Outlook under a business-as-usual scenario


It is clear from SoE 2016 that some parts of Australia’s environment are not yet being managed sustainably.

Although some uncertainties exist, assuming current trends continue and policies or management arrangements are not changed significantly, Australia’s environment to 2050 is likely to be characterised by the following:

  • Climate change—global targets to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations are not seeking to return the climate system to its pre-industrial state, so, even if current mitigation efforts are successful, temperatures will remain high for many centuries. We will therefore see
    • hotter days and more of them, along with fewer cold days; and increased heatwaves, leading to increased incidence of bushfires and human health problems (e.g. heat stress)
    • sea level rise, leading to coastal damage
    • reduced average rainfall in southern Australia, with an increase in drought frequency and severity, and an increase in both frequency and severity of extreme daily rainfall events
    • fewer tropical cyclones in the Australian region, but an increased proportion of intense cyclones
    • Antarctica having a larger contribution to global sea level rise, and decreasing sea ice extent affecting the productivity of the Antarctic marine ecosystem
    • ongoing ocean acidification in all waters around Australia, with waters in the cold Southern Ocean reaching levels where impacts will occur before waters in warmer regions.
  • Ecosystem changes, including
    • declining quality of ecosystems in the south-east, south-west and coastal areas that are close to population centres and other development pressures (e.g. port and mine expansion)
    • continued loss of biodiversity, including habitat loss and extinction of many species of plants and animals
    • ongoing clearing of native vegetation, particularly of regrowth, leading to further habitat fragmentation, loss of connectivity, increased habitat for invasive species, declines in native species and reduced landscape resilience
    • changes to the physical Antarctic environment during the next decades to centuries, which may remove some of the barriers (e.g. very cold water) that have kept Antarctica relatively isolated from some species for millennia
    • changes to the marine environment, including ocean acidification, that will have a significant impact on organisms that form the base of marine food webs, such as phytoplankton and zooplankton; these changes will have flow-on effects throughout marine ecosystems, especially on dependent predators such as seabirds, seals and whales
    • changes to the distribution of species and ecological communities as those adapted to warmer climes either expand or shift their distributions south as the climate changes. Organisms will either have to adapt or will disappear. The most likely candidates to vanish in the long term are those that have adapted to live within very narrow environmental limits, or do not have the capacity to move or adapt as fast as the climate is changing
    • increased pollution of marine and coastal areas from plastics, with greater impacts on species that become entangled or ingest debris
    • continued or increased erosion in some coastal locations because of increased damage from inundation, extreme weather and storm events
    • increased construction along the coast, sandmining and sand addition, leading to modification and loss of foreshore and nearshore shallow-water habitats


  • Changing water use, including
    • ongoing changes in flow of our inland rivers and streams from water resource development, changes to drainage patterns, changed land management practices and damage to riparian areas
    • declining quality of groundwater resources
    • increasing demand for water for urban use, but greater efficiency of water use, and improved water storage and recycling facilities.


  • Growing urban areas, including
    • more people moving to, and living in, urban environments, with a corresponding decline in our rural populations
    • improving air quality in most of our urban areas, although pollution from domestic sources (largely from wood smoke) may continue to reduce air quality at the neighbourhood level in areas where wood heaters are still widely used
    • declining local air quality in some urban areas, which may increase air pollution–related health impacts and costs. For example, more people will be living and working in western Sydney, which typically experiences poorer air quality than eastern parts of the city because of airflow patterns in the Sydney Basin. Urban densification along transport corridors, and more people living close to bushland and exposed to bushfire and hazard reduction smoke, may also increase air pollution exposures and associated health impacts
    • increased conflict and competition for land in coastal areas; and stable or deteriorating coastal environments, reflecting patterns of population growth and shift, land use, agriculture and resource extraction
    • continued dominance of private motor vehicles as our primary form of urban transport, increased road transport across all capital cities, and increasing social costs because of road network delays associated with increasing capital city traffic volumes. At the same time, we are likely to see reduced emissions from the vehicle fleet.


  • Changing industry and management approaches, including
    • further increases in the area and representative nature of both land and marine habitats reserved for conservation, and an increase in the area of privately conserved land
    • implementation of an increasing number of climate change adaptation measures (e.g. coastal and urban infrastructure fortification, abandonment of some land, repurposing or rezoning of other areas, migration away from vulnerable areas, including by Indigenous Australians)
    • increased production of energy from renewable sources, and further improvements in efficiency of energy production and consumption
    • improving land management practices that help to maintain, rebuild and restore ecological functioning and resilience in some areas—although, in other areas, management practices will be insufficient to keep pace with the effect of drivers and pressures of negative environmental change
    • further improvements in the management of oil and gas, and shipping industries, resulting in better oversight of sustainable practices
    • improving management of commercial and recreational fisheries, resulting in greater sustainability and, in some cases, the recovery of marine species and habitats, but increased competition for resources
    • increased involvement of Indigenous Australians in land, water resource, heritage and marine management, including greater identification of, and growth in understanding of, areas that are important for Indigenous knowledge and tradition.


  • Ongoing challenges, including
    • increasing threats to the environment (both land and aquatic), agricultural production and potentially human health from invasive species, fires and disease
    • ongoing conflicts about land use, with mining and the resources sector, farming and forestry systems, carbon sequestration, urban and infrastructure development, land for offsets and buffers all competing for space with conservation and heritage values
    • ongoing incremental damage to, and loss of, areas with natural, historic and Indigenous heritage values.
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: Outlook under a business-as-usual scenario. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/overview/topic/outlook-under-business-usual-scenario, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65510c633b