Management of pressures

A key aim of environmental management is to prevent or mitigate the impact of pressures on the environment.

Assessment Management of 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.

Management of specific pressures varies, resulting in a range of ongoing impacts from low to very high, with trends that are generally deteriorating. Various initiatives, including emissions reduction, climate change adaptation, invasive species control and pollution reduction, are in place to target improvements in coming years; however, in general, more needs to be done to stabilise and improve the state of the environment.
Assessments of management effectiveness range from ineffective to effective
Assessments of trend range from deteriorating to stable
Related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal targets 11.3, 11.6, 11.b, 12.4, 13.1, 13.2, 14.1, 14.2, 14.3, 14.4, 14.5, 15.3, 15.7

Environmental impacts

Management of environmental impacts aims to balance the interest of development with the minimisation of environmental damage.

Environmental offsets

A major policy initiative over the past decade has been the increasing use of environmental offsets to compensate for impacts on matters that are protected that are not able to be sufficiently mitigated in a proposed action under the EPBC Act and most state and territory legislation. Environmental offsets are used to compensate for the residual significant impacts of an action (such as development) on matters that are protected, by offsetting with enhancement of the same environmental values at another site. More than 70% of development proposals assessed under the EPBC Act now include offsets as a condition of approval.

The growing dependency on offsets to protect matters of national environmental significance from the impacts of development is risky, given the lack of demonstrated successful outcomes, and inadequate monitoring and oversight. The Australian National Audit Office identified significant concerns with the increase in reliance on offsets, including lack of departmental guidance for reviewing offsets, of a quality assurance process for reviewing approved offset plans, of an agreed method for estimating averted risk, and of appropriate systems to map offsets for internal or external use. Many offsets required by approved development actions have not been implemented – that is, the land has not been secured. Where a funding mechanism is used, the funds for delivering offsets have been accumulating, and it is unclear how they will now be spent.

The effectiveness of offsets is often not evaluated after they are implemented, and it is becoming clear that many types of impacts can be difficult to offset and that achievement of the underlying principle of at least ‘no net loss’ can rarely be demonstrated (Gibbons et al. 2018). Of 74 fully implemented offsets approved in Western Australia between 2004 and 2015, only 39% demonstrated a ‘successful’ outcome (May et al. 2017), although this did not necessarily mean that no net loss was achieved. Land acquisition offsets are often considered to have addressed the necessary mitigation through a change of tenure, but these offsets do not necessarily include management of threats, or ongoing management and monitoring. Some offsets have not been as effective in improving environmental outcomes as put forward in approved developments, and the lack of data to evaluate effectiveness means that outcomes are rarely publicly known. Offsets that exchange increased protection of existing habitat or vegetation for loss of other habitat can result in biodiversity decline over time. Recent research suggests that the ‘gain’ from protection alone is often overestimated, meaning that offsets are inadequate and net losses accumulate (Maseyk et al. 2021).

New approaches for environmental impact assessment

To move from unsustainable to sustainable development, a major transformation in environmental planning, assessment and reporting in Australia is required.

The current approach to environmental impact assessment across Australia is not meeting expectations in protecting the environment, including cultural heritage (ANAO 2020, Samuel 2020). The current process, where each proposal is developed and assessed individually, does not address cumulative impacts and does not adequately present a complete picture of the state of the environment. The process is also often criticised for lack of repeatability and appropriate transparency. The environmental approval process requires significant improvement to provide confidence that it is protecting the environment according to agreed environmental standards.

In 2020, the Western Australian and Australian governments began work on developing a shared environmental analytics facility that brings together environmental data, information and models to provide efficient, robust, repeatable and transparent environmental information and analysis to underpin regional environmental assessment, planning, assurance and reporting (WABSI & WAMSI 2019). The objective is to reduce timeframes for assessment, increase consistency in objectives and standards, and provide more robust and consistent consideration of cumulative impacts.

Climate change mitigation and adaptation

Climate change mitigation involves strategies and actions to tackle the causes of climate change – for example, reducing greenhouse gas emissions (see Greenhouse gas emissions). Climate change adaptation involves reducing the impacts of climate change when they do occur – for example, the human and economic costs of higher-intensity storms and floods. Adaptation to climate change is being actively pursued across multiple levels of government, although the challenges in effective adaptation are formidable. There is an increasing awareness of climate risk, and willingness to address it, across the public and private sectors.

Emissions reduction

Emissions reduction programs operate at all levels of government and across the private sector. In 2012, the Council of Australian Governments defined roles and responsibilities for the management of climate risk and climate change adaptation within the 3 levels of government, as well as the respective roles of governments and the private sector.

Australia has no federal Climate Change Act; however, a range of legislation covers various climate change–related activities at the national level. For example, Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCUs) are defined and regulated under the Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Act 2011 and associated Regulations. The Australian Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) makes funds available through an auction process to support projects that reduce direct emissions or sequester carbon. In April 2021, $108 million was provided to 10 projects to achieve 6.8 megatonnes of mitigation. The ERF also requires the largest emitters to keep emissions below a baseline or purchase credits to offset their excess. The ERF achieved 16 megatonnes of emissions mitigation in 2020, about 3% of average annual Australian emissions (CER 2021). The architecture for defining and measuring units of emissions and mitigation under the ERF (ACCUs) also supports voluntary offset schemes. Vegetation-related projects made up 58% of ACCU supply in the fourth quarter of 2020 and waste-related projects 35%.

Since 2001, the Renewable Energy Target (RET) has set targets for renewable energy generation. The 2020 target of 33,000 gigawatt-hours was achieved in January 2021. Together with support for small-scale renewable energy (such as rooftop solar), RET targets achieved 37.3 megatonnes in mitigation in 2020. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency provides grants to support renewable energy projects, focusing on pathways to commercialisation for new technologies, with funding rounds for particular technologies and/or projects. It has provided $1.67 billion in funding for a total of 579 projects since 2012.

A wide range of state and territory programs support emissions reduction within their jurisdictions, in some cases complementing national programs. They include promoting renewable energy generation developments, identifying renewable energy zones for developing transmission infrastructure, purchasing renewable energy, and promoting local renewable hydrogen industries. Transport initiatives to promote electric vehicles include the expansion of charging infrastructure, interest-free loans or direct purchase subsidies, and targets for purchasing zero-emission vehicles for government fleets and public transport. Infrastructure initiatives include minimum energy efficiency standards for new buildings, energy audits, and assistance for improving energy assistance for existing buildings.

Australia has committed to net zero emissions by 2050, including all states, with the exception of the Australian Capital Territory, which has committed to the early target of 2045, and Tasmania, which has committed to the early target of 2030. States can also include state-level emissions targets, or a process for setting them, and requirements for decision-makers under other legislation. Some local councils have emissions reduction targets. Tasmania has reduced emissions to date by 109% since 2005, due to its large forested carbon sinks and carbon-neutral hydroelectricity, and South Australia has achieved reductions of 32.9%; however, emissions have increased 20.6% and 46.5%, respectively, in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

General government approaches at all levels include targets for low-emissions outcomes in government purchasing (e.g. of vehicles), installation of solar panels on government buildings such as schools, and capture and re-use of gases generated in waste management facilities, in conjunction with local government. More efficient street lighting and bulk purchases of renewable energy are also major emissions reduction initiatives for local governments in urban areas. Land-use programs include regulation of land clearing and support for carbon farming. For example, Indigenous communities are working with local authorities to establish tropical savanna regions as a carbon sink by promoting traditional burning early in the dry season to limit destructive fires later in the season.

Climate change adaptation

Some level of climate change is ‘locked in’ because today’s emissions will continue to influence future climatic conditions. Managing climate change impacts requires a high level of adaptive management to adjust to the actual and anticipated effects of climate change. Because climate change is an extensive, complex and rapidly developing issue, action in this area should be multidisciplinary and multistakeholder, and take a cooperative, open and shared approach. The lack of cooperative engagement in climate change adaptation at the national level is noticeable and has worsened in the past 5 years. For example, Australian Government funding for its National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, which started in 2008, was discontinued in 2017, leading to its effective closure in 2019, although some functions (e.g. CoastAdapt) continue under the auspices of Griffith University.

Coastal adaptation is required but is in its infancy in Australia (Ramm et al. 2017). Actions may include moving houses or infrastructure out of an impact zone; retrofitting accommodation, such as raising floor levels and protection; installing hard engineering structures, such as seawalls; and using soft engineering options, such as beach nourishment or replenishment, beach scraping and dune management. Despite the establishment of a national CoastAdapt program in 2016–17, responsibility has since shifted to the states and territories. State governments are considering how erosion and inundation will affect coastlines, short-term impacts of individual storms, and longer-term trends such as coastal recession in response to sea level rise. Most states have guidelines on how to undertake coastal hazard assessments and consider nature-based options, such as restoring coastal wetlands.

Climate change management needs to consider that some loss will be inevitable, and to manage for the impacts of loss on the community, which have been found to affect people’s sense of place and connection to place, and to increase general anxiety about climate change (e.g. Seekamp & Jo 2020).

Climate change is increasingly recognised in threatened species recovery planning as a current and future risk. However, only a relatively small proportion of recovery plans that list climate change as a threat actually identify any specific actions to mitigate the threat, other than monitoring change (Hoeppner & Hughes 2019). Managing and reducing other threats that reduce the resilience of threatened species populations to climate change are often prioritised but rarely linked to the specific threats of climate change.

Australia’s current management of climate change impacts on the marine environment is mostly reactive (after an event). Various reactive regulatory measures have also been used in response to extreme events such as marine heatwaves and tropical cyclones, including fishery closures, zoning changes, restocking (Oliver et al. 2017, Caputi et al. 2019), and changes in harvest rules in reef fisheries (Hodgkinson et al. 2014). However, proactive ‘climate ready’ management informed by both short-term forecasts and long-term climate projections (e.g. reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is emerging. For example, adaptation planning has been initiated in several Commonwealth fisheries (Fulton et al. 2020), based on long-term projections for exploited stocks (Fulton et al. 2018, Pethybridge et al. 2020).

In coral reef management, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has an early warning system for coral bleaching, comprising real-time monitoring (e.g. Garde et al. 2014) and seasonal prediction tools (e.g. Smith & Spillman 2019). Long-term management is informed by 2 climate change adaptation plans (2007–12 and 2012–17) and the resilience blueprint for the Great Barrier Reef.

In marine conservation, management has focused mainly on the drivers of biodiversity and habitat loss, and commensurate responses such as managing overfishing and reducing pollution. However, as climate change is a key driver of habitat loss and ecosystem disruption, restoration can be a complex and multifaceted response. Increasingly, ‘assisted’ restoration, such as the use of populations or stock specially bred for resilience, and ecological–engineering solutions are being used. These include protecting existing biodiversity and corals from cumulative pressures, using strategies to shade reefs (Baird et al. 2019), assisting reefs to adapt to increasing temperatures, and restoring degraded high-value sites. As the biodiverse giant kelp forests of temperate rocky reefs are already in decline, thermally tolerant giant kelp from remnant forest patches is being investigated as potential foundation stock for reafforestation (Wood et al. 2019).

Extreme events management

Responsibility for preparing and responding to extreme events ranges from individuals and communities to local, state and territory, and national levels of government, guided by the UN Sendai Framework (UNDRR 2015). Australia has recently shifted its emphasis from primarily responding to extreme events to additional investment in preparedness, impact mitigation, resilience and recovery. Australia established a new National Recovery and Resilience Agency in 2021. As well, $209 million has been invested in a new Australian Climate Service to integrate national data, tools and platforms to provide a single authoritative source of information to support policy, management and operational decision-making.

State and territory governments have primary responsibility for protecting life, property and the environment within their borders, and have established plans to respond to, and recover from, extreme events. The operational agencies that respond to extreme events and their impacts are also predominantly resourced by, and responsible to, state and territory governments, as are the agencies that manage land that is not privately owned. The roles, responsibilities and relationships between emergency services, metropolitan and rural fire authorities, volunteers, land management agencies and local government vary in each state and territory. Planning standards and regulations, usually determined at local and state level, are very important in mitigating the impact of extreme events.

Current management approaches to extreme events vary in effectiveness, depending on the risk. Although management of floods and cyclones is generally good, the increasing impact of heatwaves and bushfires is not yet well managed, and some groups remain exposed to serious risks. Likewise, environmental impacts are expected to intensify.

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements (Binskin et al. 2020) made recommendations about how to better prepare Australia for climate-related extreme events. The Australian Government broadly accepted all recommendations, and a series of policy proposals is addressing the integration and coordination of national responses. Inquiries into natural disasters by state and territory governments over the past few years are similarly driving policy responses. Industries, communities and nongovernment organisations are also starting to address the question of how to enhance community, business and environmental resilience.

Historically, planning regulations have put the protection of people first, the protection of assets second and the protection of the environment third. This has downplayed the wellbeing implications of connections between people and the environment, which has particular implications for Indigenous people’s connections to Country. In terms of domestic structures, the focus has been on the protection of occupants rather than resilience. However, as the climate changes, existing design assumptions that underpin our built environment are changing, including infrastructure design, building standards, land planning and how to address increasingly unviable (or uninsurable) properties. Decisions about land-use planning, zoning, development, infrastructure, construction and environmental management can all affect a community’s exposure or vulnerability to hazards, and the magnitude of impacts. Following multiple extreme events since 2016, the Northern Australia Insurance Inquiry (ACCC 2020) recommended that the insurance industry work with Standards Australia to develop voluntary standards for improved resilience to natural hazards, both for new homes and for the retrofitting of existing dwellings.

On land, examples of adaptation to extreme events include the OneHouse project to design a traditional ‘Queenslander’ home built with readily available materials that would resist flood, bushfire and cyclones (Suncorp 2021), and would require minimal repair after an extreme event. Another example is the University of Adelaide Environment Institute’s Unified Natural Hazard Risk Mitigation Exploratory Decision support system (UNHaRMED), which is an interactive modelling platform that enables planners to assess risks from multiple hazards, consider economic and population changes, and model the effects of different risk reduction options.

Invasive species management

Invasive non-native species are considered one of the greatest direct threats to threatened and endangered species in Australia in the short term (see Invasive species and range shifts). Managing invasive non-native species for multiple Australian ecosystems is the most cost-effective management strategy for reducing the extinction risks for threatened and endangered species (Firn et al. 2013, Chadés et al. 2015, Ponce Reyes et al. 2016, Kearney et al. 2018, Woinarski et al. 2019, Geyle et al. 2021). Effective species-led and ecosystem-based invasive species management strategies and implementation plans are a key to effective biodiversity conservation (Carwardine et al. 2019).

The EPBC Act (for impacts on listed species and ecological communities) and the Biosecurity Act 2015 (for broader human, agricultural and ecosystem impacts) govern the legal obligations to manage impacts of invasive non-native species in Australia and its external territories. All states have complementary biosecurity Acts. The Australian Government is responsible for offshore and international border management, while the states and territories have primary responsibility for incursion and impact management within their borders (see Biosecurity and sources of invasive species).

The huge burden of already established invasive species continues to grow in both land and sea environments. Monitoring in marine and coastal ecosystems is managed on an ad hoc basis, and we do not understand the extent or trajectory of introduced species (or whether they will become pests) in these systems. Only 4 jurisdictions (the Northern Territory, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia) use active surveillance approaches for marine pests. The main vectors for the introduction of marine pests are transport in ships’ ballast water, biofouling on hulls and introduction through the aquarium trade. Australia has developed a national strategic plan –MarinePestPlan 2018–2023 (DAWR 2018) – to build capacity to respond to and manage the threat of marine invasive species. The plan outlines 5 objectives:

  • Minimise the risk of marine pest introductions, establishment and spread through the management of ballast water and biofouling.
  • Strengthen the national marine pest surveillance system.
  • Enhance Australia’s preparedness and response capability for marine pest introductions.
  • Support marine pest biosecurity research and development.
  • Engage stakeholders to better manage marine pest biosecurity.

A new national strategy for managing weeds has been released (Invasive Plants and Animals Committee 2017a), and a revised list of target weed species is being developed through the National Established Weed Priorities Framework (Wild Matters 2020, Wild Matters 2021).

Pest animals are listed on the Exotic Environmental Pest List (ABARES 2020b), and there is a list of threat categories of non-indigenous vertebrates (Environment and Invasives Committee 2018). A new national strategy for managing pest animals has been released (Invasive Plants and Animals Committee 2017b), and this is supported by several species-specific plans:

There is also a nationally coordinated but regionally led program tackling the millions of feral cats in Australia under a threat abatement plan (DoE 2015a). Each state and territory conducts feral animal control of a range of species, particularly feral pigs and deer, with differing degrees of success. Several conservation nongovernment agencies also conduct widespread feral animal management on their estates.

Significant work is required to complete and implement action plans for managing all national priority exotic weeds, pests and diseases, including risk mitigation measures, surveillance, diagnostics and the most appropriate management responses.

The Australian Government appointed the first National Feral Deer Management Coordinator in 2020, who will support community-led deer control in all states and territories across Australia and facilitate co-development of a National Feral Deer Action Plan. A similar model is in place for feral pigs: the Australian Government is supporting a National Feral Pig Management Coordinator, appointed in 2020, to facilitate the delivery of feral pig management approaches.

Australia is currently spending more than $60 million a year on eradication programs for 5 ant species – seeking national eradication of red imported fire ants, electric ants and browsing ants, and partial eradication of yellow crazy ants (wet tropics of Queensland) and Argentine ants (Norfolk Island) because of their potential for devastating harm to wildlife and impacts on people. The Australian Government has committed $15.2 million towards the development and potential implementation of the National Carp Control Plan to determine the feasibility of using cyprinid herpesvirus 3 (the carp virus) as a biological control agent for carp, as part of an integrated landscape-scale control effort (McColl & Sunarto 2020).

The successful management of invasive species is a huge challenge that is currently beyond the resources available. Even more innovation will be required, such as commercialisation of new technical and digital solutions, and ensuring a social licence for emerging technologies (CSIRO Futures 2020).

Case Study Innovative biological control helping red crabs to recolonise and migrate across Christmas Island

Dr Andy Sheppard, CSIRO

Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean is famous for its red land crabs, an ecological keystone species, along with more than 20 other species of endemic land crabs. Invasive yellow crazy ants (Anoplolepis gracilipes) have killed tens of millions of red crabs on the island, as well as decimating the island’s population of the world’s largest robber crab, the biggest terrestrial arthropod on earth.

Since the early 1990s, yellow crazy ants have created supercolonies, sometimes covering hundreds of hectares, with thousands of queens and up to 10,000 ants per hectare (Parks Australia 2015). This has been driven by mutualistic relationships that the ants developed with introduced honeydew-producing scale insects, especially the yellow lac scale (Tachardina aurantiaca).

In December 2016, a biocontrol agent was released to indirectly suppress yellow crazy ants. The agent uses a natural enemy of yellow lac scale, the parasitoid wasp Tachardiaephagus somervillei from Malaysia. The wasp acts to suppress the population of yellow lac scale, reducing the supply of honeydew.  

Following release of the wasp, ant numbers declined sufficiently at 3 of the 8 monitoring sites to allow recolonisation by red crabs. In 4 of the monitoring sites, red crabs were able to safely migrate through the area (Parks Australia 2021). This is a significant success story, as it is both the first biocontrol of invasive ant populations and the first indirect biocontrol program in the world.

Although many sites still support supercolonies of ants, fuelled by honeydew from other scale insects, the success so far gives confidence that targeting these other scale insects could achieve self-sustaining, long-term suppression of yellow crazy ants throughout Christmas Island.

Figure 31 Clockwise from top left: red crab; scale insect; parasitic wasp

Pollution management

State and territory governments have the main responsibility for managing waste through legislation, policy, regulation, strategy and planning, as well as permitting and licensing waste transport, storage, treatment and disposal operations. Challenges facing the sector include the diversity and inconsistency of approaches across jurisdictions (DoE 2013), and the lack of a requirement for re-use and recyclability of materials to enable economies of scale and identification of new markets for recycled material. To help manage these challenges, the Australian, state and territory governments, together with the Australian Local Government Association, updated the National Waste Policy in 2018. The policy describes a strong ambition to move towards a circular economy that manages materials sustainably.

The 2019 National Waste Policy Action Plan includes reducing the waste generated in Australia by 10% per person by 2030, 80% resource recovery from all waste streams by 2030, and significant increases in the use of recycled content and the phasing out of unnecessary plastics by 2025. Other local, state-based and national activities are designed to reduce waste losses to the environment. These include legislation to implement beverage container deposits, bans and levies on plastic bags, bans on single-use plastic, drink refill stations, and separation of waste at the household level (e.g. Schuyler et al. 2018, Willis et al. 2019).

Over the past 5 years, considerable progress has been made on developing and implementing waste management programs for marine plastics and debris (particularly for waste that originates on land). But these have been insufficient to reverse pressures on the Australian coastal and marine environments. Plastic pollution and marine debris were identified as a key threatening process to vertebrate marine life under the EPBC Act because of the potential for ‘injury and fatality … caused by ingestion of, or entanglement in, harmful marine debris’. Successive management plans have identified the sources and types of harmful marine debris and actions required to reduce impacts. The Australian Fisheries Management Authority, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, the Maritime Border Command and Parks Australia have coordinated efforts for clean-ups of discarded debris (e.g. Parks Australia 2021a).

The management of marine vessel activity in Australian waters identifies most environmental threats and protects environmental values. Use of low-sulfur fuel oils was made mandatory from January 2020. However, only a limited number of noise-producing activities are regulated – shipping, and oil and gas exploration activities are the largest source of human noise that can affect many marine species.

Oil spills from Australia’s offshore oil and gas industry have the potential to cause adverse impacts on the marine environment. The environmental impacts of the oil and gas industry are understood and well managed, with increasing levels of preparedness for unplanned events (Evans et al. 2021b); however, the effects, if an event should occur, can be significant. Most oil and gas exploration, extraction and production activities are conducted in Commonwealth waters, and most mining activities occur in coastal waters under state and territory jurisdictions. The National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) is the sole regulator for the offshore oil and gas industry, and greenhouse gas storage activities in Commonwealth waters. Since 2016, NOPSEMA has reported high levels of compliance by the offshore oil and gas industry, and few environmental incidents. Although there is no regulatory framework for offshore clean energy infrastructure, a draft discussion document was released in February 2020, and policy is being developed, with NOPSEMA proposed as the regulator for offshore clean energy developments.

Air pollution

Management of air quality in Australia is a cooperative effort by all levels of government. The Australian Government sets emissions and fuel standards, and is responsible for the National Pollutant Inventory and international obligations.

Because air pollution comes from multiple sources, such as the combined impacts from motor vehicles and wood heaters, it requires an integrated management approach. Encouraging the oldest and dirtiest vehicles off the road, as well as improving fuel standards, would rapidly improve air quality, as would the provision of more reliable public transport to encourage people out of their vehicles. Legislation forcing appliance manufacturers to improve burn efficiencies for wood heaters is being developed in New South Wales. As urban areas are well served by gas and electrical infrastructure, such heaters could be banned in cities to improve air quality in winter. In addition, protecting the health of populations, particularly children, living near large industrial plants should be prioritised via targeted emissions reductions.

Natural sources of air pollution are difficult to control, although some actions can be effective (e.g. increasing groundcover to reduce dust, reducing fuel loads in bushfire-prone regions). Anthropogenic (human) sources can be controlled through strategic air quality policy.

The Commonwealth National Environment Protection Council Act 1994, combined with complementary state and territory legislation, enables Australia’s National Environment Protection Council to make National Environment Protection Measures (NEPMs), which are designed to protect Australians from air, water, soil and noise pollution. The council also reports annually on the implementation and effectiveness of NEPMs across Australia. This mechanism provides an agreed, nationally consistent framework of goals, standards, guidelines and protocols for protecting and managing particular aspects of the environment, including air, water, noise, site contamination, hazardous waste and recycling.

State and territory governments are responsible for implementing NEPMs, for state-based licensing of industrial facilities, for legislation, and for reporting progress on NEPM goals. Local governments are responsible for managing air pollution through their urban planning processes.

Air quality monitoring is undertaken by the states and territories 365 days a year, and all jurisdictions are required to report annually on compliance with air quality standards. The information generated is uneven as there are only 211 fixed air quality monitoring stations in operation around Australia, not all of which are NEPM-compliant. Air quality monitoring stations in populated areas with air pollution concerns, such as within the industrial regions of the Hunter Valley in New South Wales and Brooklyn in Victoria, can capture ambient air quality measurements representative of a local area. However, monitoring stations are generally not sited in hotspot areas, such as next to a busy road or in the path of a chimney effluent. Likewise, large parts of inland Australia, particularly in the north and west, have little to no monitoring coverage. Recommendations from New South Wales on the design of an air quality monitoring network are to be adopted nationally (OEH 2019). This includes the need to increase the number of monitoring stations as the population of a region expands beyond 25,000 people, so that the recent NEPM requirement to assess population exposure to air pollutants can be met.

Government policy and regulation could be improved with an exposure minimisation approach (Zosky et al. 2021). This requires new NEPM targets for air pollution, an increase in air quality monitoring infrastructure, the active participation of industry and residents, and supporting legislation to encourage behavioural change. The National Clean Air Agreement, agreed to by all Australian environment ministers in 2015, is a framework to help governments identify and prioritise actions required to maintain and improve air quality. The initial work plan of the agreement (DoE 2015b) was carried out between 2015 and 2017, and was reviewed in 2018.

Although Australia’s Air Quality Index system is designed to communicate air pollution levels and associated health hazards to the general public, reported concentrations of air pollutants are often meaningless to the public unless they are accompanied by a description of whether the concentration might be harmful to health. In addition, NEPM standards are different for each pollutant, making comparisons difficult. The Black Summer 2019–20 bushfires revealed that 24-hourly average measurements of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) were not sufficient for members of the public looking for real-time information; the Royal Commission into the bushfires recommended that a standard hourly reporting system be designed and used in Australia (Binskin et al. 2020). Australian jurisdictions are working towards unifying how they report air quality levels for clearer public messaging.

Figure 32 Dust monitoring station, Wentworth

Cumulative impact management

Cumulative impact management considers direct, indirect and consequential impacts, and the incremental and compounding effects of impacts over time, including past, present and reasonably foreseeable future pressures (GBRMPA 2019) (see Cumulative pressures). Long-term monitoring is required to measure and assess interactions between pressures that together form a cumulative pressure, to inform adaptive management that responds to changing conditions.

Generally, pressures on the environment are considered and managed individually, and opportunities for more strategic approaches that can consider landscape-scale management are not commonly used. Although the EPBC Act stipulates that direct, indirect and offsite impacts (specifically upstream, downstream and facilitated impacts) on matters of national environmental significance should be considered when planning activities and undertaking broadscale strategic assessments, it does not explicitly address cumulative effects (Dales 2011, Dunstan et al. 2019). The Act does provide for strategic environmental assessments (SEAs) that can evaluate cumulative effects, and develop management and planning outcomes at a broader scale. Analysis of the 12 SEAs completed up to 2018 showed that cumulative impact assessment was commonly either ‘not present’ or ‘weak,’ even though the SEA guidance document specifically states that cumulative impacts relating to EBPC Act triggers should be considered or described, and analysed.

The 2020 independent review of the EPBC Act found that, under the current settings, cumulative impacts on, and threats to, the environment are often not well managed. Development assessment and approval decisions are largely made on a project-by-project basis, with the assessment of impacts largely done in isolation of other current or anticipated projects. This approach underestimates the broadscale cumulative impacts that development can have on a species, ecosystem or region; redressing this is a recommendation of the recent EPBC Act review (Samuel 2020).

Moreover, the increasing focus on implementing ecosystem-based management approaches requires understanding of how human activities influence and reshape ecosystems (Levin et al. 2009), which requires taking a systemic and integrated view of all pressures. Plant and animal species are less resilient when the ecological communities of which they are part decline or change, or when populations become isolated. The cumulative effect of multiple pressures over many decades across whole regions and landscapes, especially in intensive land-use zones, exacerbates fragmentation and further contributes to reductions in the quality of remnant native vegetation as habitat for Australia’s unique flora and fauna. Recognising the cumulative and indirect effects of these impacts, and actively maintaining and re-establishing structural and functional connectivity across systems contribute to ecosystem resilience (DAWE 2020i).

There is a greater recognition that more regional integrated planning assessments are required to look across a broad range of issues, options and futures; these need to be adaptive to uncertainty in the face of accelerating climate change. Although several major assessments have been completed since 2016, these have tended to focus on specific assets (e.g. the northern Australia water resource assessments completed in 2018–19).

Climate change is predicted to have an amplifying impact on many existing pressures on the Australian environment and heritage, including through more extreme drought and floods. For example, recent drought conditions exposed the difficulties of maintaining critical environmental flows in extreme dry conditions in highly developed systems such as the Murray–Darling Basin. In 2018, the Australian Government Disaster and Climate Resilience Reference Group developed a climate risk management framework that can be used to assess vulnerabilities and explore adaptation options to deal with cumulative impacts in planning (CSIRO 2018). There is an immediate need for heritage risk assessments, risk preparedness and adaptation management plans to consider climate change.

The many different pressures on the Australian marine environment are generally (and increasingly) well understood; however, assessing the cumulative impacts of the interactions and feedbacks among these diverse pressures remains a key challenge for sustainable management. Since 2016, pressures have typically still been treated individually by sector. An exception is the Great Barrier Reef, where the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan sets out key actions for managing cumulative pressures. The development of the Great Barrier Reef Cumulative Impact Management Policy in 2018 provides a framework to mitigate or reduce cumulative impacts; the policy is supported by scientific guidelines on how to assess cumulative risks and impacts on the Great Barrier Reef.

To improve the scientific evidence base and available decision support tools for managing the impacts of multiple and cumulative drivers and pressures on marine systems, and the integration of social, economic and cultural factors into marine estate assessments, the National Marine Science Committee has established an Integrated Ecosystem Assessment (IEA) Working Group to examine the applicability of the IEA approach in Australia. The group has reported on potential case studies and recommended a national trial. IEAs offer a process for identifying trade-offs in the management of different marine industries and sectors, identifying cumulative impacts, and dealing explicitly with uncertainty (Smith et al. 2021a).

The cumulative impacts of multiple forms of water extractions – including the interception of overland flows, farm dams, and mining and petroleum activities – need to be appropriately included in water accounts to avoid undermining environmental objectives. Although some progress has been made in ensuring that such activities are considered in water management and planning, they have not yet fully met the objectives of the 2004 National Water Initiative. Future cumulative impacts from improvements in irrigation efficiency, which reduce return flows to rivers or groundwater systems, are largely unaccounted for but can be reasonably foreseen. Effective management of interception activities will become more important as Australia’s climate changes, particularly for systems that are expected to have less water (Productivity Commission 2021a).

Over the past 5 years, several bioregional assessments of the potential cumulative impacts of existing and proposed coal and coal-seam gas developments on the environment of central and eastern Australia have been undertaken (Australian Government 2020). In 2021, a geological and bioregional assessment was published on the potential impacts of shale and tight gas development on water and the environment in central and northern Australia (Australian Government 2021a).