Australia: Climate change impact may be irreversible, five-yearly report says

Exclusive: State of the Environment report says heritage and economic activity are being affected and the disadvantaged will be worst hit
Katharine Murphy The Guardian 6 Mar 17;

An independent review of the state of Australia’s environment has found the impacts of climate change are increasing and some of the changes could be irreversible.

The latest State of the Environment report, a scientific snapshot across nine areas released by the federal government every five years, says climate change is altering the structure and function of natural ecosystems in Australia, and is affecting heritage, economic activity and human wellbeing.

It warns climate change will result in “location specific vulnerabilities” and says the most severe impacts will be felt by people who are socially and economically disadvantaged.

Record high water temperatures caused “widespread coral bleaching, habitat destruction and species mortality” in the marine environment between 2011 and 2016, it says.

The minister for energy and the environment, Josh Frydenberg, was due to release the report card on Tuesday morning.

In a column for Guardian Australia, Frydenberg says the report indicates the impact of changing weather patterns is being felt in the ocean, on the Great Barrier Reef and on land, affecting biodiversity and species habitat.

“While carbon emissions per capita have declined from 24.1 tonnes in 2011 to 22.2 tonnes in 2015 and energy efficiency improvements are reducing electricity demand, the report makes clear that, for the world to meet its Paris goals, there is much more to do,” Frydenberg says.

The minister says the report makes clear Australia needs to prepare for changes in the environment and “put in place a coordinated, comprehensive, well-resourced, long-term response”.

He warns that failure to do so “will have a direct and detrimental impact on our quality of life and leave a legacy to future generations that is inferior to the one we have inherited”.

The minister says the report presents the government with a mixed picture. “Good progress has been made in the management of the marine and Antarctic environments, natural and cultural heritage and the built environment – while pressures are building in relation to invasive species, climate change, land use and coastal protection,” he says.

Frydenberg says the doubling of Australia’s population in the past 50 years and growing urbanisation “have all combined to contribute to additional pressures on the environment”.

Australia’s heavily populated coastal areas are under pressure, as are “growth areas within urban environments, where human pressure is greatest”, the report finds.

Grazing and invasive species continue to pose a significant threat to biodiversity.

“The main pressures facing the Australian environment today are the same as in 2011: climate change, land use change, habitat fragmentation and degradation, and invasive species,” the report’s summary says. “In addition, the interactions between these and other pressures are resulting in cumulative impacts, amplifying the threats faced by the Australian environment.

“Evidence shows that some individual pressures on the environment have decreased since 2011, such as those associated with air quality, poor agricultural practices, commercial fishing, and oil and gas exploration and production in Australia’s marine environment.

“During the same time, however, other pressures have increased — for example, those associated with coal mining and the coal-seam gas industry, habitat fragmentation and degradation, invasive species, litter in our coastal and marine environments, and greater traffic volumes in our capital cities.”

The report criticises the lack of “an overarching national policy that establishes a clear vision for the protection and sustainable management of Australia’s environment to the year 2050”.

It points to poor collaboration, gaps in knowledge, data and monitoring and a lack of follow-though from policy to action.

“Providing for a sustainable environment both now and in the future is a national issue requiring leadership and action across all levels of government, business and the community,” it says. “The first step is recognising the importance and value of ecosystem services to our economy and society.

“Addressing Australia’s long-term, systemic environmental challenges requires, among other things, the development of a suite of stronger, more comprehensive and cohesive policies focused on protecting and maintaining natural capital, and ongoing improvements to current management arrangements.”

Late last year, the government established a review of its Direct Action climate policy. The current policy has been widely criticised by experts as inadequate if Australia is to meet its international emissions reduction targets under the Paris climate change agreement.

Shortly after establishing the review, Frydenberg ruled out converting the Direct Action scheme to a form of carbon trading after a brief internal revolt. Many experts argue carbon trading would allow Australia to reduce emissions consistent with Paris commitments at least cost to households and businesses.

The Direct Action review still allows for the consideration of the potential role of international carbon credits in meeting Australia’s emissions reduction targets – a practice Tony Abbott comprehensively ruled out as prime minister – and consideration of a post-2030 emissions reduction goal for Australia.

The review also requires an examination of international developments in climate change policy, which is code for an assessment of what is happening on global climate action in the event the US pulls out of the Paris climate agreement.

The New York Times reported last week that the White House was fiercely divided over Trump’s campaign promise to cancel the Paris agreement.

Its report said Trump’s senior strategist Steve Bannon wanted the US to pull out of the Paris agreement but Bannon’s stance was being resisted by the new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, who are concerned about the diplomatic fallout.

The Turnbull government has already indicated that it intends to stay the course with the Paris agreement, and has argued it would take the US four years to withdraw from the deal under the terms of ratification.

But if the US withdraws from Paris, internal pressure inside the Coalition will intensify, and the prime minister will face calls from some conservatives to follow suit.

In his column for Guardian Australia, Frydenberg says the Coalition is doing good work on the environment and the conservative parties in Australia have been responsible for establishing legislation such as the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, and programs such as the Natural Heritage Trust and the first mandatory Renewable Energy Target.

“The task now is to build on this proud Coalition tradition and to use this report to continue the good work the Turnbull government is already doing across so many areas of environmental policy,” he says.

State of the Environment report: bright spots, but much more to do
Australia has made solid progress in many areas covered by the five-yearly report, but population pressures, invasive species and climate change still present huge challenges
Josh Frydenberg The Guardian 6 Mar 17;

First established in 1996 and occurring every five years, the State of the Environment report is prepared by independent authors and provides a report card across nine thematic areas – the Antarctic environment, atmosphere, biodiversity, built environment, coasts, heritage, inland waters, land and the marine environment.

The report will this year for the first time be available in an interactive digital format, expanding its reach and ensuring greater use and engagement from the academic and broader community.

Like previous reports, this year’s document has its bright spots while also indicating a number of areas where there is much more to do.

Good progress has been made in the management of the marine and Antarctic environments, natural and cultural heritage and the built environment, while pressures are building in relation to invasive species, climate change, land use and coastal protection.

The number of people in Australia has doubled over the past 50 years. Growing urbanisation (two-thirds of the population live in our capital cities and 90% of people live in 0.22% of Australia’s land area) and heightened economic activity (Australia is experiencing its 26th year of consecutive economic growth) have combined to contribute to additional pressures on the environment.

The message, however, is not that development and sustainability are locked in a zero-sum game. Far from it. Rather, we must be conscious of these pressures, prepare for them and put in place a coordinated, comprehensive, well-resourced long-term response.

Failure to do so will have a direct and detrimental impact on our quality of life and leave a legacy to future generations that is inferior to the one we have inherited. This is why reports such as this are important and why we must continue to upgrade our capacity to collect and analyse critical environmental data.

The message is not that development and sustainability are locked in a zero-sum game
It’s also why last November I committed – along with state and territory environment ministers – to develop more detailed environmental accounts for Australia to build this capacity to better understand our environment and how best to protect it.

The report indicates that the Antarctic is in “generally good condition”, with evidence that the phasing out of powerful synthetic greenhouse gases, in which Australia has played a lead role under the Montreal protocol, is leading to improvements in the ozone layer.

Macquarie Island, which has seen rabbits and rats in plague proportions, is also recovering well following a successful invasive species eradication policy.

Invasive species more generally are a growing problem. We are all familiar with the devastation that has been unleashed across our continent by the arrival of cane toads, feral pigs and yellow crazy ants. But feral cats should top this list because their population growth and diet of marsupials, birds and reptiles make them one of the biggest threats to a number of nationally listed species.

The good news is that the federal government has acted in implementing a new threatened species strategy and appointing the first threatened species commissioner. However, there is a big task ahead with the addition of 44 animal and five plant species to the threatened species list, meaning there are now 545 animal and 1,312 plant species under threat.

One notable mention in the report was that humpback whales are increasing in number to a point where their current listing as “vulnerable” may need to be reconsidered.

Australia’s 108 national and 19 world heritage sites are admired both here and abroad and are integral to our cultural history and values. They remain, according to the report, “generally in good condition”, but the Great Barrier Reef last year was subject to a significant bleaching event, with climate change and the El NiƱo effect to blame.

Conscious of the threat to this natural wonder of the world, the federal government is jointly investing with the Queensland government $2bn to support our Reef 2050 plan to improve water quality and preserve the health of the reef.

Australia has a strong reputation in management of its national reserve system. Since 2011, the Ningaloo Reef has been added and extensions made to the Tasmanian wilderness and Kakadu properties on the World Heritage List. Since 2012, 12 new places have been added to the National Heritage List, including the Snowy Mountains scheme in New South Wales and Lesueur national park in Western Australia, ensuring that our historic places are preserved for future generations.

The report indicates that the impact of changing weather patterns is affecting biodiversity and species habitat.

While carbon emissions per capita have declined from 24.1 tonnes in 2011 to 22.2 tonnes in 2015, and energy efficiency improvements are reducing electricity demand, the report makes clear that, for the world to meet its Paris goals, there is much more to do.

Land clearing also comes in for attention in the report. With the exception of Queensland, land clearing rates over the past five years “have stabilised in all states and territories” and Indigenous protected areas have substantially increased.

Since 2008 there have been an additional 42 agreements and 20.6m hectares which are now covered under the Indigenous protected areas. The national reserve system, protecting important natural assets, has expanded to cover 17.9% of Australia’s land are, compared with 13.4% in 2011.

These are all significant improvements which are felt right across the environmental food chain as pollination, seed disposal and species’ survival rely on an ecosystem where vegetation and habitat are protected.

Despite the growth in urban population, air and urban water quality remain “good” according to the report, with “noticeable local improvements in water quality in the Murray Darling basin”. Sustainable diversion limits and water efficiency are having a positive impact on the fish and water bird stocks as well as natural vegetation.

There is no room for complacency. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, we all have a vested interest in protecting our commons.

The Coalition track record in this regard is strong. The Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, like the Natural Heritage Trust and the first mandatory renewable energy target, were all initiatives of the Howard government.

The 10-year Murray-Darling basin plan was implemented by Malcolm Turnbull.

Former prime ministers Tony Abbott, Malcolm Fraser, William McMahon, John Gorton, Harold Holt and Robert Menzies all too had significant achievements to their name.

The task now is to build on this proud Coalition tradition and to use this report to continue the good work the government is doing across so many areas of environmental policy.

Josh Frydenberg is Australia’s minister for the environment and energy

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