State of the Environment: report shows Australia’s failure of environmental and conservation stewardship
Authors note: My name is Cosmo Hutmacher, and I am studying to be an Environmental Scientist working for Natura Pacific. I work in the Environmental Management, Ecology and Conservation Management field and will investigate how we will free Australian ecosystems from ongoing environmental pressures.
According to the 2021 State of the Environment report, released on 19 July 2022 by the new Minister for the Environment and Water, Tanya Plibersek, every Australian ecosystem is experiencing increasing human pressure. Australia now has more foreign plant species than native ones; the number of listed threatened species has risen by 8% since 2016 with more distinctions expected in the coming decades.
The report highlights five key trends that all contribute to the degradation of Australia’s ecosystems:
- Australia’s environment is slowly deteriorating
- Climate change is threatening ecosystems
- Environmental management is not well correlated
- Human well-being is at risk due to environmental decline and destruction
- Climate change is damaging our ecosystems hard and quick. If we do not act now, overall human, animal and plant well-being will be affected drastically
Since 1995, Australia has published a national report every five years on the condition of the environment. In addition to rivers, seas, air, ice, land, and urban areas, the report evaluates every component of Australia’s environment and cultural heritage. The lead authors of the report were Dr Ian Cresswell, an environmental scientist at CSIRO, Dr Terri Janke, a leading Indigenous lawyer, and Prof Emma Johnston, deputy vice-chancellor for research at the University of Sydney.
The report states that the quantity and quality of our natural capital, including soil, wetlands, reefs, rivers, and biodiversity, have continuously declined. These resources provide Australians with food, clean water, and cultural links, among many other benefits.
In June 2021 there were 1,918 plant and animal species categorised as threatened, compared to 1,774 in 2016. Among the species that have been designated as endangered are the Gang-gang Cockatoo (Callocephalon fimbriatum) and Woorrentinta or Northern Hopping-mouse (Notomys aquilo).
Australia has lost more mammal species than any other continent and has one of the highest rates of species decline in the developed world. More than 100 Australian species have been listed as either extinct or extinct in the wild. The major causes of extinction were introduced species and habitat destruction and clearing.
Additionally, damage from urbanisation, invasive species, pollution, and land removal is being exacerbated by climate change. Due to climate change, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and stronger. Extreme weather conditions like floods, droughts, wildfires, storms, and heatwaves have impacted every region of Australia over the past five years. Seasonal fire periods are also increasing, where effects of environmental damage such as bushfire smoke directly impact human health and well-being. As an illustration, the 2019–2020 bushfires had downstream impacts that adversely affected the quality of estuary habitat, introducing a variety of toxins to coastal estuaries for the first time and contributing to pollution of fish stocks and marine habitats.
There are reasons for positive thinking, however. Most importantly, increased indigenous knowledge and management are being introduced to deliver on-ground change. This includes traditional fire management, which is now recognised by land management organisations and government agencies as essential expertise. The Federal Government’s Indigenous rangers programme funds more than 2,000 rangers, and they administer 44% of the estate of the national protected areas. However, more must be done to allow Indigenous knowledge systems and communities to improve social and environmental outcomes.
The amount of land and water covered by conservation protection has grown, but reserves’ overall level of protection is deteriorating, due to poor environmental management practices. Through urbanisation on land and overfishing in our oceans, we are lowering the amount and quality of native habitats outside protected areas. Brisbane, Gold Coast to Tweed Heads, Townsville, Sunshine Coast, and Sydney were the five urban regions that have had the greatest loss of forest and woodland habitat. Between 2000 and 2017, at least 20,212 hectares were lost in these five regions, with 12,923 hectares lost in Queensland alone.
This report has outlined the serious climate change damages that are already seen globally. Several new severe occurrences have hit the Australian East Coast, where the population of South East Queensland is recovering from another catastrophic flood event. Due to climate change, many of these extreme events have become more severe, frequent and widespread. Extreme weather conditions such as floods, droughts, heatwaves, storms, and wildfires impose great stress on all living organisms. Over the past five years due to extreme weather events, millions of creatures have died, ecosystems have been destroyed, vast expanses of reefs have been bleached, and people’s livelihoods have been lost. Over the coming decades many longer-term ramifications are likely still to come and numerous species extinctions are predicted.
Over countless years, Australia’s indigenous people have taken care of the land and the waters, and they continue to do so today. Indigenous people and the environment are covered by complicated government legislation and agreements. Overall, they fall short of providing Indigenous people’s rights, such as ownership of and care over their country’s lands and waters, native flora and animals, and cultural legacy. By using an indigenous voice in environmental practice, we can better emphasise the relationship between Country and people’s well-being and the connection between environment and culture.
Australia requires wholly new and improved methods for managing the environment. For instance, although it is not always done, climate change is increasingly being considered in environmental management and resilience measures. In Australia, habitat loss and degradation are the primary risks to land-based species, affecting approximately 70% of vulnerable species. These challenges are in addition to climatic pressures, where more than one-third of the country’s eucalypt woods have undergone clearing. For several other significant plant species, the situation is much worse.
However, there is hope and drive for change, where significant land parcels are being purchased and managed for conservation by private individuals, non-profit organisations, and companies. The Australian Wildlife Conservancy jointly oversees about 6.5 million hectares of land, where numerous vulnerable species are being conserved. Building on successes like these enables new collaborations and innovations with vital financing and support from businesses and governments. We also require increased cooperation between the public and private sectors, supported by stronger national leadership. This entails hearing what local and Indigenous groups have to say, working together to devise answers, and drawing on both their knowledge and Western science, for this purpose. Furthermore, we need to invest additional time and money to gauge improvement. This entails routinely keeping track of and reporting on the challenges to our natural and cultural resources throughout all states and territories to provide Australian ecosystems with a more promising future.
How can you take action?
Check out our Back from the Brink series here: https://www.natura-pacific.com/resources/
Click on the link to view the State of Environment report. https://soe.dcceew.gov.au/overview/introduction