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By Helen Brinkman and Mary-Lou Considine 19 July 2022 5 min read

Pair of rainbow bee-eaters (female on the left) at Round Hill Nature Reserve, New South Wales, Australia (Image by PotMart186 via Wikimedia)

With climate change, biodiversity loss, and natural disasters rapidly shifting the goal posts for decision makers, there is growing demand to assess and account for the environment and its value to people.

Australia's natural environment is fundamental to our quality of life and prosperity. Every day it provides us with goods and ecosystem services, such as clean air, fresh water, food and fibre. Nature also supplies cultural and spiritual values that are essential for our wellbeing.

The State of the Environment 2021 (SoE) Report outlines the health of our environment, the pressures it faces, and looks at its resilience, emerging risks and outlook. It brings together a wide array of scientific findings that can be accessed by the community and used to build a more resilient natural environment.

CSIRO has made significant contributions to State of the Environment 2021 which was released by the Minister for Environment and Water today.

Dr Dan Metcalfe[Link will open in a new window] is the Director of CSIRO’s Oceans and Atmosphere business unit and co-lead author of a chapter dedicated to Extreme Events.

He says CSIRO experts played important roles in the report, which is an independent and evidence-based review.

“CSIRO experts made significant contributions as co-lead authors of six of the report’s chapters, on themes as diverse as air quality, land, biodiversity, marine, coasts and extreme events, and our published science has been used extensively across the report’s comprehensive findings,” he says.

“The 2021 report also marks an important first, with an Indigenous co-lead author contributing to all but one of the themed chapters, demonstrating the important contribution Indigenous Australians make to our environment.”

Underpinning CSIRO’s input is a range of scientific tools, methods and data that helped experts identify and quantify changes to environmental conditions since the previous reporting cycle[Link will open in a new window].

The growing demand to assess and account for the environment

But with Australia’s broad array of ecosystems, what tools do scientists bring to bear to assess and account for our environment? How can they help us understand the pressures on our environment, and track progress to improve environmental outcomes?

One way we can achieve this is through accounting tools that integrate economic and environmental data to better account for environmental assets such as land, oceans and ecosystems.

Dr Becky Schmidt, co-author of the SoE Land chapter, says accounting tools allow information to be organised consistently for a range of users, such as accountants, researchers, policymakers, land managers, regulators, and different levels of government.

In 2018, Australia’s federal, state and territory governments agreed to use the United Nation's System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA) framework across Australia, to provide a consistent way of considering environmental assets.

“Environmental accountants view an ecosystem as an asset and measure the condition of that asset,” Dr Schmidt says.

“You then assess whether the ecosystem’s health is improving or deteriorating, and the benefits or loss in value that come from that.”

Human or natural impacts?

Dr Schmidt says ecosystem accounting reveals the extent and state of ecosystems, and whether changes in ecosystem services can be traced to natural events, human actions, or both.

“If you see a change in the ecosystem, it’s hard to work out whether it's a human impact, a natural change or a combination,” she says.

“Our conceptual models factor in the different kinds of states you would expect for an ecosystem experiencing natural disturbances, versus a management action or impacts from an invasive species.

“Understanding how ecosystems work – and assessing their condition – is all part of ecosystem accounting.”

Gunbower Creek, near Cohuna, Victoria. The Gunbower-Koondrook-Perricoota is a Forest Icon Site on the River Murray. Image: Gypsy Denise

An ecosystem accounting case study

The SoE Report has showcased one example of ecosystem accounting: a collaborative project in an ‘icon site’ on the River Murray, called the Gunbower-Koondrook-Perricoota Forest Icon Site (GKP).

Chosen for its environmental, cultural and international significance, GKP spans the river north-west of Echuca, taking in state forest-managed land in NSW, and both national park and state forest in Victoria.

Partnering with the former Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) and the Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), CSIRO tested how ecosystem accounting might be implemented in the Murray–Darling Basin.

Framing the environmental picture

The study brought together environmental, social, cultural and economic information to show environmental changes across time and space of:

  • the extent and condition of GKP ecosystems, which include woodlands; extensive stands of river red gum; freshwater habitat; and a wetland protected under the Ramsar Convention for migratory waterbirds,
  • the different services those ecosystems deliver, and
  • the value these services bring to local communities and nations.

CSIRO contributed ecological and biodiversity expertise, developing a set of ecosystem accounts. To do this, scientists and accounting experts built on decades of international work to further develop accounting methods that tailor, extend and more strongly couple existing recognised techniques, including:

  • the Habitat Condition Assessment System, which provided Australia with its first consistent, repeatable and cost-efficient assessment of habitat condition for biodiversity
  • Biogeographic modelling Infrastructure for Large-scale Biodiversity Indicators (BILBI), which uses best-available biological and environmental data, modelling and high-performance computing to assess biodiversity change at fine spatial resolution across the global land surface, and
  • the Australian Ecosystem Models Framework, a national framework of dynamic models that describe ecosystem states and reference conditions.

Based on this work, we now have a more integrated understanding of how the GKP ecosystems work, says Dr Schmidt.

These measurements can help us understand how healthy river systems benefit communities, industry and the environment.

Ecosystem types in Gunbower-Koondrook-Perricoota Forest Icon Site in 2015. Photos: P McInerney (CSIRO), SM Prober (CSIRO), D Cook (Rakali)

Next steps

CSIRO is working with the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water (DCCEEW), the Murray–Darling Basin Authority and other partners to develop ecosystem accounts across the whole Basin.

This integrated understanding of ecosystems is also being extended to agricultural and mixed-use landscapes, covering both natural and agricultural ecosystems.

Methods and data from this work will inform planning for national ecosystem accounts, helping ensure that accounts are ecologically meaningful and supported by ongoing streams of trusted environmental data.

Dr Metcalfe says other chapters of the SoE Report have applied similar accounting tools for land and oceans.

“All contain information that is critical to making better decisions on how we manage our environment into the future, including balancing its competing uses with protection and restoration,” Dr Metcalfe says.

“Coupled with the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives and knowledge, this SoE Report delivers a wealth of insight to support environmental action.”

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