“In a rapidly changing climate, with declining biodiversity, the general outlook for our environment is deteriorating. The impacts of this will affect us all. It is in our own interest to understand, protect, and restore the health of our environment. It is also our responsibility. Our environment has intrinsic value beyond direct human use,” said the lead authors of Australia’s State of the Environment Report 2021, which was released only after the recent elections.
The lead authors of the five-yearly report were Dr. Ian Cresswell, an environmental scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation; Dr. Terri Janke, a prominent Indigenous lawyer; and Prof. Emma Johnston, deputy vice-chancellor for research at the University of Sydney.
More than 30 experts worked on the report, which for the first time included Indigenous co-authors since the project’s implementation in 1995. It was also the first time that the report included how the environment affects the health and well-being of Australians.
In their findings, there were sudden changes in some ecosystems over the past five years. At least 19 of these ecosystems now manifest signs of collapse or are in danger of collapse. The lead authors thereby emphasized that “the natural world, as the source of food, water, air, and raw materials, was not separate from the human world”.
Meanwhile, as she presented the environment report at the National Press Club, Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Joan Plibersek could not help but described it as a “shocking document” that related “a story of crisis and decline in Australia’s environment, and of a decade of government inaction and willful ignorance.”
The report concluded that Australia’s environment is suffering from poor health and has undergone deterioration over the past five years due to the following factors:
pressures of climate change
In addition to these, the authors said that in spite of the efforts of the national and state governments to address the environmental decline, there was no adequate funding or effective coordination across jurisdictions to mitigate the snowballing impact of the above-mentioned threats.
The following are some of the major points from the State of the Environment report:
Australia holds the highest record in the extinction of mammalian species over any other continent. Among the developed countries, it also holds the record for having the highest rates of species decline. There are more than 100 Australian species that have been declared as either extinct or extinct in the wild. The primary causes of this disappearance were habitat destruction, clearing, and species that were introduced into Australia’s ecosystems.
Listed as threatened since 2016 were 202 animal and plant species. Prior to this, 175 were added to the list between 2011 to 2016. This occurred at the same time as the slowdown of the rate of discovery and description of new species. Hence, there are more unknown species than those identified.
Trajectories of 21 species in the priority list have improved through the government’s strategic program. However, there were no improvements in many others. And the list of threatened species will further go up in the coming years as the impact of the 2019–20 bushfires which displaced or killed between 1 billion and 3 billion animals is fully assessed.
Almost half of Australia is now utilized for grazing, with more areas being devoted to forestry and cropping as well. Since 1990, more than 6.1 million hectares of primary native forest had been cleared. What’s more, over the 5 years to 2019, almost 290,000 hectares of primary forest and 343,000 hectares of reforested areas have been also demolished.
The country now has more foreign flora species than endemic kinds. Management of introduced plant species, diseases, and invasive pests cost Australia hundreds of billions of dollars over the past 50 years.
Water extraction and drought have caused the water levels in the Murray-Darling Basin to hit record lows in 2019. Due to the poor conditions of rivers and catchments, native fish populations have decreased by more than 90% in the past 150 years, which appears to continue to deteriorate.
The Great Barrier Reef has also suffered mass bleaching in 2016, 2017, and 2020 due to marine heatwaves. To the peril of young corals, ocean acidification is now close to the tipping point. Likewise in poor conditions are waterways, beaches, and coastlines in areas near urban centers. But those in remote places are mostly in good condition. Compared to the terrestrial environment, the marine environment is in better condition with 86% of populations having been classified as not overfished.
Devastation of Indigenous heritage continues at such an alarming rate and in opposition to the will of the Traditional Owners. Indigenous people have difficulties in accessing financial and other vital assistance in order to manage their country in spite of the fact that indigenous protected areas compose nearly half of Australia’s national reserve system.
Most major cities in Australia are developing at a faster rate than other developed cities in the world, resulting in increased urban heat, waste, congestion, and pollution. The rapid growth also puts increasing pressure on water and energy resources.
Due to the massive changes in land use, Australia now also holds the record for being the third among all the countries in the world — just behind China and the US — in having the largest cumulative loss of soil organic carbon with grave implications for the climate crisis that threatens humanity.
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