Investment in land management comes from financial and in-kind contributions from government, industry and businesses, private landowners, philanthropists, nongovernment organisations, and communities. The voluntary contributions of individuals, groups and communities is difficult to quantify, but makes an important contribution to efforts to improve the state of the environment, sustainably use natural capital for prosperity and livelihoods, and achieve sustainable development.

Government funding

The bulk of funding for conserving Australia’s environment comes from government investment. Government funds can benefit the environment either directly through conservation, or indirectly by encouraging sustainable land management and climate change mitigation. Government funds can be in the form of grants, tax incentives to support long-term protection of land by conservation covenants, and rebates to incentivise land practices with desired environmental outcomes. Government funds can be limited by the health of the economy or competing priorities (Ward & Lassen 2018).

As stated by the 2019 independent review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) (Samuel 2020):

The current streams of Australian Government funding allocated towards environmental protection, conservation and restoration, despite being aligned with Matters of National Environmental Significance (MNES), are not comprehensively coordinated to prioritise investment in a way that achieves the greatest possible biodiversity benefits. Funding is often spread thinly across the nation, and the link between the investment of program funds on a particular project and outcomes for MNES can be difficult to discern. More recent efforts to target and prioritise funds, albeit at a modest scale, are starting to deliver results.

The Australian Conservation Foundation has tracked annual expenditure on the environment by the Australian Government (ACF 2021). Their analysis shows that for every $100 of government spending, 37 cents is put towards protecting the environment and 16 cents is spent on climate change action. Environment spending as a proportion of the overall budget spend declined from 0.5% of the total federal budget in 2013–14 to 0.37% in 2020–21 (Figure 77).

Figure 77 Annual Australian Government spending on the environment as a percentage of total budget expenses, 2014–2021 and projections to 2024


  1. Budget and Forward Estimates figures sourced from the 2020–21 Federal Budget.
  2. Actual figures from previous budget years sourced from historical budget documents.
  3. Spending that has been recategorised over time has been traced and collated to match the current Departmental, Outcome and Program structures (ACF 2021).

Source: Adapted from ACF (2021).

A major source of government funding is the National Landcare Program, which contributes to addressing degradation of land, including loss of vegetation, soil degradation, and introduction of pest weeds and animals. Phase 1 of the program ($1 billion from 2014 to 2018) delivered on-ground biodiversity and sustainable agriculture outcomes for the community and environment, while Phase 2 will deliver $1.1 billion from 2018 to 2023. The Regional Land Partnerships component of the National Landcare Program is the flagship for this second phase. Under Regional Land Partnerships, up to $450 million is being invested to deliver on-ground environment and sustainable agriculture projects to 2022–23, covering 54 of the 56 regional management units.

The Australian Government is also investing in projects that contribute to recovering species identified under the Threatened Species Strategy, protecting threatened ecological communities, and reducing threats to our globally important wetlands and world heritage sites (see the Biodiversity, Inland water and Heritage chapters). Additionally, projects will target investment towards agricultural outcomes to improve soil, biodiversity and vegetation, and increase the capacity of farms to adapt to climate change and evolving market demands.

Other land-related programs funded under Phase 2 of the National Landcare Program include:

  • the Smart Farms program, which supports the development and uptake of best-practice management, tools and technologies that help farmers, fishers, foresters and regional communities to improve the protection, resilience and productive capacity of our soils, water and vegetation, and in turn support primary industries and regional communities. The 3 elements of the program are Smart Farming Partnerships, Smart Farms Small Grants, and the Building Landcare Community and Capacity Program
  • World Heritage places, addressing critical threats such as feral animals and weeds and changed fire regimes (see the Heritage chapter)
  • support for Indigenous Protected Areas (see Indigenous Protected Areas)
  • the 20 Million Trees Program, which planted 20 million trees by 2020 for environmental benefits at the local level
  • support for managing invasive non-native species – for example, through the Centre for Invasive Species Solutions (CISS 2017)
  • $2.5 million in the 2020–21 budget for environmental markets (Power 2020).
  • Investment in the National Landcare Program has been supplemented by other significant Australian Government funding in the past 5 years:
  • Emissions Reduction Fund, which incentivises landowners to reduce their emissions (CER 2021c)
  • Future Drought Fund ($5 billion) for drought-resilience initiatives for farmers, and regional and rural communities (DAWE 2021g)
  • National Bushfire Recovery Fund ($1.6 billion) and other funds ($2.3 billion) for bushfire response, recovery and resilience (NRRA 2020)
  • $214.9 million for implementing the National Soil Strategy, including developing a national monitoring program to assess the condition of Australian soils, capacity building and extension (DAWE 2021t).

Organisations such as the Grain Research Development Corporation, Meat and Livestock Australia, and Horticulture Innovation Australia use a funding mix of grower levies and Australian Government matching funding to support research and development in land management for agriculture. In addition, a 4-year $34 million Agriculture Stewardship Package, which started in 2018–19, aims to encourage on-farm biodiversity and develop market mechanisms to reward farmers for biodiversity outcomes on farms. An additional $32.1 million was provided in 2021–22 (DAWE 2021m). The package includes 6 components:

  • the Carbon + Biodiversity Pilot, trialling a market-based mechanism to reward farmers for establishing more biodiverse carbon sequestration forests
  • the Enhancing Remnant Vegetation Pilot trialling how market arrangements can reward farmers to protect, manage and enhance existing remnant native vegetation on farms
  • an Australian Biodiversity Certification Scheme that allows Australian farms to showcase their best-practice biodiversity management
  • the National Stewardship Trading Platform, helping to connect farmers with a diverse range of buyers
  • an Agricultural Sustainability Framework to verify current standards and develop an overall framework for agricultural sustainability
  • an Agricultural Biodiversity Policy Statement to set out the vision for biodiversity and sustainable agriculture.

The Queensland Government’s Land Restoration Fund aims to expand carbon farming in the state by supporting land-sector carbon projects that deliver additional environmental, social, economic and Indigenous co-benefits (Land Restoration Fund 2020, Queensland Government 2021a) (see case study: The Queensland Government’s Land Restoration Fund).

For forestry, the Australian Government plan Growing a better Australia – a billion trees for jobs and growth outlines several initiatives, including creating Regional Forestry Hubs and research centres, and determining the current extent of farm forestry, private native forests, and Indigenous-owned or Indigenous-managed forests (DAWR 2018).

Beyond the National Landcare Program, Australian Government investment on invasive non-native species includes the Established Pest Animals and Weeds Management Pipeline Program (DAWE 2021k), the Communities Combating Pest and Weed Impacts During Drought Program (DAWE 2021j) and the prickly acacia weed management program (IPAC 2017b, DAWE 2021j). The Australian Government also funds established weed and pest animal research through the Rural Research and Development Corporations, Cooperative Research Centres and the Centre for Invasive Species Solutions (CISS 2021b, DAWE 2021j).

Environmental markets, offsets, and environmental, social and governance investment

Since 2016, conservation on private land has been increasing (see Land tenure), and the private sector is increasingly investing in the environment directly, either on their own, with government or with the finance sector. Government can contribute by creating an enabling environment for finance and investment in private conservation, so that innovative financing can expand the private and public National Reserve System.

Philanthropy from individuals or companies tends to fund direct conservation, where there is often little chance of financial return (Figure 74). Other approaches include environmental markets, offsets, and environmental, social and governance (ESG) investment, which have potential for financial return and thus both private and public benefits.

Environmental markets and offsets

There is a growing trend for land managers and landowners to be rewarded through environmental markets for land management that results in beneficial environmental outcomes valued by the community.

Australia has significant and established experience in:

  • environmental carbon markets, through the Emissions Reduction Fund (see Carbon) (see the Climate chapter)
  • water quantity trading (in the Murray–Darling Basin) (see the Inland water chapter).

Environmental markets and other mechanisms, such as certification systems, are proposed to reward land managers for protecting and improving biodiversity, as a way to diversify, and potentially boost, farm income. The regulated biodiversity credit markets in Australia are generally targeted to businesses that directly impact biodiversity, but voluntary biodiversity credits could also be available for entities that indirectly impact biodiversity through their supply chain or business activities (Ward & Lassen 2018). The biodiversity regulated markets are generally for significant biodiversity such as matters of national significance under the EPBC Act. However, the concept could be applied to more general biodiversity matters. In early 2022, the Australian Government introduced the Agriculture Biodiversity Stewardship Market Bill 2022 to create the framework for a national voluntary market for biodiversity on farms, building on the Agricultural Biodiversity Stewardship program (DAWE 2021m). There is also an opportunity to extend markets and payments for ecosystem services to landowners who demonstrate improved environmental outcomes in terms of water quality and soil health.

Environmental offsets are increasingly used to counterbalance potential degradation due to a development at one location, by offsetting with enhancement of environmental values at another site (see the Biodiversity chapter). However, many offsets promised by development proposals have not been implemented, and funds for delivering offsets have been accumulating. Additionally, some of the offsets have not been effective in terms of improving environmental outcomes. Thus, even once we spend those funds, we may not see the environmental outcomes we want. This growing environmental debt will challenge future planning and development activities.

Environmental, social and governance investment

ESG investment has increased significantly since the 2016 state of the environment (SoE) report, allowing both individual and institutional investors to achieve social and environmental outcomes in addition to financial returns (Figure 78). For example, from 2017 to 2019, the responsible investment market rose from 17% to 37% of Australia’s total professionally managed assets (Wen 2020). This trend is seen for both institutional and individual investors – for example, 90% of millennials are looking to ESG investment instead of traditional investments (Wen 2020).

Private investment can also be in the form of green bonds and environmental impact bonds that support sustainable land management. There is growing opportunity to use private money to leverage philanthropic and government funds, especially ESG investments in sustainable agriculture and forestry. Sustainable Development Goals have inspired businesses to want to do this, plus our top 4 export markets (DFAT 2020) have net zero climate targets, suggesting that failure to achieve these environmental goals may have economic implications (Kemp et al. 2021).

Operationalising and verifying ESG investments require scientifically credible, trusted and regularly measured metrics that can quantify and measure conservation, financial and social returns on investment (Ward & Lassen 2018), while also reflecting evolving social values and a changing environment. The System of Environmental–Economic Accounting (UNCEEA 2014, UNCEEA 2021) and the Queensland Land Restoration Fund’s Co-benefits Standard (Land Restoration Fund 2020) are examples of frameworks that could be agreed and applied for consistent and credible verification. A large and growing diversity of frameworks, methods and projects are under development to address the emerging natural capital market demand. A range of government, philanthropic and commercial entities are working on various aspects of the emerging natural capital marketplace to catalyse private sector and ESG investment at scale. Collaboration, cooperation and transdisciplinary science are required to realise opportunities and meet Australia’s ambition.

Figure 78 Spectrum of conservation activities with sources of funding available to support them, and a range of potential returns on investment
Case Study The Queensland Government’s Land Restoration Fund

Tom Webster, Gillian Mayne and Pahia Cooper, Queensland Department of Environment and Science

Building off the Australian Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund, the Queensland Government’s Land Restoration Fund (LRF) is expanding carbon-farming opportunities in the state by supporting projects that deliver carbon credits plus environmental, social, economic and Indigenous co-benefits (see Carbon) (see the Biodiversity and Indigenous chapters).

By valuing and paying a premium for carbon projects with co-benefits, the LRF is supporting land managers, including farmers and Indigenous peoples, to generate new, regular income streams while improving Queensland’s environment and waterways, providing more habitat for threatened species and creating regional jobs.

The LRF is underpinned by the LRF Co-benefits Standard (Land Restoration Fund 2020), which outlines how co-benefits from LRF projects are to be identified, measured, reported and verified. This standard, which is a market-leading innovation, ensures that co-benefits associated with carbon projects are evidence based.

With climate change transforming the global economy and organisations increasingly becoming aware of their environmental impact, national and international organisations are looking to achieve their emissions reduction targets by purchasing carbon credits and investing in other emerging environmental markets. Queensland’s size and diverse natural environment means it is well positioned to build a robust carbon-farming industry able to meet the increasing demand for carbon credits.

First projects up and running

The LRF completed its first investment round in late 2020, contracting 18 projects across Queensland. The contracted projects represent a range of landholder sectors (12 agriculture, 4 Indigenous and 2 conservation), and were supported by partners such as Natural Resource Management groups; universities; conservation organisations; agronomists; and financial, legal and environmental advisors. Projects represent a range of project sizes and carbon methods (both below and above ground), and a diverse geographical spread.

Investment outcomes include:

  • influencing voluntary land-use change – more than 9,000 hectares (ha) of land contracted for carbon projects is classified as Category X, which is land that does not need a permit to clear under Queensland laws. This land will now have long-term protection from clearing and demonstrates the significant impact that investment in carbon projects with co-benefits can have in promoting voluntary action by land managers to retain and restore native vegetation
  • reducing the risk of species loss, particularly from habitat loss, climate change and cumulative development impacts – 16 contracted projects will complete additional land management activities to protect threatened ecosystems, and 17 projects will result in more habitat for threatened wildlife. These projects combine existing carbon methods, such as restoring native woodlands and forests through regrowth or environmental plantings, with other on-ground activities, such as weed or pest control in relevant habitats
  • supporting the health of Queensland’s wetlands – 8 contracted projects will restore wetlands through land management activities such as exclusion of livestock, direct planting and ongoing weed control
  • improving catchment condition, including those flowing to the Great Barrier Reef – 8 contracted projects in Reef catchments will improve catchment condition through environmental plantings (over 1,700 ha) or regeneration of native vegetation (over 7,500 ha)
  • improving the amount and condition of habitat available to threatened species and ecosystems – more than 600 ha of land will be rehabilitated and revegetated through contracted projects removing pest and weed species and replacing them with native trees (environmental plantings). Due to high up-front establishment costs, the environmental planting method has rarely been used under the Australian Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund framework, which favours lowest-cost abatement. The LRF paid a premium to contract 8 environmental planting projects because planting forest trees in highly modified agricultural areas makes the biggest change to the landscape and most clearly increases additional carbon sequestration
  • driving new social and economic outcomes in Queensland – the LRF-contracted projects span 14 regional and rural Queensland local government areas. These projects are committed to sourcing goods and services from local businesses, training local workers, and using local manufacturers or other local businesses in the supply chain. Six projects are occurring on Indigenous land or have Indigenous participation
  • supporting connection to Country – 2 savanna burning projects were contracted using an on-ground mosaic burning method (Figure 79). This method is culturally and environmentally beneficial because Traditional Owners are directly involved on-ground, allowing them to be more selective with burn areas so they can carefully monitor sensitive biodiversity needs. Although the costs of on-ground burning are higher, this method will produce better co-benefit outcomes.

The LRF will continue to pursue a diverse portfolio of projects, ensuring that investments cover a range of locations, carbon methods, sizes and co-benefit outcomes with the aim of maximising the environmental, economic and social benefits that environmental markets can deliver in Queensland.

Figure 79 On-ground mosaic control burn in savanna, a Land Restoration Fund project near Pormpuraaw, Cape York

Photo: © The State of Queensland (used with permission)

Data and monitoring

Data on land and its management are increasing, particularly with the delivery of the experimental National Land Account (ABS 2021e, ABS 2021b) (see case study: The National Land Account, experimental estimates (2011–16)), Digital Earth Australia (see case study: Digital Earth Australia: new technologies and partnerships to map Australia’s land) and national research infrastructures such as the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (see case study: The Australian SoilDataFederator: a TERN initiative delivers open-access soil data for all) (see case study: Monitoring carbon and ecosystem processes using TERN OzFlux).

The regulatory requirement of native vegetation management has been a principal driver of land-cover monitoring in the past. Land cover is the extent and type of biophysical material covering Earth’s surface. This includes natural features such as vegetation, water, bare rock and soil, as well as changes and additions made by human activity such as farmed land, plantation forests and urban landscapes.

More recently, the demand for more frequent and higher-resolution satellite and aerial imagery is increasing due to the need to proactively manage groundcover, soil and carbon stocks; respond to extreme events; and encourage sustainable farming practices. Satellite imagery is now routinely used by Australian, state and territory governments to monitor land cover to make informed decisions around land use, management, regulation and planning.

A nationally consistent view of land-cover extent and change was released in 2021 (DEA land cover (Landsat) 2021), using the Land Cover Classification (see case study: Applying the Land Cover Classification System to Australia for a nationally consistent land cover dataset). These estimates and methods are experimental, and the results are currently being evaluated by comparing them with existing datasets, which is revealing some disparities. The methods and data are still being refined, including working with states and territories to validate and align the national product with state products, and gaining consensus through the National Committee for Land Use and Management Information for the classification and standards. There is currently no nationally agreed land-cover classification and reporting framework equivalent to the Australian land-use and management classification (ABARES 2016), so Australian, state and territory governments each implement classifications that suit particular inventory and compliance purposes (e.g. greenhouse gas accounts, vegetation and soil management). Agreeing on the classification through a collaborative process, and resolving some communication challenges from applying an international classification to Australian context, will be important to ensure credibility, robustness and acceptance of the land-cover data by land managers.

In addition, a nationally consistent framework for collating data on land management practices is a future priority for the National Committee for Land Use and Management Information, the national coordinating committee responsible for land data and analysis. This information is important for understanding what land management practices are applied where and identifying the impact of these practices, on land cover and other environmental assets.

Although the amount and type of data required for land management is improving, the next challenge is to better organise the data to support assessment of consistent indicators that drive aggregation and reporting of the information. This involves putting governance in place for ongoing collaborative agreement on classifications and standards, and engaging users early to validate results and co-develop products with data custodians. These products can be published with the datasets to encourage broad adoption across multiple programs of work. Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) datasets on land use (ABARES 2021a), land tenure (ABARES 2021b) and forests (ABARES 2020a) are particularly good examples of how taking these further steps results in well-curated and policy-ready datasets accompanied by good-quality metadata and interpretive documentation.

Australia is a major contributor to international scientific efforts to study and monitor the land, including the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations, a key body using data to answer questions on sustainable development.

Case Study The Australian SoilDataFederator: a TERN initiative delivers open-access soil data for all

Graciela Metternicht, TERN, University of New South Wales; Ross Searle, TERN, CSIRO; Beryl Morris and Mark Grant, TERN, The University of Queensland

Soil is both a natural resource and a public good that underpins wider sustainable development (Laban et al. 2018). Australia is fortunate to have a large amount of soil profile data observations and measurements publicly available through state and federal government agencies as well as some universities; a great example is eSPADE in New South Wales. However, these data are collected and managed by a broad range of custodians across the country, for their own specific business purposes and in disparate data systems. Researchers and practitioners interested in using these datasets have, in the past, had to integrate source data from individual custodians case by case.

The SoilDataFederator is a novel Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN) and CSIRO initiative to unify and serve data to users quickly and without preparation, with the data remaining managed by the individual custodians (Figure 80). The SoilDataFederator makes it relatively simple and efficient to develop programmatic workflows to interrogate and retrieve data from various unrelated data sources as needed. The web application programming interface (API) supports querying of data over the internet via a standardised set of uniform resource locators (URLs) with standardised parameters. Data can be returned in a range of formats optimised for delivery on a per attribute basis.

The SoilDataFederator is part of the progression by TERN and CSIRO to enhance open access to soil data for Australia. It significantly eases access to soil data and enhances our ability to use these data for understanding and managing ecosystems. This national collaboration has enabled advances, for example, in mapping of soil thickness using a mix of traditional and novel machine-learning-based techniques (Malone & Searle 2020), 3-D modelling and mapping of soil properties (Kidd et al. 2020), refined mapping of Australia’s soil orders (Figure 81) (Searle 2021b, Searle 2021a), and many more.

The TERN Soil and Landscape Grid of Australia (Grundy et al. 2015, Viscarra Rossel et al. 2015, Grundy et al. 2020) and the SoilDataFederator (TERN 2021) are essential pieces of national research infrastructure that can advance Australia’s National Soil Strategy and its vision of ensuring that Australia’s soil resources are sustainably managed for the benefit of our environment, economy, food and infrastructure security, health and biodiversity – now and into the future. TERN also collects field data of soil properties that contribute to the federated soil database (Figure 82).

Figure 80 Conceptual diagram of the SoilDataFederator
Figure 81 New digital soil map of Australia’s soil orders made possible using the SoilDataFederator
Figure 82 Field data collection of soil properties is essential to the work of the TERN’s Surveillance and Landscape Observatories

Photos: Ben Sparrow and Mark Grant

Case Study Applying the Land Cover Classification System to Australia for a nationally consistent land cover dataset

Richard Lucas, Aberystwyth University, Wales; Graciela Metternicht, University of New South Wales; Norman Mueller, Geoscience Australia

Many land-cover maps use the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Land Cover Classification System (LCCS) (Gregorio et al. 2016) because this taxonomy provides a consistent, standardised classification (Owers et al. 2021) that can be applied at local to global scales. The FAO LCCS classes also broadly align with habitat taxonomies (Lucas et al. 2019).

Previously, the land cover of continental Australia and islands was mapped using Geoscience Australia’s National Dynamic Land Cover Dataset (Lymburner et al. 2015, GA 2017a), based on 22 classes at 2-year intervals from 2000 using 250 metre (m) spatial resolution data from the MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) satellite. However, following establishment of Digital Earth Australia (see case study: Digital Earth Australia: new technologies and partnerships to map Australia’s land), a new approach has been developed that allows annual land-cover maps to be constructed from environmental descriptors retrieved from timeseries of 30 m spatial resolution Landsat satellite data and according to the FAO LCCS. This development was undertaken through a collaborative partnership between Geoscience Australia, the Living Wales project of Aberystwyth University (UK), the University of New South Wales and Plymouth Marine Laboratory (UK).

Maps have been made available for 2010 and 2015 (Figure 83); these years were selected to align with the accounting period of the National Land Account experimental estimates (2011–16) (ABS 2021e) (see case study: The National Land Account, experimental estimates (2011–16)), which also uses information on land use (ABARES 2021a) and land tenure (ABARES 2021b).

As Digital Earth Australia holds the entire national archive (over 30 years) of satellite sensor data (GA 2020), there is future capacity to generate maps of land cover and also land-cover change for multiple years and time steps and for any spatial extent within Australia (e.g. by state, catchment, bioregion) (Lucas et al. 2019). By extending the collaboration to include the CSIRO, additional innovations such as the Australian Ecosystem Models Framework (Richards et al. 2020) and the Habitat Condition Assessment System (Williams et al. 2021b) (see case study: Assessing condition of habitat consistently and nationally) have been used to inform the development of pilot ecosystem accounts (see case study: Ecosystem accounting in a protected area).

Australia aims to continue to report on many Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets (DFAT 2018b, DFAT 2018a). This new land-cover mapping for Australia provides a standardised system for estimating change, suitable for reporting on SDG targets (Metternicht et al. 2020, Owers et al. 2021). These include SDG targets 6.6.1 (change in the extent of water-related ecosystems over time), 11.3.1 (ratio of land consumption rate to population growth rate) and 15.3.1 (proportion of land that is degraded over total land area).

Figure 83 (a) Digital Earth Australia land cover in Australia (2015), classified for use in the National Land Account. (b) Detail for Alligator Rivers, Kakadu National Park. (c) Detail for Gunbower-Koondrook-Perricoota Forest Icon Site


  1. Definitions of land cover classes are given in ABS (2021e).
  2. See case study: Ecosystem accounting in a protected area

Sources: DEA land cover (Landsat) (2021); map projection: Australian Albers GDA94 (ICSM n.d.)

Environmental–economic accounting

In April 2018, federal, state and territory environment ministers agreed to a strategy and action plan for a common national approach to environmental–economic accounting, which is a progress measure under Australia’s Strategy for Nature 2019–2030 (Interjurisdictional Environmental-Economic Accounting Steering Committee for the Meeting of Environment Ministers 2018). The strategy committed governments to apply the United Nations System of Environmental–Economic Accounting (SEEA) framework (UNCEEA 2014, UNCEEA 2021) to national accounts that address policy priorities. Overseen by an interjurisdictional committee with representatives of states and territories, the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment are collaborating with other Australian Government agencies to develop the core set of national accounts. The 2019 review of the EPBC Act confirmed the importance of linking environmental–economic accounts to state of the environment reporting, and recommended accelerating the development of accounts (Samuel 2020).

In 2021, Australia published its first combined National Land Account for land cover, use and value, which served as critical underpinning data for the 2021 SoE report (see case study: The National Land Account, experimental estimates (2011–16)) (ABS 2021e, ABS 2021b). National accounts for water (BOM 2020b, ABS 2021a), waste (ABS 2019, ABS 2020b) and carbon (DISER 2021d, DISER 2021g, DISER 2021c) are also relevant for land. The gap in national accounts for soil will ideally be filled as more data become available through increased research and funding under the National Soil Strategy (see Soil capital assets). Another priority gap to fill is accounting for Indigenous values and land under Indigenous management (see Indigenous land management).

The SEEA framework has recently become an international standard (UNCEEA 2021), and Australian Government agencies have trialled the approach to support future scaling-up to national ecosystem accounts (see case study: Ecosystem accounting in a protected area). Other ecosystem accounts have been published for:

While a reasonable amount of data is available for inclusion in national accounts delivered by government, progress has been slowed where national classifications have not been agreed, and due to challenges in working across disciplines and institutions. In future, it will be important to maintain committees (such as the National Committee for Land Use and Management Information) to agree on additional classifications for land accounts, such as land cover and land management practices. There is also a need to extend this national collaborative approach to other domains for agreement on national classifications and datasets to underpin ecosystem accounts, such as native vegetation type, condition and ecosystem services.

This would support increasing demand for national ecosystem accounts to meet policy needs such as post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework goals and targets (sCBD 2021), and maximise the effectiveness with which progress against goals and targets can be assessed consistently and seamlessly across global, national and subnational scales.

Testing the usefulness of outputs for end users beyond just environment departments is also important to achieve full benefits of providing a coherent set of environmental and economic information in environmental–economic accounts. In particular, business and industries are increasingly committed to accounting for their natural capital. Links between government and industry environmental–economic accounting need to be enhanced, and businesses need to be supported in developing and agreeing standards and frameworks that are applicable for Australia.

Case Study The National Land Account, experimental estimates (2011–16)

Alison Cowood and Terry Hills, Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment; Jonathon Khoo, Australian Bureau of Statistics

The first National Land Account experimental estimates (2011–16) were released on the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) website on 22 June 2021, with updates on 29 September 2021. The account is based on the 2010–11 and 2015–16 reference years (ABS 2021e), with future plans to develop an account to 2021 (ABS 2021b).

The National Land Account is part of the ABS’s suite of environmental–economic accounts. It uses the United Nations System of Environmental–Economic Accounting framework, and is included as an activity under Australia’s collaborative national strategy and action plan for environmental–economic accounting (Interjurisdictional Environmental-Economic Accounting Steering Committee for the Meeting of Environment Ministers 2018).

The National Land Account provides statistics to measure changes in land attributes over time, both from an economic and an environmental perspective. These attributes focus on land cover, land use, land tenure and unimproved land value (Figure 84). Data come from a range of sources, including:

The National Land Account is an experimental account because it is testing the national application of an environmental–economic accounting approach to land for all of Australia for the first time. The methodology used to develop the data and compile the account has been updated from previous state- or regional-scale applications (e.g. Queensland; ABS 2017b). Some of the techniques used in the data development and compilation methods are still being refined (ABS 2021b). As a consequence, the publication is labelled as experimental while the methodology improves over time. The intention is to remove the experimental label in future releases.

The ABS has previously produced state and regional environmental–economic accounts for land, including land in Queensland (ABS 2017b), Victoria (ABS 2012), South Australia (ABS 2015) and the Great Barrier Reef region (ABS 2014). These new national experimental estimates use a revised methodology and improved data sources. Comparison to previous releases is not advised.

Figure 84 The 4 themes of the land accounts
Case Study Ecosystem accounting in a protected area

Terry Hills and Dayani Gunawardana, Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment

The Gunbower-Koondrook-Perricoota Forest Icon Site (GKP) is one of the first case studies for developing ecosystem accounts (DAWE et al. 2021) under the Strategy for a common national approach to environmental–economic accounting (see case study: Ocean accounting in Geographe Marine Park, in the Cumulative impacts management section in the Coasts chapter). The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) is leading the case study, in close partnership with the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, the CSIRO, GHD, IDEEA Group and Marsden Jacob Associates. Other national, state and local jurisdictional agencies, private sector entities and academia are involved in the partnership where relevant.

GKP is located on the Murray River north-west of Echuca, and includes a national park and state forests. The entire icon site is a Ramsar-listed wetland, contains the second largest extent of river red gum forests in Australia, and is a nesting site for internationally protected migratory waterbirds. GKP is also one of 6 icon sites that are regularly monitored for ecological health under The Living Murray program (MDBA 2021).

Account-ready data are available for GKP, covering ecosystem extent (Prober et al. 2021, Richards et al. 2021), ecosystem condition (Harwood et al. 2021a), biodiversity (Mokany et al. 2021) and the flow of ecosystem services and the benefits or value (monetary and non-monetary) these services provide (Figure 81). GKP provides recreational, tourist and cultural activities, as well as timber, pollination and honey, carbon sequestration, and water supply and water quality services to the regional economy.

Scientists and accounting experts built on decades of international work (UNCEEA 2021) to further develop accounting methods that tailor, extend and more strongly couple existing recognised techniques and datasets, such as the Habitat Condition Assessment System (Williams et al. 2021b) for ecosystem condition (see case study: Assessing condition of habitat consistently and nationally); ‘BILBI’ (CSIRO 2021b) for biodiversity assessment; the Australian Ecosystem Models Framework (Richards et al. 2020) for a national ecosystem classification and conceptual models; and national land cover datasets from the experiment land accounts (ABS 2021e, ABS 2021b) (see case study: The National Land Account, experimental estimates (2011–16)).

The approach taken is novel in explicitly recognising that ecosystems are dynamic and are subject to both human and natural disturbance drivers. The approach aims to distinguish changes due to human actions (e.g. different land management practices), versus changes due to natural variability (e.g. bushfires or drought).

These methods are well suited to scaling nationally, and many of the datasets used already have national coverage. This supports the growing appetite for holistic and coherent national ecosystem accounts that meet a range of needs for government, business and the community. Building on the experiences under this case study, DAWE and CSIRO are working with the Australian Bureau of Statistics to explore the feasibility and utility of establishing a set of national ecosystem accounts.

Figure 85 Ecosystem types identified in the Gunbower-Koondrook-Perricoota Forest Icon Site in 2015 (top), and reference and modified states in the ‘inland floodplain eucalypt forests and woodlands’ ecosystem type (bottom) showing the causes of transitions between states and how that impacted the flow of ecosystem services in a small timber coupe in 2015

Human resources

Given the linkages between land, the economy and wellbeing, all Australians have an interest in maintaining the health and productivity of the land (e.g. Franco et al. 2017, Marselle 2021), and particularly those who earn their income and gain employment from land. Those with a cultural connection also have an inherent interest and may be negatively impacted by changes in land use or other pressures (e.g. invasive species, climate change) that degrade cultural values. Ongoing degradation of the environment is reducing wellbeing due to a burgeoning ‘ecological grief’ in those with emotional or place-based attachments to nature, and especially Indigenous communities (Sills et al. 2019, Cunsolo et al. 2020, Middleton et al. 2020).

To counterbalance this ecological grief, individuals can volunteer to improve the environment, such as through Landcare or citizen science. Landowners can enter land covenant or stewardship agreements. Indigenous ranger programs, public–partner partnerships and collaborations across industries can catalyse improved health of the land environment.

Indigenous land managers and rangers

For Indigenous land management, people working on Country is the foundation for almost all environmental and wellbeing outcomes (see the Indigenous chapter). The value created by an Indigenous Protected Area is, therefore, largely proportional to the size of investment in ranger employment opportunities. Indigenous management has various benefits (Larson et al. 2020, Pert et al. 2020, Jarvis et al. 2021):

  • Indigenous land management is more cost-effective.
  • More Indigenous people are working as rangers and being trained for other local jobs in their communities, with a reduction in income support payments and increase in income tax.
  • Rangers and community members report that there is less violence, resulting in safer communities.
  • The broader community has greater understanding of, and respect for, traditional ecological knowledge.
  • When rangers work on Country, they experience personal benefits, including increased skills and confidence, and better health and wellbeing.
  • Community members benefit directly from ranger activities, through reassurance that Country is being cared for, and through the transfer and preservation of cultural knowledge that occurs as a result of Elders guiding rangers to manage Country in the right way.

Where Indigenous people are involved in the establishment and management of protected lands, renewed connection to Country can sustain and strengthen their knowledge and value systems. Being on Country and working on long-held aspirations have positive effects for Indigenous people broader than the direct health benefits – the indirect health benefits to mental health and wellbeing are immeasurable and harder to quantify. Emerging frameworks to define and encourage co-benefits can guide investment to meet the diverse objectives and aspirations of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Pert et al. (2020) suggest that ‘beyond environmental benefits, such investments can deliver a suite of social, cultural and economic co-benefits, aligning with the objectives of Indigenous communities and of governments for culturally appropriate socio-economic development’.

Links have been reported between the natural environment, cultural identity and Indigenous health (King et al. 2009), and engagement in biodiversity management activities are associated with better health outcomes, including lowered rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease (Nursey-Bray & Hill 2010). Health and wellbeing benefits from Indigenous land and sea management have been attributed to several factors. A systematic review of Australian and international research published in peer-reviewed journals by Davies et al. (2011) indicated that these benefits fall into 3 groups:

Farmers and graziers

Some studies demonstrate that regenerative agriculture directly impacts mental health (Schirmer et al. 2013, Ogilvy et al. 2018, Yazd et al. 2019). Because regenerative agriculture is increasing (see Agriculture), we assess wellbeing to be improving for these farmers and graziers.

Natural resource management has been shown to influence ‘social capital, self-efficacy, identity, health and material wellbeing’ (Schirmer et al. 2013), though this is moderated by design and implementation of management practices. Some farmers and graziers have better mental health because, through their management practices, they understand and feel like they have more control over their natural capital. They feel more secure in their future, with greater confidence in their ability to meet financial and environmental goals, cope with difficult conditions and be satisfied with the financial performance of their farms.

One study found that a group of regenerative graziers were not only more profitable, but also had significantly higher wellbeing and general health relative to comparative farmers in their state who contributed to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences Farm Survey (Ogilvy et al. 2018).

Other evidence is emerging that improved environmental condition and increases in natural capital on farms can improve wellbeing of farmers (Yazd et al. 2019). Unsurprisingly, decreases in financial capital are linked to increased psychological distress. Some evidence shows that being a certified organic irrigator was linked to decreased distress, relative to other irrigators, with most statistical significance for the horticultural industry.

Landcare volunteers

Landcare promotes environmental conservation and sustainable land management through its engagement with more than 140,000 volunteers. New evidence shows that these volunteers gain substantial improvements in their mental and physical wellbeing, including reduced annual healthcare costs of $403 each (KPMG 2021). From a survey of 1,000 volunteers and coordinators (KPMG 2021):

  • 49% reported their overall mental health had moderately or significantly improved
  • feelings of empowerment, belonging and purpose increased
  • most mental health benefits arise for those who contribute 20–40 hours per month.
  • Additional savings of $191 million per year were estimated to arise due to improved productivity and resilience to natural disasters (KPMG 2021).

Citizen science

A white paper in 2015, Occasional paper on citizen science by the then Chief Scientist of Australia (Pecl et al. 2015), and the subsequent formation of the Australian Citizen Science Association, reflect the growing contributions of the public to Australia’s research capacity. Australia has fostered an increasing number of citizen science projects, due to increasing funding, infrastructure and government support.

The Atlas of Living Australia hosts the Australian Citizen Science Project Finder online database (ACSA 2021), which links to almost 600 projects. Many of these projects deal with the land environment – for example, 11 on agriculture, 14 on geology and soils, 56 on marine and terrestrial areas, and 107 on natural resource management. One advantage of citizen science is that it can provide access to data on private land not normally accessible by researchers or the public. More broadly, citizen science can fill data gaps and grow support for environmental actions, with positive outcomes for government policy, and land and conservation science.

Increasingly we see the acceptance and addition of traditional ecological knowledge to the knowledge and practice of land management. The National Landcare Program, for example, is currently investing in a range of ways to support use and reinvigoration of Indigenous ecological knowledge to underpin biodiversity conservation and the sustainable use of natural resources (DAWE 2021u).

New technologies

Low emissions technologies

Australia’s Technology Investment Roadmap is a strategy to accelerate development and commercialisation of low emissions technologies. Critical challenges relevant for land are expanding production and increasing productivity, creating jobs, and substantially reducing emissions from Australia’s primary industries.

Innovations in low emissions technologies can potentially address these challenges. For example, sequestration technologies could boost the productivity of Australia’s agriculture sector, to meet its aspiration to exceed $100 billion in farm-gate output by 2030 (NFF 2019a, NFF 2019b). Increasing soil carbon concentration can improve farm productivity and crop yields, thus a priority goal is for the cost of soil carbon measurement to be less than $3 per hectare per year (DISER 2020c).

  • Public spending on low emissions technology research (2014–15 to 2019–20) for agriculture and land was $640 million. Examples of Australian Government spending on low emissions technologies of relevance to the land sector include $29 million from the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources to fund research on livestock feed supplements and forage feeds that reduce methane production, and a commitment in the 2021–22 Budget of $1.2 billion over 10 years to develop low emissions technologies (McMaugh 2021), including $37 million for a National Soil Carbon Innovation Challenge (Taylor 2021).

Satellite data

The digital revolution and big data are improving how we measure and manage the environment, with significant opportunities for sustainability (Runting et al. 2020). To date, most of our understanding has come from field observation and monitoring, requiring significant investment of time, money and human resources. Increasingly, remotely sensed data from a greater diversity of satellite-based sensors, modelling systems and artificial intelligence are improving our ability to monitor large tracts of the environment at unprecedented high resolution and observation frequency. This trend, accompanied by growth in machine-learning algorithms and data storage facilities to handle and make sense of mass information, will revolutionise land management (see the Overview chapter). Greater capacity to map and quickly report on land degradation and land cover change, and tools for setting priorities for management responses, will be a game changer for policy-makers. It will not only be possible to set achievable targets with full accountability and reporting, but social licence will demand it.

Australia is already gaining the benefits from programs that support land management using new satellites, such as Digital Earth Australia (GA 2020) (see case study: Digital Earth Australia: new technologies and partnerships to map Australia’s land). A new Australian civil space strategy (ASA 2019) and the SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre (SmartSat CRC 2021) will progress research that aims to improve technology and data that can potentially inform future land management strategies and priorities.

Case Study Digital Earth Australia: new technologies and partnerships to map Australia’s land

Norman Mueller, Geoscience Australia; Alex Held, CSIRO

Digital Earth Australia (DEA) is a platform for analysing all types of observations, but particularly those captured from satellites (GA 2020). Through a series of structures and tools that calibrate and standardise datasets for Australia’s conditions, petabytes of timeseries satellite data are made available for use by governments, researchers and industry. DEA uses open-source standards so that other countries can also apply the underlying technology to their own sustainable development challenges.

DEA supports Australia’s Earth observation community to achieve some of the broader goals as outlined within the Australian Earth observation community plan 2026 (AEOCCG 2016) and 2026 spatial industry transformation and growth agenda (2026 Agenda 2017, 2026 Agenda 2019), both of which reference the need for digital infrastructure to support industry growth, and note the importance of DEA as a key platform.

To date DEA has delivered several national-scale datasets that provide insight into Australia’s environment:

  • Water Observations from Space provides information on the extent of surface water observable daily by satellite, and also provides summary statistics on how often surface water is in our landscape over seasonal and annual periods, and in total since 1986 (Figure 86) (Mueller et al. 2016, GA 2017b).
  • Fractional Cover, developed by the Joint Remote Sensing Research Program (JRSP 2021), is an example of methods developed external to DEA being made operational at the national scale. Fractional Cover provides information on the distribution of green vegetation, brown vegetation and bare areas to understand changes in vegetation cover.
  • DEA Coastlines is a continental dataset that includes annual shorelines and rates of coastal change along the entire Australian coastline from 1988 to the present (Bishop-Taylor et al. 2019, Bishop-Taylor et al. 2021b, Bishop-Taylor et al. 2021a, GA 2021a) (see case study: Digital Earth Australia Coastlines – Monitoring coastal change in Australia using freely available satellite data, in the Rocky shoreline section in the Coasts chapter).
  • DEA Land Cover is a combination of the many DEA products, demonstrating the extents of various types of vegetation, water bodies, urban areas and cultivation across Australia (Lucas et al. 2019, Owers et al. 2021). DEA Land Cover brings the many themes of cover together in an annual dataset to show how different land features change and interact over time.

DEA supports land management by, for example:

  • enabling the agricultural industry to use satellite data to better target farm interventions such as fertiliser application
  • enabling water managers to monitor changes in the content of water bodies across Australia
  • providing information on the changes in vegetation cover associated with drought, cyclones and bushfires.

DEA’s products are available to view online in DEA Maps (GA 2021b). Research and development access is also available via DEA’s cloud-based ‘sandbox’ (GA 2021e), providing spatial professionals with the ability to develop algorithms on DEA’s products without the need to download petabytes of data. An associated training program has been made available to help new users become familiar with the sandbox, and a community help forum provides basic support.

Figure 86 Water Observations from Space filtered summary product for Australia, derived from water observations from 1987 to 2014
Assessment Management of natural capital assets and pressures
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is deteriorating.
Adequate confidence

Management of specific pressures such as invasive species is partially effective considering the cumulative burden of invasive species in Australia and the significant biosecurity efforts to prevent, eradicate or manage new incursions. Native vegetation management generally lacks national coordination. Some states and territories have relaxed vegetation laws, while others have further restricted clearing. The nature conservation estate is relatively stable with few additions over the past 5 years, though with limited funding available to manage burgeoning threats. Indigenous ownership and interests in land are increasing through native title determinations and land-use agreements, but communities lack the resources to effectively manage their land. Management systems are under pressure to adapt to climate change, but preparedness is low.
Related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal targets 12.2, 15.1, 15.2, 15.5

Assessment Management of protected areas
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is stable.
Adequate confidence
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was effective, meaning that management measures maintained or improved the state of the environment, but pressures remained as significant factors that degraded environment values. The situation was stable.
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was effective, meaning that management measures maintained or improved the state of the environment, but pressures remained as significant factors that degraded environment values. The situation was deteriorating.

The past 5 years have seen minimal increases in the extent of protected areas, mainly through increases in private conservation and some Indigenous estate. There has been a trend towards more multiple-use and joint management areas over the past decade.

Assessment Indigenous-managed lands
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is improving.
Adequate confidence
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was partially effective, meaning that management measures had limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation was improving.
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was partially effective, meaning that management measures had limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation was improving.

Indigenous ownership and interests in land are increasing, driving increases in the National Reserve System and bringing both environmental and wellbeing benefits for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Legislation and policy have resulted in the handover of lands to Indigenous people, either through direct ownership – through land trust, native title rights and interests – or joint management through some form of regulatory agreement. Inadequate resourcing and training support limited reintroduction of Indigenous land management practices, and recognition given to these practices is lacking.

Assessment Management of native vegetation
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is deteriorating.
Somewhat adequate confidence
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was partially effective, meaning that management measures had limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation was stable.
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was partially effective, meaning that management measures had limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation was improving.

While some states and territories are tightening vegetation management laws to restrict land clearing, others have changed laws leading to increased rates of clearing (authorised and unauthorised), with high impacts. Enhanced monitoring tools provide for greater compliance in future. While there is increasing awareness of the condition of native vegetation and flow-on impacts, national coordination of vegetation management is lacking.

Assessment Management of soils
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is deteriorating.
Somewhat adequate confidence

Land-use intensification and climate change continue to interact, making it harder for land managers to maintain groundcover and meet minimum targets to protect soils from wind and water erosion. Increasing emphasis on restoring soil function through multiple investment programs across government and industry, combined with monitoring and community outreach, is facilitating uptake of practice change.

Assessment Management of carbon
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is stable.
Somewhat adequate confidence

Carbon management in the land sector is implemented through soil and vegetation management, and a wide range of programs encourage carbon storage. The Australian Government’s Clean Energy Regulator provides incentives for Australian businesses, farmers and landholders to adopt new practices to reduce Australia’s emissions. States and territories are starting to implement their own schemes with a focus on co benefits of restoring landscape function.

Assessment Management of invasive species
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is deteriorating.
Adequate confidence
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was partially effective, meaning that management measures had limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation was deteriorating.
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was partially effective, meaning that management measures had limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation was deteriorating.

The significant increase in biosecurity effort to prevent or manage border incursions is helping stem the tide of new introductions of highly invasive species. But there remains a substantial cumulative burden of introduced and invasive species likely to become even more impactful and threaten natural capital values with altered climate regimes.