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State of the environment 2011

  • Ecology
  • Sustainability
  • Climatic Changes
  • Power Resources
  • City Planning
  • Water
  • Agricultural Science
  • Biology
  • Communication
  • Ecology
  • Economics
  • Geography
  • Political Science


Presents a comprehensive review of the state and trends of the environment; the pressures on it and the drivers of those pressures; management initiatives in place to address environmental concerns and the impacts of those initiatives; its resilience and the unmitigated risks that threaten it; and provide an overall outlook for the Australian environment. The main purpose of the report is to provide relevant and useful information on environmental issues to the public and decision-makers, in order to raise awareness and support more informed environmental management decisions that lead to more sustainable use and effective conservation of environmental assets. For the first time in national environmental reporting, SoE 2011 goes beyond a descriptive summary of evidence to include graded 'report-card' style assessments of environment condition and trends, pressures and management effectiveness. Also new to national State of the environment reporting in 2011 are discussions of the drivers of environmental change, resilience, risks, and future projections or 'outlooks'. Information was used from a wide range of data sources (referenced in the full report), and from extensive consultations with experts in a variety of scientific disciplines across Australia. In many cases, workshops were held with experts to gather evidence and information, discuss issues and gauge opinion. Independent peer review was used to validate and strengthen the content of the report and supplementary technical reports. 2011 SoE Committee SoE 2011 was written by an independent committee of experts, appointed by the Minister for the Environment in October 2009. Chairman: Dr Tom Hatton (Director, CSIRO Wealth from Oceans Flagship). Members: Dr Steven Cork (research ecologist and futurist); Mr Peter Harper (Deputy Australian Statistician); Mr Rob Joy (School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning at RMIT University); Professor Peter Kanowski (Fenner School of Environment and Society at ANU); Mr Richard Mackay (heritage specialist); Dr Neil McKenzie (Chief, CSIRO Land and Water); Dr Trevor Ward (marine and fisheries ecologist). Dr Barbara Wienecke also contributed to the report as an ex-officio member. Key findings Our environment is a national issue requiring national leadership and action at all levels. There have been significant advances in many aspects of environmental management over the past decade, but management approaches and responsibilities are often fragmented across Australian, state and territory, and local governments. This can hamper our ability to address the legacies of past pressures like land clearing, ongoing pressures like invasive species and emerging challenges like climate change. National leadership and commitment, together with the cooperation and coordination of all governments and stakeholders, including the Australian community, are important foundations for the future of Australia's environment and heritage. Effective environmental management requires adequate information. Knowledge and information systems are the basis for sound adaptive management. That is, we need to understand the state and trends of our environment, the impacts of the pressures on our environment and the impacts of our management strategies, so that we can progressively adapt and improve those strategies. Long-term collection of national data on trends of many aspects of the environment is currently limited, which severely constrains the ability of Australian governments to develop and enact evidence-based environmental policy. A new national initiative—the National Plan for Environmental Information—offers the opportunity to address this serious deficiency. Earth is warming, and it is likely that we are already seeing the effects of climate change in Australia. As the driest inhabitable continent, Australia is particularly vulnerable to climate change. Although Australia's climate is naturally highly variable, evidence—which continues to accumulate—shows that temperatures are increasing and rainfall distribution patterns are changing. Models project that, by 2030, average annual temperatures across Australia are likely to increase by 1°C (above 1990 temperatures). Drying is likely in southern areas of Australia. Climate change will profoundly change the Australian environment, presenting widespread and significant risks to our ecosystems, native vegetation, water security, agricultural production systems and coastal communities. Early action by Australia to reduce emissions and to deploy targeted adaptation strategies will be less costly than delayed action. Major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are urgently needed, both nationally and internationally, to minimise the level of climate change. Per person, Australia's emissions are the largest of any country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The Fifth national communication on climate change sets out the Australian Government's strategic approach to climate change. Such an overarching strategy, implemented at all levels of government via a range of policies, plans and programs, is essential if we are to succeed in limiting climate change and addressing key areas of vulnerability through adaptation. Ambient air quality and air pollution management in Australia's urban centres are generally good, but the impact of urban air quality on health is still a matter of serious concern. National health-based standards are rarely exceeded for prolonged periods and very high levels of pollution are usually associated with short-lived extreme events such as bushfires and dust storms. There is clear evidence that periods of poor urban air quality impact adversely on human health (particularly on the health of susceptible individuals). Some 3000 deaths were attributable to this cause in 2003—nearly twice the national road toll. Pressures of past human activities and recent droughts are affecting our inland water systems. In northern and remote Australia, human impacts have not significantly affected ecosystem function; in most southern regions, inland water ecological processes have changed substantially since settlement and ecosystem function is significantly affected. The populations of many native species have declined. During the past decade (more in some areas), the southern half of the continent experienced a drought of unprecedented duration and extent, which dramatically changed inland water environments, and there is evidence that this partly reflects a changing climate. Meeting our water needs will be a critical challenge. Demands for water will increase as Australia's population grows, and withdrawing water changes our inland water ecosystems. However, increased demand could be met without taking much more fresh water out of the environment (but potentially with other environmental costs, including increased energy use associated with desalination or wastewater recycling). Reduced water use will also play a part—Australia's water consumption fell 25% from 2004-05 to 2008-09. Climate change poses the largest future threat to our inland water systems. Current water-sharing rules tend to favour water entitlement holders over environmental flows in dry times. Australia's land environment is threatened by widespread pressures. Invasive species, inappropriate fire patterns and grazing are having a significant impact on much of our land environment. Grazing is Australia's most widespread land use and its environmental impact appears to be mixed, with impacts diminished in some regions but increased in others since widespread monitoring began in 1992. The areas managed for conservation and by Indigenous Australians have expanded (each now more than 20% of Australia's land area). Land clearing is slowing, but still averaged around 1 million hectares per year during 2000-10. The legacy impacts of land clearing are substantial, with loss and fragmentation of native vegetation. The extent of land clearing is now balanced by that of regrowth, although the character of regrowth is different from that of the original vegetation. Threats to our soil, including acidification, erosion and the loss of soil carbon, will increasingly affect Australia's agriculture unless carefully managed. Acidification and erosion currently affect large areas, although wind erosion has decreased in response to better agricultural practices. In 2001, it was estimated that soil acidity affected 50 million hectares of surface layers and 23 million hectares of subsoil layers, estimated to cost $1.585 billion per year in lost agricultural production. Soil carbon is central to maintaining soil health, and can also be a significant source or sink for greenhouse gases, depending on land management. The overall condition of the Australian marine environment is good, but integrated management will be key to the future conservation of our ocean resources. Nearshore marine areas adjacent to intensive settlement have suffered the most from human activities; open ocean conditions are generally good. However, the pressures on all these areas are increasing, and the early warning signs of degradation are becoming commonplace in a number of ecosystems and habitats. An integrated national system of multilevel governance for conservation and management would enable the natural wealth of our oceans to be maintained in the face of challenges, and would reward us with healthier oceans and increasing economic returns. The ocean climate is changing and we will need to adapt. There are likely to be major impacts in the coming decades from increasing sea level, increased incidence and severity of extreme weather events, altered ocean currents, changing patterns of biodiversity, and changing productivity. In particular, ocean acidification will have a major impact on marine ecosystems, since it can affect the base of marine food webs by diminishing the ability of planktonic organisms, which are food for many other organisms, to form shells. The Antarctic environment is showing clear signs of climate change, which is likely to have profound effects on Antarctic species and ecosystems. The East Antarctic Ice Sheet is losing ice at its coastal fringes—about 60 billion tonnes each year since 2006. The loss is occurring at an increasing rate and may contribute significantly to sea level rise. The upper layers of the Southern Ocean have warmed by 0.2°C since the 1950s. This rate of warming is faster than elsewhere in the world. Warmer waters enable alien species to extend their range southward. Invading species are likely to outcompete, and perhaps replace, native species. Antarctic vertebrates, including seabird, penguin, seal, whale and numerous fish species, are highly specialised to survive in the Antarctic. It is not known whether they can adapt to new conditions arising from climate change, and it is likely that some species will not survive the coming decades. Our unique biodiversity is in decline, and new approaches will be needed to prevent accelerating decline in many species. Many of Australia's species, and even whole groups of species, are unique to this continent, and Australia is identified as one of the world's ‘megadiverse’ countries. However, there have been major declines in many components of biodiversity since European settlement, and data on pressures suggest that many species continue to decline, despite promising investment to address these pressures. Australian governments and nongovernment organisations are trialling new approaches to managing ecological systems. This includes supporting connected corridors of vegetation, which have the potential to make major advances in conserving our biodiversity. Our extraordinary and diverse natural and cultural heritage is currently in good condition, but is threatened by natural and human processes, and a lack of public sector resourcing. Australians place a high value on our rich natural, Indigenous and historic heritage. However, our heritage lists and protected areas do not include all of the places with heritage value, nor are they truly representative. Although the processes used to protect and manage Australian heritage are internationally recognised, some are cumbersome and under-resourced. Comprehensive assessments, more flexible approaches and better resourcing are needed to support conservation. Australia's built environment faces many pressures and consumes significant natural resources, although consumption may be slowing. The majority of Australians (87% in 2006) live in urban areas. An increasing need for urban space and buildings, increasing traffic congestion and increasing consumption are affecting the livability and environmental efficiency of the built environment. Traffic congestion, in particular, is of growing concern. However, growth in traffic may be levelling and use of public transport is increasing. Emerging evidence suggests that energy and water use may be slowing due to improved technology and better recognition of the need to reduce human environmental impact. Coastal regions bring together many of the issues affecting other parts of the environment, and coordinated management will be needed to mitigate pressures. Our coasts, as well as being some of our most iconic natural areas, are some of Australia's most heavily settled areas. Pressures include urban expansion and the cumulative effects of small developments. Some trends, such as expansion of conservation and Indigenous areas and improvements in land management practices, are acting to reduce some pressures. Climate change will have a major impact on our coasts, particularly through sea level rise. The implementation of recommendations from Managing our coastal zone in a changing climate: the time to act is now would support a more strategic approach to managing coastal resources. The Australian Government has now noted or agreed in principle to most of these recommendations and appears set to take action on many. Australians cannot afford to see themselves as separate from the environment. The Australian environment is precious. Our ecosystems, biodiversity and heritage are vulnerable to the choices we make. At the same time, we depend on them for our survival and wellbeing. Our ecosystems, and the biodiversity they support, provide services that are fundamental to human life, such as regulation of the atmosphere, maintenance of soil fertility, food production, filtration of water, and pest control. The major future drivers of change—climate change, population growth, economic development and associated consumption of natural resources, as well as the pressures that these drivers place on the environment—will need to be managed carefully if our society is to achieve a sustainable relationship with the Australian environment.

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