Environment: Australia’s natural environment – sick and getting sicker

Jul 30, 2022
CSIRO ScienceImage 4462 Landscape view of farmland near Bruce Rock in the Western Australian wheat belt
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Australia’s environment needs better governments and more respect. Mexican asparagus: nice but very naughty.

Australia. State of the Environment Report 202

The findings of the most recent 5-year report would be more alarming if they hadn’t been expected. In a nutshell:

  • The state of Australia’s environment is poor and it is deteriorating …
  • … because pressures from climate change, habitat loss and fragmentation, invasive species, pollution, urban expansion, agricultural practices, waste management, competition for land and water, and resource extraction are increasing …
  • … and multiple pressures create cumulative impacts, a fact that is often ignored by developers and government approval processes.
  • Australia has lost more mammals than any other continent and has one of the highest rates of species decline.
  • The number of listed threatened species has increased by 8% in the last five years.
  • Average warming over the Australian landmass has now reached 1.4oC and the last decade was the warmest on record.
  • The intensity, frequency and range of extreme weather events such as cyclones, hailstorms, floods, droughts, storm tides, heatwaves and bushfires are changing natural landscapes and having irreversible effects on ecosystems and human health and wellbeing.
  • On a scale of very poor, poor, good and very good, 10 of 15 indicators of the climate, landscapes, seascapes, ecosystems and biodiversity are ‘poor’.
  • On a scale of improving, stable and deteriorating, 13 of the 15 are ‘deteriorating’. None is improving.
  • Australia’s current environmental protection framework is fragmented and the legislation, policy, standards and management practices are at best ‘partially effective’.
  • The resources available – funding, data, staff, volunteers, technology – are considered to be ‘ineffective’ and ‘deteriorating’.

This much and more has been well covered by the mainstream media. What has not received anywhere near the attention it deserves is the emphasis given in the report to the broader social context. The authors want readers to understand that the report is not simply a collection of  biological, ecological, geological, hydrological and meteorological data. And also that it’s about much more than Australia’s soils, rivers, oceans, coasts, skies, animals and plants, and the damage we are doing to them.

The report conveys strongly that this is a story about relationships and cultures: about the relationships between humans and the natural world; and about the relationships between all human beings, with particular attention being paid to recognition of and respect for Indigenous knowledges, cultures and practices. It’s also about our own physical and mental health, and even our survival as a species. Inspired, I think, by Kate Raworth’s concept of Doughnut Economics, page 21 of the Overview depicts the idea of a safe operating space for humanity, bounded on one side by the basic requirements of a thriving natural environment and on the other by the reasonable standards of living that all human beings have a right to enjoy.

This is a report on the current condition of Australia’s natural environment, not a blueprint for action. Nonetheless, the authors call for greater national leadership, more coordinated action across government and non-government sectors, better data collection and monitoring, and, of course, greater financial investment.

I like your old trees better than your new trees

Between 2000 and 2020 the world lost a net total of more than 100 million hectares of trees (an area bigger than South Australia). But the (somewhat) good news is that it would have been over double that had it not been for a roughly equal area of land that gained tree cover. In fact, 36 countries, mostly in Europe and Asia, gained more tree cover than they lost.

In terms of carbon storage and ecosystem diversity and resilience though, new trees don’t make up for the old ones lost. Big old trees hold more carbon and absorb more each year than young ones and animals and plants thrive better in well established, connected, old-growth forests.


Three countries (Russia, Canada and the USA) contributed more than half of the tree gain by area but all three of them lost more tree cover than they gained.

And for a trip down memory lane

Food-miles = emissions

In the last 25 years the worldwide trade in agricultural and food products has more than doubled. A study of over 30 million food trade connections by researchers at the University of Sydney has demonstrated that transporting food between and within countries in trucks, planes and boats produces 3 gigatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions each year. That’s about five times what had been previously estimated for food transport and a fifth of the total emissions associated with food production, which in total constitute about a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. It’s also about six times Australia’s annual domestic emissions. Food miles constitute only 18% of total freight-miles but 27% of total freight-mile emissions, of which two thirds are produced by transporting food internationally.

Needless to say, wealthy nations with 12% of the global population are responsible for about half of the international transport emissions, largely due to their high level of food imports but also because of their use of refrigeration. The 50% of the world population who live in low income countries generate 20% of the emissions.

Moving fruit and veg from paddock to plate both within and between countries generates a lot of emissions, about a third of the total food-mile emissions and twice the emissions of growing them. Other foods that are associated with high transport emissions are cereals, flour and dairy. Meat’s major contribution to emissions comes from production rather than transportation.

Notwithstanding the emissions associated with transporting fruit and veg, plant-based diets are better for the environment (and health) than heavy meat diets and the recommendations for reducing transport-related emissions include eating more plants and less red meat and more locally produced food, particularly in affluent countries. To make this happen many players have a part to play: governments, investors, primary food producers, processors, wholesalers, retailers, transporters, hospitality industry and consumers.

Talking about dairy products, what are the alternatives to cow’s milk and how environmentally friendly are they? There’s no doubt that cow’s milk is the most environmentally unfriendly of the options on all four criteria in the table below. On greenhouse gas emissions, oat, soy, almond and rice milk are all much better than cow’s milk, having a quarter to a third of dairy’s emissions. On land use, cow’s milk is 10-30 times worse than the alternatives. Oat and soy milk have by far the lowest freshwater use. Almond and rice milk are better than cow’s but have sizeable water demands. For eutrophication (pollution of land and water with nutrients), rice milk is about halfway between dairy and the other three options. Overall, it looks like oat, soy and almond (shame about the water demands) are best for the environment.

“Our priority is not to save the planet”

The Congo Basin is home to the second largest tropical rainforest in the world, one that includes a gorilla sanctuary. At the Glasgow COP last November, the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRG) endorsed a 10-year agreement, which included international pledges of US$500 million, to protect its portion of this forest. Eight months later, the DRG is planning to auction 30 tracts of tropical forest and peatland for oil and gas drilling.

Why? According to Tosi Mpanu, the senior climate advisor to DRG’s Minister for Hydrocarbons, the priority and sole goal is to raise revenue to generate economic growth and reduce poverty. The nation currently produces 25,000 barrels of oil a day and is aiming to increase that to a million, which would sell at current oil prices for half of the DRG’s current GDP. As Mr Mpanu said, their priority is not to save the planet.

Bearing in mind that Australia has over 100 fossil fuel projects in the pipeline and that the Albanese government explicitly supports new coal and gas fields; that Biden is opening up public land for oil exploration; and that Norway is increasing its oil production, to name just a few developed nations that are increasing their fossil fuel production, at least Mr Mpanu’s honesty avoids the hypocrisy of the West’s leaders.

I’m reminded of a small fundraiser for an ALP-affiliated environment group that I went to around 2015 in the offices of an upmarket law firm in Sydney. Tanya Plibersek and Peter Garrett were the speakers. I admire Plibersek but I thought she was less than convincing that night. I remember one particular sentence: ‘Labor is a party of government, not a party of protest’. She nailed her and the ALP’s fossil fuel colours very firmly to the mast that night and we can see the consequences in the new government’s contradictory approaches to emissions targets and new coal and gas.

Art + Science = Topographical History

Daniel Coe starts with Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) images taken from planes that generate precise elevation maps of the land below. Then he adds aerial photography, artificial light and colour and, hey presto, you’ve got stunning images that reveal not just the current paths of rivers but also their previous meanderings. According to Coe, ‘Cartography and mapmaking straddle the boundary between art and science. Looking back into the past allows us to see what might happen in the future’.

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