The latest State of the Environment (SOE) Report was released on Tuesday 19 July 2022 by the Minister for the Environment and Water.
The report is a comprehensive assessment of the state of Australia’s environment produced every five years by the Australian Government. It is an independent and evidence-based review that is mandated by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
CSIRO scientists have made significant contributions to State of the Environment 2021 as co-lead authors of six of the report’s chapters including Air Quality, Land, Marine, Coasts, Biodiversity, and Extreme Events. Our published science, data sets, models and tools were used extensively across the report’s comprehensive findings.
The State of the Environment Report has found that in a rapidly changing climate, with unsustainable development and use of resources, the general outlook for our environment is deteriorating. This is a result of increasing pressures from climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, and resource extraction.
We welcome the inclusion of Indigenous authors, an entire Indigenous-led theme, and Indigenous-specific case studies in the report. It is a hugely significant change to this reporting – and CSIRO has been central in support of this approach.
Dr Larry Marshall, CSIRO Chief Executive, says:
“Our unique Australian environment is precious and much-loved by all Australians. Our landscapes, biodiversity, air, coast and seas are facing pressures unlike ever before and science, research and innovation will be critical to turn the tide of environment deterioration and degradation in the future.
Scientists from across Australia have meticulously gathered and assessed the evidence that has contributed to this timely snapshot of Australia’s environment, which is facing significant challenges due to increasing pressures from climate change, pollution, resource extraction, habitat loss and invasive species.
I would urge all Australians to engage deeply with this report, as a declining environment affects all of us. By working together to take action, we can help our environment to heal.
Science from CSIRO has played a key contribution to this report, with cutting-edge scientific tools, systems, models and data sets that were crucial in establishing its evidence base. This rigorous analysis will be critical to making better decisions on how we manage our environment in the future, including balancing its competing uses with protection and restoration.
I pay my respects to the Traditional Owners of the lands upon which we all live, because they have protected our environment for millennia – their voices are strong in the report to demonstrate the criticality of connection to healthy Country to heal Australia.”
Extreme events are impacting our environment
Dr Dan Metcalfe, Director of CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere and co-lead author of the SOE Extreme Events chapter says:
“The State of the Environment Report found the intensity, frequency and distribution of extreme weather-related events are changing.
Impacts of extreme events have been exacerbated by habitat fragmentation, land management practices and invasive species, and extreme events are demonstrably impacting our environment, ecosystems, society and our wellbeing.
Research on extreme events and climate change is integrated widely across the report, as impacts of such acute events are felt widely across the built and natural environment, and affect biodiversity, production systems, industry, and community.
We need to continue to improve our understanding of the interplay between hazards, risks, vulnerability and impact to determine where to make the most significant investments.”
There may be no ‘safe’ level of air quality in Australia
Dr Kathryn Emmerson, CSIRO Principal Research Scientist and co-lead author of the SOE Air Quality chapter says:
“The quality of the air we breathe affects the health of all Australians. There may be no ‘safe’ level of air quality in Australia, as health effects can be observed from relatively low levels of air pollution.
Bushfires are the greatest threat to Australia’s air quality as they generate smoke that can be harmful to human health for days and sometimes weeks at a time. Wood heaters are a major cause of lower air quality in cities and prohibiting their use would improve air quality, particularly in the winter.
The most effective way of improving air quality is through targeting pollution sources and minimising our exposure to low air quality.
Ongoing development, testing and deployment of low-cost air quality sensors to supplement existing monitoring networks will be effective for localised real time air quality information.”
Competition for land and its resources is growing
Dr Kristen Williams, CSIRO Principal Research Scientist and co-lead author of the SOE Land chapter says:
“Intense competition for land resources in Australia has resulted in continued declines in the amount and condition of our land-based natural capital – native vegetation, soil and biodiversity. This means that the overall state of Australia’s land and soil is poor.
Many parts of Australia are highly degraded, and native vegetation has been extensively cleared. The widespread reduction in capacity of native vegetation to support Australia’s unique biodiversity is exacerbated by declining habitat quality, climate change and the prevalence of invasive species. It can take many decades for ecosystems to fully recover.
Australian landscapes have a key role to play in carbon storage, above the ground in vegetation and below the ground sequestered in soils. While nationally there has been a slight decline in primary forest clearing from very high past levels, the amount of regrowth forest reclearing has remained high. Healthy soils and functioning ecosystems represent a significant opportunity for sequestering and storing carbon.
Land managed for nature conservation has remained relatively steady, with most increases coming from the private sector and the Indigenous estate. However, managing for climate change and invasive species remains a significant and growing challenge.
Renewed focus on landscape recovery, and greater recognition and empowerment of Indigenous land management practices, where possible, can help us to heal Country and find new ways to gain a broad range of benefits.”
Climate change and pollution pressures are not being adequately managed in our marine environment
Dr Rowan Trebilco, CSIRO Team Leader and co-lead author of the SOE Marine chapter says:
“Australia’s oceanic marine areas remain in generally good condition overall; however, some areas are deteriorating rapidly.
The State of the Environment Report shows that pressures arising from climate change and pollution are not being adequately managed in Australia’s marine environment. There is a need for widespread uptake of integrated management approaches to effectively manage Australia’s marine environment.
Nearshore environments, like reefs, are in poor and deteriorating condition due to climate change and cumulative pressures.
Climate change continues to warm and acidify the ocean. Marine heatwaves also affect the quality of marine ecosystems. Several major marine heatwaves have been experienced in Australian waters over the last five years, contributing to an overall deteriorating trend for the marine environment.
Looking at pressures and components in isolation only tells part of the story for our marine environment. The SOE Report suggests that new national systems are needed for integrated, inclusive and participatory ocean management. This could be enabled by a national integrated, adaptive, long-term marine environmental monitoring with strong Indigenous engagement.”
Outcomes for species and ecosystems are generally poor
Dr Helen Murphy, CSIRO Principal Research Scientist and co-lead author of the SOE Biodiversity chapter says:
“Biodiversity is essential to a resilient natural environment, and to human survival, wellbeing and economic prosperity. It is also integral to the culture of Indigenous Australians and to Australia’s national identity.
Pressures facing Australian biodiversity have not improved since the 2016 State of the Environment Report, and outcomes for species and ecosystems are generally poor.
Habitat loss and degradation, and invasive species, result in persistent and sometimes irreversible impacts on biodiversity across almost all areas of Australia.
Our inability to adequately manage pressures will continue to result in species extinctions and deteriorating ecosystem conditions unless current management approaches and investments are substantially improved.”
There are multiple pressures on Australia’s coasts
Ms Mibu Fischer, CSIRO Researcher and Indigenous co-lead author of the SOE Marine and Coasts chapters says:
“There are multiple pressures on Australia’s coasts. Sea level rise will have a profound impact, with climate change impacts fast outweighing those from population and industry.
“There is limited Indigenous leadership in management of our coasts in Australia with further investment needed to improve power imbalances and to allow for increased relationships and partnerships when caring for Country.”