State of the Environment report shows ‘shocking’ decline of Australia’s wildlife and natural ecosystems

By AAP / AG Staff 19 July 2022
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Australia’s environment is sick and getting sicker as the combined effects of climate change, pollution, land clearing and mining take a dangerous toll, a landmark report says.

The State of the Environment report is a five-yearly health check on the natural ecosystems that underpin every aspect of life in Australia, and the news is resoundingly bad.

“Overall, the state and trend of the environment of Australia are poor and deteriorating,” says a summary of the 2000-page document.

It details “abrupt” changes in ecological systems over the last five years with climate change adding a devastating new layer to the accumulation of other threats.

The result is a growing list of threatened species trying to survive in shrinking and degraded ecosystems that are being ineffectively managed with too little money, it says.

“Our inability to adequately manage pressures will continue to result in species extinctions and deteriorating ecosystem condition, which are reducing the environmental capital on which current and future economies depend.”

The report includes, for the first time, new chapters on climate and extreme events including recent floods, terrestrial and marine heatwaves, droughts, and bushfires.

The report’s co-chief author, professor of marine ecology Emma Johnston, said previous reports talked about climate impacts mostly in the future tense.

“But in this report we document wide-scale impacts of climate-related extreme events across the nation and that has compounded existing threats – land clearing, invasive species, pollution,” she said.

Related: Has Australia reached its environmental tipping point?

Threatened species

Between 2016 and 2021 the number of threatened species across all taxonomic groups increased by an average of eight per cent. Listings increased the most for invertebrates (22%) and frogs (21%), with the smallest increase being for reptiles and birds (around 5%). 

As at June 2021, 533 animals and 1,385 plant species were listed as threatened under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

More than half of these threatened species were listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered. 

Report summary

The report, written by 37 expert authors, is a comprehensive assessment of the state of the environment, the pressures it’s facing and how well, or not, it is being managed.

Overall assessment:

  • Australia’s environment is in a poor state and it is deteriorating in the face of amplifying threats
  • Ecological systems suffered abrupt changes in the five years to 2021 from the combined effects of threats such as climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and resource extraction
  • Those pressures are not being adequately managed and will continue to result in extinctions and deteriorating ecosystem health
  • Australia does not have a framework to deliver holistic environmental management across various levels of government, and across national, state and territory systems
  • Australia’s investment in biodiversity conservation doesn’t match the scale of the challenge.

  • Vegetation, soil, biodiversity, wetlands and rivers are all suffering from intense competition for resources
  • 7.7 million hectares of habitat for land-based threatened species cleared between 2000 and 2017
  • Almost all of that – 7.1 million hectares – was not assessed under federal environmental laws.

  • Australia has lost more mammal species than any other continent and now has more foreign plant species than native ones
  • The number of new species listed or up-listed to a higher category of threat has increased by eight per cent since 2016 and will jump again due to the Black Summer bushfires
  • 377 plants and animals of national environmental significance have been added as threatened species in past 10 years.

    Climate and extreme weather:
  • Australian land temperatures have increased by 1.4C
  • The 2018 heatwave killed 33,000 spectacled and black flying-foxes in two days. Spectacled flying-fox are now endangered
  • Marine heatwaves caused mass coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016, 2017 and 2020.

    The Black Summer bushfires:
  • Burned more than eight million hectares of native vegetation, including nine per cent of the nation’s koala habitat
  • Killed or displaced between one and three billion animals
  • Sediment and ash caused fish kills and hit marine species in coastal estuaries.

    Inland water and coasts:
  • Waterways, beaches, shorelines generally in poor condition near urban centres
  • Water extraction and drought left the Murray Darling basin at record low level in 2019
  • The Basin has seen devastating mass fish kills and shrinking bird populations; only two of 450 gigalitres promised under the basin plan have been delivered so far.

  • Cities suffering effects of strong growth including problems with urban heat, pollution, waste and water scarcity
  • Waste going to landfill in NSW increased by 10 per cent over past 10 years, with hazardous waste almost doubling
  • A lack of access to good quality water, particularly in the Northern Territory, is lowering life expectancies in remote communities.

    Marine and plastics:
  • Great Barrier Reef is at risk of being listed as a World Heritage site in danger after mass coral bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and 2020
  • Reefs and associated species including fish in poor condition and deteriorating
  • Up to 60,000 pieces of plastic found per square kilometre of water in Perth; between 40,000 and 80,000 in Brisbane.

    First Nations and heritage:
  • Destruction of Indigenous heritage is occurring at an unacceptable rate
  • Poor overall state of Country hurting wellbeing of Indigenous peoples
  • Environmental changes affecting abundance and distribution of culturally significant native plants and animals.

  • Antarctica’s physical environment appears to be changing so fast it’s beyond the adaptive abilities of organisms
  • That appears especially true for higher order life forms including fish and birds
  • Antarctic ecosystems are feeling the effects of ocean acidification, sea ice and wind strength changes, and changes in the circulation of the Southern Ocean.

The 2019/2020 bushfires on Kangaroo Island destroyed dense woodlands. Photo credit: Quentin Chester

‘Absence of leadership’

The report, which the former Morrison government refused to release before the election, has been variously described by its chief authors as stark and depressing.

Speaking to ABC on Tuesday, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek flagged an overhaul of regulation and more investment in order to protect the environment.

She branded the report as “shocking” as it details “abrupt” changes in ecological systems over the last five years with climate change adding a devastating new layer to the accumulation of other threats.

One of the report’s three chief authors is former CSIRO research director Dr Ian Cresswell. He said an absence of national leadership and investment had cost the nation dearly, and it must stop.

“We’re going to lose the Australia that we grew up with, for future generations, if we don’t truly start dealing with some of the environmental problems,” he said.

The report says Australia lacks a framework to manage the environment in a comprehensive way and instead relies on a jumble of systems across different tiers of government.

The number of new species listed as threatened, or up-listed to a higher category of threat, has increased by eight per cent since 2016 and will jump again due to Black Summer bushfires, it warns.

Despite that, monitoring of threatened species and communities is “mostly inadequate” with up to 46 per cent of threatened vertebrates, 69 per cent of threatened plants and 70 per cent of threatened ecological communities not monitored at all.

Meanwhile, a staggering 7.7 million hectares of habitat for land-based threatened species was cleared between 2000 and 2017. But almost all of that – 7.1 million hectares – wasn’t assessed under federal environmental laws.

The report also charts the drop in federal government spending on biodiversity while risks have been increasing.

Since 2010, biodiversity expenditure remained between $400 and $500 million per year, then dipped below $300 million in 2018–19, and has been under $400 million thereafter, the report says.

Ms Plibersek said Australians deserved to see the report, which her predecessor Sussan Ley received last year. Ms Ley refused to release it despite calls from its authors.

10 species at risk

(Phascolarctos cinereus)

– listed as Endangered in February 2022 (combined populations of Qld, NSW and the ACT)

koala paul Related: Our koalas: post-bushfire recovery and future challenges

Greater glider
(Petauroides volans)

– listed as Endangered in July 2022

Related: Greater glider one step closer to extinction

Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat
(Lasiorhinus krefftii)

– listed as Critically Endangered in 2018

Related: Helping our northern hairy-nosed wombat back from the brink of extinction

Baw Baw frog
(Philoria frosti)

– listed as Critically Endangered in 2019

Related: Frog in a bog

White’s seahorse
(Hippocampus whitei)

– listed as Endangered in 2020

Related: Dad gives birth to 100+ young – looks like he’s sneezing

Baudin’s cockatoo
(Calyptorhynchus baudinii)

– listed as Endangered in 2018

Related: Australia’s five black cockatoos

Cauliflower soft coral
(Dendronephthya australis)

– listed as Endangered in 2020

Related: Rare ‘purple cauliflower’ coral off NSW coast may be extinct within 10 years

Australian sea lion
(Neophoca cinerea

– listed as Endangered in 2020

Related: Fighting for Australia’s precious sea pups

(Myrmecobius fasciatus)

– listed as Endangered in 2018

Related: The plight of the numbat

Bellinger River snapping turtle
(Wollumbinia georgesi)

– listed as Critically Endangered in 2016

Related: Tiny turtle hatchlings boost conservation effort