Without detracting from positive trends in some areas, successive SoE reports have highlighted consistent problems and trends for the Australian environment. These include:
- the continuing loss of Australia’s biodiversity
- the growing risks posed by invasive species
- increased pressure on our coastal areas because of competition for resources
- incremental destruction of cultural heritage
- increased pressures because of a changing climate.
The suite of environmental policies adopted in Australia and aspects of current management arrangements require review and further improvement to address long-term, systemic environmental challenges.
Across each of the thematic reports in SoE 2016, it is clear that the effectiveness of current management and governance arrangements for Australia’s environment is hampered by a number of challenges, which are both longstanding and generally consistent across all sectors.
The SoE themes identify the following key challenges to the effective management of the Australian environment:
- lack of a nationally integrated and cohesive policy and legislative framework that deals with the complex and systemic nature of the issues facing our environment, and provides clear authority for actions to protect and maintain Australia’s unique natural capital
- poor collaboration and coordination of policies, decisions and management arrangements across sectors, between different levels of government (national, state and territory, and local councils) and managers (public and private), and over time
- inadequacy of data and long-term monitoring
- a lack of follow-though from policy to action
- 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.
Leadership, collaboration and coordination
Environmental governance in Australia is complex, involving all 3 levels of government (national, state and territory, and local government) and numerous private-sector parties.
At the national level, the EPBC Act is the Australian Government’s centrepiece of environmental legislation. It provides a legal framework to protect and manage nationally and internationally important flora, fauna, ecological communities and heritage places, as well as water resources in relation to coal-seam gas and large coalmining developments. It includes a national scheme under which matters of national environmental significance, as defined under the Act, are directed to the Australian Government, with the states and territories responsible for environmental matters of state and local significance.
The EPBC Act has specific requirements for processes such as identification and listing of species and ecological communities as threatened, and for the development of conservation advice. However, it does not include provisions that require the long-term protection and/or restoration of natural capital, investment in priority actions, implementation of actions, or monitoring and reporting.
In addition to the EPBC Act, the Australian, state and territory governments have comprehensive sets of policies and legislation to regulate and manage the environment. Australia has more than 100 laws and policy instruments addressing the management of the marine environment (Haward & Vince 2008). But, in some cases, national, state and territory laws are not consistent, overlap or leave gaps.
Across the board, the evidence reviewed by successive SoE reports (including SoE 2016) highlights the poor coordination of policies, decisions and management arrangements across sectors, and between different levels of government and managers (public and private) as a key constraint on management effectiveness in Australia. Examples include the following:
- Currently, many of the planning and delivery functions for our cities are characterised by complex and overlapping processes, and lack clear lines of accountability and effective cross-sectoral approaches and coordination.
- Heritage management in Australia is undertaken by all levels of government, with considerable overlap, inconsistency and lack of clarity about the respective roles of each.
- Coastal management in Australia uses a range of approaches by multiple levels of government. Although some plans and management arrangements operate at national or regional scales—for example, under the EPBC Act—the bulk of management is done by state and territory governments, and local councils. For most coastal management issues (such as responding to threats to economically valuable infrastructure as a result of climate change), there is a lack of national coordination.
Coordination between sectors sharing common resources remains low, resulting in inadequate accounting for all pressures on a resource, and inconsistent collection and recording of data, which inhibits regional and national oversight.
The lack of national leadership, collaboration and coordination can have a number of effects:
- Policies and programs may not work effectively together and may even work against each other.
- Programs and activities may not be coordinated or may be replicated, resulting in wasted resources or lost opportunities.
- Pressures acting across jurisdictions may not be addressed effectively throughout their range.
To some extent, the opportunity for effective coordination and collaboration between jurisdictions in Australia may have decreased since 2011 because of the abolition of several national-level ministerial and Council of Australian Governments working groups, which previously provided a forum for discussion, sharing of ideas and practice across jurisdictions, and forging coherent, national approaches to specific issues.
Adequacy of data and long-term monitoring
Since 2011, there have been a number of initiatives aimed at improving our environmental knowledge. For example, the introduction of NESP, a 6-year $142.5 million research funding initiative of the Australian Government, continues work started under the National Environmental Research Program to provide applied environmental science to assist decision-makers understand, manage and conserve Australia’s natural environment.
In addition, the Australian Government has supported research infrastructure projects that collect, store and share data across disciplines, and that are developing tools to integrate and analyse these data, including the:
- Atlas of Living Australia
- Australian National Data Service
- Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network
- Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS)
- Australian Urban Research Infrastructure Network
- National Groundwater Information System
- National Computational Infrastructure
- National eResearch Collaboration Tools and Resources.
These initiatives have greatly expanded the information available for assessments included in SoE 2016. Despite this considerable progress, it is still widely acknowledged that there are a lack of data and evidence for assessing the effectiveness of most policies, programs and investments in environmental management in Australia. Inadequate long-term data and monitoring limit our ability to establish adequate early warning of threats and identify opportunities for adaptive management.
For example, planning for the built environment often fails to include biodiversity and heritage assets as key and valuable components. We also do not know the effectiveness of development approval systems in dealing with cumulative impacts.
Our understanding of even the most iconic and well-known species in Australia is often patchy. Sufficient knowledge of the ecosystem processes that maintain the 99 per cent of species that account for Australia’s biodiversity is missing.
It is not possible to ascertain whether our identified, listed and protected Indigenous heritage places are adequate, because of the lack of national coordination and data sharing.
We do not know whether investments in recovery and threat abatement planning or on-ground activities (such as those supported through the Green Army) are effective. Current data are not sufficient to determine whether the resilience of particular ecosystems is improving as a result of interventions, or to provide adequate information about ecological boundaries and potential ‘tipping points’.