Key findings

Competition for land and its resources is growing

  • Intense competition for land resources in Australia has resulted in continued declines in the amount and condition of our land-based natural capital – native vegetation, soil and biodiversity – which deliver essential ecosystem services. Reversing this trend requires proactive development planning among governments, businesses and communities to restore ecosystem function, build resilient landscapes, and equitably distribute environmental, economic, social and cultural benefits.

Native vegetation is still being cleared and invasive species are increasing, and climate change is compounding the effects of these pressures

  • Native vegetation has been extensively cleared throughout intensive land-use zones of eastern and southern Australia. Mapping does not accurately reflect the full extent to which land use has modified native vegetation condition. Native vegetation not protected within reserves is subjected to extractive and production uses such as firewood and timber harvesting, and extensive areas are dedicated to livestock pastures. Threats that reduce the quality of biodiversity habitat within protected areas are only partially mitigated. The widespread reduction in capacity of native vegetation to support Australia’s unique biodiversity is exacerbated by climate change.
  • Growing profits from agriculture, forestry and mining are driving up clearing rates. While controls have tightened in many regions, some have been relaxed, with mixed outcomes. Native vegetation that has regrown after past clearing is increasingly being recleared, often without authorisation. There is a lack of clarity around what is being cleared, where and for what purpose. Detection of clearing is made more difficult by the combined pressures of climate change and land use. Native vegetation management lacks national coordination, and is confounded by inconsistencies in definitions for the extent and condition of native vegetation, and different approaches to monitoring.
  • Australia is burdened by tens of thousands of non-native species introduced deliberately or by accident over the past 250 years. There are now more foreign plant species in Australia than natives. Many have become invasive and are likely to become even more problematic with climate change. The cumulative burden of incursions is expected to escalate in the future. This is particularly so for invertebrates and microorganisms, which are harder to detect. Australia’s biosecurity system and intergovernmental cooperation are being stepped up to address this growing challenge.
  • Climate change is an immediate pressure on all land sectors that is intensifying the need to adapt, with potential compounding consequences for the environment. The 2017–19 drought, which exceeded the federation drought a century earlier, was followed by extensive, catastrophic bushfires and months of heavy, continuous rain. Warmer conditions and faster plant growth rates fed by higher levels of carbon dioxide may have benefits for ecosystems and agriculture in some regions; however, these may not be realised due to the risks and consequences of extreme events. Proactive cross-sectoral approaches to climate change adaptation are needed to avoid cascading impacts on the environment.

We are increasing the amount of private and Indigenous protected land in Australia

  • Land managed for nature conservation has remained relatively steady, with most increases coming from the private sector and the Indigenous estate. Indigenous Protected Areas now make up the majority of the National Reserve System and may expand further as local communities consider their options for managing Country. Indigenous land and sea management is increasingly supported through multiyear funding agreements, which now recognise the important role of Indigenous rangers in conserving cultural heritage, in addition to natural values. Awareness of the wellbeing benefits this connection to Country brings could be broadened.
  • Indigenous people are rich in land assets and poor in terms of access to finance and other critical support to manage Country. The Indigenous estate has grown through native title determinations and other means. However, recognition of Indigenous ownership or land-use agreements does not automatically translate to Traditional Custodians accessing, actively managing and realising wellbeing and economic benefits from their lands.

Soil management and data are vital to ensure land use is sustainable

  • The health of our soils continues to decline. Australia has had the third highest cumulative loss of soil organic carbon in the world over just 250 years. Regenerative management practices are restoring soil function locally, but adoption is not yet widespread. Groundcover targets have not been met, and monitoring is identifying where improved protection from wind erosion is needed. Landform engineering solutions and changed management practices are helping to reverse degradation in some highly eroded production landscapes. Contaminated soils continue to be problematic and require costly remediation.
  • Healthy soils and functioning ecosystems represent a significant opportunity for sequestering atmospheric carbon from greenhouse gas emissions. Ecosystem recovery following long periods of drought has provided a modest ‘sink’ of carbon. Widespread restoration of soil health can potentially increase carbon removal from the atmosphere. Higher rates of land clearing, compounded by bushfires in some regions, has released significant stores of carbon. Carbon management needs to be integrated with ecological restoration of native vegetation, soil and biodiversity.
  • While the amount and type of data required for land management are improving, a lack of consistent, agreed methods often prevents the national aggregation or transformation of data into timeseries indicators for reporting. Leadership is required to foster collaborative agreement on classifications and standards, drive monitoring, co-develop products with data custodians and users, engage experts to validate results, and encourage broad adoption for coherence across multiple programs of work.