regions, inland water quality is in moderate to very poor condition.
In most regions, the condition of Australia’s groundwater is poor.
The state of Australia’s coastal environment is mixed, being largely good in the north-west and far north-east of the country, and largely poor in the east, south-east and south-west.
The condition of some coastal species and communities is deteriorating. Of most concern is the continued decline of migratory shorebird populations and saltmarshes. Other species, such as saltwater crocodiles, are stable or improving because of protection.
Coastal waterways are threatened by new classes of pollutants. These include microplastics and nanoparticles, which are largely unregulated and whose effects are poorly understood.
Since 2011, the coast has experienced several extreme weather events, including cyclones, heatwaves and floods. Climate-related pressures of sea level rise, more frequent severe storms, and subsequent erosion and recession of the shoreline are expected to become increasingly significant for coastal regions in the future.
Most marine habitats, communities and species groups assessed for SoE 2016 are in good condition overall.
No marine species has been removed from the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 threatened species list since 2011; 8 species and 1 ecological community have been added, and 2 species have been uplisted.
Generally, marine habitats and communities in the Temperate East Marine Region and the South-east Marine Region have been subject to higher historical impacts, such as bottom trawling impacts on shelf and slope communities, than in other regions.
Record high water temperatures have caused widespread coral bleaching, habitat destruction and species mortality in 2011–16.
The Antarctic environment is generally in good condition
There is increasing evidence that the ozone layer is starting to recover as a direct consequence of international controls on the use of human-made ozone depleting substances.
The Antarctic environment is showing clear signs of impact from climate change.
Since 2011, there have been significant improvements in knowledge about the environment, including improvements in the information and data used to assess the state of the environment.
Citizen science has rapidly increased, resulting in improved observations of the environment that, in turn, provide knowledge to support more effective management.
Technology is revolutionising the way in which environmental managers and policy-makers are able to access and use information to support decision-making and environment management.
Areas in which the effectiveness of management of the environment has improved include management of the Murray–Darling Basin, commercial fisheries, shipping vessels, and offshore oil and gas operations.
Communities, landholders and individuals are playing an increasingly vital role in the management and protection of the environment.
Despite continued improvement, a number of key constraints on management effectiveness in Australia remain, including:
- lack of an overarching national policy that establishes a clear vision for the protection and sustainable management of Australia’s environment to the year 2050, which is supported by
- specific action programs and policy to preserve and, where necessary, restore natural capital and our unique environments, taking into account the need to adapt to climate change
- complementary policy and strengthened legislative frameworks at the national, state and territory levels
- efficient, collaborative and complementary planning and decision-making processes across all levels of government, with clear lines of accountability
- poor collaboration and coordination of policies, decisions and management arrangements across sectors and between managers (public and private)
- a lack of follow-though from policy to action
- inadequacy of data and long-term monitoring, which interferes with our ability to apply effective policy and management, and establish adequate early warning of threats. For example, our understanding of even the most iconic and well-known species in Australia is often patchy, and sufficient knowledge of ecosystem processes that maintain the 99 per cent of species that account for Australia’s biodiversity is missing
- insufficient resources for environmental management and restoration
- inadequate understanding and capacity to identify and measure cumulative impacts, which reduces the potential for coordinated approaches to their management.
In general, the outlook for Australia’s environment depends on our ability to effectively address the complex mix of drivers, pressures and risks. This includes decoupling the economy from environmental harm, and mitigating and adapting to climate change.
Providing for a sustainable environment both now and in the future is a national issue requiring leadership and action across all levels of government, business and the community. The first step is recognising the importance and value of ecosystem services to our economy and society.
Addressing Australia’s long-term, systemic environmental challenges requires, among other things, the development of a suite of stronger, more comprehensive and cohesive policies focused on protecting and maintaining of natural capital, and ongoing improvements to current management arrangements.
Effective management of the Australian environment in the future also requires efficient, collaborative and complementary planning and decision-making processes, with clear lines of accountability; improved support for decision-making; a more strategic focus on planning for a sustainable future; and new, reliable sources of funding.
With the right choices, policies, management and technologies, Australia has the capacity to ensure economic prosperity and meet people’s health, education, social and cultural needs, while protecting the environment for future generations.
Jackson WJ, Argent RM, Bax NJ, Bui E, Clark GF, Coleman S, Cresswell ID, Emmerson KM, Evans K, Hibberd MF, Johnston EL, Keywood MD, Klekociuk A, Mackay R, Metcalfe D, Murphy H, Rankin A, Smith DC, Wienecke B (2016). Overview: Headlines. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/overview/headlines, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65510c633b