Australia’s population growth and economic activity continue to pose major environmental challenges, according to a comprehensive five-yearly stocktake of the country’s environmental health.
The federal government’s State of the Environment 2016 report (prepared by a group of independent experts, which I chaired), released today, predicts that population growth and economic development will be the main drivers of environmental problems such as land-use change, habitat destruction, invasive species, and climate change.
These main pressures are broadly the same as those listed in the first ever State of the Environment report in 1996.
Yet since the last report in 2011, there have been some improvements in the state and trend of parts of the Australian environment. Our heritage (built, natural, and cultural) and marine environments are generally in good condition, as is the Australian Antarctic Territory. However, the Great Barrier Reef was affected significantly by Cyclone Yasi in 2011 and record high sea surface temperatures in 2015-16, resulting in extensive coral bleaching and die-off, particularly across the northern regions.
Pressures and changes
The new report shows that some individual pressures on the environment have eased since the 2011 report, such as those associated with air quality, poor agricultural practices and commercial offshore fishing, as well as oil and gas exploration and production in Australia’s marine environment.
During the same time, however, other pressures have increased, including 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.
Climate change is an increasingly important and pervasive pressure on all aspects of the Australian environment. It is altering the structure and function of natural ecosystems, and affecting heritage, economic activity and human well-being.
We continue to lose agricultural lands through urban encroachment. Over the past five years land-clearing rates stabilised in all states and territories except Queensland, where the rate of clearing increased.
Coastal waterways are threatened by pollutants, including microplastics and nanoparticles, which are largely unregulated and their effects poorly understood.
Since 2011, the coast has experienced several extreme weather events, including cyclones, heatwaves and floods. Climate-related pressures of sea level rise, more frequent severe storms, and subsequent erosion and recession of the shoreline are expected to become increasingly significant for coastal regions in the future.
Population growth in our major cities, along with Australia’s reliance on private cars, is leading to greater traffic volumes, which increase traffic congestion and delays as well as pollution.
Australia’s biodiversity is continuing to decline, with some exceptions, and new approaches are needed to prevent accelerating decline in many species. Since 2011, the list of nationally threatened species and ecological communities has lengthened, with the addition of 30 new ecological communities, and 44 animal and 5 plant species. Two species have been reported as probably extinct: the Bramble Cay melomys and the Christmas Island forest skink.
What’s more, because climate change will increase the existing threats, the capacity of the environment to adapt to climate change will be improved if other existing threats are addressed or ameliorated.
Grounds for optimism
For some parts of the Australian environment, at least, effective policy and management have contributed to improved outcomes for the environment and people.
Since 2011, Australia’s conservation estate has increased in size. The National Reserve System has grown significantly, largely through the addition of new Indigenous Protected Areas.
Early indications are that environmental watering in the Murray–Darling Basin, driven by the 2012 Murray–Darling Basin Plan, along with the effects of natural floods, have contributed to ecological benefits.
The formation of the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority in 2012 has resulted in greater focus on industry compliance and increased levels of preparedness for unplanned events.
Technology is also changing the way in which environmental managers and policy-makers can access and use information to support decision-making and environmental management.
The new digital platform for the State of the Environment has delivered improved transparency and access to environmental data, making it more accessible to decision makers (including the private sector) and the public, but there remain data gaps to be filled.
There have been significant improvements in knowledge about the environment. In recent years, citizen science has expanded, resulting in improved observations of the environment that, in turn, provides knowledge to support more effective management.
However, we need to accelerate the process of improving environmental information, data and analysis between government, the private sector and civil society. The move towards a national system of environmental economic accounts is a promising development.
It is clear that some parts of Australia’s environment are not yet being managed sustainably, including invasive species and litter in
our coastal and marine environments. There are several key challenges to the effective management of the Australian environment, including:
Lack of a national policy establishing a clear vision for the long-term protection and sustainable management of our environment
Poor collaboration and coordination of policies, decisions and management arrangements across sectors and between both public and private sector managers
Insufficient resources for environmental management and restoration, and a lack of understanding of cumulative impacts.
State of the Environment 2016 is fundamentally different from its predecessors – with innovations that make it interactive and easier to track change over time.
Its consistent format provides environment policy makers and hands-on environmental managers with better visibility of changes, vital to understanding the condition of our environment and making informed decisions about its future.
It is grounded in the best available information and analysis, and builds on 20 years of experience in national reporting on the environment.
Meeting these challenges will require integrated policies and actions that address both the drivers of environmental change and their associated pressures.
Meeting this challenge will require scientists, governments, communities and businesses to all work together, and there are promising moves in this direction. For example, the Reef Life Survey brings together scientists, managers and citizen scientists to monitor shallow-reef biodiversity in nearly 90 locations around Australia. The appointment of a Threatened Species Commissioner in July 2014 is also helping to bring a national, collaborative focus to conservation efforts to address the growing number of native species in Australia facing extinction. Such efforts need to be encouraged and expanded.
President Donald Trump is making it less likely the United States will meet the emissions targets it agreed at the 2015 Paris climate conference. These targets are themselves insufficient to meet the Paris Agreement’s overall goal of keeping global warming well within 2℃.
But there is another possibility for those who want action. The idea is called “claim the sky” and it would involve a global movement, working together with the most affected countries, to claim ownership over our atmosphere.
Trump has promised to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, appointed the former chief executive of oil giant Exxon as his secretary of state, and is planning huge changes to Obama’s Clean Power Plan and the Environmental Protection Agency.
It is true that the cost of renewables like solar and wind energy is dropping rapidly. It’s therefore conceivable that economic factors alone will drive the shift away from fossil fuels. But if nothing more is done, and America and other countries continue to dish out billions in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, it may take far longer than necessary to achieve the goals of Paris, if they can be met at all.
Claim the sky
“Claiming the sky” could help reduce emissions more quickly. At the same time it would assist with adaptation, poverty reduction and public perception, and counter policies of the Trump administration and other countries that support fossil fuels.
It involves establishing a trust to collect fees when damage is done to the atmosphere. That money can then be used to reduce poverty, rebuild communities and restore the atmospheric commons.
After all, the atmosphere is a community asset that belongs to all of us. The problem is that it is an “open access” resource – anyone can emit carbon dioxide with very little direct consequence for themselves, despite the huge cumulative consequences for everyone.
Charging companies and individuals for the damage their emissions cause – for example through a carbon tax or trading system – would encourage lower emissions. However, despite some interesting regional experiments, implementing such a system at a global scale has proved to be next to impossible.
Global civil society could change this, if it claims property rights over the atmosphere. By asserting that we all collectively own the sky, we can begin to use the legal institutions that uphold property rights to protect our collective property, charging those who damage it and rewarding those who improve it.
A public trust
The Public Trust Doctrine is a legal principle that holds that certain natural resources are to be held in trust as assets to serve the public good. Under this doctrine it is the government’s responsibility to protect these assets and maintain them for the public’s use. The government cannot give away or sell off these public assets. The doctrine has been used in many countries in the past to protect water bodies, shorelines, fresh water, wildlife and other resources.
Several court cases have confirmed this responsibility. Just before the Paris talks, a Washington state judge ruled that the government has “a constitutional obligation to protect the public’s interest in natural resources held in trust for the common benefit of the people”. Earlier in 2015, a New Mexico court recognised that the state has a duty to protect the state’s natural resources – including the atmosphere – for the benefit of residents. The same year, a court in the Netherlands ordered the Dutch government to cut the country’s emissions by at least 25% within five years.
The time has come to expand this principle to cover all of the natural capital and ecosystem services that support human well-being, including the atmosphere, oceans and biodiversity.
Creating a trust
Holding climate polluters accountable for their damage is more straightforward than it might seem. Just 90 entities are responsible for two-thirds of the carbon emitted into the atmosphere.
I and several colleagues wrote an open letter asking nations to establish an atmospheric trust on behalf of all current and future generations. The proceeds could fund restoration projects or expedite the transition to non-nuclear, renewable energy. In addition, governments could charge for ongoing damage via a carbon tax or other mechanisms.
Many of us already know or have experienced the benefit of a trust. There are private land trusts, such as the Nature Conservancy in America, or water trusts like the Murray-Darling’s Environmental Water Trust in Australia. The Alaska Permanent Fund and the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund are examples of trusts that put aside royalties from fossil fuel extraction for public benefit.
Just as governments individually levy fines in the event of an oil spill or other environmental damage within their borders, the creation of a trust is an opportunity to do this on a wider scale. The trust will maintain transparency through the internet, publishing financial carbon accounts of projects funded by polluters.
In addition, all governments need not agree in order to create the atmospheric trust. As all governments are co-trustees in the global atmospheric asset, a subset of nations could create the trust and bring the claims.
But given that governments have not acted on their own, pressure from civil society will be required to compel them to act and to counteract the inevitable corporate resistance. In other words, a concerted effort to “claim the sky” as a public trust on behalf of all of global society, in combination with the solid legal framework provided by the Public Trust Doctrine, may just do the trick.
As US Senator Bernie Sanders has said, “When millions of people stand up and fight back, we will not be denied.” It is time to claim our right to the atmospheric commons and a stable climate.
We need a broad coalition of individuals and groups to claim publicly that the atmosphere belongs to all of us and our descendants, and to demand that polluters pay for damage done and for restoring and maintaining our climate.
The fossil fuel era is coming to an end. The industry is making a last-ditch attempt to sell off its assets before these become stranded, aided by government policies and subsidies. This will cause severe and lasting damage to our atmospheric commons.
But if we can claim the sky, create an atmospheric trust and bring damage claims against the biggest polluters, we can further tip the economic scales against fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources. We can speed up the transition to the 1.5-degree world that the Paris Agreement aims for, and that current and future generations of humans claim as our common asset.