An independent review of the state of Australia’s environment has found the impacts of climate change are increasing. Some changes could be irreversible.
The 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 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 2011-16, it says.
In a column for Guardian Australia, federal energy and environment minister Josh 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.
“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 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 says.
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 report presents 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.
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”.
Heavily populated coastal areas are under pressure, as are “growth areas within urban environments, where human pressure is greatest,” the report finds.
“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, widely criticised as inadequate if Australia is to meet its international emissions reduction targets under the Paris climate change agreement.
Shortly after establishing the review, Frydenburg ruled out changing the Direct Action scheme to a form of carbon trading after his MPs revolted.
Many experts argue carbon trading would allow Australia to reduce emissions consistent with Paris commitments at the least cost to households and businesses.
The review also requires an examination of international developments in climate change policy, which is code for an assessment of what will happen if the US pulls out of the Paris agreement.
The New York Times reported last week the White House is fiercely divided over Trump’s campaign promise to dump the agreement.
It said Trump’s senior strategist Steve Bannon wanted the US to pull out but was challenged by secretary of state Rex Tillerson and the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump.
Australia’s government has indicated it intends to stick with the Paris agreement. But if the US withdraws, Malcolm Turnbull will face calls from conservative MPs to follow suit.