What the federal government State of the Environment report says, and doesn’t

What the federal government State of the Environment report says (and doesn’t). (2006).

Adapt or die, says environment report”

(The Australian newspaper, December 06, 2006)

Every five years, an independent group of scientists develops a ‘score card’ on the state of the Australian environment for the federal government. This allows benchmarking of key indicators of environmental health – something that is imperative if we are to successfully manage natural ecosystems and not live beyond our means.

In December, the third such State of the Environment report was released with relatively little fanfare. What is remarkable about this report is not the information contained in it – it simply confirms the widely known fact that Australia’s ecosystems are in serious trouble. Rather it is the spin from the minister’s department that makes this a stand out document. The press release announcing the report is full of good news, and most of it is dedicated to the governments “key achievements in environmental management since 2001.” It does raise the question of whether the government thinks no one will actually read the report and that we will be satisfied with a bit of PR dross? Greens senator Rachel Siewert called it “greenwash”.

There are some hopeful elements of the report – with major decreases in land clearing in many states, advances in protection for the marine environment, and an increase in Australian Government spending on the environment (although the report notes that “…the recovery programmes are small compared to the scale of the problem.”)

But this hides a pressing fact: that the survival of many Australian species relies on people adapting their behaviour in light of the changes happening in the environment and climate.

A key message in the report is that Australia should “build its capability to live with its environment and respond appropriately to changes in that environment”, and that this approach should be the underlying basis of actions and policies. “Co-operation across all levels of governance is critical for this to be effective.” Climate change is clearly impacting on our continent, in addition to the cumulative effects of more than two centuries of poor land management.
In terms of statistics, what is perhaps most worrying is the fact that Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are set to rise by 22 per cent by 2020. In terms of physical impacts on the continent, there has been five years of lower than average rainfall across most of eastern Australia and Perth’s water supply catchments are yielding half as much water as they did in the 1970s. Committee chairman for the report, Associate Professor Bob Beeton, says things will get worse before they get better and that “the amount of energy use in Australia is still increasing and we need to figure out what we’re going to do about that”. This is a tragic comment to be making in the 21st century: the environment movement, many in business and academics have put forward any number of proposals for a sustainable energy future, but instead of heeding these calls, the government continues to peddle ‘clean coal’ and now, nuclear power as a ‘greenhouse’ friendly option.

In terms of the state of biodiversity in Australia, the ACF noted: “the report clearly shows more needs to be done to reverse the ecological crisis of our wetlands and rivers, especially those in the Murray Darling Basin, where 90 per cent of floodplain wetlands have already been lost”. It also reveals that more work is needed to protect coastal areas as it comes under pressure from the continuous flow of people seeking a ‘seachange’, more attention should be given to recycling with special focus given to capture and use of storm water.

Sadly, instead of this report being an opportunity for the Australian community to see that we are making the necessary shift to a sustainable future based on clean energy, land stewardship and adaptation to climate change, this is another testament to false solutions to ecological problems. At the same time, the government is seeking to reduce federal legislative protection for the environment, with the current debate over the Environment and Heritage Legislation Amendment Bill which is currently before parliament. Humane Society International has said that the proposed changes to the legislation would “knee cap” environmental protection laws if passed.

The State of the Environment report can be found at: http://www.deh.gov.au/soe/

For the statement by the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, see: http://www.deh.gov.au/minister/env/2006/mr06dec206.html

Originally published in Arena magazine,

Issue 86: Dec – Jan 2006-2007

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