Outlook and impacts


Rebuilding Australia in response to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic offers an opportunity for a green recovery, whereby both the environment and the economy become more resilient, with human actions more sustainable. Nature-based solutions will increasingly become embedded in land management to support recovery from extreme events and to build resilience of local communities through their farms, forests, reserves and Indigenous lands.

Overall, the state and trend of natural capital in the land environment of Australia is declining. A renewed focus on landscape recovery, especially in southern and eastern Australia, and learning from Indigenous land management practices provides the opportunity to reverse some of these declines to achieve a more ecologically sustainable future. Changes in practice are particularly urgent for adapting to the new climate regimes of the 21st century. As these new climates emerge, we can expect deintensification of land use in some areas as aridity and repeated extreme events reduce profitability. The cycle of drought–fire–drought will be exacerbated, requiring new ways of living with fire and managing native vegetation so it can act as a buffer to protect built assets from fire impacts. There is an urgent need to anticipate change and plan the long process of ecosystem recovery, to bring the rewards of landscape resilience, sustainability and social wellbeing.

Effective land management requires assessing peoples’ impacts – and dependencies – on all types of natural capital. With limited land resources remaining to allocate to intensive uses, the added benefits of landscape restoration and ecosystem management will be critical considerations. While much progress has been made in developing carbon markets, these alone are not sufficient to reverse environmental degradation and maintain a functioning biosphere. Greater consideration of the risks and consequences of land-use decisions, and opportunities for deriving co-benefits from native vegetation and soil management, needs to be driven by regulation and market economies to ensure equitable outcomes overall.

Opportunities for Indigenous communities to reinvigorate connection to land and reinstate cultural land management have been increasing, with some potential to realise economic aspirations. This trend will need to be supported by wider awareness of native title in the Australian community, to build respect for the self-determination aspirations of Traditional Owners in managing their Country, and allocate resources to facilitate ecologically sensitive cultural practices in applicable regions. Indigenous land and sea management continually adapts with the emergence of new knowledge in a constantly changing environment.

To navigate the changed circumstances and minimise future competition for increasingly scarce resources and the inevitable inequities that will follow, the trend towards more integrated cross-sectoral environmental assessments for whole landscapes and regions will need to be accelerated. There will be a growing demand for a more holistic understanding of all impacts of development, to account for multidirectional trade-offs and interdependencies between different natural capitals. The mitigation hierarchy (avoid, mitigate, restore or rehabilitate, and finally offset or, failing that, compensate) needs to be extended to all land sectors.

To be effective, new approaches to land management will need to make use of a more complete and predictive understanding of the ecological functions and interactions among soil, water, vegetation and biodiversity. Sustainability cannot be achieved by choosing between unconstrained development and full protection of nature. A more nuanced perspective is required to retain nature while supporting technology transitions in producing food, fibre, energy and minerals.

A reduction in environmental impacts from agriculture may sometimes occur due to unexpected, innovative solutions. For example, new feedstock that reduces the methane from cattle may help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, this is just part of the solution – alternative human diet choices such as plant-based protein may be driven more by environmental impact concerns than for health reasons. Innovative new protein sources may increasingly be a pathway to improved environmental outcomes by reducing the pressure on production landscapes.

Invasive species and diseases continue to be a major issue facing Australia. While good progress has been made in adopting national approaches that target species of highest concern, and in identifying and preventing priority exotic invasive species from arriving or establishing, the overall trajectory of environmental decline from invasive species has not slowed.

Because of the increased opportunities to work from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are moving to regional areas. Land prices in regions have accelerated faster than in cities, intensifying conflict with agricultural industries. The potential of increased impacts on the land environment through clearing and conversion to intensive uses will need to be managed. Rebuilding major urban areas to be more environmentally sensitive and nature focused is also increasing in popularity.

The digital revolution and big data are improving how we measure and manage the environment. To date, most of our understanding has come from field observation and monitoring. 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. When coupled with accessible data infrastructure, these innovations can reduce costs of land management. In future, it will not only be possible to set achievable targets with full accountability and reporting, but social licence will demand it.

Achieving sustainable and equitable use of land is a collective responsibility that requires coordinated planning and decision-making to meet the diverse aspirations of all Australians and their varying views of nature. This shift is required to balance environmental, economic, social and cultural benefits equitably.


Impacts on natural capital

Land use and management can affect environmental outcomes in terms of natural capital and its condition, such as the quality of habitat for biodiversity and the health of soils. Occasionally, both humans and the environment benefit. For example, co-benefit approaches to farm forestry can provide income from timber and forest products (e.g. honey), while also improving salinity and erosion control, and carbon storage. However, the co-benefits for biodiversity in these production systems are rare or marginal unless managed specifically for that purpose. Across all regions, extensive and intensive land uses are continuing to encroach on remaining areas of intact natural habitat and degrade soils.

Land-use intensification is often at the expense of natural capital. Significant inputs of chemicals, such as fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, are typically used to maintain high agricultural yields. Soil organic carbon is diminished and land surfaces are seasonally exposed to erosion, which is exacerbated by drought. Widespread attrition of supporting habitats, formerly in a matrix with production, limits the effectiveness of biological control agents and pollinators. More care is needed to arrest the degradation of natural capital supplying critical ecosystem services. These services critically underpin the land's capacity to continue producing the volumes of food and fibre needed to sustain export levels will be limited.

Indigenous peoples see the landscape as a whole and interrelated; not one aspect of Country can exist on its own. This view of land and people as a coherent system needs to be more widely adopted to address risks and reduce impacts of pressures on the land. As the number of land-holding Indigenous organisations grows, the requirement to reinstate cultural management also grows. Although there has been an overall increase in the Indigenous estate, there is a risk in terms of sufficiency in capability and resources to enable effective management.

Impacts on the economy

Australian farmers, foresters, miners and the community rely on the productivity of primary industry, which is deeply tied to the state and trend of natural capital on the land. Declines in the condition of natural capital affect the economy as a whole and the economic wellbeing of individuals. This has direct relevance for Indigenous peoples who can derive income from their Country; loss of this income affects the socio-economic circumstances of not just individuals, but also their families and broader communities.

Species introduced to Australia from other regions and countries can have a crippling effect on economies and further impact the health and wellbeing of local communities. The cost to Australia of managing problem species over the past 50 years is in the order of hundreds of billions of dollars. These costs are borne both by the economy and the environment. Greater knowledge of the impacts arising from individual problem species, including those that have not yet established in this region, has led to a maturing of environmental biosecurity and greater cooperation across sectors.

New land diversification opportunities are associated with avoiding environmental harm or managing risks to natural capital caused by unsustainable land-use and management practices. Business leaders are increasingly aware of their environmental liability exposures, and the reassurance that markets require about supply chain sustainability and social licence.

Impacts on wellbeing

Protected lands and conservation reserves improve human health and wellbeing through contact with nature and by building understanding of natural systems. Other land tenures – such as multiple-use public forests and many plantations – also provide valuable recreation opportunities, which are important for people’s mental wellbeing and health, such as mountain bike riding, horse riding, bushwalking and nature photography.

Indigenous Protected Areas, established and managed by or in cooperation with Indigenous Australians, help to sustain and strengthen Indigenous knowledge and value systems, and advance shared landscape conservation objectives and responsibilities. Being on Country and working on long-held aspirations have positive effects for Indigenous rangers and communities, broader than the direct health benefits. The indirect health benefits to mental health and wellbeing are immeasurable and harder to quantify.

The move towards more sustainable or regenerative agriculture practices also has benefits for the health and wellbeing of farming communities. In addition to reduced exposure to harmful agricultural chemicals, improvements in natural capital help reduce farmers’ mental stress. New evidence also points to gains in mental and physical wellbeing by Landcare volunteers.

Assessment Managing land supports human wellbeing