7.2 - Monitoring and evaluation of Australia’s environmental management system is fragmented
The management of Australia’s environment is a shared responsibility between the Commonwealth and the states and territories, with jurisdictions working in partnership with the community and the private sector (Chapter 1). To meet its international obligations, the Commonwealth has an overarching responsibility to monitor and report on the national environment.
The approach to monitoring and evaluation within the system happens at a range of scales (project site, environmental asset, region), for a range of reasons (project, program and regulatory framework) and varies considerably. Some of the monitoring and evaluation frameworks are strong and have benefited from decades of investment and effort, others are emerging and some, like many under the EPBC Act, are immature (see Box 19).
Box 19 - 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 Commonwealth and Queensland governments and partners. It is underpinned by a coordinated and integrated monitoring, modelling and reporting program to support an adaptive management approach120. It guides the coordination and alignment of existing long-term monitoring programs in order to capitalise on existing investment and avoid duplication, and informs annual report cards and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s 5-yearly outlook reports.
The Commonwealth 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 funded by the Commonwealth Government 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 broadly121.
There is no cohesive mechanism that brings the various efforts together to present a picture of the performance of our national system of environmental management. This is a key shortcoming that should be addressed.
7.2.2 - 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 (s516B). 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 influenced capacity to use the SoE report as the driver for establishing longitudinal datasets.
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. There is no feedback loop, and as a nation there is no requirement to stop, review and where necessary, change course.
The EPBC Act provides no guidance as to the purpose or objective of the national SoE report, and although provision is made for this to be clarified in regulations, this has never been done. It relies on collating available data and information and 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 there is no requirement for a government response. The links between SoE reporting and other initiatives, such as the development of national environmental economic accounts (see Box 20) is not clear.
Box 20 - Environmental economic accounting
In April 2018 the Commonwealth and all state and territory governments agreed on a strategy to implement a common system of environmental economic accounts (EEA) across Australia122.
EEA 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 will adopt the internationally agreed System of Environmental Economic Accounting (SEEA) framework. 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.
For example, 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 2018 National Strategy sets 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 underpins it. Several pilot accounts are underway, but they have yet to be picked up and implemented in Commonwealth or jurisdictional level reporting.
 GBRMPA 2020, Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program.
 Capon S et al 2020, A long-term monitoring framework for the Regional Land Partnerships Stage 2: Final Report, Griffith University.
 This box draws on information on environmental economic accounting from the National Strategy and Action Plan and the Commonwealth Government. and Victorian Government websites on environmental accounting.