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 Opinion Pieces
The State of the Environment Report shows progress made but much work to do

Published: Tuesday, 7 March 2017
Author: Josh Frydenberg
Publication: The Guardian

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First established in 1996 and occurring every five years, the Government of the day releases a State of the Environment Report.

It is prepared by independent authors and provides a report card across nine thematic areas including the Antarctic environment, atmosphere, biodiversity, built environment, coasts, heritage, inland waters, land and the marine environment.

The Report which is tabled in Parliament in accordance with the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 will this year for the first time be available in an interactive digital format expanding its reach and ensuring greater use and engagement from the academic and broader community.

Like previous reports, this year’s document has its bright spots while also indicating a number of areas where there is much more to do.

Good progress has been made in the management of the marine and Antarctic environments, natural and cultural heritage and the built environment, while pressures are building in relation to invasive species, climate change, land use and coastal protection.

Population growth has seen the number of people in Australia double over the last 50 years. Growing urbanisation which now sees two thirds of the population live in our capital cities – 90 per cent of people live in 0.22 per cent of Australia’s land area – and heightened economic activity – Australia is experiencing its 26th year of consecutive economic growth – have all combined to contribute to additional pressures on the environment.

The message, however, is not that development and sustainability are locked in a zero-sum game. Far from it. Rather, we must be conscious of these pressures, prepare for them and put in place a coordinated, comprehensive, well-resourced long term response.

Failure to do so will have a direct and detrimental impact on our quality of life and leave a legacy to future generations that is inferior to the one we have inherited.

This is why reports such as this are important and why we must continue to upgrade our capacity to collect and analyse critical environmental data.

It’s also why last November I committed - along with state and territory environment ministers - to develop more detailed environmental accounts for Australia to build this capacity to better understand our environment and how best to protect it. 

In terms of distinct areas of the environment, the Report indicates the following:

The Antarctic is in “generally good condition” with evidence that the phasing out of powerful synthetic greenhouse gases, which has seen Australia play a lead role under the Montreal Protocol, are leading to improvements in the ozone layer.

Macquarie Island which has seen rabbits and rats in plague proportions is also recovering well following a successful invasive species eradication policy.

Invasive species more generally are a growing problem.

We are all familiar with the devastation that has been unleashed across our continent by the arrival of cane toads, feral pigs and yellow crazy ants.

But feral cats should top this list because their population growth and diet of marsupials, birds and reptiles make it one of the biggest threats to a number of nationally listed species.

The good news is that the Federal Government has acted in implementing a new Threatened Species Strategy and appointing the first Threatened Species Commissioner.

However, there is a big task ahead with the addition of 44 animal and five plant species to the threatened species list, meaning now, according to the Commissioner there is 545 animal and 1312 plant species under threat.

One notable mention in the report was that humpback whales are increasing in number to a point where their current listing as ‘vulnerable’ may need to be reconsidered.

Australia’s 108 national and 19 world heritage sites are admired both here and abroad and are integral to our cultural history and values.

They remain according to the Report “generally in good condition” however, the Great Barrier Reef last year was subject to a significant bleaching event with climate change and the El Nino effect to blame.

Conscious of the threat to this natural wonder of the world the Federal Government is jointly investing with the Queensland Government $2 billion to support our Reef 2050 Plan to improve water quality and preserve the health of the Reef.

Australia has a strong reputation in management of its national reserve system.

Since 2011, the Ningaloo Reef has also been added and extensions made to the Tasmanian Wilderness and Kakadu properties on the World Heritage List.

Since 2012, twelve new places have been added to the National Heritage List, including the Snowy Mountains Scheme in New South Wales and Lesueur National Park in Western Australia, ensuring that our historic places are preserved for future generations.

The Report indicates that the impact of changing weather patterns is not only being felt on the Great Barrier Reef but also on the land, affecting biodiversity and species habitat.

While carbon emissions per capita have declined from 24.1 tonnes in 2011 to 22.2 tonnes in 2015 and energy efficiency improvements are reducing electricity demand, the Report makes clear that for the world to meet its Paris goals, there is much more to do.

Land clearing also comes in for attention in this Report.

With the exception of Queensland, land clearing rates over the last five years “have stabilised in all states and territories” and indigenous protected areas have substantially increased.

Indeed, since 2008 there have been an additional 42 agreements and 20.6 million hectares which are now covered under the Indigenous Protected Areas.

The National Reserve System, protecting important natural assets, has also expanded to cover 17.9 per cent of Australia’s land area in comparison to 13.4 per cent in 2011.

These are all significant improvements which are felt right across the environmental food chain as pollination, seed disposal and species’ survival rely on an ecosystem where vegetation and habitat are protected.

Despite the growth in urban population, air and urban water quality remain “good” according to the Report with “noticeable local improvements in water quality in the Murray Darling Basin”.

Sustainable diversion limits and water efficiency are having a positive impact on the fish and water bird stocks as well as natural vegetation.

All in all, there is much in this Report to analyse with absolutely no room for complacency.

Regardless of one’s political persuasion, we all have a vested interest in protecting our commons.

The Coalition track record in this regard is strong.

The EPBC Act itself, like the Natural Heritage Trust and the first mandatory Renewable Energy Target, were all initiatives of the Howard Government.

And indeed the 10-year Murray Darling Basin Plan was implemented by then Environment and Water Minister, now Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

Abbott, Fraser, McMahon, Gorton, Holt and Menzies all too had significant achievements to their name.

The task now is to build on this proud Coalition tradition and to use this Report to continue the good work the Turnbull Government is already doing across so many areas of environmental policy.

Josh Frydenberg is Australia’s Minister for the Environment and Energy

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