State of the Environment: Shocking report shows how Australia’s land and wildlife are being progressively destroyed | Environment
The health of Australia’s environment is poor and has deteriorated over the past five years due to pressures from climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and mining, according to a government report that warns that the natural world is key to human well-being and survival.
The State of the Environment Report – a review carried out by scientists last year but withheld by the Morrison government until after the federal election – revealed abrupt changes in some Australian ecosystems over the past five years, with at least 19 now showing signs of collapse or near collapse.
While national and state governments have tried to cope with the decline, the report found that there was not enough funding dedicated to the environment and there had been a lack of coordination across jurisdictions to adequately deal with the cumulative impact of threats.
Environment and Water Minister Tanya Plibersek, who will release the five-year report in an address to the National Press Club on Tuesday, said it was a “shocking document” that told ” a story of Australian environmental crisis and decline, and a decade of government inaction and willful ignorance”.
“I’m not going to stick my head in the sand,” she said. “Under Labour, the environment is back on the priority list.”
The report cited the World Economic Forum in its findings that environmental degradation was now seen as a threat to humanity that could “cause societal breakdowns with lasting and severe consequences”.
State of the Environment Report Highlights
Since 2016, 202 animal and plant species have been placed on the list of endangered species of national environmental significance, after 175 were added to the list between 2011 and 2016. This came as the pace of discovery and description of new species has slowed considerably over the past. decade. There are many more unknown species left than known species.
While a government endangered species strategy had improved the trajectories of 21 priority species, many others showed no improvement. The list would grow significantly in the coming years as the impact of the catastrophic bushfires of 2019-2020 – which killed or displaced between 1 billion and 3 billion animals – became clearer.
Australia has lost more mammal species than any other continent and has one of the highest rates of species decline in the developed world. Over 100 Australian species have been listed as extinct or extinct in the wild. The main causes of extinction were introduced species and habitat destruction and clearing.
Nearly half of the country is now used for grazing, and the areas given over to forestry and crops have increased. More than 6.1 million hectares of native primary forest (an area more than six times the size of suburban Melbourne) has been cleared since 1990. In the five years to 2019, almost 290,000 hectares of primary forest and 343,000 hectares of reconstituted forest have been cleared.
Australia has more alien plant species than native ones. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent over the past 50 years trying to manage introduced species, diseases and invasive pests.
Water levels in the Murray-Darling Basin were at record highs in 2019 due to water extraction and drought. Most rivers and watersheds are in poor condition and native fish populations have declined by more than 90% in the past 150 years, a trend that appears to be continuing.
Marine heatwaves caused massive coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016, 2017 and 2020. (The report was completed before the last massive bleaching in March this year.) Ocean acidification – caused by absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – is approaching a tipping point that will lead to the decline of juvenile corals.
Reefs across the country, and the species that depend on them, were in poor condition and deteriorating. Sea urchins pushed south by rising sea temperatures have devastated kelp beds along the southeast of the country, threatening rocky reef ecosystems and 150 reef species.
Waterways, beaches and shorelines are generally in poor condition in areas close to urban centers, but generally in good condition in more remote areas. The wider marine environment is generally in better condition than the terrestrial environment, with 86% of populations classified as not overexploited.
Sea level rise has affected many low-lying areas, including the Kakadu wetlands. Salt marshes along much of the Australian coast are losing territory to mangroves.
Changes in land use mean Australia has the world’s third largest cumulative loss of soil organic carbon behind China and the United States, a change that has implications for the climate crisis.
Destruction of indigenous heritage continues at an unacceptable rate against the wishes of traditional owners. Indigenous protected areas make up nearly half of the national reserve system, yet indigenous peoples have limited access to funding and other critical supports needed to run their country.
Most major Australian cities are growing at a faster rate than other developed cities on the planet. The pace of growth has increased urban heat, congestion, pollution and waste and has put increasing pressure on water and energy resources.
At least 19 Australian ecosystems are showing signs of collapse or near collapse. Collapsed ecosystems extend across the continent and include Antarctic and sub-Antarctic ecosystems. Abrupt changes include the loss of Tasmania’s giant kelp forests.
About 93% of terrestrial habitat used by endangered species that was cleared between 2000 and 2017 was not returned to the federal government for assessment under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC).
The lead authors of the report were Dr Ian Cresswell, environmental scientist at CSIRO, Dr Terri Janke, a prominent Indigenous lawyer, and Professor Emma Johnston, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research at the University of Sydney.
They emphasized that the natural world, as a source of food, water, air and raw materials, was not separate from the human world.
“In a rapidly changing climate, with declining biodiversity, the overall outlook for our environment is deteriorating. The impacts of this will affect us all. It is in our own interest to understand, protect and restore the health of our environment,” they said.
“It is also our responsibility. Our environment has intrinsic value beyond direct human use.
The report found that improving the state of the environment would require national leadership, integrated management across federal, state and territory systems, new forms of funding, and improved monitoring and reporting.
Plibersek told the ABC on Tuesday that the country’s environmental laws weren’t working, authorities didn’t have adequate data on the scale of the problem, and that change was needed. “If we stick with what we’re doing now, we’ll continue to get the same results,” she said.
The minister said she expected to introduce changes to environmental laws, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, to parliament next year after “very wide” consultation. building on the work of a statutory review by former competition watchdog Graeme Samuel.
Greens environment spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young said the report showed “this is an emergency and in an emergency you take emergency action”.
She said it described a “litany of environmental wreckage fueled by climate change and years of denial and neglect”, and that environmental laws needed to be changed, including to take into account the climate impacts of development projects. fossil fuels.
“If the Minister is truly alarmed by this report, she will take immediate action to ensure that no more critical habitat is cleaned up and that the polluting projects that are fueling the climate crisis are stopped,” Hanson-Young said.
President of the Australian Academy of Sciences, Professor Chennupati Jagadish, said the report was sobering and the outlook for the environment was bleak, with critical thresholds in many natural systems likely to be exceeded as that global warming continues.
Jagadish said the report showed there had been a “significant underinvestment” in the scientific knowledge and capacity needed to understand the state of the environment, and called for the creation of an independent agency to manage wildlife and biodiversity data. He said Australia should also review its emissions reduction pledges to respond more quickly to the climate crisis.
Professor Euan Ritchie, from Deakin University’s Center for Integrative Ecology, said the report was authoritative, long overdue and confirmed Australia’s “total failure in environmental management and the conversation”.
But he said it was not too late to change course. “If we act now and strengthen and enforce environmental laws, provide much greater investment to help protect and restore the environment and endangered species, and cooperate better with communities, we are in a position to achieve substantial social, cultural, economic and environmental benefits,” he said.
A spokesperson for Sussan Ley, the deputy Liberal leader who was environment minister in the Morrison government and who received the report in December, defended that it was not released before the election. He said the report had been addressed within the required regulatory timeframes and that the Coalition had “implemented several initiatives that protected Australia’s natural environment”.
“As environment minister, Sussan Ley has followed the advice of experts and scientists to protect our natural environment and Tanya Plibersek must do the same,” the spokesperson said.