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1383.0.55.001 - Measures of Australia's Progress: Summary Indicators, 2008 (Edition 1)  
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Image:  The environmentTHE ENVIRONMENT


When measuring progress for the environment, three headline dimensions are presented: the natural landscape; the air and atmosphere; and oceans and estuaries. It is difficult to obtain national time series data that encapsulate the changes in Australia's natural environment. However, for those dimensions where such data are available, progress over the past decade was varied.


THE NATURAL LANDSCAPE


Biodiversity

The natural landscape, Biodiversity - Threatened bird and mammal species
Graph: Biodiversity - threatened bird and mammal species - 2000 to 2007

For technical information see Endnote 1.
Source: Australian Government Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts,

Species Profile and Threats Database.
The natural landscape, Biodiversity - Annual area of land cleared
Graph: Biodiversity - annual area of land cleared - 1994 to 2004
Estimates for 2003 and 2004 are preliminary. Data for 2005 have not been included as the area of land cleared was not re-estimated for the 2005 National Greenhouse Gas Inventory. For further technical information see Endnote 2.
Note: This graph will be updated after release of data from the
2006 National Greenhouse Gas Inventory.
Source: Australian Greenhouse Office 2007,
Australian Greenhouse Emissions Information System.

No single indicator can hope to encapsulate biodiversity, so we focus on two aspects: the numbers of extinct and threatened Australian birds and mammals; and the clearing of native vegetation.

Although the number of birds and mammals is only a small part of overall biological diversity, a decline in these groups of species threatens ecological processes and can point to a wider decline in biodiversity. The list of threatened species is not definitive since species can be added to or removed from the list as their status changes or due to improved knowledge (see Endnote 1).

Between 2000 and 2007, the number of terrestrial bird and mammal species assessed as extinct, endangered or vulnerable rose by 14% from 153 to 174 (of which 69 were birds and 105 were mammals). At 31 December 2007, just under half (46%) of these species were vulnerable, just over one-third (36%) were more seriously threatened (endangered) and the remainder (18%) were presumed extinct. There were increases in the number of both endangered and vulnerable species. The rise in species assessed as endangered was higher (an increase of 34%) than those assessed as vulnerable (an increase of 7%).

Land clearing is a key threat to biodiversity. It destroys and degrades the habitat on which native species rely. Clearing also allows weeds and invasive animals to spread, contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and can lead to soil degradation, such as erosion and salinity, which in turn can affect water quality. The land clearing estimates presented in MAP include information about forest conversion (land cleared for the first time) and total land cleared (forest conversion plus reclearing) (see Endnote 2).

The estimated 424,600 ha of Australian land cleared in 2004 is 1% less than the 430,900 ha cleared in 1994. Of the land cleared in 2004, just under half (195,900 ha) was ‘forest conversion' (forest cleared for the first time). This was 26% less than the area converted in 1994 (266,000 ha). The annual area of land cleared declined after 2001 before rising again in 2004 (see Endnote 2). (Note: Data in this paragraph will be updated after release of data from the 2006 National Greenhouse Gas Inventory.)


Land

The natural landscape, Land - Assets at risk from dryland salinity - 2000
Graph: The natural landscape, Land – Assets at risk from dryland salinity — 2000
For technical information see Endnote 3.
Source: National Land and Water Resources Audit 2001,

Australian Dryland Salinity Assessment 2000.

Australia's soils are old and shallow and are susceptible to degradation by agricultural activities. Dryland salinity for example, occurs when trees or other deep-rooted vegetation are replaced with vegetation that use less water. This causes the water table to rise bringing natural salts to the surface. These salts, in sufficient quantity, are toxic to most plants and thus can reduce agricultural productivity. Dryland salinity threatens biodiversity, through loss of habitat on land and in water, and also impacts on water resources. The salt contained in rising groundwater levels can damage bitumen and concrete and so affect roads, footpaths, housing, pipelines and other assets. Areas near water are often worst affected because they occupy the lowest parts of the landscape where saline groundwater first reaches the surface.

In 2000, about 46,500 km² (4.65 million hectares) of agricultural land had a high salinity hazard or were at high risk from shallow watertables. About 11,800 km of streams and lake edges, as well as 1,600 km of rail and 19,900 km of roads were at risk.

The effects of dryland salinity are still considered an important measure of environmental progress. However, the salinity data presented above for this headline indicator have not been updated since the first release of MAP in 2002, as there is no more recent data available.


Inland waters

The natural landscape, Inland waters - Water resources level of development - 2004-05
Graph: Inland waters - water resources level of development - 2004-05

For technical information see Endnote 4.
Source: National Water Commission,
Australian Water Resources 2005.

Apart from drinking water, much of our economy (agriculture in particular) relies on water. The condition of freshwater ecosystems has a critical impact on the wider environment. Water is fundamental to the survival of people and other organisms.

In the year ending June 2005, 1% of the 256 Australian surface water management areas that were assessed were overallocated. A further 17% of these areas were developed to a high level. About 5% of the 356 groundwater management units that were assessed were overallocated and another 24% had a high level of development (see Endnote 4).


THE AIR AND ATMOSPHERE


Urban air quality

The air and atmosphere, Days fine particle health standards were exceeded
Graph: The air and atmosphere, Days fine particle health standards were exceeded
For technical information see Endnote 5 and Endnote 6.
Source: State environmental protection agencies, 2007 and 2008;

Regional Population Growth, Australia (cat. no. 3218.0).

Poor air quality has a range of negative impacts: it can cause health problems, damage infrastructure, reduce crop yields and harm flora and fauna. Air pollution occurs both naturally and as a result of human activities. Australians consistently rank air pollution as a major environmental concern. The concentration of fine particles in the atmosphere is the form of air pollution about which many health experts in Australia are most concerned. The headline indicator summarises data from continuous air monitoring stations in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane to report on the number of days when the National Environment Protection Measure (NEPM) for fine particle (PM10) concentrations in the air was exceeded (see Endnote 5 and Endnote 6).

In general, the common air pollutants are found at higher levels in urban and industrial areas than in rural Australia. It is important to note that daily changes in air quality depend on ambient conditions, like wind direction and the monitoring station’s proximity to pollution sources. Further, high concentrations of fine particles from irregular events, such as bushfires, can obscure the longer trend in levels produced by regular sources like car emissions.

Overall, air quality in Australia is relatively good. Fine particle health standards (see Endnote 5) were exceeded in the selected urban areas on average between one and two days each year between 1997 and 2006 with the exception of 2002, 2003 and 2006. In 2002 and 2003, standards were exceeded more often, mainly because of severe bushfires and dust storms around the Sydney and Melbourne areas, which caused the NEPM to be exceeded on 13 days in Sydney (Liverpool) in 2002 and 10 days in Melbourne (Footscray) in 2003. The NEPM was also exceeded on eight days in Brisbane (Rocklea) in 2002. In 2006 the standards were exceeded on 11 days in Adelaide (Netley), mostly due to smoke haze from bushfires and strong winds and windblown dust. The standards were also exceeded on 11 days in Melbourne in 2006, with fire the likely cause for 10 of those days.


Net greenhouse gas emissions

The air and atmosphere, Australia's net greenhouse gas emissions
Graph: The air and atmosphere, Australia's net greenhouse gas emissions
Estimates for 2003, 2004 and 2005 are preliminary. For further technical information see Endnote 7.
Note: This graph will be updated after release of data from the
2006 National Greenhouse Gas Inventory.
Source: Australian Greenhouse Office 2007,
National Greenhouse Gas Inventory 2005.

Climate change is widely perceived as one of the most significant international environmental concerns. The main gases in the atmosphere, nitrogen and oxygen, are almost completely transparent to the sun's rays. But water vapour, carbon dioxide and other gases form a blanket around the Earth, trapping heat - a process called the greenhouse effect. Human activity is increasing atmospheric concentrations of existing greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide and methane) and adding new gases such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

Net emissions of greenhouse gases are estimated using information about total emissions, less any credits from forest sinks. These credits are estimates of how much carbon dioxide has been absorbed by new and expanding forests established in Australia since 1990.

For 2005, Australia's net greenhouse gas emissions were estimated to be 559.1 megatonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO2-e) (see Endnote 7). Australia's net emissions in 2005 were the same as 2004 emissions, 2.6% higher than in 2003, and 2.2% above 1990 levels (the year 1990 is the base period for the reporting of emissions under the Kyoto protocol). Emissions tended to rise gradually over the period from 1993. The sharpest rise was between 1997 and 1998 when emissions from land use change rose rather than fell. The energy sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions from this sector rose steadily from 1990 to 2005. (Note: Data in this paragraph will be updated after release of data from the 2006 National Greenhouse Gas Inventory.)


OCEANS AND ESTUARIES


Australia’s coastal and marine regions support a large range of species, many of them found only in Australian waters. These regions are also important to Australian society and the economy. Although this dimension has no headline indicator, it does have important aspects which different organisations have attempted to measure.

One such aspect is the sustainability of fish stocks. Australia's major fisheries target prized species such as lobsters, prawns, abalone and tuna, which despite modest production tonnage in world terms, are subject to high fishing pressure. Overfishing occurs when the fishing pressure is too heavy to allow the fish population to replenish itself, or when too many small fish are taken, and therefore too few grow to a size that provides the largest yield from that fishery. Overfished species are those for which the current stock is below a reference point set by scientists and managers.

In 2006, for fish stocks managed by the Australian Government, 19 of the 97 principal species that are classified were overfished and/or subject to overfishing. This compares with 3 species (of 48 species classified) in 1996 (see Endnote 8).

Measuring the condition of estuaries not only reports on the state of our oceans, it also sheds light on how land use in the estuary's catchment is affecting the sea. The Estuarine Condition Index, developed by the National Land and Water Resources Audit (NLWRA), provides a snapshot of estuary health. The more modified an estuary, the greater the pressures on it. There is no recent data for this measure but in 2002 the NLWRA assessed the condition of about 1,000 estuaries and found that 50% were near-pristine, 22% were largely unmodified, 19% had been modified and 9% had been extensively modified.


ENDNOTES


1. Excludes seabirds, marine mammals and animals living on islands far offshore. Subspecies are included. Extinctions data have been backcast to take account of rediscoveries. There is likely to be a time lag between a species being identified as threatened and being listed. Data have been compiled from schedules to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. Changes in listings can be the result of taxonomic revisions and improved information from field investigations. In previous editions of MAP, the data for this indicator have been compiled from schedules to the Endangered Species Protection Act 1992 as well as schedules to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. As the two Acts are not strictly comparable, only the latter Act has been used to compile data for this edition of MAP.

2. Forest conversion is land that has been cleared for the first time and total land cleared includes forest conversion plus reclearing (clearing of land which has previously been cleared). Reclearing only refers to land areas where a conversion was previously identified. Areas in scope of this indicator are those cleared as a result of deliberate human activities. The figures do not distinguish between the type of vegetation (whether native or non-native) that was cleared.

Data for 2005 have not been included as the area of land cleared was not re-estimated for the 2005 National Greenhouse Gas Inventory. Estimates for 2003 and 2004 should be considered as interim only and will be revised when areas of forest conversion are confirmed in the next update of the National Carbon Accounting System. For further information, see the National Inventory Report 2005 Vol 2 Part A on the Australian Government Department of Climate Change website.

3. The National Land and Water Resources Audit 2001 (NLWRA) defines land as being at high risk of dryland salinity if groundwater levels are within two metres of the surface or within two to five metres with well demonstrated rising watertables. Remnant vegetation includes planted perennial vegetation.

4. Australia has 340 surface water management areas and 367 groundwater management units (hydraulically connected groundwater systems). However some of these areas and units were not assessed or did not have data available in 2004–05 and these have been excluded from the calculations.

A water source with a high level of development is one where the sum of water access entitlements is between 70% and 100% of sustainable yield. An overallocated water source is one where the sum of water access entitlements is more than 100% of sustainable yield. In this context, 'sustainable yield' is the 'level of water extraction from a particular system that, if exceeded, would compromise key environmental assets, or ecosystem functions and the productive base of the resource'. There is no standardised method across Australia for the determination of the sustainable yield.

5. Fine particles in the atmosphere come from a wide variety of sources, including soil (dust), vegetation (pollens and fungi), sea salt, fossil fuel combustion, biomass burning (including bushfires) and industry. Particles suspended in air have the ability to penetrate the lower airways of the lung if smaller than 10 micrometres in diameter (referred to as PM10). Increasing evidence suggests the acute health effects may, in fact, be the result of exposure to very fine particles, such as those smaller than 2.5 micrometres in diameter (referred to as PM2.5). It is these finer particles that are the main cause of urban haze, which typically appears white. Most of these particles are generated by people, rather than occurring naturally. The human health effects are many and depend on the size and chemical composition of the particles. Particles can aggravate existing respiratory and cardiovascular disease and asthma, can affect eyesight and cause allergies.

6. Data are from representative sites in Sydney (Liverpool), Melbourne (Footscray), Brisbane (Rocklea), Perth (Duncraig) and Adelaide (Thebarton from 1997 to 2002 and Netley for 2003 to 2006), and have been averaged in proportion to each city's population. The data are the number of days when the National Environment Protection Measures (NEPM) average daily PM10 (see Endnote 5) standard is exceeded. The NEPM standard is a maximum concentration of 50 micrograms per cubic metre with a maximum allowable exceedence of five days per year. The PM10 data from each state environmental protection agency (EPA) was obtained using the Tapered Element Oscillation Microbalance method, which continuously monitors PM10 levels in the air averaged over a 24 hour period. 1997 was the first year all of the five EPAs used this method. Compliance with the standards can only be demonstrated if data capture is at least 75% in each quarter of the year. Data capture did not meet the target for Footscray in 2006 as this performance monitoring station did not operate continuously during the year. It was taken off-line for upgrading.

7. The indicator measures million tonnes (megatonnes) of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent emissions. Different greenhouse gases have different effects and remain in the atmosphere for different periods of time. A tonne of methane, for example, contributes as much to global warming as 21 tonnes of CO2. To assess the impact of the different gases together, emissions of each gas are converted to a common CO2 equivalent scale and added. For example, a tonne of methane and a tonne of CO2 would equate to 22 tonnes of greenhouse gases CO2 equivalent.

Estimates for forest conversion, a component of overall greenhouse gas emissions, should be considered as interim only for 2003, 2004 and 2005, and will be revised when areas of forest conversion are confirmed in the next update of the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory 2006. In particular, the forest conversion component was not re-estimated for 2005 and, as an interim measure only, was assumed to be unchanged from the 2004 estimate. For further information, see the National Inventory Report 2005 Vol 2 Part A on the Australian Government Department of Climate Change website.

The data are based on estimates produced using Kyoto accounting methods.

8. Larcombe, J. and McLoughlin, K. (eds) 2007, Fishery Status Reports 2006: Status of Fish Stocks Managed by the Australian Government, Bureau of Rural Sciences, Canberra.


REFERENCES


The natural landscape


Australian Greenhouse Office 2007, "Land Use Change" Activity Query Table, Australian Greenhouse Emissions Information System.

Australian Greenhouse Office 2007, National Greenhouse Gas Inventory 2005, Australian Greenhouse Office, Canberra, viewed 22 June 2007.

Australian Greenhouse Office 2007, National Inventory Report 2005 Vol 2 Part A, Australian Greenhouse Office, Canberra, viewed 22 June 2007.

Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts 2008, Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act List of Threatened Fauna, viewed 10 January 2008.

Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts 2008, Species and ecological communities removed from the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act threatened list, viewed 10 January 2008.

National Land and Water Resources Audit 2001, Australian Dryland Salinity Assessment 2000, National Land and Water Resources Audit Canberra.

National Water Commission 2007, Australian Water Resources 2005: Level of groundwater entitlements relative to sustainable yield, viewed 8 January 2008.

National Water Commission 2007, Australian Water Resources 2005: Level of surface water entitlements relative to sustainable yield, viewed 8 January 2008.


The air and atmosphere


Australian Bureau of Statistics 2007, Regional Population Growth, Australia, 2005-06, cat. no. 3218.0, ABS, Canberra.

Australian Greenhouse Office 2007, National Greenhouse Gas Inventory 2005, Australian Greenhouse Office, Canberra, viewed 22 June 2007.

Australian Greenhouse Office 2007, National Inventory Report 2005 Vol 2 Part A, Australian Greenhouse Office, Canberra, viewed 22 June 2007.

Department of Environment and Conservation (NSW) 2007, Quarterly Air Quality Monitoring Report, various issues, Department of Environment and Conservation (NSW), Sydney, viewed 14 January 2008.

Department of Environment and Conservation (WA) 2006, Air Quality Tools, Systems and Data, Department of Environment and Conservation (WA), Perth, viewed 15 January 2008.

Environmental Protection Agency South Australia 2007, South Australia's Air Quality 2006, Environmental Protection Agency South Australia, Adelaide, viewed 14 January 2008.

Environmental Protection Agency Victoria 2007, Air Monitoring Report 2006: Compliance with the National Environment Protection (ambient air quality) measure, Environmental Protection Agency Victoria, Melbourne, viewed 14 January 2008.

Queensland Government Environmental Protection Agency 2007, Queensland 2006 Air Monitoring Report, Queensland Government Environmental Protection Agency, Brisbane, viewed 14 January 2008.


Oceans and estuaries


Larcombe, J. and McLoughlin, K. (eds) 2007, Fishery Status Reports 2006: Status of Fish Stocks Managed by the Australian Government, Bureau of Rural Sciences, Canberra.

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