Introduction

Independent Report to the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Australian State of the Environment Committee, Authors
CSIRO Publishing on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06745 0

Introduction

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The State of the Environment Report in 1996 (SoE 1996) provided the first independent and comprehensive account of the Australian environment and provided an excellent foundation for the ASEC to produce this State of the Environment Report (SoE 2001).

The membership of the ASEC and its terms of reference are given in Appendix 1. SoE (2001) is drawn from seven commissioned theme reports, summarised in the Thematic findings. The theme reports are: atmosphere, coasts and oceans, land, inland waters, biodiversity, natural and cultural heritage, and human settlements (see http://www.ea.gov.au/soe/). Each theme report used a set of environmental indicators (Appendix 2) to report their findings. An expert reference group supported each theme author and the reports were peer reviewed. Contributions to SoE (2001) are summarised in Appendix 3.

The conceptual structure of the modified 'pressure-state-response' model of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development was used in SoE (1996), and also underpins SoE (2001) (see Appendix 1). For SoE (2001), more emphasis has been placed on implications of conditions, pressures and responses consistent with the terms of reference.

The overall message and key findings of SoE (2001) have been developed by the ASEC following a review of the theme reports and their synopses by ASEC members (see Thematic findings). The 2001 Report also contains the views of the ASEC on the context within which Australia's environment is managed and its views on future directions.

The principles of ESD are now well recognised in Australian legislation, including the Commonwealth's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. Although there is some legislation to protect cultural heritage, traditional Indigenous rules for care of the land and its sacred places, and the philosophy enshrined in the Burra Charter of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) Australia, form a good basis for conserving cultural heritage. These principles have broad community and industry support and they form a powerful philosophy for use in both environmental and heritage management.

Sound information and understanding of issues are vital to enable Australians not only to feel, but also to be, part of a society capable of managing or ameliorating the changes which affect our distinctive environment. This Report offers Australians an understanding of the Australian environment and highlights how they might relate, individually and collectively, to the major issues affecting their country. Australians should strive to pass on to future generations a healthier environment than they inherited.

State of the environment reporting

State of the environment reporting aims to support decision making at all levels of society. It provides reliable information that can foster a more integrated and longer term perspective to environmental management. Four objectives were used by the ASEC for these purposes for SoE (2001). They are to:

  • provide accurate, up-to-date and accessible information about environmental conditions, and where possible, trends for the Australian continent, surrounding seas and Australia's external territories
  • increase public understanding of issues related to the Australian environment
  • provide an early warning of potential problems
  • report on the effectiveness of policies and programs designed to respond to environmental change.

SoE reporting is made more complex by the challenge of analysing incomplete or inconsistent data sets. Since 1996, there has been a significant improvement in the data available for SoE reporting involving many organisations. These include the Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs), the National Land and Water Resources Audit (NLWRA) and the Australian Greenhouse Office (AGO). However, major problems of access to data and consistency of standards and methods of data compilation still exist. Development of adequate and effective responses to environmental challenges is often hampered by the lack of data and information with which to portray accurately how the Australian environment is changing over time.