The absolute and relative extent of Australia’s principal land uses, and land-use change over time, are summarised in the Land chapter (see the Land chapter). The distribution and extent of different land uses reflects the history and pattern of European settlement of Australia and the intersection of that settlement with climate and resources relevant to the production of food, goods and services. Globally, land-use change is the direct driver with the largest relative impact on terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems (IPBES 2019). In Australia, land use for production of energy and resources continues to intensify.

Production systems

Land managed for agriculture makes up a significant component of Australia’s natural infrastructure. Australian farmers and pastoralists manage approximately 353 million hectares of land (ABARES 2021) (Figure 31). Grazing native vegetation makes up the majority of Australian agriculture in terms of land area (around 82%). About 22 million hectares of land is used for cropping and horticulture. A further 1.95 million hectares of land is managed as commercial forestry plantations. Agricultural activity (e.g. cropping, livestock grazing, wood plantations) is the third most commonly listed threat to species listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act), affecting 57% of taxa (Kearney et al. 2018b).

Figure 31 Agricultural production zones in Australia

Rangelands (including grazing native vegetation) extend over approximately 80% of the continent. They comprise environments where natural ecological processes predominate, and where values and benefits are based primarily on natural resource areas that have not been intensively developed for primary production (Australian Rangeland Society 2019). Australian rangelands contain much of the continental native vegetation, areas of relatively intact biodiversity, widespread Indigenous cultures, and pastoral and mining industries. More than 10% of the rangelands are contained in the conservation estate and over one-third are under some form of exclusive Indigenous land tenure.

Historically, the rangelands have suffered significant degradation, primarily as a result of overgrazing by European herbivores, often combined with drought (Foran et al. 2019). Overgrazing has led to the loss of perennial grasses, encroachment of woody weeds, changes in species composition of faunal communities, and changes in soil structure, nutrient cycling and water infiltration (Nielsen et al. 2020) (see the Agriculture section in the Land chapter).

Grazing lands have been transformed by the introduction of non-native pasture grass species. For example, buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) occurs over 60% of the continent. It directly suppresses and threatens the persistence of many native plant species, including threatened species, and impacts assemblages of native fauna that may also be threatened with extinction (Godfree et al. 2017) (see also Invasive plants).

Intensive agricultural systems generally support fewer species and simplified ecosystems, and are concentrated in south-western and south-eastern Australia. These include irrigated and non-irrigated crops, improved high-input non-native pastures, managed intensive rotational grazing systems, exotic and native forest industry tree plantations, woody or grassy crops for biofuel production (e.g. willow, poplar, switchgrass), and orchards (Godfree et al. 2017). However, even these highly modified systems can support important biodiversity values. For example, the endangered Australian bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus), which was once widespread across reedy wetlands of southern Australia, now nests in irrigated rice paddies in the Riverina area. Rice fields now play an integral role alongside natural wetlands in the conservation of the species (Herring et al. 2019).

Aquaculture production systems continue to expand in Australia (see the Aquaculture section in the Coasts chapter). Key pressures associated with aquaculture include pollution and increased nutrient loads associated with waste feed, faeces and chemicals, and the introduction of invasive species.

Biodiversity conservation has rapidly shifted in recent decades to embrace landscape-scale conservation planning, which aims to support biodiversity alongside agricultural and other human land uses. Nearly 8 million hectares of agricultural land is set aside for protection or conservation purposes (ABS 2021). The fundamental tenet of landscape-scale conservation is that biodiversity can still persist in these landscapes if the relative composition of different land uses is carefully managed and if connectivity among elements in fragmented landscapes supports dispersal and other movement by a range of species (Godfree et al. 2017). The incorporation of conservation practices such as ecological restoration, revegetation and agroforestry is gradually transforming Australian agricultural practice, although actions are still fragmented, and many technical, socio-economic and policy challenges limit biodiversity gains in agricultural systems (Campbell et al. 2017).

Indigenous agribusiness development

A wide range of Indigenous enterprises are emerging from customary ecological knowledge, including bushfood enterprises, and from native plant–derived industries such as nurseries, seed harvesting, cut flowers, and a variety of botanical-based medicinal and beauty products (see the Indigenous chapter). The resulting enterprises are largely based on wild harvest from traditionally managed estates, but also involve different models of cultivation such as enrichment planting and horticulture (Gorman et al. 2020). Much of this activity occurs in areas under Indigenous land tenure, where Indigenous communities and Indigenous ranger groups are actively involved in land management.

‘Wild foods’ constitute a niche area of food production that involves production and harvest with minimal impacts and interventions on the surrounding environment while providing incentives not to clear natural habitats. For example, the Kakadu plum (Terminalia ferdinandiana, known as gubinge in the Kimberley, and many other Australian Indigenous language names across its range) industry across northern Australia is established and growing. The exceptional phytochemical properties of Kakadu plum, the commercial applications and market demand, and knowledge from generations of customary use, underpin an established and growing Kakadu plum supply chain (Gorman et al. 2020). Enrichment and horticultural plantings are emerging as new modes of supply for this species, with the support of regional training institutions (see case study: Indigenous-led development of bush food enterprises: The Northern Australia Aboriginal Kakadu Plum Alliance, in the Agriculture management section in the Land chapter).

As markets develop and demand for Kakadu plum increases, there may be a need for greater uptake of alternative production systems to complement wild harvest. Indeed, Indigenous-owned and managed ‘on Country’ commercial orchards at Wadeye in the Northern Territory and Bidyadanga in Western Australia have been established to moderate the impacts of harvesting on wild plants and local environments, while irrigation and plantation management practices improve the quality and quantity of fruit production.

Mining and energy production

Mining affects biodiversity at scales ranging from the site of mineral extraction to processes operating at landscape to regional scales and beyond. Currently, land from which minerals, precious stones and coal is being extracted (open-cut and deep-shaft mines, quarries, and tailings dumps and dams) and land associated with waste disposal activities (landfills, incinerators, sewerage infrastructure and effluent ponds) comprises approximately 0.2% of the Australian continent (see the Land chapter). However, this number is growing, and much more land is under mining tenements. For example, in Western Australia in 2017–18, 44.2 million hectares of land was under mining tenements, which accounts for about 17% of the state’s total land area. Approximately 2.5 million hectares of land was under active mining leases (Kragt et al. 2019).

Habitat loss and degradation are the most immediate and direct impacts at site scale, with flow-on impacts that change species distributions and ecosystem condition. At regional to landscape scales, direct impacts are associated with waste discharge and pollution (including dust and aerosols), chemical emissions and acids, and sediment transport. Impacts of mining may also be indirect, such as through associated infrastructure development, which can draw humans into otherwise remote areas and lead to invasive species incursions, or issues of overexploitation through hunting, fishing, tourism and recreation (Sonter et al. 2018).

Renewable electricity generation in Australia accounted for 23% of Australia’s electricity generation in 2019–20 (DISER 2021) after more than doubling over the previous 10 years. Nearly half (45%) of all renewable energy production comes from combustion of biomass such as wood and bagasse (the remnant sugar cane pulp left after crushing).

The average annual growth of wind energy is particularly high (around 15%) (DISER 2021). At the end of 2018, 94 wind farms in Australia were delivering nearly 16 GW of wind generation capacity (ABARES 2021) and a further 8 windfarms were commissioned in 2019. The spatial footprint of wind farms is relatively large, with associated impacts of habitat loss, fragmentation, and direct and indirect impacts on biodiversity. The growth of onshore coastal wind farm developments represents a significant land-use change within the Australian coastal zone. Wind farms contribute to bird and bat mortalities although, on average, the impacts appear relatively small compared with other pressures. However, consolidated data are very limited. Coastal windfarms could have a disproportionate effect on migratory species, including endangered and critically endangered species such as the curlew sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea), the far eastern curlew (Numenius madagascariensis) and the red knot (C. canutus), but again, data are limited.

Australia has more than 50,000 abandoned mines, most of which are decades old and may not meet modern rehabilitation and closure standards. These sites range in size from individual shafts to large open-cut mines (ATSE 2017). The development of acceptable and achievable completion criteria is a necessary part of mine closure planning and fundamental to the successful transition of mined land to a future use (Young et al. 2019). Mine closure raises issues of environmental, social and cultural significance for a suite of stakeholders, including those Traditional Owners whose land or sea Country is impacted. The issues extend to the enduring opportunities that need to be afforded to Traditional Owners to enable them to continue their stewardship of relinquished Country and their cultural and customary practices on remediated lands, and in so doing maintain livelihoods and spiritual wellbeing long after closure.

Recent studies have identified innovative and progressive examples of Traditional Owners working with resource companies on environmental management and rehabilitation projects (Bond & Kelly 2020). For example, the closure in late 2020 of the Argyle Diamond Mine in the east Kimberley, on lands where the Traditional Owners have a connection all the way back to the ‘barramundi dreaming’, has positioned the Gelganyem Trust as a lead actor in the closure and rehabilitation of the site and subsequent environmental monitoring, an outcome that will provide meaningful employment on Country for Indigenous land management and rehabilitation practitioners for a generation to come (Bradby et al. 2021). Case studies demonstrate successful collaborations with Traditional Owners where the application of traditional knowledge and traditional land management practices justify further investigation to consolidate, replicate and scale up the opportunities that could be realised (Barnes et al. 2020).

Clearing and habitat loss

Clearing and habitat loss are a significant threat to Australian biodiversity, and the impact of tree clearing has been a key threatening process under the EPBC Act since April 2001 (see the Land chapter). More than 60% of Australia’s nationally listed threatened species are recorded as being seriously affected by habitat loss (Kearney et al. 2018b).

Overall, 13.2% of Australia’s native vegetation has been replaced for urban, production and extractive uses of the land (see the Vegetation extent section in the Land chapter). Some vegetation types have lost proportionally more of their historical (pre-1750) extent. For example, eucalypt woodlands have been extensively cleared, as have casuarina forests and woodlands. Of the 27 major vegetation groups (see Figure 3, in the Native vegetation section in the Land chapter), 11 (41%) have lost at least 20% of their original extent, and 1 (casuarina forests and woodlands) has lost more than 40% of its original extent.

Between 2000 and 2017, 7.7 million hectares of potential habitat for terrestrial threatened species was lost, 64,000 hectares of potential habitat for terrestrial migratory species was lost, and 370,000 hectares of threatened ecological communities was lost (Ward et al. 2019). In total, 1,390 terrestrial threatened species (85%) experienced some habitat loss since 2000. Some lost substantial proportions of their potential habitat (Figure 32). For example, the threatened Mount Cooper striped skink (Lerista vittata) and the small shrub Keighery’s macarthuria (Macarthuria keigheryi) both lost more than 20% of their potential habitat (Figure 32).

Nine of the 10 threatened species that have lost the most potential habitat to clearing occur in Queensland (Ward et al. 2019). In particular, the brigalow forest of north-eastern Australia has been extensively cleared over the past 60 years and the populations of most associated plant species have drastically reduced.

Of the total 7.7 million hectares cleared, 7.1 million hectares (93%) was not referred to the Australian Government for assessment. Even when clearing has been referred, most habitat loss has been approved, sometimes with conditions, resulting in large areas of cumulative habitat loss. Between 2000 and 2017, only 4 of 3,058 referred actions to remove habitat have been deemed ‘clearly unacceptable’ (0.1%), 2,252 have been deemed ‘not a controlled action’ (i.e. not requiring approval to proceed; 74%), and 806 have been deemed a ‘controlled action’ (26%). Cumulative losses are critical for assessing significant impact, yet currently, actions referred under the EPBC Act are individually assessed (Ward et al. 2019).

Figure 32 The 10 threatened species that have lost (a) the largest proportion of potential habitat to land clearing since 2000; (b) the most potential habitat in area since 2000
Assessment Pressures from industry
2021 Assessment graphic showing that pressures are very high, meaning they strongly degrade the state of the environment, over a large extent and with a high degree of severity. The situation is deteriorating.
Adequate confidence

Industry pressures are highest from extensive agriculture and land clearing, which continues to remove or fragment native ecosystems.
Related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal targets 6.3, 11.6, 12.1, 12.4

Assessment Pressures from agricultural production systems – extensive (rangeland) agricultural systems
2021 Assessment graphic showing that pressures are high, meaning they moderately degrade the state of the environment, over a moderate extent and/or with moderate severity. The situation is deteriorating.
Adequate confidence

Extensive agricultural systems are subject to increasing pressure from climate change, fire and invasive species, particularly invasive grasses and feral animals. Many areas experienced drought in the past 5 years, which exacerbated pressures from invasive species – for example, around permanent water points.

Assessment Pressures from agricultural production systems – intensive agricultural systems
2021 Assessment graphic showing that pressures are very high, meaning they strongly degrade the state of the environment, over a large extent and with a high degree of severity. The situation is stable.
Adequate confidence

The intensive land-use zone occurs over a smaller area of Australia (compared with the area covered by extensive agricultural systems) and is already highly modified. Many impacts are an ongoing legacy of land conversion in the past.

Assessment Pressure from extractive industries
2021 Assessment graphic showing that pressures are high, meaning they moderately degrade the state of the environment, over a moderate extent and/or with moderate severity. The situation is stable.
Adequate confidence
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that pressures were low, meaning they minimally degrade state of the environment, over a small extent and/or with low severity. The situation was stable.

Extractive industries have very high but localised direct impacts on biodiversity that may be irreversible. Indirect impacts associated with mining infrastructure, transport and human activities, particularly in remote areas, may be extensive. Unique subterranean fauna are particularly at risk from mining activities that impact the quality and quantity of groundwater.

Assessment Clearing and fragmentation of native vegetation
2021 Assessment graphic showing that pressures are very high, meaning they strongly degrade the state of the environment, over a large extent and with a high degree of severity. The situation is deteriorating.
Adequate confidence
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that pressures were very high, meaning they strongly degrade the state of the environment, over a large extent and with a high degree of severity. The situation was deteriorating.
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that pressures were very high, meaning they strongly degrade the state of the environment, over a large extent and with a high degree of severity. The situation was improving.

Clearing and habitat loss has very high legacy impacts on species and ecosystems. Current rates of primary, secondary and re-clearing impose significant ongoing widespread pressure across almost all areas of Australia.