After some unusually wet years, our landscape and ecosystems have once again returned to poorer conditions that were last experienced during the Millennium Drought.
Australia’s natural environment is the bedrock of our economy, and our unique ecosystems and landscape are a fundamental part of our society and national identity. This latest report shows that for most of the country, our environmental fortunes are closely tied to the highs and lows of rainfall.
We combined and analysed huge amounts of satellite imagery, ground data and landscape modelling and compiled this data into 13 environmental indicators. With most data extending back to the year 2000, we can start to see how Australia’s environment is changing over time.
The big picture
National level environmental indicators show that soil moisture and river flows fell to near record lows in 2015, while tree cover continued its decline to reach the lowest level since 1972. Soil exposure, the lack of protection from vegetation or mulch cover, also returned to levels last seen during the drought.
Many of these changes are strongly driven by changes in rainfall. Other processes also play a role, however. For example, some of the estimated 530,000 hectares reduction in forest area in 2015 was due to clearing, particularly in southern Queensland, where around 300,000 ha were cleared in 2013-2014 (land clearing data for 2015 are not yet available).
We can combine some of these indicators to get an overall score of the environment’s condition. Such a measure can only ever be an artificial and subjective index, similar to composite indices used for the economy, for example.
But because most environmental indicators are strongly linked to water availability, the overall pattern still remains similar if different calculations are made.
The national environmental score declined from around average in 2014 (4.8) to well below average in 2015 (3.6). This is a cause for concern, particularly given the relatively short time since the plentiful rains that saw off the drought in 2010.
Winners and losers
While useful to understand general trends, the national indicators hide much regional variation. For example, scores increased to above average values in the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales, which received good rains across most of the state in 2015.
On the other hand, in Queensland conditions were already relatively poor in 2014 and declined further in 2015, in some parts of the state to the worst conditions since at least 2000.
The different indicators also did not always change in the same way. For example tree cover declined in all states and territories except in Tasmania, where new plantations exceeded harvesting rates. (These numbers do not include the impact of large bushfires in early 2016).
Tree cover also increased in some other regions, whereas relatively strong losses occurred not only in Queensland, but also as a result of urban expansion in most metropolitan areas.
On the other hand, despite the general decline of agricultural land, the majority of our national parks remained in good shape in 2015. (You can see these regional patterns in our data explorer, which shows indicators by state, council area, catchment, national park, wetland, and so on.)
Back to lean years
The Millennium Drought was arguably the worst drought on our historical record. Lasting around a decade, it had profound impacts on water resources, rivers and wetlands, ecosystems and agriculture.
The very wet years that followed brought some much needed relief to the desiccated ecosystems. Unfortunately, our report shows that the bounce was short lived, and that environmental indicators are once again in the red.
While this is a concern, we are still some way from experiencing the worst impacts of the Millennium Drought. We have only had three years with relatively low rainfall rather than ten, and some of the events that occurred towards the end of the Millennium Drought have not yet come to pass.
For example, many wetlands in eastern Australia have declined in extent, but not quite yet to the record lows observed before. The same is true for many of our water storage reservoirs, which have returned to the low levels seen during the first half of the last drought, but not yet the lows of later years.
Still, it is concerning that the lean years have come back so fast. Apparently, the rainfall abundance of 2010-2012 did not create a long lasting reserve, once more leaving our environment exposed to the next drought.
Indeed, we may already be in it.
David Summers, Research academic, Fenner School of Environment & Society , Australian National University and Albert Van Dijk, Professor of Water Science and Management, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University
Conservationists and environmental scientists are used to bad news. So when there’s some really good news, it’s important to hear that as well.
While the battle is far from over, there has been a series of breakthroughs in the long-running battle to protect the imperilled Leuser ecosystem in northern Sumatra, Indonesia – the last place on Earth where tigers, orangutans, rhinoceros and elephants still live alongside one another.
The government of Aceh Province – which controls most of the Leuser ecosystem and has been subjected to withering criticism for its schemes to destroy much of the region’s forests for oil palm, rice and mining expansion while opening it up with a vast road network through the forest – has agreed to a moratorium on new land clearing and mining.
This is huge news, and it’s clear that both the international community and Indonesia’s federal government have played big roles in making this happen. Indonesian President Joko Widodo deserves a great deal of credit for this accomplishment, which he has been pushing for many months, not just in Aceh but elsewhere in Indonesia too.
It is the culmination of an almost three-year battle by the Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers and Thinkers (a scientific group I founded and lead) as well as many other dedicated researchers and conservationists.
Set in stone?
Moratoria can always be cancelled or weakened, but the chances of that happening seem increasingly remote. In a speech at last month’s signing of the Paris climate agreement in New York, Indonesia’s environment and forestry minister, Siti Nurbaya, underscored her commitment to the Leuser moratorium.
It seems unlikely that she would make this statement at such a high-profile event if there were any significant possibility that the moratorium will collapse.
And the news gets even better. Last week, Aceh’s deputy governor, Muzakir Manaf, declared that he will provide full support for ground-level measures needed to enforce the moratorium.
That is critical, for two reasons. First, it shows that the Aceh government is strongly behind the moratorium. Second, a moratorium is just a piece of paper unless there is real on-the-ground enforcement to ensure that illegal land-clearing, poaching, mining and other activities don’t continue unabated.
Limiting palm oil
A final piece of good news is that Nurbaya has confirmed her intention to halt completely the granting of new permits for oil palm plantations in state-owned forests right across the country.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that oil palm plantations won’t keep expanding in Indonesia. There are thousands of existing permits encompassing many millions of hectares of native forest. Indeed, Indonesia has previously announced plans to clear a further 14 million hectares of native forest by 2020, mostly for oil palm and wood-pulp production.
But at least it means that the avalanche of new oil palm permits is coming to an end, for which both Widodo and Nurbaya deserve credit.
Not over yet
The fight to conserve Indonesia’s mega-diverse forests is far from over. The nation’s plans for massive road, dam and mining projects – many in forested areas where they can open a Pandora’s box of problems such as illegal poaching, logging and forest burning – is enough to frighten even the most sober of observers.
But for today, at least, we can celebrate a very significant victory for conservation, and give credit to the many people who have worked to raise the profile of Leuser, including the actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who visited recently.
Few have had more impact than Ian Singleton, director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program. In a recent interview, Singleton laid out a remarkably compelling and detailed argument for saving Leuser, and for the surprisingly limited economic benefits its exploitation would generate for the local Sumatran citizens.
The economic and environmental think-tank Greenomics Indonesia also deserves a big round of applause for its efforts to facilitate this groundbreaking achievement.
But while we’re congratulating ourselves and others, we shouldn’t forget to keep a close eye on Leuser to ensure the promised moratorium really does take effect, and that one of the most important wild places in the world still survives.
This is an edited version of a blog post that originally appeared here.