1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2003
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 24/01/2003
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Towards sustainability - an overviewThe Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 marked 10 years since the first summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The year 2003 is the International Year of Freshwater. Given these milestones, and the importance and topicality of sustainable development and environmental issues generally, the ABS decided to make environmental issues, and particularly sustainable development, a major theme of the 2003 edition of Year Book Australia. A number of articles throughout this edition address environmental issues.
The purpose of this article is to draw together the threads in those articles, and thereby present a brief statistical overview of environmental issues in Australia.
Many environmental, social and sustainable economic development issues are interrelated. The article addresses them in the following order:
What do we mean by sustainable development?
The World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) defined Ecologically Sustainable Development as:
These objectives in turn suggest the following kinds of economic and environmental aims:
These aims provide the sustainability backdrop to the articles on environmental issues in this edition of Year Book Australia.
Rising per capita income and national wealth
At the World Summit on Sustainable Development, many countries attached a high priority to improving the material wellbeing of their residents. The Section National accounts illustrates that, for Australia, progress has been strong in this area. Two indicators compiled for Measuring Australia's Progress, 2002 (1370.0) show this to be the case. Graph S1 shows a strong and continuous rise in real net national disposable income per head since 1992. Graph S2 shows, for real national net worth per head, that while there have been some fluctuations over this period, the trend has been strongly positive. The growth in both these indicators suggests that broadly the needs of the present generation are being met (through increasing levels of income) and that the needs of future generations are not being compromised (to the extent that national wealth, which underpins future national income, is increasing).
Frameworks for measuring progress and wellbeing are discussed in an article Beyond GDP: Towards wider measures of wellbeing in National accounts.
Two articles, Sustainable forest management and Forest conservation contained in the Forestry and fishing section describe the framework and processes used in Australia to manage Australia's forest resources in a way that strikes a reasonable balance between the economic, ecological, social and cultural values of forests for current and future generations.
The Montreal Process, established in 1994, is being used as a tool to assist in monitoring and reporting on Australia's progress toward sustainable forest management.
A number of threatening processes directly or indirectly jeopardise the health and vitality of forest ecosystems. These include clearing and fragmentation of habitats, mining, timber harvesting, the impact of invasive species, altered fire regimes, and climate change.
In recognition of the potentially adverse impacts of these threatening processes on Australia's forests, the Commonwealth Government and the state and territory governments have moved to protect Australia's forest ecosystems through forest conservation. About 26.8 million hectares (ha) of native forest are protected and conserved in reserves, representing 16% of Australia's remaining native forest estate.
Establishing a conservation reserve system is one of the key objectives of the Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) process implemented through the 1990s. The RFA process added 2.9 million ha to the existing estate of forest reserves, giving RFA regions a total of 10.4 million ha of forest in conservation reserves. This increased the reserved forest area in RFA regions by about 39%. More than 8.5 million ha are within formal dedicated conservation reserves. The RFAs increased old-growth forest protection across the 10 RFA regions by about 42%, from 2.4 million ha to 3.4 million ha. As a consequence, about 68% of existing old-growth forests in RFA regions have been reserved.
Unfortunately neither the Montreal indicators nor the information publicly available from the RFAs indicate the degree to which native forest timber resources are being depleted. The best available information is in an article in the June quarter 2002 edition of Australian National Accounts: National Income, Expenditure and Product (5206.0). This shows that the real or volume estimates of native standing timber available for production fell by 8% between 1993 and 2001 (graph S3), but appear to have stabilised in recent years.
Sustainable fisheries and marine ecosystems
An article Fishing and the environment, in Forestry and fishing, discusses the extent to which Australian fisheries stocks are being managed in a sustainable manner and the effects of fishing on habitat and non-target species.
It shows that fisheries production of a number of species has been declining since the late 1980s. Reasons for declines in some fisheries include overfishing, use of non-selective fishing gear, loss of habitat, pollution, natural disasters, and the complexity of Australia's marine jurisdiction, which hinders management of fish stocks.
An article Aquaculture and the environment in the same section discusses Australia's rapidly expanding aquaculture industry (production rose by 146% in the decade to 2000-01, compared to a rise of 46% in the total gross value of fisheries production) and its environmental impacts. Aquaculture takes some pressure off wild fisheries, but it has the potential to alter coastal foreshores, estuaries, mangroves, salt marshes, and marine and other aquatic environments. The main environmental impacts of aquaculture are water pollution, pest species, the strain placed on wild fish populations for brood and feed purposes, and the culling of natural predators. The potential also exists to introduce diseases and for farmed exotic fish to escape into the wild.
The section Environment discusses population and human settlement pressures on Australia's marine and coastal area (one of the largest in the world, extending over some 16 million square kilometres), which hosts a wide variety of habitats including estuaries and mangroves, dunes and beaches, rocky and coral reefs, seagrasses, gulfs and bays, seamounts, and a huge area of continental shelf. At 30 June 1996, 83% of Australia's population lived within 50 km of the coast. All states except the Northern Territory and South Australia are experiencing higher rates of population growth and urban development within 3 km of the coast than elsewhere within the state (Newton et al. 2001). The coastal strip is an ecologically sensitive zone, and urban sprawl, and pollution of rivers, lakes and seas, were described by the Resource Assessment Commission as the two most important problems faced by the coastal zone (RAC 1993).
Australia's estuaries in particular face a number of pressures from urban and industrial development in coastal areas, and from disturbance through land use and vegetation clearance in catchments. For example, estuaries are often used for dumping, sand or water extraction, and construction of marinas, ports and canal estates, and are susceptible to changes in natural flows caused by the construction of dams and weirs. Such pressures threaten the condition of estuaries by causing excess nutrient concentrations, sedimentation, loss of habitat, weed and pest infestation, and the accumulation of pollutants.
Another focus of the Environment chapter is coral reefs, which are among the most productive and complex ecosystems in the world. The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world, consisting of about 3,000 individual reefs covering an area of 345,950 square kilometres.
Australian coral reefs face a variety of pressures. These include: run-off of sediment and nutrients at a number of coastal locations, which is steadily increasing through human activities (primarily from the effects of agriculture and land use practices, as well as increasing industrial and urban development); increased recreational and commercial fishing; increasing pressure from tourism developments; threats from invasive and pest species such as the crown of thorns starfish; and coral bleaching, possibly due to global warming (SoE 2001). The article Sustainable tourism in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park following the Tourism section, addresses management of the impacts of tourism on the Park.
The article Mining and the environment in the Mining section briefly discusses the main environmental impacts of mineral mining, such as wastes, and the rate of resource use (where the supply of minerals depends on the rate of resource use, which is affected by the economic life of mineral deposits and the rate at which new reserves are discovered). The article also summarises environmental management initiatives, such as the use of legislation, environmental impact assessments, environmental protection expenditure, rehabilitation and industry self-regulation.
Data from the national balance sheet, presented in the section National accounts, show that the quantity of economically viable mineral reserves is increasing (as new discoveries are made and new technologies and lower production costs make existing reserves more profitable).
Sustainable land and water use, and protecting Australia's biodiversity
Since European settlement of Australia, around 100 million ha of forest and woodland have been cleared, mostly for agricultural production (NFI 1998), and land continues to be cleared for agriculture. Today around 456 million ha, or 59% of land in Australia, are used for agriculture, making it the dominant form of land use. Agriculture is also the largest consumer of water in Australia; in 1996-97 it accounted for 15,500 gigalitres (GL) or 70% of total water use.
This edition of Year Book Australia contains a number of articles on sustainable land and water use, and protecting Australia's biodiversity. An article Environmental impacts of agriculture in the Agriculture section, discusses land degradation and related issues, including salinity. The Environment section discusses Australia's biodiversity, extent and clearing of native vegetation, and invasive species. That section is followed by an article Australia's rivers.
Some of the main findings from these articles follow.
Water is essential for all living organisms. Australia is considered one of the driest inhabited continents. Compared to other continents, Australia is also characterised by variable climatic conditions and high levels of evapotranspiration. These factors result in a low proportion of rainfall converted to streamflow, making freshwater a valuable resource.
By world standards Australia is a dry continent with few freshwater resources. Australian rivers are characterised by relatively low and variable flows.
In much of the intensive land use zone of Australia, catchment land use has significantly modified the physical and chemical nature of the rivers. These now carry higher than natural levels of sediment and nutrient. In some regions, the biological condition of the rivers, wetlands and groundwater dependent ecosystems has been severely impacted by the extraction of large volumes of water for agricultural, urban and industrial use.
The consumption of Australia’s freshwater resources from lakes, rivers and underground aquifers has increased strongly in the last two decades. Between 1983-84 and 1996-97 national water consumption increased from 14,600 GL to 23,300 GL annually (NLWRA 2001c).
Across Australia, catchment land use and diverting water are considered the most serious threats to the ecological condition of Australia’s rivers, wetlands and groundwater dependent ecosystems.
Based on state assessments of sustainable yield, the 2001 National Land and Water Resources Audit determined that 34 (11%) of Australia’s 325 surface water basins are overused, with a further 50 (15%) highly developed. On the other hand, 60% of Australia’s river basins have less than 30% of the nominated sustainable flow regime diverted (NLWRA 2001c). Almost all of the basins with a high volume of unused sustainable yield are in the northern parts of Australia.
Land use in the catchment, combined with how well this use is managed, is a major driver of river condition. In the non-urban regions, most of the elevated nutrient and sediment loads to rivers are a consequence of using land for agricultural production. High fertiliser application rates, and other agricultural practices, have resulted in some landscapes leaking more nutrients into the waterways than they did before the adoption of European agricultural production systems (NLWRA 2001a).
Environmental impacts of agriculture
The article of this name looks at the impact of agricultural activities on the Australian environment. In particular it examines land and water use, salinity and the adoption of various land management practices.
The combined impacts of land and water use for agricultural production have been substantial. For example:
Salinity, sodicity and acidity are all naturally occurring conditions of Australian soils, but these have been exacerbated by agricultural activities.
In recent years salinity has gained prominence as a national environmental issue. Early results from the 2001 ABS Agricultural Census show that around 25,000 farmers have salinity and/or are managing salinity on their properties. The proportion of farms reporting managing for salinity is greater than those reporting salinity, an indication that farmers are taking action to prevent or reduce the impact of salinity on agricultural land.
The impacts of salinity extend beyond the agriculture sector. Roads, houses and water supply infrastructure can all be degraded by it. Over four states (New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia) the roads, buildings and/or water supply infrastructure of 68 towns are at risk of damage from salinity. Biodiversity is also at risk through the loss and degradation of native vegetation. Across Australia around 630,000 ha of native vegetation and 80 wetlands, including wetlands of international importance, are at risk (NLWRA 2001b).
One factor contributing to salinity is the rise in water tables due to increased amounts of water entering underground water bodies from irrigated land. This ultimately results in increased salt loads entering river systems. Reduced river flows, brought about by the construction of dams, weirs and water diversions, compound the problem as the flow is insufficient to dilute saline groundwater inflows (ABS 1996).
Between 1990 and 2000 the area of irrigated land increased by more than half a million hectares (30%). The growth in irrigated area was greatest in Queensland, where an additional 236,000 ha (or 76%) were irrigated in 2000, compared to the area irrigated in 1990. Irrigation can also cause a decline in soil structure and water quality, while the method of irrigation used influences the efficiency of water use and impacts on the environment (Smith 1998). Impacts on water quality result from the high levels of fertiliser use in conjunction with some irrigation methods. Continued awareness of the need for greater efficiency and technological advances can be expected to improve land management practices and reduce the decline in the health of land and water assets. For example, there has been a growth in the use of irrigation methods that are more efficient in terms of water delivery. In 2000 around 30% of irrigators reported using spray, micro spray or drip irrigation methods compared to 23% in 1990.
The increasing use of more efficient irrigation methods, the implementation of salinity management activities and adoption of other land use practices are an indication that farmers are more aware of the environmental impact of their activities than in the past. Much of the impact on the environment is the result of historical land management decisions, and has taken decades to manifest. The impact of agriculture on the environment can be reduced, and there are a number of community groups and government programs dedicated to achieving this. However, it is likely that the damage already done will take decades to abate and repair.
Australia is identified as one of 17 megadiverse countries. The loss of biodiversity is considered one of the most serious environmental problems in Australia.
Clearing of native vegetation is a significant threat to terrestrial biodiversity. Other threats include invasive species (i.e. pests and weeds), dryland salinity, pollution, nutrient loading and sedimentation of waterways and coastal areas, altered hydrological and fire regimes, and climate change. These processes constitute major threats to sustainable management of our ecosystems and the environment, as well as to the social and economic values of biodiversity.
Native vegetation is a key element contributing to Australia's biodiversity. In 2000, there were 5,251 protected areas in Australia, occupying 61.4 million ha and accounting for 8% of the total land area.
Energy, greenhouse gases and climate change
Using Australia's energy resources prudently and efficiently, and minimising energy-related contributions to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, are important environmental issues. The sorts of questions which are relevant include the extent to which Australia is energy sufficient, the extent of depletion of our reserves, and whether and how we are managing to reduce the links between economic growth on the one hand and energy use and greenhouse gas emissions on the other.
Australia has an abundance of fossil fuel and mineral energy resources which are not being depleted to any great extent by current patterns of use. The rate of energy use and the extent of greenhouse gas emissions appear no longer to be linked to gross domestic product (GDP). The factors underlying this favourable trend include: the continued growth in the dominance of service industries (relatively low users of energy and generators of greenhouse gases) in the economy, the increasing share of natural gas in overall energy use (natural gas produces less greenhouse gases per unit of energy), and continuing, albeit small, gains in how efficiently energy is used by industry and households.
The energy intensive export industries, such as heavy manufacturing and natural gas liquefaction, have a major impact on Australia's energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. In 1994-95, goods and services produced for export accounted for 29% of energy use, either directly or indirectly.
The section, Energy shows that Australia has an abundance of energy resources, and our trends of energy production and use are a reflection of this abundance. Australia's per capita energy consumption is one of the highest in the world, with a heavy reliance on fossil fuels.
Between 1990-91 and 1998-99 Australia's total energy consumption increased by 23%. Over the same period, population increased by just under 10%, and real GDP by over 34%. The aggregate energy intensity (energy consumed per unit of output) of the economy declined by around 9% from 1990-91 to 1998-99, partly due to improved energy efficiency, but mainly due to a change in the structure of the economy towards less energy intensive service industries.
Australia is far more dependent on coal for the production of electricity than most Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. The article following the Energy section, Renewable energy in 2003, shows that 94% of domestic energy use comes from fossil fuels. In 1999, of the 6% share of total primary energy coming from renewable energy, the major contributors were biomass in the form of bagasse (39%) which was used to generate electricity and steam, wood (39%) which was used primarily for home heating, hydro-electricity (21%) and solar (1%). Renewable energy contributed 11% to electricity generation; most electricity was generated from large-scale hydro-electric schemes (ABARE 1999).
Use of natural gas constituted the fastest growing primary energy use over the 20 years 1978-79 to 1998-99. The growth of coal (black and brown) use was also above the overall trend, due primarily to the strong growth in electricity generation over the period. The consumption of crude oil has also grown significantly, reflecting the heavy use of petroleum products in the transport sector. The annual growth in consumption of renewable energy sources has declined over the years (ANZMEC 2001).
Although depletion of fossil fuels is not an important issue for Australia for the foreseeable future, many environmental benefits are to be gained from renewable energy development. Renewable energy, energy efficiency and use of cleaner fossil fuel technologies are key tools in a strategy for sustainable energy use and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. As well as being perpetually available, renewable energy sources are low pollutants and produce very little or no net greenhouse gas emissions when operating. In Australia, government, industry and community support are driving renewable energy growth, particularly for electricity generation and transport use.
Greenhouse gas emissions and climate change
The section, Environment discusses greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. It describes the history behind and targets associated with the Kyoto Protocol (an international treaty under which developed countries have agreed to limit net greenhouse gas emissions).
Developed countries are committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 5% from 1990 levels by the period 2008-12. In recognition of the fact that all developed countries have different economic circumstances and differing capacities to make emissions reductions, each developed country has a specific, differentiated target (AGO 2002). Australia has signed (but not ratified) the treaty, which has a target increase for Australia of 8% above 1990 levels by this time. This target includes a one-off benefit from land clearing, where reduced emissions compensate for large increases in transport and power generation.
The chapter shows that the stationary energy sector (emissions from fuel combustion in energy industries such as the electricity industry) is the biggest contributor of greenhouse gases (graph S4), accounting for 49% of net emissions in 2000, with electricity generation accounting for the majority of this sector's contributions (264 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2-e)). Large reductions in emissions have taken place in the forest and land use sector.
The section Geography and climate is followed by an article Climate change, and the Section, Environment also contains some discussion of climate change.
The article Climate change discusses natural versus human induced climate change and whether, for example, the recent systematic drying of the south-west corner of Australia is due to some natural long-term fluctuation in (say) the southern ocean or whether it is a manifestation of large-scale geographically-anchored circulation changes forced by enhanced greenhouse warming. It makes the point that, with the current state of knowledge it will be very difficult to provide temperature and climate projections which will be sufficiently reliable to support planning for adaptation over a lengthy timescale (a century).
The discussion of climate change in Environment suggests that one of the key factors causing environmental change is temperature. Australia's annual average temperatures have increased since 1910. Environmental impacts that may result from increasing temperatures include changed rainfall patterns, effects on vegetation distribution, the ability of areas to support land uses such as agriculture and global phenomena such as rising sea levels. Other changes include more intensive and frequent flooding (which may result in greater property damage and higher rates of erosion) and different trends in tropical cyclone activity.
Impacts of industrial activities and of households
Through their behaviour, industries and households have direct and indirect impacts on whether natural resources are used prudently and efficiently, and on the extent of waste and pollution. A number of articles address environmental issues associated with the manufacturing, construction, transport and tourism industries and the behaviour of households.
The Section, Manufacturing contains an article Manufacturing and the environment. After agriculture and mining, manufacturing has the next largest environmental impact. This industry:
The Section, Construction contains two articles, The WasteWise Construction Program and Attitudes of residential builders to energy issues and usage, and is followed by an article Construction and the environment.
The first article shows that Australians currently send approximately one tonne of construction and demolition waste per person per year to landfill. This can make up to 40% of landfill and represents a potentially valuable natural resource being wasted. Materials include metals, concrete and bricks, glass, fittings and fixtures from demolished or refurbished buildings, wood and wall panelling.
Since its beginnings in 1995 the WasteWise Construction Program has, with the cooperation of five major Australian construction companies, pioneered best practice in waste reduction and recycling. The participating organisations have successfully decreased the amount of their waste going to landfill, in some cases by more than 90%.
The second article shows that most builders are also sympathetic to the concept of the 'clean, green' home. In 2001-02 the majority of builders surveyed were installing dual flush toilets (99%), ceiling insulation (71%), wall insulation (63%), gas hot water systems (60%) and hot water temperature control (56%).
The article Construction and the environment discusses the significant impact on the environment of the construction of residential buildings, commercial buildings and other infrastructure. Direct impacts include use of land, materials and energy, which in turn leads to greenhouse gas emissions and the production of other wastes. Indirect impacts include the energy consumed in providing building materials and in operating the completed buildings.
Transport is followed by an article Environmental impacts of Australia's transport system. Topics covered include the use of energy and greenhouse gases by the transport system, the increasing size of the transport task, increases in fuel efficiency, and the impact of transport on wildlife, biodiversity and aquatic environments. A number of indirect impacts of transport are also discussed, such as air pollution and related illnesses, the livability of urban environments and the environmental impacts of the materials used by the transport system.
As indicated earlier, Tourism contains an article Sustainable tourism in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
Environment has sections dealing with households' views and practices regarding water supply, quality and conservation, and household waste management.
The first of these shows that:
The section of the Environment chapter on household waste management found that:
Energy shows that a majority (about 56%) of Australia's energy-related greenhouse gases were emitted in the production and consumption of goods and services for the purpose of household final consumption. The consumption of electricity by households indirectly produced the greatest amount of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions (17%). This was followed by direct emissions by households (14%), most of which were due to the consumption of motor vehicle fuels.
ABARE (Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics) 1999, Australian Energy Markets and Projections to 2014-15, Canberra.
ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 1996, Australian Agriculture and the Environment, cat. no. 4606.0, ABS, Canberra.
ABS 2001a, Australia’s Environment: Issues and Trends, cat. no. 4613.0, ABS, Canberra.
ABS 2001b, Australian System of National Accounts, 2000-01, cat. no. 5204.0, ABS, Canberra.
ABS 2002a, Australian National Accounts: National Income, Expenditure and Product, June Quarter 2002, cat. no. 5206.0, ABS, Canberra.
ABS 2002b, Measuring Australia’s Progress, 2002, cat. no. 1370.0, ABS, Canberra.
AGO (Australian Greenhouse Office) 2002, National Carbon Accounting System - factsheet1.doc. Last viewed August 2002, http://www.greenhouse.gov.au/.
ANZMEC (Australian and New Zealand Minerals and Energy Council) 2001, Energy Trends: An Analysis of Energy Supply and Use in the National Energy Market - 2000.
Newton PW, Baum S, Bhatia K, Brown SK, Cameron AS, Foran B, Grant T, Mak SL, Memmott PC, Mitchell VG, Neate KL, Pears A, Smith N, Stimson RJ, Tucker SN & Yencken D 2001, ‘Human Settlements’, in Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 (Theme Report), CSIRO Publishing on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, Canberra.
NFI (National Forest Inventory) 1998, Australia's State of the Forests Report, National Forest Inventory, Bureau of Rural Sciences, Canberra.
NLWRA (National Land and Water Resources Audit) 2001a, Australian Agricultural Assessment, National Land and Water Resources Audit, Canberra.
NLWRA 2001b, Australian Dryland Salinity Assessment 2000, NLWRA, Canberra.
NLWRA 2001c, Australian Water Resources Assessment 2000, Surface water and groundwater - availability and quality, National Land and Water Resources Audit, Canberra.
NLWRA 2002, Australians and Natural Resource Management, National Land and Water Resources Audit, Canberra.
RAC (Resource Assessment Commission) 1993, Coastal Zone Inquiry - Final Report, AGPS, Canberra.
Smith DI 1998, Water in Australia, Resources and Management, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.
SoE (State of the Environment) 2001, Australia State of the Environment Report 2001, CSIRO Publishing on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, Canberra.
World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission) 1987, Our Common Future, Oxford University Press, Oxford.