Earlier, we noted that the complex and dynamic relationships between drivers, pressures, ecosystems and humans call for policies and management actions that address both drivers and pressures. In many cases, the most important leverage points for policy and management may be the drivers rather than the pressures (UNEP 2012).
With ongoing research and analysis, we are starting to better understand the relationships between drivers, pressures and related impacts on the environment. Better information does not, however, necessarily lead to improved management of the environment. One reason for this is that designing policy, governance and management arrangements to address drivers and pressures of environmental change is challenging, because:
- relationships between drivers, pressures and environmental impacts are complex
- not all drivers are subject to Australian policy, culture or technology, and some drivers operate at an international scale.
Nevertheless, during the past few decades, a deepening understanding of environmental challenges and risks has led to the continuing evolution of environment policy and management approaches in Australia.
The earliest policies and programs of all governments in Australia, including the Australian Government, tended to focus on specific issues and solutions (e.g. sandmining on Fraser Island, recovery of individual threatened species). Since the 1990s:
- environmental issues have been incorporated within a range of sectoral policies at all 3 levels of government (e.g. policies around water management, mining, oil and gas, agriculture)
- national standards have been developed for specific topics (e.g. air quality)
- regional and community-based action has greatly expanded (e.g. landcare, volunteer community groups, regional forests agreements, regional natural resource management).
Today, there is a good, albeit sometimes incomplete, appreciation by government, industry, scientists and the community of the links between environmental, economic and social wellbeing. These links make it more complex both to define problems and to respond to them (EEA 2015). However, recognition of these links also makes it possible for policies and management to be more effective.
SoE 2016 highlights successes and challenges with the management of specific pressures and drivers.
Effectiveness of managing climate change
Because climate change is already compounding the effect of other pressures on the environment, it is important that we get management of our climate change response right, including management of the causes of climate change.
Integrated approaches to environmental challenges are not only an issue for national and subnational levels—the effectiveness of dealing with global warming depends on international cooperation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.
The international political response to climate change began at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. In December 2015, the 21st meeting of the Convention of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change adopted the Paris Agreement. This agreement recognises that climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet, and requires the widest possible cooperation by all countries. It also recognises that deep reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions will be required to achieve the ultimate objective of the convention.
The Paris Agreement aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by holding the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels (UNFCCC 2015).
As its contribution to the international effort, the Australian Government has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 26–28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030—a target that the Australian Government believes is in step with the efforts of other comparable nations. In comparison, the Climate Change Authority has recommended that cuts to greenhouse gas emissions of 40–60 per cent below 2000 levels are required by 2030 to meet an emissions budget of 10.1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases for 2013–50 (CCA 2015).
The Emissions Reduction Fund is the centrepiece of the current Australian Government’s policies to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. It uses a competitive reverse auction to purchase carbon credits at lowest cost. The policy also includes a safeguard mechanism to ensure that emissions reductions purchased by the government are not offset by significant increases in emissions above business-as-usual levels elsewhere in the economy. It does this by placing a limit on Australia’s largest emitters.
The effectiveness of these policies has been questioned—for example, increased emissions from the electricity sector have been reported since the introduction of the Emissions Reduction Fund in 2014, despite a flattening in demand for electricity in June 2015 (DoE 2015c).
Other Australian Government commitments around climate change include support for developing countries, particularly those in the Pacific region, to build climate change resilience and reduce emissions through the Australian aid program. Australia is also committed, and has provided leadership, to the Montreal Protocol on the control of ozone-depleting substances. This protocol has resulted in the mitigation of aspects of global warming, because ozone-depleting substances are invariably also greenhouse gases (see UNEP 2016c).
Australian governments have been implementing policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for more than 2 decades. Measures include labelling and minimum performance standards for electrical appliances, changes to building codes to drive energy efficiency, and restrictions on land clearing. A range of market-based schemes has been implemented to promote emissions reductions, including national schemes. Some states and territories are also leading mitigation action, with Victoria and South Australia having emissions reduction targets of net zero by 2050.
State and local governments also promote climate change adaptation actions through planning laws and investments in public infrastructure. State and local governments ensure that regulatory and market frameworks are in place to ensure accurate and regionally appropriate information and delivery of adaptation responses within their jurisdiction. This includes delivery of essential services such as emergency services, environmental protection, and planning and transport. Local governments are at the forefront in responding to the direct impacts of climate change, although they are all responding in different ways and coordination across jurisdictions is lacking.
However, governance of climate change in Australia remains complex. Since 2011, coordination of national, state and territory programs has not improved, although coordination between state and local governments has.
There will continue to be the opportunity to benefit from new technologies to improve emissions abatement, and for governments, industry and communities to collaborate to identify and implement stronger adaptation measures. However, whether they are adopted will depend as much on the incentive systems in place as on the technology.