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11.3 - Monitoring and evaluation of Australia’s environmental management system is fragmented

11.3.1 - The environment and its management are inherently complex

The EPBC Act is only one ‘lever’ used by governments in Australia to manage the national environment. The problems observed in the monitoring and evaluation of the EPBC Act are equally relevant to the monitoring and evaluation of Australia’s broader environmental management system.

The management of Australia’s environment is a shared responsibility between the Commonwealth and the States and Territories, and jurisdictions work in partnership with the community and the private sector (Chapter 1). Many different organisations are involved at different levels, with different purposes, obligations, accountabilities and methods. Natural variability, including climate variability, and lengthy time lags add a further challenge to understanding the link between human interventions and observed changes. The environment is clearly in decline, and the Commonwealth, States and Territories are able to ‘pass the buck’ meaning no one is accountable.

The Commonwealth has a clear leadership and stewardship role in maintaining a healthy national environment and an overarching responsibility to monitor and report on the national environment to meet its international obligations. The 1992 Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment (CoAG 1992) recognises that the Commonwealth  has a particular interest in facilitating the effective and efficient coordination of nature conservation across all jurisdictions. The Agreement identifies the need for a national strategy, prepared at the Commonwealth level, to set outcomes and goals and the allocation of tasks to all States and the Commonwealth, and monitoring and reporting on the achievement of those outcomes and goals.

To report at the national level, the Commonwealth must synthesise data and input from many activities led by multiple layers of government and non-government organisations. Data collected from the various programs and jurisdictions must be synthesised and tailored to the reporting needs of various international agreements, which may differ in timing, expectation and methodology. This includes regular reporting on implementation of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (Box 38), the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species, the Sustainable Development Goals, World Heritage properties, and others.

Box 38 - Australia’s biodiversity strategies – a complex reporting challenge

Since the EPBC Act commenced 2 decades ago, a consistent series of strategies have intended to outline how Australia’s environment is being managed, partly to fulfil international reporting obligations.

Despite these strategies, the environment has continued to decline (Chapter 1) and there have been minimal tangible signs of success at the national level from having the strategies in place. Considering the shortcomings in some of these plans is beneficial to gain insights into best approaches for monitoring, evaluation and reporting in the future.

Reporting on progress towards Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010–2030 (the Biodiversity Strategy) is a good example of the range of challenges involved in aggregating information against national and international environmental priorities.

The Biodiversity Strategy was developed as Australia’s principal instrument for implementing the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. The targets in the Biodiversity Strategy underpinned the latest Sixth National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity, published in March 2020.

The sixth national report describes progress against a confusing array of targets and measures, taking a largely qualitative and activity-based approach. It reports on the huge range of activities occurring across the country that contribute towards biodiversity conservation, and demonstrates the significant effort involved in capturing the disparate and fragmented sources of information. While ‘ticking the box’ for the reporting requirement, the report does not provide an update that is meaningful or accessible to the community.

The 2010 Biodiversity Strategy had some strong features, including a 20-year outlook, 5-yearly reviews and a target to deliver a new long-term national biodiversity monitoring and reporting system.

The first 5-year review of the Biodiversity Strategy in 2016 identified several challenges to tracking progress, including a lack of national datasets to provide baselines to measure progress, a lack of accountability and enduring governance, and unclear expectations for implementation at multiple levels.

The target to establish a national long-term biodiversity monitoring and reporting system was not achieved within the intended time frame, influenced by the lack of a plan for implementation and adequate resourcing.

The next iteration of the national plan, Australia’s Strategy for Nature, was finalised in November 2019 and drew on the recommendations of the 5-year review of the Biodiversity Strategy. A much simpler document, which reports on the new strategy, will be streamlined and made more accessible by the ‘Australia’s Nature Hub’ website. However, whether this approach will realise the intended benefits has yet to be demonstrated, and there is still no comprehensive monitoring and evaluation framework to underpin it.

For more information, see the Australia’s biodiversity strategies further reading at the end of the report.

Some of the monitoring and evaluation approaches across the national environmental system are strong and have benefited from decades of investment and effort (Box 39), others are emerging and some, like many under the EPBC Act, are immature. The mixed responsibilities and obligations for heritage management in Australia mean that a variety of different monitoring methodologies are used.

Box 39 - Examples of environmental monitoring, evaluation and reporting

The Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan provides the overarching strategy for the Great Barrier Reef, developed by the Australian and Queensland governments and partners (Commonwealth of Australia 2018). It is underpinned by a funded, coordinated and integrated monitoring, modelling and reporting program to support an adaptive management approach (GBRMPA n.d.). It guides the coordination and alignment of existing long-term monitoring programs in order to capitalise on existing investment and avoid duplication. It also informs annual report cards and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s 5-yearly outlook reports.

The Australian Government’s Regional Land Partnerships program has a long-term monitoring framework for projects, which builds on improved practices for collecting and storing information on on-ground activities under previous programs. The current work has a greater emphasis on processes to support monitoring and evaluation of ecological outcomes at the project and program level, with an aim to promote more robust, long-term ecological modelling and evaluation more broadly (Capon et al. 2020).

11.3.2 - Monitoring and reporting efforts are inconsistent and siloed

No cohesive mechanism brings the various national and jurisdictional reporting efforts together to present a picture of the performance of our national system of environmental management.

National and international reporting on the environment involves high-cost efforts to gather and analyse data each reporting period. Strategies come and go, and the lack of consistent, long-term measures means that the outcomes and focus of strategies are influenced by the priorities of the day. The reporting effort does not tell a coherent story of how things are changing over time.

Several State and Territory Governments produce State of the Environment reports, but there is limited consistency between the reports due to differing objectives, monitoring methodologies and reporting time frames.

The format and approach to international reports are largely dictated by the relevant international body. There is currently little domestic alignment, which leads to repeated information collection efforts across multiple agencies and jurisdictions, and bespoke approaches and methodologies. Reports are largely delivered as static documents with limited links to the underlying data, reducing the scope for further exploration and re-use of the information.

The need to improve is recognised, and changes are being gradually implemented across a range of aspects. Recent work on Australia’s Sustainable Development Goals reporting platform aims to provide a single point of access to understand Australia’s progress against the goals, links to the underlying data, and minimise duplication of reporting efforts (DFAT n.d). As part of the development of the 2021 State of the Environment report, pragmatic approaches to better align environmental reports across international, national and sub-national levels are being explored with States and Territories, including the potential to align with the Sustainable Development Goals.

However, these efforts only grapple with parts of the overall effort required to move towards more transparent, repeatable and effective reporting and review at the national level. They remain relatively isolated and are not integrated with specific reporting requirements in the EPBC Act to track delivery of outcomes for MNES.

Consistent across all reporting efforts is the lack of a consolidated information base and time-series monitoring information. This is a major impediment to evaluating the effectiveness of our environmental management activities. In Australia, time-series information that shows trends and patterns over time is particularly limited. An understanding of long-term trends and the effectiveness of interventions requires long-term (decadal-scale) continuity and consistency in monitoring.

Environmental-economic accounts (EEA) have continued to be widely acknowledged in strategies, reports and by stakeholders as a mechanism to provide a cohesive approach to consistent national monitoring and reporting on the environment and to better describe the relationship between the environment and the economy. A system of EEAs could support the establishment of baseline information and monitoring of change and be linked to state of the environment reporting. Where they are linked to economic statistics, environmental-economic accounts can help mainstream consideration of the value of the environment in broader policies and decisions – an aspect that is currently done poorly and inconsistently.

Work on a system of national EEAs has been led by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Department, but uptake has been slow (Box 40). The EEAs have failed to be widely applied in public policy and reporting in Australia. Those that have been produced have seen limited, if any, use in decision-making. They also haven’t provided the envisaged overarching framework and structure to underpin consistent reporting. For example, they have yet to be meaningfully incorporated into State of the Environment reporting at the State and Territory or Commonwealth level, although some jurisdictions (such as the ACT) have made some progress in this area. Because the development of the accounts has largely been undertaken in isolation of other environmental information initiatives, the work has not led to broader improvements in the collection and management of environmental information.

The involvement of the Australian Bureau of Statistics in the accounts development provides some long-term stability (Box 40) but, unless there is a reason to drive their use or uptake, the short-term nature of program funding means they are unlikely to deliver a long-term solution.

Box 40 - Progress on a system of environmental-economic accounting 

Environmental-economic accounting is a framework for organising statistical information to help decision-makers better understand how the economy and the environment interact. The importance of the environment and its contribution to our economic and social wellbeing is often overlooked because it is not fully reflected in traditional financial accounting methods, which have developed and improved over decades.

The ultimate outcomes of a national system of environmental-economic accounts include that:

  • policy and decisions by government, business and community take into account the benefits of a healthy environment
  • decision-makers balance social, economic and environmental outcomes
  • return on investment into the environment can be demonstrated
  • information on the condition and value of environmental assets is fully integrated into measures of social and economic activity.

In practice, EEA brings together information on the environment and how it is changing over time in a consistent way that can be easily integrated with social and economic data. The common national approach to EEA agreed as part of the 2018 National Strategy and Action Plan (the EEA Strategy) will adopt the internationally agreed System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA) framework, which follows a similar accounting structure to the System of National Accounts that underpins national economic reporting. It starts by classifying and measuring the extent of environmental assets, then considers the condition or health of the asset and the range of goods and services that the asset provides. The values of those services are estimated based on market transactions or techniques to assess non-market value.

Internationally, an Experimental Ecosystem Accounting framework has been developed to complement the central SEEA framework. Ecosystem accounting is a subset of environmental-economic accounting that looks at ecosystem extent, condition, services and monetary value.

Through an environmental-economic accounting approach, the value of a national park may be demonstrated through the income from park entry fees and the value of tourism to the local economy. The park also provides health benefits for physically active park visitors, with a value estimated from avoided health care costs. Other benefits include pollination for local agriculture, water supply and filtration, climate change mitigation, biological diversity and flood protection.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) produced a selected set of environmental-economic accounts annually from 2014 to 2019, but has not produced a set in 2020 because the ABS wants to explore refinements that will improve uptake. These annual accounts consider the more transactional aspects of the environment, including consumption and value of water and energy and source of greenhouse gas emissions across the economy. These accounts are missing the ‘bridge’ to link environmental change to social and economic impacts.

The 2018 EEA Strategy aims to improve the policy relevance and use of accounts by setting out a roadmap with intermediate outcomes delivered over 5 years, including improving the consistency of reporting on Australia’s environment and the coordination of, and access to, the data that underpin it. The focus of this work has been on developing methods for valuing the environment as an asset and the services that it provides, including accounting approaches for waste, land, ecosystems and oceans. Ecosystem accounts present environmental, social, cultural and economic information about ecosystems. Several pilot accounts are underway, including an ecosystem account for the Gunbower-Koondrook-Perricoota Forest Icon Site in the Murray–Darling Basin, which is a Ramsar-listed wetland (Mokany et al. 2020).

CSIRO has continued to develop and enhance its modelling capability (Box 34) to support comprehensive, rigorous and regular accounting for changes in the status of biodiversity as a whole at a range of levels, aligned with the international SEEA.

Despite these efforts, environmental-economic accounts have yet to be mainstreamed and implemented in Commonwealth or jurisdictional-level reporting.

The United Kingdom has made some ground in integrating and applying an environmental accounting approach. Both environmental and natural capital (ecosystem) accounts are released periodically as statistical bulletins. Through an independent Natural Capital Committee, the concepts, terminology and application of natural capital accounting has been embedded in annual reporting on the sustainable use of natural capital, advice to government and guidance for planners, communities, landowners and corporate entities.

For more information see the Environmental-economic accounting further reading at the end of the report.

The complexity of the environment, different approaches across the national system of management, and the huge array of reporting requirements that change over time makes delivering a coordinated strategy for monitoring and evaluation extremely challenging. Inputs to the Review are consistent with other recent work that suggests a strong appetite among stakeholders to improve the culture of environmental monitoring and evaluation, harmonise reporting where possible and improve the knowledge sharing between the different organisations involved.

The lack of an overarching framework to support evidenced-based and adaptive management and optimise our monitoring and reporting effort remains a key shortcoming that needs to be addressed.

11.3.3 - The purpose of national State of the Environment reporting is not clear

The national State of the Environment (SoE) report is the established mechanism that seeks to ‘tell the national story’ on Australia’s system of environmental management. Despite recent improvements in the way the national SoE report is presented – as the centrepiece of monitoring and environmental reporting on Australia’s national environmental system – it is dated.

The EPBC Act requires the preparation of the national SoE report every 5 years (Section 516B). Five national SoE reports have been delivered, the first in 1996 and the most recent in 2016. The practice has been for the SoE report to be prepared by a team of independent authors and the approach to each report has been determined by the authors. This has affected the capacity to use the SoE report as the driver for establishing longitudinal datasets to enable a proper understanding of long-term trends.

Although the national SoE report provides an important overview of the state and trend of Australia’s environment, it is an amalgam of insights drawn from disparate sources. It does not generate a consistent data series across reports and is an attempt to report on everything for everyone. As a nation there is no requirement to stop, review and where necessary change course.

Reporting at the national level shows that environmental outcomes are poor, but we have no way to understand the success or failure of various interventions and no formalised process for adaptive management.

The EPBC Act provides no guidance as to the purpose or objective of the national SoE report. Although provision is made for this to be clarified in Regulations, this has never been done. The SoE relies on collating available data and information. Authors have repeatedly highlighted the inadequacy of data and long-term monitoring as a key challenge to effective environmental management. The SoE report’s purpose is not clear and it lacks a coherent framework that supports consistency over time.

National SoE reports provide little insight into the effectiveness of different activities to manage the environment and the government is not required to respond. The timing of the reports is misaligned with the decadal review process, which is the primary mechanism for adaptive management. The links between SoE reporting and other initiatives, such as the development of national environmental-economic accounts (Box 40), is not clear. This is another demonstration of siloed reporting effort.