Future Directions

Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Beeton RJS (Bob), Buckley Kristal I, Jones Gary J, Morgan Denise, Reichelt Russell E, Trewin Dennis
(2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee), 2006

12. Future Directions

The 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee makes the following suggestions to the Australian Government, Parliament and people. These are based on the insights the Committee has gained from the discussions held in preparing SoE2006.

The 2001 Committee identified six key issues fundamental to the sustainability of Australia’s environment, and its economic and social interests. These issues were:

  • research and monitoring
  • the protection of natural and cultural heritage
  • barriers to implementing environmental sustainability
  • adaptive management
  • data and information management
  • widespread adoption of sustainability in Australian society.

In addition, SoE2001 pointed firmly to the need to integrate environmental, economic and social policy in the future.

While there has been considerable progress on a number of these issues since 2001, the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee believes that the issues identified in 2001 require continuing attention and investment and so they are integrated into the advice that the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee offers as to the future directions for Australia.

Measuring environmental progress (more information on this topic)

In preparing this report, the Committee used 263 indicators selected from the original 500 environmental indicators proposed in 1999. They were chosen on the basis of measurability and usefulness of information. There are good national data for 37 per cent of these, some data for 51 per cent and no data for 12 per cent. Land, biodiversity, coasts and oceans, inland waters, and natural and cultural heritage are each more than 50 per cent data deficient.

It is the emphatic opinion of the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee that the future role of a national state of the environment committee should be to provide data interpretation and commentary, using accessible, up-to-date, relevant national data. The year 2006 must be the last state of the environment report in which the Committee initiates the process of indicator and data selection. Environmental data should be continuously updated and made publicly available on the web. This will require strategic responses that are tailored to national, state and territory, and regional needs and that are sufficiently understood and accepted to be sustained.

The Committee believes that, in cooperation with the Department of the Environment and Heritage, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the National Land and Water Resources Audit, and many other Commonwealth and state and territory instrumentalities, it has laid the basis for Australia to adopt an enduring environmental reporting system that has the potential to track changes in environmental pressures, conditions and responses. The nation needs such a system, the environment deserves it, and policy development and evaluation cannot occur without it.

This is a critical national need. The system must be well designed and based on datasets that are collected in a nationally consistent way over a long period of time. This requires agreement on a consolidated list of important datasets, appropriate synchronicity of reporting between jurisdictions and in data collection, and agreement from data custodians to commit to data collection, aggregation and management protocols.

The need is particularly pressing because environmental systems do not respond to intervention in the same way as the economic and social systems that Australians are more accustomed to managing. Only by this action will Australians be able to identify and assess changes in the environment—whether resulting from interventions or natural causes—as well as the return on investments made, and hence be able to improve environmental decision-making processes.

The Committee is concerned that the perpetuation of current data gaps could lead to an uncoordinated response. This would not be in the interest of any jurisdiction.

Adaptation is crucial to survival

As this report and its supporting commentaries have demonstrated, Australians have altered the environment in major ways.

The Committee recognises that large-scale changes, such as natural and human-induced climate variability, have the potential to mask many other changes in condition that result from human pressure or from Australia’s responses. It is neither necessary nor appropriate to wait for this conundrum to be resolved because the changes to environmental management and the development of adaptability suggested in this report are desirable of themselves, irrespective of the complexity of the interactions.

Effective adaptive management of Australia’s environment requires an improved capacity to collect, synthesise and interpret key information and the consideration of any single change in the context of broader environmental change. There is a need for rigorous assessments of the performance of market-based and stewardship approaches to managing biodiversity objectives along with evaluation of other options.

Similarly, Australia’s responses to other environmental problems must be addressed through urgent action. In a number of cases, the strategies have been developed to begin restoring environmental quality, but Australia’s systems of government have impeded implementation, and the required monitoring, evaluation and reporting that good management requires. The key elements needed are clarity of purpose, commitment to implementation, appropriate accountability and monitoring of progress. All are essential to effect change. All are possible. All are within the technical and financial capability of the nation.

Regulation and incentives

SoE2001 pointed out that appropriate regulation works when dealing with common property resources and situations where market failure occurs. For example, there have been significant recent environmental benefits from regulating engine performance characteristics and fuel types, and from air pollution controls on heavy industry.

Governments have a continuing role in environmental stewardship through appropriate environmental investment, governance and regulation at the appropriate scale of intervention and evaluation. In Australia’s multi-level system of government this is especially challenging; however, the considerable progress noted in this report should give reasons for renewed efforts to better coordinate these activities. The 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee supports systems that encourage stewardship by accreditation, certification and, where appropriate, markets for environmental services.

It is appropriate that the changes to regulatory regimes (such as the EPBC Act) that have recently been established, be reviewed. Such an outcomes-based approach to regulation and incentives will facilitate change for the common good. Change is inevitably repercussive, and consequently, economic, social and environmental tests need to be applied when regulation is considered as a solution to an environmental problem. Alternative options to regulation should always be considered and tested in any adaptive framework.

As a first step towards improving institutional arrangements all parties need to recognise and accept the diverse role of landscapes. This will involve the rethinking of much existing environmental legislation, of the support provided to land managers to improve their management practices, and of the support provided for research and innovation. It will also require a reform in governance to move away from short-term and sectoral management towards a more systematic, integrated and planned approach to monitoring and managing almost every environmental sector covered in this report. The private sector has the potential to make a valuable contribution, including information, knowledge and wisdom. Environmental governance arrangements should support rather than impede good environmental management.

There is a tendency for local-scale decisions in the planning and management of most environmental issues to promote the complexity of regulations and fragmentation of ecosystems. Part of the governance reforms must include nationally coordinated, ongoing monitoring and assessment of the ecological, social and economic condition so that this can be avoided.

Maintaining and building a capability to manage

For Australia’s innovative approach to environmental management to work, it is critical that scientific understanding of environmental issues be translated into effective action and made available in a cost-effective fashion. This means that national investment in the development and deployment of environmental technologies (such as better urban systems, water management, water and land restoration and recycling) will require increasing emphasis in proportion to investment in environmental science. The need for technological innovation was recognised in ‘Backing Australia’s Ability1 ’, but more progress has been made on science and less on commercially useful technologies that improve environmental management and position Australia as a world leader in this field.

The success of future generations and environmental progress will depend on better technologies, knowledge, skills and investment strategies. SoE2001 identified a shortage of skills and knowledge in interpreting data and in some core science areas. These problems remain and are of ongoing concern. One very important issue that continues to get worse is a national decline in capacity in biological taxonomy (Mather 2006). The situation in this field has become critical.

Sharing responsibility

National stewardship of the environment implies that there can be shared responsibilities by all Australians in relation to the environment. It seems evident that rural and regional Australia cannot single-handedly address all of Australia’s environmental problems, because the required investment is well beyond the capability of the rural economy. National capability is being built at the scale of the whole landscape. This involves multiple land tenures of both public and private land, and integration of conservation and development. It has created a regional delivery system that places enormous demands on regional groups and local government. Building capacity in the regional and rural communities is critical to address the issues raised in SoE2006.

In this context, knowledge has become perhaps the most important factor in determining the standard of living. It is more important than land, tools or labour. Today’s most technologically-advanced economies are truly knowledge based. For environmental progress, rural and regional communities need knowledge-building interventions in the provision of leadership. All communities, whether rural or urban, need to become learning communities dedicated to all the knowledge areas that determine long-term sustainability. Achieving this must be a national priority.

Corporations have increasingly adopted environmental standards beyond compliance, and they have made valuable philanthropic contributions to natural and cultural heritage conservation, bringing more than a million hectares of land under management. Both of these trends should be encouraged by governments. On the other hand, the Committee does not consider the tendency of some Australian corporations to export adverse impacts to offshore developments in less regulated countries, to constitute responsible stewardship.

Stewardship by Indigenous Australians is of increasing importance, and governments have a lot more to do to build the capacity of Indigenous communities. The very poor health and employment prospects of many Indigenous Australians significantly affect their ability to care for the land and to teach other Australians about their traditional methods of care, although this is routinely expected of them. This is especially the case in remote areas, many of which do not meet minimally acceptable standards for human settlements. It also limits their ability to use government programmes to develop businesses and to actively manage their lands.

Ethics and the future

The 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee recognises that the environment is important in its own right. It is also practically important for a mix of food, fibre and other environmental services. If this is the position accepted by most Australians, there are some important consequences:

  • The unit for environmental management of land is at the property or the appropriate government land management unit. The evaluation of success will often be at a large scale—for example, the catchment or ecological population. This means that when property owners manage for agreed outcomes they will collectively contribute to environmental outcomes on a broader landscape scale.
  • It must be recognised that environmental services are valued by all and so must be paid for by all. Consumers must bear a fairer share of the costs. It cannot be a free service provided by landholders any more than any other form of essential national capital can be paid for by the small number of people who are intimately involved with it. Markets may then work in a way that improves environmental outcomes.

Governments have a role of improving environmental education in schools and the community so that better-informed national decisions can be made on these critical issues (Tilbury 2006).

Australians must also recognise the necessity to manage for the needs of future generations. Because Australia’s landscapes and climate are so variable, and so little is known, perhaps the best option is to make decisions now that will allow future generations to make their own. It is likely that they will have better technologies, knowledge, skills and investment strategies for environmental management and restoration. The critical proviso is that they still have the raw materials to achieve the environment that they desire.

Improving Australia’s environment

Increasing pressure on the environment can be expected from continuing population and economic growth, and from continued urban development. These pressures will continue to increase unless there is some decoupling of growth from non-sustainable consumption of resources, particularly energy, land, water and other products dependent on limited natural resources (such as forestry and fisheries). Wastes also need to be reduced. This requires an appropriate mixture of improved public awareness, incentives, price signals that incorporate at least some of the environmental costs, improved recycling, renewal (such as forests), regulation, and investment in technologies with the potential to reduce environmental impacts. Sound urban planning and development, that takes account of environmental costs, would be another step in the right direction.

Strategies targeting threats can maximise conservation return. Modest investment can lead to significant recovery of threatened species and ecosystems in northern and central Australia. In nearly half of Australia, however, there are significant constraints to recovery due to the level of landscape change, resources, and regional and community capacity. Consequently, conservation strategies need to be integrated with other natural resource management considerations as part of a regional delivery framework.

So far, many responses to environmental decline have been reactive. Innovation is required in policy, management, science and technology; and new solutions must be found and applied in the form of new land and water use patterns that are sustainable, financially viable and acceptable to the community. In some regions, particularly those subjected to intense development for urbanisation or agriculture, major programmes of ecosystem restoration are required. Because prevention is more cost effective, anticipatory policies are required that focus on stemming ecosystem and species decline.

The state of the environment reporting process is intended to be a national stocktake of environmental progress. Australia has made considerable progress in creating a reporting process and integrating it into policy development. However, in order to capitalise on the enormous national investments that have been made, further improvements to monitoring, reporting and response systems are required. This is the final word for AustraliaState of the Environment 2006.

1 ‘Backing Australia’s Ability’ is an Australian Government initiative to invest in innovation, science and technology.