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1.1 - The environment and iconic places are in decline and under increasing threat

The evidence on the state of Australia’s environment put forward by the scientific community to this Review is compelling. Overall, Australia’s environment is in a state of decline and under increasing pressure. There are localised examples of good outcomes; however, 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 (see Box 1).

In contrast to the outcomes for biodiversity, contributions to the Review present a mixed view in relation to heritage. While the EPBC Act has strengthened Commonwealth obligations and enabled resources to be targeted towards protecting Australia’s significant and outstanding heritage places, 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 reduced1.

Box 1 - Trends in Australia’s biodiversity, ecosystems and heritage

It is not the role of the Review 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 (2016)2 and contributions to the Review from a range of experts3.

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 declining4. 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 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 species have been listed as threatened than those that have shown an improvement. Over its 20-year operation, only 13 animal species 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 improvement5.

Protected areas—The area of Australia that is protected from competing land uses, for example through national parks, marine reserves and Indigenous Protected Areas, has expanded. However, not all ecosystems or habitats are well represented, and their management is not delivering strong outcomes for threatened species. Consideration of future scenarios indicates that the reserve system is 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.

There have been some modest environmental successes such as an increase in humpback whale populations. 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 Tasmania6.

Heritage—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)7 has indicated it has specific concerns for 3 of Australia’s 20 World Heritage places. The loss of heritage values since the last EPBC Act Review is due to a range of factors, most recently the impact of the 2019/2020 bushfire events on World Heritage properties and National Heritage places.

The Australian environment faces significant future pressures, including land-use change, habitat fragmentation and degradation, and invasive species. Climate change continues to build as a pressure that will 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.


[1] This commentary draws on a range of submissions in response to the EPBC Act Review Discussion Paper, including: Australian Heritage Council, ANON-QJCP-UGZD-8ACT Heritage Council, ANON-K57V-XQK2-K; Federation of Australian Historical Societies Inc, ANON-K57V-XQP5-U; Australian World Heritage Advisory Committee, ANON-QJCP-UGZ1-N.

[2] Jackson WJ et al 2016, Overview, In: Australia state of the environment 2016. Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra.

[3] This commentary draws on a range of submissions in response to the EPBC Act Review Discussion Paper from scientific and specialist organisations: Threatened Species Scientific Committee, ANON-K57V-XF2U-J. The University of Melbourne; The University of Queensland; Australian National University; Charles Darwin University, ANON-K57V-XYS3-4; The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, ANON-K57V-XQTW-1; Centre for Marine Science University of Queensland, ANON-K57V-XQ5X-3; Australian Marine Conservation Society, ANON-K57V-XQRB-A; Australian Institute of Marine Science, ANON-K57V-XQ18-Y; ACT Heritage Council, ANON-K57V-XQK2-K; Australian World Heritage Advisory Committee, ANON-QJCP-UGZ1-N; CSIRO, ANON-K57V-XFQC-Y; Ecological Society of Australia, ANON-K57V-XZXD-U; Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, ANON-K57V-XQQE-C; Australian Academy of Science, ANON-K57V-XQQM-M. Other resources drawn on include: Cresswell ID, Murphy H 2016, Biodiversity, In: Australia State of the Environment (2016), Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra.; Ward, M et al 2019, Lots of loss with little scrutiny: The attrition of habitat critical for threatened species in Australia; TSX 2018, Threatened Species Index; Threatened Species Recovery Hub 2020, Major declines in threatened mammal populations over last 20 years, but news not all bad; Mackay R 2016, Heritage, In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra.

[4] Woinarski, 2015 in Ecological Society of Australia, ANON-K57V-XZXD-U, Submission in response to EPBC Act Review Discussion Paper.

[5] Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, ANON-K57V-XQTW-1, Submission in response to EPBC Act Review Discussion Paper.