By Rachel Walmsley, Head of Policy & law Reform and Nicole Sommer, Director, Healthy Environment & Justice Program 

The latest State of The Environment Report is somehow both unsurprising but also deeply shocking. Take a deep breath and prepare for a sobering read if you delve into the details. 

Prepared every five years, the report presents peer-reviewed evidence on the current state, pressures, impacts, management, and outlook across twelve environmental themes: Air quality, Antarctica, Biodiversity, Climate, Coasts, Extreme events, Heritage, Indigenous, Inland water, Land, Marine and Urban. 

Since the last State of Environment Report in 2016, we have directly experienced the impacts of horrific bushfires, droughts, floods and the health impacts of poor air quality. We have read about the uplisting of the threat level to our iconic koalas, and about the impacts of successive bleaching events on our iconic Great Barrier Reef. We have been appalled by the devastating destruction of First Nations cultural heritage. We have seen increased land clearing, poorly regulated logging, water over-extraction, and continued fossil fuel project expansion. It is therefore no surprise that the key finding of the latest report is: 

Overall, the state and trend of the environment of Australia is poor and deteriorating because of increasing pressures from climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and resource extraction.” 

The esteemed authors of the latest report are very clear: Australia is in a biodiversity and climate crisis. 

The Biodiversity and Climate prognosis 

In relation to biodiversity and ecosystems, the report confirms a range of alarming headlines and statistics, including that 202 new species have been added to our threatened species list (an 8% increase since last report) and 19 ecosystems are on the brink of collapse. We remain a world leader in mammal extinctions. 93% of habitat clearing (of 7.7 million hectares) was not referred for assessment under national environmental laws. Even areas specifically protected by law – such as world heritage areas – are not improving.  Australia now has more foreign plant species than native. The interaction of water regulation and drought conditions have resulted in devastating fish death events across the Murray Darling Basin, and of the 450 gigalitres promised for the environment under the Murray Darling Basin plan, only 2 gigalitres have been delivered. 

The report makes clear “climate change is affecting all aspects of our environment. Land and ocean temperatures are increasing, driving changing rainfall patterns and extreme weather events that affect our soils, water and vegetation, and all the species that rely on them.” Marine heatwaves caused mass coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016, 2017 and 2020. For natural disasters, the outlook is poor and deteriorating, and the impact of changing climate and extreme events on wellbeing is also poor and deteriorating.  

Further examination of the detail of specific indicators is concerning. For example, air quality is in general listed as very good but deteriorating, however looking at the detail, this is not all good news with air quality experienced differently by different communities. Those living near power stations and industry experience worse air quality, urban areas experience smog and particulate matter, dust storm events and substantial impacts felt from the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20.  

“The 2019–20 bushfire smoke is estimated to have resulted in 417 excess deaths, hospital admissions for 3,251 cardiovascular and respiratory problems, and 1,305 asthma presentations at emergency departments. This translates to a combined health cost of $1.95 billion in economic terms.”  

Alarmingly, 1.6% of deaths in Australia are attributable to poor air quality. This is predicted to worsen with particulate matter and ozone increasing in cities, and climate change increasing ozone, the frequency and severity of bushfire smoke, dust and smoke from hazard reduction burns.  

First Nations and the wellbeing prognosis  

Before you crawl back into bed and despair, there are two important improvements in the approach taken in the latest report that provide a critically important foundation for reform: 

  • For the first time, the report involved First Nations co-authorship, with nine First Nations authors and a lead author, Dr Terri Janke; with First Nations case studies and input included through the report. This “highlights the importance that traditional knowledge has played in caring for Country in Australia for tens of thousands of years and will continue to play in the future;” and  
  • Wellbeing indicators, recognising that environmental and human health are intrinsically linked, are included across the themes. The report recognises: “All Australians rely on the environment. Healthy ecosystems and biodiversity are vital for human survival, quality of life and economic prosperity.” 

The report expressly assesses the impact of environmental degradation on our health and wellbeing, recognising the First Nations worldview that the health of the environment and health of people are inextricably linked – “healthy Country means healthy people”. By wellbeing, the report means “the life quality and satisfaction of people and communities”, and includes not only health and economic values, but also the value of spiritual and cultural fulfillment and connection to Country and nature.  

The outlook on wellbeing indicators is overall good but deteriorating, but for First Nations people “Indigenous wellbeing and heritage” is alarmingly graded as very poor and stable. The report recognises that “Indigenous people’s wellbeing is intrinsically connected with Country”, and the “ongoing and intergenerational impact and trauma of colonisation continues to adversely affect Indigenous people’s connection to Country”. The report recognises the “profound impact” of climate change on “Indigenous people’s traditional practices and knowledge systems”. These are critical findings that must be recognised and addressed in developing solutions. 

How can we reverse the trajectories of decline and ensure a world where nature thrives? 

A critical first step is recognising the scale of the challenge, and the report does just that. 

A necessary next step is law reform. Australia needs laws that protect Country, nature and climate.  

It was heartening to sit in the audience at the National Press Club in Canberra and hear the new Environment Minister – not only speak plainly about the state of the environment and environmental governance – but also confirm the role of law reform in addressing the crises. The Australian Government’s commitment to respond to the recommendations of the independent 10-year review of the Environment Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) by Professor Graeme Samuel, includes a commitment to new legislation next year to establish national environmental standards and a range of recommended reforms, and consultation on the establishment of a national Environmental Protection Authority in the coming months. Climate law reform will start with legislating an emissions reduction target. Related policy reforms may also be required, for example to implement commitments relating to protecting 30% of land and 30% of oceans by 2030 in our national reserve system; and for delivering promised water for the environment under the Murray Darling Basin Plan. 

We also strongly welcome the commitment for a standalone legislation to protect cultural heritage. This is long overdue and the development and implementation of this legislation must be led by First Nations Peoples. 

Clearly there is significant reform to be done to ensure our laws are climate ready and can actually reverse our declining environment health and related wellbeing. Luckily, EDO has been developing legal solutions to these challenges for years. At the national level:  

The State of Environment Report is a massive wake up call. Provisions to address the crises can no longer be absent from our laws. We look forward to engaging in the critical reform work that must be done in this new term of government. 

*A note on language: The State of the Environment report uses the term “Indigenous”. We acknowledge that there is a legacy of writing about First Nations without seeking guidance about terminology. We also acknowledge that where possible, specificity is more respectful. For the purposes of this update, we have chosen to use the term ‘First Nations’. We acknowledge that not all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples will identify with that term and that they may instead identify using other terms or with their immediate community or language group.