Human society and wellbeing

The state of the environment has direct implications for human wellbeing. Humans depend on nature for life-sustaining services such as provision of food and water, climate regulation and cultural connection (Rendón et al. 2019). These are collectively described as ecosystem services, or ‘nature’s contributions to people’ (Díaz et al. 2018). The ongoing delivery of these services or contributions is founded on healthy, well-functioning ecosystems, and the sustainability of natural capital ‘stocks’ (see Natural capital accounting and environmental–economic accounting).

Human wellbeing goes beyond physical health. In this report, wellbeing is defined as the life quality and satisfaction of people and communities, comprising (Yap & Yu 2016, Rendón et al. 2019):

  • health
  • living standards
  • community and social cohesion
  • security and safety
  • freedom, rights, recognition and self-determination
  • cultural and spiritual fulfilment
  • connection to Country and nature.

The Indigenous worldview recognises that the health of the environment and health of people are inextricably intertwined – healthy Country means healthy people (see Connection to Country and Indigenous wellbeing and economy).

Assessment Human society and wellbeing
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in good condition, resulting in stable environmental values, but the situation is deteriorating.

Assessments of state range from very poor to good
Assessments of trend range from deteriorating to stable

Assessment Food, water and air quality
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in good condition, resulting in stable environmental values, but the situation is deteriorating.

Most urban residents experience high wellbeing in built environments. Regional and remote areas have lower access to services, including water supplies, which are impacted by drought. Air quality is generally good but declining in cities, and has limited numbers of monitoring stations.
Assessments of state range from poor to good
Assessments of trend range from deteriorating to stable
Related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal targets 1.4, 1.5, 2.4, 3.9, 6.1, 6.6, 6.b, 14.2, 15.1

Assessment Impacts of climate change and extreme events
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in poor condition, resulting in diminished environmental values, and the situation is deteriorating.

Many of the effects of extreme events on wellbeing can currently be managed. However, bushfires, drought and heatwaves are all impacting negatively on wellbeing. Impacts are increasing in all cases under the influence of climate change.
Assessments of state range from poor to good
Assessments of trend are deteriorating
Related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal targets 1.5, 2.4, 11.5, 13.1, 13.3

Assessment Livability
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in good condition, resulting in stable environmental values, and the situation is stable.

Livability is good in large urban areas but decreases in peri-urban and smaller urban centres and remote communities. Livability factors, such as access to jobs and public transport, are highly variable across towns and cities. Inequities in access to resources continue, especially for Indigenous people and communities, and some essential supplies such as water are further impacted by climate change and lack of rights.
Assessments of state range from poor to good
Assessments of trend range from deteriorating to stable
Related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal targets 6.1, 6.5, 6.b, 7.1, 11.7, 13.1

Assessment Indigenous wellbeing and heritage
2021 Assessment graphic for an assessment conducted by Indigenous community members, showing the environment is in very poor condition, resulting in heavily degraded environmental values, but the situation is improving.

Barriers exist to Indigenous wellbeing in terms of involvement in decision-making, connection with Country, disempowerment and adequacy of support. Some aspects of Indigenous wellbeing are improving, such as recognition of languages, culture and rights, but perspectives vary across Indigenous groups. Regional variation is also high.
Assessments of state range from very poor to poor
Assessments of trend range from deteriorating to improving
Related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal targets 11.4, 15.6

Assessment Historic and natural heritage
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in good condition, resulting in stable environmental values, but the situation is deteriorating.

Wellbeing outcomes from the management of natural heritage, historic heritage and World Heritage are generally good; however, management of cultural heritage, Indigenous heritage and geoheritage is inadequate.
Assessments of state range from poor to good
Assessments of trend range from deteriorating to stable
Related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal targets 11.4, 14.5, 15.1, 15.5

Food, water and air quality

Quality, affordable food is one of the key material contributions of nature to people (Diaz 2018). The competition for land area in Australia caused by urban sprawl, combined with the impacts of climate change, are putting increasing pressure on fresh food provision and security. Local responses such as urban gardens provide some relief from this pressure, as well as a connection to nature and culture. The Waraburra Nura rooftop garden at the University of Technology Sydney features many native plants used for nutrition and medicine by Indigenous people. The CERES Community Environment Park includes a community garden and urban farm on Wurundjeri Country, Melbourne (CERES 2021).

Australia’s high levels of food production through agriculture, for both local and overseas consumption, result in high pressures on our environment from land clearing, grazing, cropping and water use for irrigation. Hence our native vegetation, soil and carbon stocks in intensive land-use zones are in poor condition and deteriorating (see Land).

Climate change and extreme events are having an increasing impact on our agriculture. Pressures include the chronic effects of drought and heat, and changing rainfall patterns, which are driving changes in the type and location of crops.

Increasing extreme events caused by climate change have affected food, water and air over the past 5 years. The loss of vegetation in many catchments following major bushfires meant that subsequent rains caused erosion and the movement of sediment loads into drinking water catchments, compromising water quality. Multiple extreme events have imposed significant stresses on agricultural production, from extensive damage to tree and other crops caused by storms and cyclones to the effects of heat stress on farm and domestic animals, and more insidious impacts that disrupt the lifecycles of pollinators and beneficial predatory insects.

Intense events such as hailstorms can damage infrastructure and equipment, and large volumes of smaller hail can strip leaves from plants or cause surface imperfections on fruit. Severe hailstorms across New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria in November 2016 affected vineyards, almond crops and stone fruit crops, along with 21,000 hectares of field crops (AIDR 2017). Tropical cyclones also pose a risk to agricultural production, damaging or felling trees, and stripping leaves, flowers and fruits from plantings (see Storms, floods and cyclones).

Commercial fishing and increases in aquaculture are also important for food security. These are not without environmental cost, such as bottom-trawling impacts on sensitive marine habitats and pollution from fish farms. Fish stocks are generally in good condition; however, inner-shelf reef species are in poor condition and declining. Recreational fishing pressures remain high, posing a threat to fish stocks and biodiversity.

Fresh water is precious in Australia – the driest inhabited continent on Earth. Low rainfalls in recent years, combined with water use for agriculture, have depleted surface water. This is leading to inequity between stakeholders, increased reliance on groundwater and increasing water restrictions. Overall, the state and trend of water are deteriorating as a result of pressures from climate change, increasing development and only partially effective management, including the exclusion of Traditional Owners from rights to cultural water.

Although water quality in Australia is generally high, it is declining in many areas due to increased salinity, algal blooms, bushfire ash run-off and pollutants. Indigenous people are being affected by the diminished availability of water for cultural and environmental flows (see Environmental water). This has a deep impact on Indigenous wellbeing, which is intimately connected with water as a being, spirit and ecological entity.

Air quality is also essential to human wellbeing, as poor air quality affects respiratory and cardiovascular health, birth outcomes and deaths. The latest burden of disease assessment by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimates that 2,566 deaths were caused by air pollution in 2015, or 1.6% of all deaths in Australia (AIHW 2019). Air pollution also reduces life expectancy. The number of years of life lost as a result of air pollution has increased by 1,000 years since the previous burden of disease report (AIHW 2016). Although Australia’s air quality generally meets global standards, recent research indicates that there is no ‘safe’ level of air pollution, particularly for sensitive populations exposed to ozone or particulate matter (see Air). The health of Indigenous communities is being impacted from changes in air quality (Patel et al. 2019), and poor air quality can also lead to impacts on Indigenous people’s lifestyle, cultural resources and cultural stories.

Impacts of changing climate and extreme events

Climate change impacts are increasingly affecting human wellbeing; marginalised individuals and communities are at greater risk.

Many of the most direct impacts are caused by heatwaves. Heatwaves cause more deaths in Australia than any other single extreme weather event (Steffen & Hughes 2013). Australia’s vulnerability to heat exposure is high, and lost working hours and mental health outcomes both increased over 2016–21 (Beggs et al. 2019). Presentations at hospital emergency departments peak on heatwave days, and there is a significant increase in presentations for up to 2 weeks after a heatwave event. Age, health status and socio-economic disadvantage all contribute to heatwave vulnerability (Beggs et al. 2019).

Climate change exacerbates dust levels and natural emissions from plant and animal sources, through rising temperatures and more frequent droughts. Temperature-driven chemical reactions in the atmosphere are likely to cause more summertime smogs in urban areas. This poor air quality will affect health, especially in vulnerable individuals and populations. The predicted increase in extreme heatwave events will also lead to increased summer bushfire activity, meaning that extremely poor air quality due to smoke may be a recurrent feature of future Australian summers.

Extreme events such as tropical cyclones, hailstorms, flooding rains, storm tides, heatwaves, bushfires and blizzards have always been part of Australia’s climate, but increasing intensity and frequency of these events are impacting more heavily on human wellbeing. Extreme events may last only hours or days, but can change natural and urban landscapes, and sometimes have irreversible impacts on ecosystems and individuals or communities. Emerging engineering solutions aim to improve the resilience of infrastructure, homes and other buildings, and to protect people, but impacts of extreme events are still considered to be increasing.

When severe tropical cyclone Seroja crossed the Western Australian coast on 11 April 2021 as a category 3 cyclone, 70% of buildings in Kalbarri and Northampton were damaged, causing widespread power outages (BOM 2021b). This crossing was unusually far south for a cyclone of this intensity, and thus the minimum building standards required for buildings and infrastructure were lower than for areas more usually exposed to cyclones of such intensity, indicating one of the many social impacts of climate change.

Improved forecasting and warning systems mean that communities are usually aware of approaching storms, cyclones, floods and bushfires, and have time to act to avoid risk to life. However, the intensity and speed of extreme events did not entirely prevent loss of life between 2016 and 2021. For example, the Black Summer bushfires of 2019–20 caused the death of 33 residents and firefighters, the loss of more than 3,000 homes, and months of thick smoke that affected an estimated 80% of the Australian population at some time during the fire season, contributing to 417 additional deaths (Borchers-Arriagada et al. 2020). The bushfires also caused property, farm, livestock and wildlife losses, and affected local tourism and economies (see Bushfires).

Extensive, damaging floods across Queensland in early 2019 resulted from a monsoon trough and embedded tropical lows that delivered record-breaking rainfall to the north and west, affecting 56% of the state (IGEM 2019). Some areas received more rain than their average annual rainfall, and there was significant flooding, impacting large areas of pastoral holdings, and multiple cities and towns.


The state of Australia’s urban environment affects wellbeing through access to jobs and services, travel times, access to green and blue spaces, urban heat, connection between people and with Country, security (e.g. against extreme weather events), and flow-on effects on physical and mental health (see Urban).

Australian cities are consistently ranked as some of the most livable in the world based on personal security, lifestyle, health care, crime, work–life balance and access to green space. Sydney is ranked 7th and Melbourne 11th in the world (Knight Frank 2020).

However, livability is not uniform across Australia. Urban fringe areas have lower livability than inner city and more established areas as a result of reduced access to resources, long travel times and less tree canopy cover. Inland areas have lower livability than coastal areas, and smaller urban areas are often more impacted by extreme events and limited access to services. Indigenous people are disproportionately affected through dispossession, loss of cultural identity and loss of connection to Country.

Access to public transport that is consistent and reliable is a key factor in urban livability. Travel-to-work distances have at least doubled since 1977 in every capital city except Adelaide. Although most local councils are adding bike and pedestrian paths, most of Australia’s largest cities remain dependent on cars. Indigenous and small regional and remote communities are often far from services such as shopping and health care, and transport problems make it hard to get to employment venues and to undertake cultural commitments (e.g. getting to funerals and out on Country).

Urban congestion has eased during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, demand for travel across urban environments may return to the former growth trend. This will place greater pressure on road and rail infrastructure, exacerbating existing levels of congestion and demand for new or augmented transport infrastructure, which has ever-increasing financial costs. Growing congestion translates into longer commutes and travel times, which increases carbon dioxide emissions. Road vehicles contributed 85% of direct greenhouse gas emissions that were generated from all transport modes in 2019–20 (BITRE 2020).

The structure and layout of our urban areas has a critical influence on their walkability and cyclability. Six major cities in Australia rank as ‘somewhat walkable’: Sydney, followed by Melbourne, Adelaide, Geelong, Brisbane and Perth. Walking Country is an essential part of Indigenous people’s ability to connect to Country. Connecting to Country promotes the sense of belonging that Indigenous people have to their environment, whether this environment is urban or regional.

Resource security in urban areas is generally poor and deteriorating. Areas of high population growth and vulnerability to climate change are placing increasing pressure on scarce resources such as water and energy, and producing high levels of waste.

Equity of digital access also remains a challenge, as does cybersecurity. Digital infrastructure is important for access to employment, health and education. Digital connectivity varies across the country, as does reliability of connection. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about discrepancies in digital access, disproportionately affecting low-income households.

Climate change has a very high and increasing impact on our urban environments. Warmer temperatures, bushfires, floods, drought and sea level rise are challenging the livability, resilience and sustainability of our homes and workplaces. Most of our urban areas are on the coast, and coastal erosion, recession and inundation are expected to increase substantially as a result of sea level rise, resulting in financial and safety impacts.

Urban heat is forecast to increase substantially, impacting human health, sleep patterns, productivity and other social factors, and thereby leading to increasing deaths and illness. Rising temperatures particularly affect cities because of the ‘urban heat island effect’, where urban areas are warmer than the surrounding land. This is a result of the presence of roads, pathways, buildings and dark roofs that trap and absorb heat more than green surfaces (e.g. gardens, parks) and blue surfaces (e.g. rivers, creeks). With the urban heat island effect, temperatures in our urban areas can be 1–7 °C higher than surrounding areas, particularly at night (Soltani & Sharifi 2017).

Indigenous wellbeing

Indigenous people’s wellbeing is intrinsically connected with Country. Changes in Country alter and disrupt Indigenous people’s connection with land, seas, plants and animals (see Connection to Country). Mining and agriculture have been identified by Indigenous people as causing degradation to Country. Destruction of Indigenous heritage is detrimental to Indigenous people. Encroaching development and tourism also have impacts, although there are examples of Indigenous tourism ventures that promote ecological responsibility, such as the Mossman Gorge Centre in the World Heritage–listed Daintree Rainforest, operated by Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia on Kuku Yalanji Country (VITA 2021).

The ongoing and intergenerational impact and trauma of colonisation continues to adversely affect Indigenous people’s connection to Country and manifests in unacceptable rates of imprisonment, suicide and unemployment (PM&C 2020). Indigenous people are leading the development of frameworks to strengthen their health and wellbeing through caring for land and sea Country. For example, the Strong Peoples – Strong Country framework was developed in 2019 by the Indigenous Heritage Expert Group as part of the Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program (Figure 10). Strong Peoples – Strong Country reflects the world view of Traditional Owners that their quality of life is connected to their health and the condition of the Great Barrier Reef (Jarvis et al. 2019). These connections between Country, people and culture are reflected in 6 strongly connected ‘hubs’.

Figure 10 Strong Peoples – Strong Country framework, grounded in Traditional Owner values, showing the connections between Country, people and culture

Caring for Country

Indigenous people are custodians of Country, with deep responsibilities to actively care for and manage all aspects of Indigenous culture, lands and waters. Although Indigenous peoples are extremely diverse, with more than 300 language groups across Australia, there are many shared foundational aspects to Indigenous culture – caring for Country as kin is one of these.

Connection to Country covers all landscapes and seascapes, including deserts, rainforests and urban areas. Concepts such as urban and wilderness have tended to undermine Indigenous people’s custodianship of Country. However, all Australian lands and waters have Traditional Owners and Custodians.

Land management work enables Indigenous people to practise culture. There is a wealth of evidence that engagement and collaboration benefit the wellbeing of Indigenous people and communities, and provide much benefit for Country. Knowledge of keeping Country strong can heal land and sea management, and enable Indigenous people to carry out their stewardship or custodial obligations. For example, the Ngadju people have a joint management arrangement with the Western Australian Government that allows them to protect the environment by hunting, burning and managing sacred sites (Prober et al. 2013, Woodward et al. 2020).

The rapid growth of Indigenous sole and jointly managed protected areas over 2010–20 suggests that equitability of management has increased, but several issues remain. Although Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) are recognised as part of the National Reserve System, the Australian Government offers only short-term grants to establish and manage IPAs, and invests in them at a much lower level per hectare than in other protected areas (Taylor 2020). IPA ‘projects’ are funded through multiyear funding agreements to fulfil their management plan commitments. Government protected areas, on the other hand, have permanent staff, ongoing salaries and operational budgets. The increasing reliance on Indigenous communities to shoulder the burden of building the National Reserve System requires an increasing and appropriate investment in management and security. Short-term contracts, financial insecurity and tenure insecurity impose a high administrative burden and constrain the aspirations of Traditional Owners to care for their land over the long term.

The Strong women on Country report (Country Needs People 2018) pointed to the positive impacts for Indigenous people and the environment flowing from meaningful expression of culture and caring for Country. In particular, the report highlighted the powerful and influential role of Indigenous women in caring for Country initiatives. The contribution of Indigenous women in this context is often overlooked, but Indigenous women’s engagement with Country can produce many reciprocal benefits for entire communities. Land and cultural activities have been identified as priority outcomes for health and supportive family environments (Productivity Commission 2020b).

Indigenous languages are interlinked with Country and the stewardship role of Indigenous peoples. Complex ecological knowledge is embedded within Indigenous languages (see Indigenous heritage). The impact of colonisation on Indigenous language use has been highly detrimental to the wellbeing of Indigenous Australians. The revitalisation of languages is considered an important Indigenous cultural priority. There is a positive relationship between Indigenous language use and participation in land-based activities. Overall, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey found that Indigenous language speakers are more likely to participate in hunting, fishing and gathering, and caring for Country, and such activities are known to markedly improve health outcomes in Indigenous communities (DITRDC et al. 2020). The Living Languages website of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies expresses language as imperative to cultural belonging and strength.

Climate change impacts

While climate change impacts are becoming apparent in our environment, what is less apparent is the profound impact on Indigenous people’s traditional practices and knowledge systems, which have been in place for tens of thousands of years. The ways in which Indigenous people read and predict weather and climate systems are based on their knowledge and connections to Country, which are based on observed patterns. Natural indicators of climate and environmental patterns are being overlaid by rising temperatures, sea level rise and ocean warming, shifting or delayed rainfall patterns, and extreme weather. As a result, the Indigenous seasons are changing or delayed, putting Indigenous people’s knowledge and culture at risk. As natural indicators continue to undergo extreme change and shift from what the cultural baseline used to be, we will see Indigenous people’s knowledge at risk of loss or transforming to a new norm of adaptation.

Temperature extremes can have health and wellbeing implications for human communities across Australia. For Indigenous people, extreme temperatures can force them to migrate away from their traditional lands for long periods into an urban setting or to seek cooler climates. Temperature extremes place environmental change stresses on traditional knowledge, Country and biodiversity. Rising land temperatures can also reduce the availability and growth of plants used for a traditional purpose such as food and medicine; this can affect the health of Indigenous people who rely on traditional plants for their nutritional and healing properties.

Extreme events, which are increasing with climate change, are continuing the incremental destruction of Indigenous places and cultural values. Many cultural sites and values are unidentified or undocumented because of population displacement, lack of access to Country, and impacts on traditional knowledge and practice. Environmental changes wrought by extreme events are also affecting the abundance and distribution of native plants and animals of cultural significance, further threatening the persistence and application of cultural knowledge and people’s cultural connections to Country.

Indigenous, historic, natural and geoheritage

Australian heritage is those aspects of the cultural and natural environment that we wish to look after and pass on as an inheritance. Heritage is distinguished from the everyday because it has special importance or value, and tells the story of the evolution and special nature of Australia’s environment and culture. It includes aspects of the natural environment as well as aspects of the cultural environment, and these elements are often interlinked. Much of Australia’s natural and cultural heritage is globally significant.

Indigenous heritage

Indigenous heritage is fundamental to all aspects of Indigenous cultures. It has spiritual, historical, cultural and social value, through connecting Indigenous people to their Country, and thereby also to particular social relationships and custodial obligations.

Indigenous cultures, and the heritage that underpins them, are living. They do not reside only in the past; they are a vital aspect of the lives and cultures of Australia’s Indigenous people today. Heritage is integral to the health and wellbeing of Indigenous communities, and is the foundation of spiritual and cultural connection and vitality for future generations of Indigenous people.

In recent years, there has been a shift towards acknowledging that Indigenous heritage includes intangible heritage and is not restricted to physical sites. Cultural landscapes are increasingly being recognised in Indigenous heritage and systems of management. ‘Cultural landscape’ refers to the dynamic interactions between people and Country. It includes the natural environment, the spiritual and traditional knowledge of that environment, and the cultural practices and activities applied there. It reflects the management and modification of Country over many thousands of generations for the benefit of all.

Major achievements in Indigenous heritage management and protection since June 2016 include:

  • inscription of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape (Figure 11) on the World Heritage List in 2019; this is the first Australian World Heritage property to be listed for its Indigenous values alone, and the first to be wholly nominated by an Indigenous community (Gunditjmara)
  • inclusion of the Murujuga Cultural Landscape (Burrup) on Australia’s World Heritage Tentative List
  • development of Dhawura Ngilan: a vision for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage in Australia, which was adopted by the Heritage Chairs of Australia and New Zealand in 2020 and, through its best-practice standards, is an important step in improving Australian Indigenous heritage legislation
  • the introduction of the first intangible cultural heritage laws in Australia in 2016 as amendments to the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006.

Figure 11 Budj Bim cultural landscape

However, these achievements need to be balanced against the highly visible failures of the past 5 years, which include:

  • the unnecessary and shocking destruction by mining of the irreplaceable 46,000+ year-old Juukan Gorge rock‑shelters in the Pilbara, Western Australia, against the wishes of the Traditional Owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP). This event brought into sharp focus the extensive damage that is occurring to Indigenous heritage across Australia. A way forward, the final report of the inquiry into the destruction at Juukan Gorge (JSCNA 2021), was released in October 2021 and found that heritage legislative frameworks enabled Rio Tinto to exercise excessive power over the PKKP peoples
  • the findings of the review of the EPBC Act (Samuel 2020), which were highly critical of Indigenous heritage protection in Australia
  • the lack of progress in intangible heritage protection; as of June 2021, Victoria remains the only state with any provision to protect intangible cultural heritage through legislation.

The outlook for Indigenous heritage is poor, given the ongoing pressures that affect Indigenous heritage, particularly cultural landscapes, from development and non-Indigenous land management. Major changes to Indigenous heritage legislation and governance are required, especially regarding free, prior and informed consent; self-determination; and access to Country. Indigenous people should be empowered in the identification and management of Indigenous land and sea heritage, including cultural mapping. A way forward recommended that a new national legislative framework be co-designed with Indigenous people.

Historic heritage

As currently recognised and protected in Australia, historic heritage is the tangible evidence and places associated with Australia’s inhabitants and visitors since the arrival of the first European migrants, also including evidence and places related to explorers and other visitors since 1606. It can also include heritage that has shared history or meanings between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Heritage provides an important sense of place and connection, and can contribute to individual and community wellbeing. Historic heritage can also generate economic benefits through tourism and re-use, although such use requires a well-managed and sustainable approach.

Historic heritage is primarily at risk from rural and urban land development, and resource extraction. Considerable amounts of historic heritage are being destroyed or significantly affected by economic development and redevelopment. Inadequate management and protections are contributing to the impacts of development pressures.

Historic heritage on land is primarily recognised and protected through inclusion on heritage lists. At the national level, the EPBC Act provides for significant historic heritage to be listed on World Heritage, National Heritage or Commonwealth Heritage lists. At the state and territory level, heritage is protected through inclusion on state or territory heritage registers. At the local level, protection is generally provided through inclusion in a local planning scheme code or overlay. Listed places represent a diversity of types of places and geographic coverage of Australia; however, they do not include all Australia’s significant historic heritage that is worthy of recognition and protection, and there are significant imbalances and regional or thematic gaps in what historic heritage is listed, requiring more effort in historic heritage identification.

Underwater cultural heritage is managed separately from terrestrial cultural heritage. The Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018 (replacing the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976) provides protection in Commonwealth waters, and various state and territory legislation protects underwater cultural heritage in other Australian waters and in inland waters. Underwater cultural heritage is generally at less risk from the various pressures than terrestrial heritage; however, Australia’s underwater cultural heritage is also poorly understood, and requires greater heritage identification effort and monitoring.

Natural heritage and geoheritage

Australia’s natural heritage includes protected areas, natural systems and significant landscapes, and elements of these. The biological aspects of natural heritage include endangered and iconic species, significant plant and animal populations and habitats, and high-quality ecosystems. Most ‘natural’ heritage is interrelated with Indigenous heritage because, apart from Australia’s remote offshore territories, there is no place in Australia that does not belong to one or several Traditional Custodian groups.

Natural heritage is at risk from various pressures – in particular, climate change impacts, bushfires and other burning, development pressures, introduced species, and inadequate management and protections. These pressures have been increasing over the past 20 years, and are forecast to further increase (see Landscapes and seascapes, Ecosystems and Biodiversity). Although many of Australia’s natural systems are resilient to disturbances such as fire, the diverse nature and high levels of these pressures that have been experienced since 2016, including the effect of cumulative or sequential pressures (e.g. drought followed by fire followed by heavy rain), have had negative impacts.

In Australia’s current heritage protection systems, natural heritage includes geoheritage. As an extremely old, relatively stable landmass, Australia has a wealth of very old geological and geomorphological features rarely preserved elsewhere. Geoheritage helps define Australia, regions or local areas through iconic landscapes and particular landscape features, and can be of economic importance, particularly through tourism. The Australian landscape and many of its individual features are of great significance to Indigenous Australians, as part of Creation stories and integral to interactions with Country (see Indigenous heritage). However, geoheritage is generally not recognised or protected separately from natural heritage, and this leaves much of Australia’s geoheritage at risk.

The condition of natural heritage in protected areas (see Protected areas) is not well understood because it is inadequately monitored and evaluated and, in the case of geoheritage, poorly understood generally. There is a lack of data to evaluate the present level of impacts of stresses and pressures on Australia’s natural heritage as a whole, at either the national or regional scale. In general, the ‘biodiversity’ elements of natural heritage are better understood and managed; however, understanding and management are not complete and are not adequate to slow current rates of decline. Climate change – with rising temperatures, increasing extreme events and altered fire regimes – is considered to be the greatest pressure on natural heritage.

World Heritage

Some of Australia’s unique natural heritage is recognised in 20 World Heritage properties, listed for their outstanding universal natural and cultural heritage values. Twelve are listed for their outstanding natural values, 4 for outstanding cultural values, and 4 for both cultural and natural values. The rate of inscription of Australian World Heritage properties has fallen significantly in the past 10 years, with only 1 new property added to the list since 2011.

In Australia, natural and cultural heritage are intertwined. For example, in 2019, the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape was added to the World Heritage List (Wettenhall & Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation 2010, DAWE 2021b), and another 4 sites were added to the Tentative List, including 2 new properties: the Murujuga Cultural Landscape and the Flinders Ranges. Murujuga is the Indigenous name for the Dampier Archipelago and surrounds in Western Australia. With more than 1 million images in an area of more than 37,000 hectares, Murujuga is home to one of the most significant and diverse collections of petroglyphs in the world, which documents the transition of an arid maritime cultural landscape through time. The Flinders Ranges is proposed to be listed for its natural values, as its geological formations provide a record of the environment and habitable conditions that started animal life some 350 million years ago.

While the physical state of Australia’s World Heritage properties is not routinely evaluated, the most recent IUCN World Heritage Outlook 3 report (Osipova et al. 2020) concluded that no properties in Oceania have improved their conservation outlook since 2017, and 5 properties, all Australian, have deteriorated: Great Barrier Reef, Gondwana Rainforests of Australia, Greater Blue Mountains Area, Ningaloo Coast and Shark Bay. However, the Outlook 3 report also noted that, for Oceania generally, including Australia, the natural and mixed World Heritage properties have ‘mostly effective’ (64%) to ‘highly effective’ (32%) protection and management.

The 2019–20 bushfires (see Bushfires) affected 24 of the 50 Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area reserves, which protect the largest stands of remnant rainforest in subtropical eastern Australia, and support a high diversity of endemic and threatened rainforest biota (DAWE 2020a). Following the fires, assessments and monitoring indicate a remarkably high resilience and recovery of subtropical, littoral, dry and warm temperate rainforest. Several threatened species showed signs of recovery, although the future of some species remained unclear.

Antarctica’s unique heritage includes sites of outstanding environmental, scientific, historic and wilderness values. Pressures on these values are increasing as a result of climate change and greater human presence. The Mawson’s Huts Historic Site remains Australia’s only National Heritage site in Antarctica. Heard Island and McDonald Islands, as well as Macquarie Island, are Australian subantarctic World Heritage places, listed for their outstanding universal value.

There has been ongoing action and success in relation to the control of invasive species, notably the control of rats and rabbits on Macquarie Island and the near elimination of mice and rats on Lord Howe Island.

Macquarie Island lies in the Southern Ocean, approximately halfway between Australia and Antarctica. It was originally inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1997 for its outstanding wild and natural beauty and for its geology, being the only place on Earth where rocks from Earth’s mantle are being actively exposed above sea level. In 2007, it was further inscribed as having ‘Outstanding Universal Value of its natural environment’. The diverse vegetation of Macquarie Island (91 species of moss, many lichens and liverworts, and 47 species of vascular plants, including the world’s most southerly-occurring orchids) is now in its best shape for more than a century, following the eradication of rabbits and rodents in 2011. However, the Macquarie cushion plant (Azorella macquariensis) – a keystone species of the island – has suffered a catastrophic population collapse since 2009, attributed to climate change–related changes in soil conditions and, potentially, an unidentified pathogen. Up to 90% of plants have been affected, and the species has been listed as Critically Endangered since 2010. There is limited understanding about the actions required to abate the threat of dieback, and a dynamic and coordinated approach is required to address this threat.