2011 State of the Environment Report

The latest summary of the decline in Australia’s biodiversity was released last week. This year’s State of the Environment (SoE) report is an update of the previous version released in 2006. It also includes some research produced during my Honours year, in the ‘Spatial distribution of pressures‘ section:

Pressures affecting species listed as threatened nationally under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). Source: SoE2011 Report, adapted from Evans et al. 2011. BioScience. http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1525/bio.2011.61.4.8

One of the key motivations for our study was the serious lack of quantitative data on the pressures facing threatened species in Australia. Many previous papers and SoE reports describe the familiar series of threats to Australian biodiversity – habitat loss, introduced species, inappropriate figure regimes – but do little to quantify them in terms of the proportion of species affected, or their spatial extent at a national, state or local scale.

The percentage of threatened freshwater and terrestrial species in each subcatchment affected by (a) habitat loss, (b) introduced species, (c) inappropriate fire regimes, (d) disease, (e) pollution, (f) overexploitation, (g) native species interactions and (h) natural causes; the distribution of threatened species richness is shown in (i)

I give more of a summary of the paper here, but for now I’m really glad to see this work make it into the 2011 SoE. In fact this year’s committee has made an effort move beyond the usual descriptive summary approach to environmental reporting, towards a ‘report-card’ style of assessment currently being undertaken by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Healthy Waterways monitoring in Moreton Bay.

As you would expect, the report card for biodiversity is not a happy one. Most of the pressures affecting biodiversity were assessed as having a high impact with a deteriorating trend, along with broad trends for most terrestrial taxonomic groups.

Possibility one of the most important key findings:

Despite promising investment by all jurisdictions in addressing the main pressures on biodiversity, pressures are not being reduced substantially, nor is the decline in biodiversity being arrested or reversed.

Interestingly, this report appears to be one of the first occasions where economic growth has been discussed as one of three main drivers of environmental change, with the other two being climate change and population growth. It makes the following point:

Just as an increasing population does not necessarily translate proportionately to increased environment impact, neither does a growing economy. However, there is strong historical evidence that this has been the case and thus will likely continue into the future. As the economy of Australia expands, it is likely that our consumption of resources and production of waste will also increase.

It then goes on to repeat a recommendation made by the OECD for Australia to “make concerted efforts to decouple environmental pressures from economic growth”, and the provides a couple of examples where progress has been made in relative decoupling via decreases in water consumption and enhanced recycling efforts.

I remain sceptical of the likelihood of decoupling economic growth and environmental impact to the point where the trend in biodiversity would be reversed. That said, it’s good to see discussion of these ultimate drivers in the SoE report.

Another interesting image from this section, is the percent employment by industry in Australia over time:

Employment by industry, Reproduced from the Reserve Bank of Australia. Source: http://www.environment.gov.au/soe/2011/report/drivers/4-economic-growth.html

Far from what Australians hear from the mining industry in terms of job creation, it does indeed seem we are a “nation of backstratchers” as described by Guy Pearse.

Hopefully the next SoE instalment has a stronger focus on quantitative reporting of environmental trends against agreed benchmarks and standards, as recommended by this year’s committee, and also by the Wentworth Group in its Accounting for Nature report.

You can download the entire SoE 2011 in pdf (116 MB) here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s