The Overview is authored by the 2021 state of the environment report (SoE 2021) co-chief authors – Dr Ian Cresswell, Dr Terri Janke and Professor Emma Johnston – with significant contribution from all co-authors of the 12 thematic chapters.

This overview provides a synthesis and overall outlook for the Australian environment, summarising more detailed content and assessments found in the thematic chapters on air quality, Antarctica, biodiversity, climate, coasts, extreme events, heritage, Indigenous, inland water, land, marine and urban.

This is the first time the report has included Indigenous voices, highlighting the importance of cultural knowledge that has sustained Australia for tens of thousands of years. The framework adopted for SoE 2021 adapts that used in the 2011 and 2016 state of the environment reports.


The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) defines the ‘environment’ as:

  • ecosystems and their constituent parts, including people and communities
  • natural and physical resources
  • the qualities and characteristics of locations, places and areas
  • heritage values of places
  • the social, economic and cultural aspects of the above.

The EPBC Act, among other things, recognises the need:

  • to promote a co‑operative approach to the protection and management of the environment involving governments, the community, land‑holders and Indigenous peoples; and
  • to recognise the role of Indigenous people in the conservation and ecologically sustainable use of Australia’s biodiversity; and
  • to promote the use of Indigenous peoples’ knowledge of biodiversity with the involvement of, and in co‑operation with, the owners of the knowledge. (section 3, Objects of the Act)

Indigenous authors have written in almost every chapter of this report – biodiversity, climate, coasts, extreme events, heritage, Indigenous, inland water, land, marine and urban. For Indigenous people, writing a report of this nature can be difficult, in that the categories of the environment are dissected and discussed in isolation from one another. This runs counter to the Indigenous world view, in which all aspects of the environment and culture are linked. This has necessitated overlap and interconnections across themes given the interconnectedness of culture. This report has aimed to emphasise the interconnectedness of environment and culture.

The overview weaves the interconnections between the thematic chapters together to tell a story of human wellbeing and its interdependence with Australia’s environment.

Framework for the 2021 report

The 12 thematic chapters contain detailed discussions of outlook and impacts, state and trend of the environment, pressures, and management. Each chapter provides readers with:

  • a comprehensive review of the state of the environment, based on available data and information
  • information on the pressures on the environment and the drivers of these pressures
  • information on the effectiveness of management to address environmental concerns
  • information on the human wellbeing impacts of the above
  • an overall outlook for the Australian environment.

SoE 2021 continues the 2011 and 2016 approach to the assessment of pressures, state (condition) and trend of the environment, and management effectiveness (Figure 38). Consistency of grade scales has also been maintained where possible: state and condition are usually assessed using a 4-item scale ranging from very poor to very good; pressures range from very low to very high impact; management ranges from ineffective to very effective; and trend ranges from deteriorating to improving, with an option for an unclear trend. Information has been provided on the methodology and evidence used to make each assessment, and, where possible, we provide information on the comparability of the assessments to previous reports. This aims to strengthen the transparency and repeatability of the assessments.

Figure 38 Links between drivers, pressures, the environment, human wellbeing, outlook and management

The Overview has followed the same major structure as the thematic chapters, bringing together an overall narrative and assessment across the Australian environment:

  • Key findings
  • Outlook and impacts
  • Environment
    • Climate
    • Landscapes and seascapes
    • Ecosystems
    • Biodiversity
    • Human society and wellbeing
  • Pressures
    • Climate change and extreme events
    • People
    • Industry
    • Invasive species and range shifts
    • Indigenous governance, rights and access
    • Cumulative pressures
  • Management
    • Environment management framework
    • Legislation, policy and international obligations
    • Management approaches
    • Management of specific sectors and resources
    • Management of pressures
  • Resources
    • Funding
    • Date
    • Human resources
    • New research technologies.


Before commencement of the 2021 assessment process, assessment standards were prepared and agreed with authors, outlining the approach and meaning of each grade. More information is contained in “About the report”.

SoE 2021 introduces summary assessments in the Overview chapter. These assessments summarise the theme-level assessments across the 12 detailed thematic chapters, based on the range and most frequently reported grade (mode). Assessments were compiled and refined by an expert panel that included chief authors, to ensure appropriate weightings across chapter contexts and realms. Summary assessment text consolidates the narrative across contexts and realms.

SoE 2021 has mapped assessments to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets, in line with recent state SoE reports (Queensland and Victoria). Each assessment indicates the SDG targets that it may relate to. We use this terminology because most SDGs focus on the latter stages of the Driver–Pressure–State–Impact–Response model (Impact and Response), so pressure, state and trend assessments, and many of our more specific wellbeing and management assessments can only partly inform these higher-level goals. These mappings have been developed based on input from chapter authors and expert panel evaluation.

Independence of reporting and timeliness of data

A team of independent experts led the coordination and drafting of each thematic chapter and contributed to this Overview chapter. The SoE 2021 authors are experts in their fields. They used the available evidence and extensive consultation to produce robust, peer-reviewed thematic chapters, which are rigorous and highly credible.

By its very nature, this overview is not able to reflect the depth of analysis, data and variation on particular issues that are covered in the detailed thematic chapters. Because it is a national-level summary, some of the information and conclusions reached may also not be representative of the situation in a particular jurisdiction. Readers seeking more detailed information, evidence and further references are encouraged to explore the thematic chapters and information available on the SoE digital platform.

SoE 2021 contains data and information up to 30 June 2021, except where otherwise noted. There will always be new developments between this date and the publication of the report, but these cannot be included.