1383.0.55.001 - Measures of Australia's Progress: Summary Indicators, 2006  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 24/05/2006  Reissue
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Contents >> The headline dimensions: The environment

Progress in Australia: The headline dimensions

The environment

When measuring progress for the environment, we consider three headline dimensions - 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 resources. However, for those dimensions where such data are available, progress over the past decade was varied.

The natural landscape:
Biodiversity: Extinct, endangered and
vulnerable birds and mammals
Graph - Biodiversity: Extinct, endangered and vulnerable birds and mammals
For technical information see Endnote 7.
Source: Data compiled from schedules to the Environment

Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

The natural landscape:
Biodiversity: Annual area of land cleared

Graph - Biodiversity: Annual area of land cleared
For technical information see Endnote 8.
Source: National Greenhouse Gas Inventory 2003,
Australian Greenhouse Office.

The natural landscape:
Land: Assets affected by, or at risk from, salinity - 2000
Graph - Land: Assets affected by, or at risk from, salinity
For technical information see Endnote 9.
Source: National Land and Water Resources Audit 2001,
Australian Dryland Salinity Assessment 2000.
The natural landscape:
Inland waters: Highly developed and
overdeveloped water sources - 2000
Graph - Inland waters: Highly developed and overdeveloped water sources
For technical information see Endnote 10.
Source: National Land and Water Resources Audit 2001,
Australian Water Resources Assessment 2000.

The air and atmosphere:
Urban air quality, days fine particle health

standards were exceeded
Graph - The air and atmosphere: Urban air quality, days fine particle health standards were exceeded
For technical information see Endnote 11.
Source: State environmental protection agencies, 2006.
The air and atmosphere:
Australia's net greenhouse gas emissions

Graph - The air and atmosphere: Australia's net greenhouse gas emissions
For technical information see Endnote 12.
Source: National Greenhouse Gas Inventory, 2003
Australian Greenhouse Office.

BiodiversityLandInland watersUrban air qualityNet greenhouse gas emissionsOceans and estuaries

The natural landscape - biodiversity, land, and inland waters


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

Although the numbers of threatened birds and mammals are only a small part of the overall biological diversity, a decline in these groups of species threatens ecological processes and can point to a wider decline in biodiversity. The list should not be construed as a census of threatened species as they can be added to or removed from the list as their status changes or due to improved knowledge (Endnote 7). However, it is as accurate an account of the status of these species as can be currently compiled.

Between 1995 and 2005 the number of terrestrial bird and mammal species assessed as extinct, endangered or vulnerable rose by 41% from 120 to 169 (of which 67 were birds and 102 were mammals). In June 2005 just under half of these species were vulnerable, one-third were more seriously threatened (endangered) and the remaining fifth were presumed extinct. There were increases in the numbers of both endangered and vulnerable species, but the rise in species assessed as vulnerable was much higher (86%) than those assessed as endangered (26%).

Land clearing destroys plants and local ecosystems and removes the food and habitat on which other native species rely. Clearing helps weeds and invasive animals to spread, affects greenhouse gas emissions and can lead to soil degradation, such as erosion and salinity, which in turn can harm water quality. Native bushland has cultural, aesthetic and recreational importance to many Australians. The land clearing estimates include information about forest conversion (land cleared for the first time) and reclearing, both of which have environmental impacts.

The estimated 283,000 ha of Australian land cleared in 2003 is 38% less than the 457,000 ha cleared in 1993. Of the land cleared in 2003, less than half (128,000 ha) was ‘converted’ (cleared for the first time), which is less than half the area converted in 1993 (279,000 ha).


Australia's soils are old and shallow, and are susceptible to degradation by agricultural activities. Salinity occurs when the water table rises, bringing natural salts to the surface (in sufficient quantity, these salts are toxic to most plants). When trees or other deep-rooted vegetation are replaced with vegetation that uses less water, the water table may rise to cause dryland salinity. Dryland salinity threatens biodiversity, through loss of habitat on land and in water, and also impacts on water resources, pipelines, houses and roads. 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 sq kms (4.6 million hectares) of agricultural land were already affected with a high salinity hazard or in an area at high risk from shallow watertables. The cost to agricultural productivity was estimated at $187 million in 2000, which was less than the cost of other forms of soil degradation, such as over $1 billion due to acidity in the same year.

However, the costs of salinity go further as it can impact on structures, as well as flora and fauna. The salt contained in rising groundwater levels can damage bitumen and concrete and so affect roads, footpaths, housing, pipelines and other assets. In 2000, about 11,800 kms of streams and lake edges, as well as 1,600 kms of rail and 19,900 kms of roads were affected or at risk (Endnote 9).

Inland waters

Water is fundamental to the survival of people and other organisms. 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.

In 2000, about 11% of Australia’s surface water management areas were overdeveloped. Another 15% were approaching sustainable extraction limits (i.e. highly developed). Therefore, in 2000 about one-quarter of Australia's surface water management areas were classed as highly used or overused. This proportion was greater for groundwater management units, where 11% were overdeveloped, and a further 19% were highly developed (Endnote 10). Detailed national time series data are not available, but a variety of partial evidence points to a decline in the quality of some of Australia's waterways.

The air and atmosphere - urban air quality and net greenhouse gas emissions

Urban air quality

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 headline indicator considers the concentration of fine particles in the atmosphere, a measure of the form of air pollution about which many health experts in Australia are most concerned.

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 forest fires, can obscure the longer trend in levels produced by regular sources, like car emissions.

Overall, air quality in Australia is relatively good and has generally improved during the 1990s. Fine particle health standards (Endnote 11) were exceeded in the selected urban areas on average between one and two days each year between 1997 and 2001. There was a rise in 2002 and 2003, mainly due to severe forest fires and dust storms around the Sydney and Melbourne areas which caused the National Environment Protection Measure (NEPM) to be exceed on 13 days in Sydney in 2002 and 10 days in Melbourne in 2003. The was also exceeded on seven days in Brisbane in 2002. Sydney and Brisbane recorded one and two day’s exceedences, respectively, in 2004.

Net greenhouse gas emissions

Global warming is widely perceived as one of the most significant international environmental concerns. Australia's contribution to these international concerns is an important aspect of progress.

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

For 2003, Australia's net greenhouse emissions were estimated to be 550.0Mt carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO2-e) (Endnote 12). Based on 2001 emissions, Australia accounts for 3.4% of total industrialised countries emissions. The net amount emitted in Australia in 2003 was a 1.4% decrease on net emissions in 2002, largely reflecting decreases in emissions from land use, land use change and forestry, and from waste. Australia's net emissions in 2003 were 1.1% above 1990 levels. Emissions rose gradually over the period, with the sharpest rise between 1997 and 1998 when emissions from land use change rose rather than fell as they had done during most of the decade.

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. Many of the ways in which we use our oceans, beaches and estuaries can affect the quality of the ocean’s water and the diversity of life within it. Although this dimension has no headline indicator, it does have important aspects which different organisations have attempted to measure.

One such measure is the Estuarine Condition Index, developed by the National Land and Water Resources Audit (NLWRA). The index assesses the condition of about 1,000 estuaries around the Australian coast. Because estuaries occur at the borders of marine and freshwater ecosystems, they are influenced by the tides and also by fresh water from the land. And so measuring the condition of estuaries not only reports on the state of our oceans, it sheds light on how land use around the water that flows into the estuary is affecting the sea. The more modified an estuary the greater the pressures on it; in 2002 the NLWRA assessed a large proportion (979) of Australia's estuaries and found their condition was:

  • near-pristine - 50%.
  • largely unmodified - 22%.
  • modified - 19%.
  • extensively modified - 9%.

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