Australia’s environment is in a “poor and deteriorating state”, according to the latest State of the Environment Report.
Climate change, mining, pollution, invasive species and habitat loss are outlined in the five-yearly report that has been released on Tuesday, with Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek laying the blame squarely at the feet of the previous Coalition government.
“It tells a story of crisis and decline in Australia’s environment [and] of a decade of government inaction and wilful ignorance,” Plibersek said.
The report was handed to the Morrison government in December last year, but former environment minister Sussan Ley did not release it before the election.
The lead author of the report, Emma Johnston from the University of Sydney, said the biggest difference between this report and the previous one from 2016 was how climate change was now damaging the environment.
“In previous reports, we’ve been largely talking about the impacts of climate in the future tense,” she said.
“In this report there’s a stark contrast, because we are now documenting widespread impacts of climate change.”
However, the report also outlined ways in which the grim assessment could be improved through stronger protections, innovative thinking and courageous leadership.
A litany of problems
Every category except urban environments was classified as having deteriorated since the last report was written in 2016, including inland water, coasts, air quality and extreme events.
The majority were classified as in a “poor” state.
“Environmental degradation is now considered a threat to humanity, which could bring about societal collapses with long-lasting and severe consequences,” the report said.
Among the litany of problems documented in the report were observations that:
There were now more non-native plant species in Australia than there were native ones
Of the 450 gigalitres of water for the environment promised under the Murray-Darling Basin plan, only 2 gigalitres have been delivered
The number of species listed as threatened has increased by 8 per cent since 2016
Up to 78 per cent of Australia’s coastal saltmarshes have been lost since European colonisation and they continue to deteriorate
Australia has lost more mammal species than any other continent
The report also documented tragedies bestowed on specific places and species. A heatwave in 2018 killed 23,000 spectacled flying foxes, which were upgraded to the endangered species list the next year.
Since just 1990, more than 6.1 million hectares of mature forest have been cleared.
Governments were not doing enough to address the crisis, the report said, noting: “There is insufficient overall investment and lack of coordination to be able to adequately address the growing impacts [and the level of] investment in biodiversity conservation do not match the scale of the challenge.”
Professor Johnston said not enough had been done to prevent decline through protected areas nor were environmental laws strongly enforced, so Australia now needed to invest in more-expensive and speculative environmental solutions.
“We’re actually going to the ‘rescue’ end of the situation, where you have to breed species and re-release,” she said.
“Those sorts of remedies are difficult to implement and you’ll find that there’s patchy success, and they’re very, very costly.”
Plibersek told the ABC the report was “one of the most important scientific documents released about the Australian environment”.
“It really does give us a wake-up call as a nation. It’s really important that people … take action based on the alarming warning bells that are ringing,” she said.
‘Courage and leadership’ critical
Despite the grim assessment, the report did find hope was not lost.
“Immediate action with innovative management and collaboration can turn things around,” it found.
In addition to more investment in the environment, a key change needed was better data collection and monitoring, the report said.
And when solutions were developed, that needed to happen in coordination with Indigenous and local communities.
“To do all of this will take courage and leadership, but it is critical if we are to reverse the declines and forge a stronger, more resilient country to face the challenges in front of us,” the report said.
Plibersek will deliver her first major speech since becoming Environment Minister to the National Press Club on Tuesday, where she will outline the government’s plans to address the issue.
“I won’t be putting my head in the sand – under Labor, the environment is back on the priority list,” she said.
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A Coalition spokesperson defended its record on the environment, noting there was no legal requirement for former environment minister Sussan Ley to release the report before the election.
“The Coalition delivered several initiatives [that] protected Australia’s natural environment,” the spokesperson said, pointing to the $1 billion invested in the Great Barrier Reef and the first-ever national koala recovery plan.
“As environment minister, Sussan Ley took the advice of experts and scientists in protecting our natural environment and Tanya Plibersek must do the same,” the spokesperson said.
Greens environment spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young said Australians now knew how much pressure the environment was under.
“This report just confirms our worst fears,” she said.
‘Climate trigger’ needed
Australian Academy of Science president Chennupati Jagadish said the report was “sobering reading” and urged the government to go further on climate change action.
“To protect our environment Australia must revisit its emission reduction commitments and work with other countries to provide the leadership and collaboration required to place Australia and the world on a safer climate trajectory,” Professor Jagadish said.
World Wide Fund for Nature Australia (WWF-Australia) chief conservation officer Rachel Lowry said the report must mark a turning point, leading to greater investment and stronger environment laws.
“It’s been a long time since Australia has seen the leadership and determination to turn things around for our environment. I’m holding high hopes that Minister Plibersek and Prime Minister Albanese seize this moment,” Ms Lowry said.
‘They basically just robbed the landscape’
The ABC reveals alarming evidence that forests aren’t always being grown back after they’ve been logged, undermining a state-run timber company’s claim to sustainability.
Australian Conservation Foundation chief executive Kelly O’Shanassy called for immediate action.
“To halt Australia’s nature crisis, we need strong national environment laws, an independent regulator to enforce them and adequate funding for the recovery of Australia’s threatened species and the restoration of degraded landscapes,” O’Shanassy said.
Hanson-Young said that, when projects such as new coal and gas mines were assessed under federal environment law, they needed to be assessed for how their greenhouse gas emissions would impact the environment.
She said that ought to be required under the law, with the inclusion of a “climate trigger”.
“We need to make sure those basic impacts of climate change and climate pollution are part of any environmental assessment,” Hanson-Young said.
Two recent legal challenges have tried to force that to occur with the law as it stands.
The Australian Conservation Foundation is currently seeking an injunction to stop Woodside’s Scarborough Gas Project in Western Australia until it is assessed for how its carbon emissions will impact the Great Barrier Reef.
And the Conservation Council of Central Queensland has sought to overturn 19 decisions by previous governments about how coal and gas projects would be assessed, to force them to consider how their contribution to climate change would damage the environment.