An independent review of the state of Australia’s environment has found the impacts of climate change are increasing and some of the changes could be irreversible.
The latest State of the Environment report, a scientific snapshot across nine areas released by the federal government every five years, says climate change is altering the structure and function of natural ecosystems in Australia, and is affecting heritage, economic activity and human wellbeing.
It warns climate change will result in “location specific vulnerabilities” and says the most severe impacts will be felt by people who are socially and economically disadvantaged.
Record high water temperatures caused “widespread coral bleaching, habitat destruction and species mortality” in the marine environment between 2011 and 2016, it says.
The minister for energy and the environment, Josh Frydenberg, was due to release the report card on Tuesday morning.
In a column for Guardian Australia, Frydenberg says the report indicates the impact of changing weather patterns is being felt in the ocean, on the Great Barrier Reef and on land, affecting biodiversity and species habitat.
“While carbon emissions per capita have declined from 24.1 tonnes in 2011 to 22.2 tonnes in 2015 and energy efficiency improvements are reducing electricity demand, the report makes clear that, for the world to meet its Paris goals, there is much more to do,” Frydenberg says.
The minister says the report makes clear Australia needs to prepare for changes in the environment and “put in place a coordinated, comprehensive, well-resourced, long-term response”.
He warns that failure to do so “will have a direct and detrimental impact on our quality of life and leave a legacy to future generations that is inferior to the one we have inherited”.
The minister says the report presents the government with a mixed picture. “Good progress has been made in the management of the marine and Antarctic environments, natural and cultural heritage and the built environment – while pressures are building in relation to invasive species, climate change, land use and coastal protection,” he says.
Frydenberg says the doubling of Australia’s population in the past 50 years and growing urbanisation “have all combined to contribute to additional pressures on the environment”.
Australia’s heavily populated coastal areas are under pressure, as are “growth areas within urban environments, where human pressure is greatest”, the report finds.
Grazing and invasive species continue to pose a significant threat to biodiversity.
“The main pressures facing the Australian environment today are the same as in 2011: climate change, land use change, habitat fragmentation and degradation, and invasive species,” the report’s summary says. “In addition, the interactions between these and other pressures are resulting in cumulative impacts, amplifying the threats faced by the Australian environment.
“Evidence shows that some individual pressures on the environment have decreased since 2011, such as those associated with air quality, poor agricultural practices, commercial fishing, and oil and gas exploration and production in Australia’s marine environment.
“During the same time, however, other pressures have increased — for example, 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.”
The report criticises the lack of “an overarching national policy that establishes a clear vision for the protection and sustainable management of Australia’s environment to the year 2050”.
It points to poor collaboration, gaps in knowledge, data and monitoring and a lack of follow-though from policy to action.
“Providing for a sustainable environment both now and in the future is a national issue requiring leadership and action across all levels of government, business and the community,” it says. “The first step is recognising the importance and value of ecosystem services to our economy and society.
“Addressing Australia’s long-term, systemic environmental challenges requires, among other things, the development of a suite of stronger, more comprehensive and cohesive policies focused on protecting and maintaining natural capital, and ongoing improvements to current management arrangements.”
Late last year, the government established a review of its Direct Action climate policy. The current policy has been widely criticised by experts as inadequate if Australia is to meet its international emissions reduction targets under the Paris climate change agreement.
Shortly after establishing the review, Frydenberg ruled out converting the Direct Action scheme to a form of carbon trading after a brief internal revolt. Many experts argue carbon trading would allow Australia to reduce emissions consistent with Paris commitments at least cost to households and businesses.
The Direct Action review still allows for the consideration of the potential role of international carbon credits in meeting Australia’s emissions reduction targets – a practice Tony Abbott comprehensively ruled out as prime minister – and consideration of a post-2030 emissions reduction goal for Australia.
The review also requires an examination of international developments in climate change policy, which is code for an assessment of what is happening on global climate action in the event the US pulls out of the Paris climate agreement.
The New York Times reported last week that the White House was fiercely divided over Trump’s campaign promise to cancel the Paris agreement.
Its report said Trump’s senior strategist Steve Bannon wanted the US to pull out of the Paris agreement but Bannon’s stance was being resisted by the new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, who are concerned about the diplomatic fallout.
The Turnbull government has already indicated that it intends to stay the course with the Paris agreement, and has argued it would take the US four years to withdraw from the deal under the terms of ratification.
But if the US withdraws from Paris, internal pressure inside the Coalition will intensify, and the prime minister will face calls from some conservatives to follow suit.
In his column for Guardian Australia, Frydenberg says the Coalition is doing good work on the environment and the conservative parties in Australia have been responsible for establishing legislation such as the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, and programs such as the Natural Heritage Trust and the first mandatory Renewable Energy Target.
“The task now is to build on this proud Coalition tradition and to use this report to continue the good work the Turnbull government is already doing across so many areas of environmental policy,” he says.