A major scorecard gives the health of Australia’s environment less than 1 out of 10



Dave Hunt/AAP

Albert Van Dijk, Australian National University; Luigi Renzullo, Australian National University; Marta Yebra, Australian National University, and Shoshana Rapley, Australian National University

2019 was the year Australians confronted the fact that a healthy environment is more than just a pretty waterfall in a national park; a nice extra we can do without. We do not survive without air to breathe, water to drink, soil to grow food and weather we can cope with.

Every year, we collate a vast number of measurements on the state of our environment: weather, oceans, fire, water, soils, vegetation, population pressure, and biodiversity. The data is collected in many different ways: by satellites, field stations, surveys and so on.

We process this data into several indicators of environmental health at both national and regional levels.

The report for 2019, released today, makes for grim reading. It reveals the worst environmental conditions in many decades, perhaps centuries, and confirms the devastating damage global warming and mismanagement are wreaking on our natural resources.

Immediate action is needed to put Australia’s environment on a course to recovery.

Environment scores in the red

From the long list of environmental indicators we report on, we use seven to calculate an Environmental Condition Score (ECS) for each region, as well as nationally.

These seven indicators – high temperatures, river flows, wetlands, soil health, vegetation condition, growth conditions and tree cover – are chosen because they allow a comparison against previous years. In Australia’s dry environment, they tend to move up and down together, which gives the score more robustness. See the interactive graphic below to find the score for your region.


Environmental condition scores by local government area, and values for each of the seven indicators. See more data on www.ausenv.online.

Nationally, Australia’s environmental condition score fell by 2.3 points in 2019, to a very low 0.8 out of ten. This is the lowest score since at least 2000 – the start of the period for which we have detailed data.

Condition scores declined in every state and territory. The worst conditions were seen in the Northern Territory (0.2 points), New South Wales (0.3 points) and Western Australia (0.4 points), with the latter also recording the greatest decline from the previous year (-5.7 points).

What is most striking is that almost the entire nation suffered terrible environmental conditions in 2019. In each case, the changes can be traced back to dry, hot conditions. Only parts of Queensland escaped the drought.

Comparing local government areas, the worst conditions occurred in Armidale and Gwydir in northern NSW. In contrast, Winton and Townsville in Queensland escaped the overall poor conditions, thanks to the beneficial impact of high rainfall early in the year – although those same events also caused floods killing around 600,000 livestock.



Extreme drought and extreme heat

So what exactly happened in Australia in 2019 to cause such widespread environmental damage? There were several causes.

Across most of Australia, the environment was already reeling from poor conditions in 2018. Also, cool temperatures in the Indian Ocean delayed the onset of the monsoon in northern Australia and reduced the flow of moisture to the rest of the continent, creating hot and dry conditions. Average rainfall was a mere 229 mm across the continent, the lowest in more than 119 years and probably longer than that.

The heat was also extraordinary. The average number of days above 35°C across the country was 36% more than the average for the 19 years prior.

Values for 15 environmental indicators in 2015, expressed as the change from average 2000-2018 conditions. Similar to national economic indicators, they provide a summary but also hide regional variations, complex interactions and long-term context.
ANU Centre for Water and Landscape Dynamics

In eastern Australia, arid and hot conditions pushed farmers and ecosystems deeper into drought. In many regions, dryness and declining protection from wind erosion created the worst soil conditions in at least 20 years. Consequences included several dust storms and widespread dieback of forests, especially in NSW.

The severe drought also affected inland water systems, especially the Darling
River and its tributaries. Town water supply reservoirs ran out of water, the rivers stopped flowing, and the heat turned the remaining pools into death traps for fish.

Other rivers in northwest Australia, southeast Queensland and northeast NSW also saw their worst flows in 20 years.

Australia’s environment degraded under extreme drought in 2019.
Dan Peled/AAP

Unprecedented fires

Of course, 2019 will be remembered as the year of unprecedented bushfires. Nationally, the total area burnt was not unusual, not even when the fires of early 2020 are included. But this is only because fire activity was much below average in northern Australia, where ongoing dry conditions left little vegetation to burn.

The extent of forest fires last year was unprecedented, however. As predicted well in advance, the tinder-dry forests in eastern Australia provided the fuel for a dramatic fire season that started in September. Between then and the first month of 2020, vast areas of forest in New South Wales, eastern Victoria, Kangaroo Island and the Australian Capital Territory went up in flames.

The fires destroyed more than 3,000 homes and directly killed 33 people. Indirectly, the most hazardous air quality in living memory created major but poorly known health impacts. The fires also damaged the reliability of drinking water supplies.




Read more:
Yes, the Australian bush is recovering from bushfires – but it may never be the same


The ecological damage was also profound. Fires raged through ecosystems poorly adapted to fire, from rainforests in tropical Queensland to alpine vegetation in Tasmania and the Snowy Mountains of NSW. It remains to be seen whether they can recover. Across NSW, 35% of rainforests were turned to cinders.

About 191 species of animals and plants saw more than one-third of their living area burnt, among them 52 species that were already threatened. Thankfully, the last remaining stands of the prehistoric Wollemi pine and the rare Nightcap Oak were saved.

Even before the fires, 40 plant and animal species were added to the threatened list in 2019, bringing the total to 1890. Following the fires, more species are likely to be added in 2020.

2019 was a year of unprecedented bushfires.
Jason O’Brien/AAP

We’re not doomed yet

Last year was neither an outlier nor the “new normal” – it will get worse.

Greenhouse gas concentrations continued to increase rapidly in 2019, causing the temperature of the atmosphere and oceans to soar. Australia’s population also continued to grow quickly and with it, greenhouse gases emissions and other pollution, and our demand for land to build, mine and farm on.

Whether we want to hear it or not, last year represented another step towards an ever-more dismal future, unless we take serious action.




Read more:
Here’s what the coronavirus pandemic can teach us about tackling climate change


The current coronavirus pandemic shows that as individuals, and collectively, we can take dramatic action once we acknowledge the urgency of a threat. By comparison, addressing environmental decline will cost less, whereas the long-term costs of not acting will be far greater.

There is much we can do. In the short term, we can help our natural ecosystems recover from the drought and fires. Government agencies and land owners can cull and manage invasive species in fire-affected areas – from weeds, to foxes, cats and feral horses – and stop damaging logging in fire-affected areas.

Individuals can do their bit. We can donate money or time to organisations committed to helping ecosystems recover. Record what you see on bushwalks to help environmental managers monitor and assist ecological recovery.

Record and upload what you see on bush walks to help experts monitor fire recovery.
Darren England/AAP

But the damage of climate change is not limited to natural environments. We must get serious about curbing greenhouse emissions. Humanity has the tools, technology and ingenuity to do it and Australia, one of the countries worst affected by climate change, should lead the world.

Beyond that, individuals can also make a contribution: recycle and reuse rather than buy new, choose low-emission and renewable energy technology and reduce waste – it can save money even now. Let governments and politicians hear your voice. Try to convince friends and family that things need to change.

In the long term, we must find a more balanced relationship with the natural world, understanding that our own survival will depend on it.

The full report and webinar are available here.




Read more:
Lots of people want to help nature after the bushfires – we must seize the moment


The Conversation


Albert Van Dijk, Professor, Water and Landscape Dynamics, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University; Luigi Renzullo, Senior Research Fellow, Australian National University; Marta Yebra, Senior lecturer, Australian National University, and Shoshana Rapley, Research assistant, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s 2018 environmental scorecard: a dreadful year that demands action


Albert Van Dijk, Australian National University

Environmental news is rarely good. But even by those low standards, 2018 was especially bad. That is the main conclusion from Australia’s Environment in 2018, the latest in an annual series of environmental condition reports, released today.

Every year, we analyse vast amounts of measurements from satellites and on-ground stations using algorithms and prediction models on a supercomputer. These volumes of data are turned into regional summary accounts that can be explored on our Australian Environment Explorer website. We interpret these data, along with other information from national and international reports, to assess how our environment is tracking.

A bad year

Whereas 2017 was already quite bad, 2018 saw many indicators dip even further into the red.




Read more:
Australia’s 2017 environment scorecard: like a broken record, high temperatures further stress our ecosystems


Temperatures went up again, rainfall declined further, and the destruction of vegetation and ecosystems by drought, fire and land clearing continued. Soil moisture, rivers and wetlands all declined, and vegetation growth was poor.

In short, our environment took a beating in 2018, and that was even before the oppressive heatwaves, bushfires and Darling River fish kills of January 2019.

Indicators of Australia’s environment in 2018 compared with the previous year. Similar to national economic indicators, they provide a summary but also hide regional variations, complex interactions and long-term context.
source: http://www.ausenv.online/2018

The combined pressures from habitat destruction, climate change, and invasive pests and diseases are taking their toll on our unique plants and animals. Another 54 species were added to the official list of threatened species, which now stands at 1,775. That is 47% more than 18 years ago and puts Australia among the world’s worst performers in biodiversity protection. On the upside, the number of predator-proof islands or fenced-off reserves in Australia reached 188 in 2018, covering close to 2,500 square kilometres. They offer good prospects of saving at least 13 mammal species from extinction.

Globally, the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere accelerated again after slowing down in 2017. Global air and ocean temperatures remained high, sea levels increased further, and even the ozone hole grew again, after shrinking during the previous two years.

Sea surface temperatures around Australia did not increase in 2018, but they nevertheless were well above long-term averages. Surveys of the Great Barrier Reef showed further declining health across the entire reef. An exceptional heatwave in late 2018 in Far North Queensland raised fears for yet another bout of coral bleaching, but this was averted when sudden massive downpours cooled surface waters.

The hot conditions did cause much damage to wildlife and vegetation, however, with spectacled flying foxes dropping dead from trees and fire ravaging what was once a tropical rainforest.

While previous environmental scorecards showed a mixed bag of regional impacts, 2018 was a poor year in all states and territories. Particularly badly hit was New South Wales, where after a second year of very poor rainfall, ecosystems and communities reached crisis point. Least affected was southern Western Australia, which enjoyed relatively cool and wet conditions.

Environmental Condition Score in 2018 by state and territory, based on a combination of seven indicators. The large number is the score for 2017, the smaller number the change from the previous year.
source: http://www.ausenv.online/2018

It was a poor year for nature and farmers alike, with growing conditions in grazing, irrigated agriculture and dryland cropping each declining by 17-20% at a national scale. The only upside was improved cropping conditions in WA, which mitigated the 34% decline elsewhere.

A bad start to 2019

Although it is too early for a full picture, the first months of 2019 continued as badly as 2018 ended. The 2018-19 summer broke heat records across the country by large margins, bushfires raged through Tasmania’s forests, and a sudden turn in the hot weather killed scores of fish in the Darling River. The monsoon in northern Australia did not come until late January, the latest in decades, but then dumped a huge amount of rain on northern Queensland, flooding vast swathes of land.




Read more:
The Darling River is simply not supposed to dry out, even in drought


It would be comforting to believe that our environment merely waxes and wanes with rainfall, and is resilient to yearly variations. To some extent, this is true. The current year may still turn wet and improve conditions, although a developing El Niño makes this less likely.

However, while we are good at acknowledging rapid changes, we are terrible at recognising slow, long-term ones. Underlying the yearly variations in weather is an unmistakable pattern of environmental decline that threatens our future.

What can we do about it?

Global warming is already with us, and strong action is required to avoid an even more dire future of rolling heatwaves and year-round bushfires. But while global climate change requires global action, there is a lot we can and have to do ourselves.




Read more:
Australia is not on track to reach 2030 Paris target (but the potential is there)


Australia is one of the world’s most wasteful societies, and there are many opportunities to clean up our act. Achieving progress is not hard, and despite shrill protests from vested interests and the ideologically blind, taking action will not take away our prosperity. Home solar systems and more efficient transport can in fact save money. Our country has huge opportunities for renewable energy, which can potentially create thousands of jobs. Together, we can indeed reduce emissions “in a canter” – all it takes is some clear national leadership.

The ongoing destruction of natural vegetation is as damaging as it is unnecessary, and stopping it will bring a raft of benefits. Our rivers and wetlands are more than just a source of cheap irrigation for big businesses. With more effort, we can save many species from extinction. Our farmers play a vital role in caring for our country, and we need to support them better in doing so.




Read more:
To reduce fire risk and meet climate targets, over 300 scientists call for stronger land clearing laws


Our environment is our life support. It provides us our place to live, our food, health, livelihoods, culture and identity. To protect it is to protect ourselves.


This article was coauthored by Shoshana Rapley, an ANU honours student and research assistant in the Fenner School of Environment and Society.The Conversation

Albert Van Dijk, Professor, Water and Landscape Dynamics, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Global clean energy scorecard puts Australia 15th in the world


Alan Pears, RMIT University

Australia ranks equal 15th overall in a new World Bank scorecard on sustainable energy. We are tied with five other countries in the tail-end group of wealthy OECD countries – behind Canada and the United States and just one place ahead of China.

Called the Regulatory Indicators for Sustainable Energy (RISE), the initiative provides benchmarks to evaluate clean energy progress, and insights and policy guidance for Australia and other countries.

RISE rates country performance in three areas – renewable energy, energy efficiency, and access to modern energy (excluding advanced countries), using 27 indicators and 80 sub-indicators. These include things like legal frameworks, building codes, and government incentives and policies. The results of the individual indicators are turned into an overall score.

The majority of wealthy countries score well in the scorecard. But when you drill down into the individual areas, the story becomes more complex. The report notes that “about half the countries with more appropriate policy environments for sustainable energy are emerging economies,” for example.

The RISE ranking.
RISE report

The report relies on data up to 2015. So it does not account for recent developments such as the Paris climate conference, the Australian National Energy Productivity Plan, the widespread failure to enforce building energy regulations, and the end of Australia’s major industrial Energy Efficiency Opportunities program under the Abbott government.

Furthermore, Australian electricity demand growth has recently re-emerged after five years of decline.

But the World Bank plans to publish updated indicators every two years, so over time the indicators should become a valuable means of tracking and influencing the evolution of global clean energy policy.

Australia

Australia’s ranking masks some good, bad and ugly subtleties. For example, Australia joins Chile and Argentina as the only OECD high-income countries without some form of carbon pricing mechanism. Even the United States, whose EPA uses a “social cost of carbon” in regulatory action, and has pricing schemes in some states, meets the RISE criteria.

Australia also ranks lower than the United States for renewable energy policy, at 24th. This is due to scoring poorly in incentives and regulatory support, carbon pricing, and mechanisms supporting network connection and appropriate pricing. But we are saved somewhat by having a legal framework for renewables, and strong management of counter-party risk. It’s not clear how recent political uncertainty, and the resulting temporary collapse of investment in large renewable energy projects, may affect the score.

I have argued in the past that Australia is missing out on billions of dollars in savings through its lack of ambition on energy efficiency. Yet we rate equal 13th on this criterion, compared with 24th on renewable energy. It seems that many other countries are forgoing even more money than us.

In energy efficiency, we score highly for incentives from electricity rate structures, building energy codes and financing mechanisms for energy efficiency. Our public sector policies and appliance minimum energy standards also score well. Our weakest areas are lack of carbon pricing and monitoring, and information for electricity consumers. National energy efficiency planning, incentives for large consumers and energy labelling all do a bit better. Of course, these ratings are relative to a low global energy efficiency benchmark.

The rest of the world

Much of the report focuses on developing countries. There is a wide spread of activity here, with some countries almost without policies, and others like Vietnam and Kazakhstan doing well, ranking equal 23rd. China ranks just behind Australia’s cluster at 21st.

RISE shows that policies driving access to modern energy seem to be achieving results. The report suggests that 1.1 billion people do not have access to electricity, down from an estimated 1.4 billion a few years ago. A significant contributor to this seems to be the declining cost of solar panels and other renewable energy sources, and greater emphasis on micro-grids in rural areas.

The report highlights the importance of strategies that integrate renewables and efficiency. But it doesn’t mention an obvious example. The viability of rural renewable energy solutions is being greatly assisted by the declining cost and large efficiency improvement in technologies such as LED lighting, mobile phones and tablet computers. The overall outcome is much improved access to services, social and economic development with much smaller and cheaper renewable energy and storage systems.

The takeaway

Screen Shot at am.
RISE report

RISE finds that clean energy policy is progressing across most countries. However, energy efficiency policy is well behind renewable energy. “This is another missed opportunity”, say the report’s authors, “given that energy efficiency measures are among the most cost-effective means of reducing a country’s carbon footprint.” They also note that energy efficiency policy tends to be fairly superficial.

Australia’s ranking on renewable energy policy is mediocre, while our better energy efficiency ranking is relative to global under-performance. The Finkel Review and Climate Policy Review offer opportunities to integrate renewables and energy efficiency into energy market frameworks. The under-resourced National Energy Productivity Plan could be cranked up to deliver billions of dollars more in energy savings, while reducing pressure on electricity supply infrastructure and making it easier to achieve ambitious energy targets. And RISE seems to suggest we need a price on carbon.

The question is, in a world where action on clean energy is accelerating in response to climate change and as a driver of economic and social development, will Australia move up or slip down the rankings in the next report?

The Conversation

Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.