1.1 - The environment and iconic places are in decline and under increasing threat
The evidence provided to this Review about the state of Australia’s environment is compelling. Overall, Australia’s environment is in a state of decline and under increasing pressure. There are localised examples of good outcomes but the national outlook is one of decline and increasing threat to the quality of the environment. At best, the operation of the EPBC Act has contributed to slowing the overall rate of decline (Box 3).
In contrast to the outcomes for biodiversity, contributions to the Review present a mixed view about heritage. The EPBC Act has strengthened Commonwealth obligations and enabled resources to be targeted towards protecting Australia’s significant and outstanding heritage places. However the World Heritage and National Heritage values of some iconic places have diminished, and the recognition of and funding for community and historic heritage has reduced.
Box 3 - Trends in Australia’s biodiversity, ecosystems and heritage
It is not the Review’s role to provide a comprehensive summary of the state of the environment. This box provides a synopsis of the latest national State of the Environment report (Jackson et al. 2016) and contributions to the Review from a range of experts.
Threatened species and biodiversity
Australia is losing biodiversity at an alarming rate and has one of the highest rates of extinction in the world. More than 10% of Australia’s land mammals are now extinct and another 21% are threatened and declining (Woinarski et al. 2015). Populations of threatened birds, plants, fish and invertebrates are also continuing to decrease and the list of threatened species is growing. Although there is evidence of localised population increases where targeted management actions are undertaken (such as controlling or excluding feral animals or implementing ecological fire management techniques), these are exceptions rather than a broad trend.
Since the EPBC Act was introduced, the threat status of species has deteriorated. Approximately 4 times more vulnerable-listed species have shown declines in their threat status (become more threatened) than those that have shown an improvement. Over its 20-year operation, only 13 animal species (0.7%) have been removed from the Act’s threatened species lists and only one of these (Muir’s Corella) is generally considered a case of genuine improvement (Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists 2020).
Australia’s network of protected areas – for example, national parks, marine reserves and Indigenous Protected Areas – has expanded. However, not all ecosystems or habitats are well represented, and the management of these areas is not delivering strong outcomes for the environment. Considering future scenarios indicates that reserves and protected areas alone are unlikely to provide adequate protection for species and communities in the face of future pressures such as climate change.
Oceans and marine
Aspects of Australia’s marine environment are in good condition and there have been some management successes, but our oceans face significant current and future threats from climate change and human activity, especially land-based pollution.
Increases in humpback whale populations for example, are encouraging. However, submissions pointed to recent evidence of steep declines in habitats across Australia’s marine ecosystems – including coral reefs in the Great Barrier Reef, saltmarshes on the east coast, mangroves in northern Australia, and kelp forests in Tasmania.
The 2016 national State of the Environment report found that ‘Australia’s extraordinary and diverse natural and cultural heritage generally remains in good condition, despite some deterioration and emerging challenges since 2011’. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has specific concerns for 3 of Australia’s 20 World Heritage places (IUCN 2017). The loss of heritage values since the last EPBC Act Review is due to a range of factors – most recently, the impact of the 2019–20 bushfire events on World Heritage properties and National Heritage places.
For more information, see the Environmental decline further reading at the end of this report.
The Australian environment faces significant future pressures, including land-use change, pollution, habitat fragmentation and degradation, and invasive species. Climate change will continue to exacerbate these impacts and contribute to ongoing decline.
The current state of the environment means that it is unlikely to be sufficiently resilient to increasing future threats. The lack of long-term monitoring data limits the ability to understand the pace and extent of environmental decline, which actions to prioritise and whether previous interventions have been successful.