Environmental management cannot be effective without adequate supporting resources. These resources are not just funding, but also data, staff, volunteers and new technology.

Assessment Resources
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is ineffective, meaning that management measures are failing to stop substantial declines in the state of the environment. The situation is deteriorating.

Resources available for environmental management are generally insufficient to arrest ecosystem declines. The level of funding, and the quantity, quality and consistency of data, in particular, need improvement. Accountability, coordination between agencies and levels of government, Indigenous involvement, and skills (e.g. taxonomy) also need to be improved. Citizen science and the development of new technologies are important enablers of environmental management.
Assessments of management effectiveness range from ineffective to partially effective
Assessments of trend range from deteriorating to unclear
Related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal targets 11.3, 11.4, 15.5, 15.a, 17.16


Total investment in environmental management and protection across governments, industry and private citizens is difficult to determine; however, the negative trend in indicators across all areas of the 2021 state of the environment report suggests that our current levels of investment have been unable to slow the decline in the state of our environment. Current funding allocated by the Australian, state and territory governments for environmental protection, including heritage and threatened species, is inadequate for the task and generally lacks accountability.

There is a significant shortfall in the investment required to manage Australia’s unique environments. This is borne out in the declining trajectories of many species, and in the increasing extent and magnitude of threatening processes and pressures.

Case Study Australians investing in natural capital

Source: Kilter Rural 

Every year, trillions of dollars are available in the private market for investment. And there is a growing demand for investment products that deliver environmental benefits as well as financial profit for investors.  

Finding ways of mobilising private funds for projects that achieve economic and environmental protection outcomes, while delivering sustained and low-risk returns to investors, is one avenue for significantly increasing the amount of funding available to restore and protect Australia’s environment.  

In Australia, a growing number of businesses are seeking to tap into this market by mobilising new institutional capital into agricultural, water and ecosystem investment projects. In Victoria, Kilter Rural has been working for decades to achieve sustainable agricultural production while managing its total natural capital assets to include substantial environmental protection and restoration. Balancing agricultural production with environmental protection delivers sustained returns to investors with reduced risk. 

Kilter Rural has 2 impact investment funds with around $500 million in assets: 

  • The Kilter Australian Farmlands Fund offers investment in natural capital through the purchase and regeneration of Australian farmland and water. Financial returns are delivered through the regeneration of underused irrigation farming operations for high-value specialist crops, balanced with ecosystem protection to deliver long-term returns to investors (70/30 area split). In 2021, Kilter has about 12,000 hectares under management. Within the irrigated cropping area, up to 40% of the farms are designated for organic crop production. Approximately 4,000 hectares of native revegetation delivers biodiversity rehabilitation and protection along with a net carbon sink, with intended total fund returns of 10–12% per year. The fund has several carbon projects registered with the Australian Government to accumulate Australian Carbon Credit Units.
  • The Murray–Darling Basin Balanced Water Fund secures water for agriculture and the environment through investment in Australia’s southern Murray–Darling Basin water market. In dry years, up to 90% of water entitlements are allocated to irrigators through leases and allocation trade; in wet years, up to 40% of the fund’s entitlements are allocated to deliver water to wetlands. This approach ensures that water is available for farming communities when they need it most, with wetland watering occurring primarily in years when water is less constrained. The fund is jointly managed by Kilter Rural and the Nature Conservancy Australia with the Murray–Darling Wetlands Working Group, which collaborate closely with state and national environmental water holders. Since 2015, more than 6,000 megalitres has been delivered for environmental watering over 26 wetlands. In 2021–22, the fund will donate close to 4,000 megalitres of water to the environment. The fund has delivered returns of around 13% annualised since inception.

Photos: © Sarah Ning, Murray–Darling Wetlands Working Group 

Figure 33 O’Kanes Swamp, Victoria, before and after watering

Australian Government funding

Since 2013–14, the Australian Government’s overall investment to ‘conserve, protect and sustainably manage Australia’s biodiversity, ecosystems, environment and heritage through research, information management, supporting natural resource management, establishing and managing Commonwealth protected areas, and reducing and regulating the use of pollutants and hazardous substances, and coordination of climate change adaptation strategy and climate change science activities’ (DAWE 2021g) has seen reductions in some areas, and increases in relation to addressing impacts on the Great Barrier Reef and from the 2019–20 bushfires.

Since 2010, biodiversity expenditure remained between $400 million and $500 million per year (less than 0.05% of gross domestic product), then dipped below $300 million in 2018–19, and has been under $400 million thereafter. National Landcare Program funding has decreased, there is no longer funding for new national reserves, there have been cuts to biodiversity research at CSIRO, and the national Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility was discontinued in 2019. The Great Barrier Reef is one area that received significant new funding, with an estimated investment of more than $2 billion by the Australian and Queensland governments for implementation of the Reef 2050 Plan.

The funding of the environmental objectives of the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment for the past 8 years is shown in Figure 34. A major one-off investment of $443 million was made to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation Partnership (see Freshwater and marine funding). The remaining investment across all areas was $800 million in 2017–18, declining from an average of $886 million per year over 2013–17. A further investment in bushfire recovery funding between 2019 and 2021 raises the total investment in those years, but the overall investment in the core environmental areas is lower than the pre-2017 funding levels.

Figure 34 Australian Government funding for environmental objectives

CERF = Commonwealth Environmental Research Facilities; NERP = National Environmental Research Program; NESP = National Environmental Science Program; NHT = Natural Heritage Trust; NLP = National Landcare Program; NRM = natural resource management

Note: Excludes funding for Antarctica, which is funded under a different objective; energy funding, which has since been transferred to a different portfolio; and the core funding for meteorology, given that its core function is to support non-environmental objectives of society (noting that it does also support Australia’s research effort in climate).

State and territory funding

Whereas the Australian Government has responsibility to meet its national and international obligations to protect Australia’s environment, the states and territories hold the largest responsibility for environmental management in Australia (see National, state and territory legislation and policy).

Although not every jurisdiction produces a state of the environment report, there is significant evidence of inadequate investment to meet jurisdictions’ statutory responsibilities. For example, in Victoria, the objectives of the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 include ‘to guarantee that all of Victoria’s flora and fauna … can persist and improve in the wild’, and ‘prevent … flora and fauna from becoming threatened and to recover threatened’ species so that ‘their conservation status improves’.

However, a recent audit by the Victorian Auditor-General (VAGO 2021) found:

Funding available to DELWP to protect species falls significantly short of what it predicts is needed. However, DELWP has not provided detailed, evidence-based advice to the government about the cost and benefits of protecting and monitoring threatened species to support further investment. It also Iacks performance indicators and reporting to demonstrate the impact of its management interventions on halting the decline of threatened species.

Environmental markets and environment, social and governance investment

Since 2016, conservation on private land has increased (see Protected areas), and the private sector is increasingly investing in the environment directly, either on its own, with government or with finance. Some approaches have potential for financial return with both private and public benefits, such as environmental markets; environmental offsets; and environmental, social and governance (ESG) investment. Philanthropy from individuals or companies tends to fund direct conservation, where there is often little chance of financial return.

Australia has significant and established experience in environmental carbon markets (i.e. the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, the Clean Energy Act, the Carbon Farming Initiative and the Emissions Reduction Fund), and in water quantity trading. The Reducing Carbon Building Communities fund, backed by the Aboriginal Carbon Foundation, offers a way for buyers to identify projects that offer benefits beyond carbon, including protecting culturally significant natural areas (which can then also increase conservation finance flows into communities).

Environmental markets and certification systems are proposed to reward land managers for protecting and improving biodiversity, as a way to diversify, and potentially boost, farm income. Biodiversity markets are at different stages of development in Australia, and there is an opportunity to extend markets and payments for ecosystem services to landowners who demonstrate improved environmental outcomes in terms of water quality and soil health. Like the carbon market, a voluntary biodiversity credit market could be a game changer for conservation in Australia, allowing businesses to offset their biodiversity impacts.

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

Private investment also can be in the form of green bonds and environmental impact bonds that support sustainable land management, as well as the use of private money to leverage philanthropic and government funds. The United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have encouraged more activity in this area. With Australia’s top 4 export markets having net zero climate targets, it is possible that failure to achieve these environmental goals may have economic implications.

This area of investment requires scientifically credible and regularly measured metrics that can quantify and measure conservation, financial and social returns on investment (Ward & Lassen 2018). The UN System of Environmental–Economic Accounting (UNCEEA 2014, UNCEEA 2021) and the Queensland Land Restoration Fund’s co-benefits standard (Land Restoration Fund 2020) are examples of frameworks that could be agreed on and applied for consistent and credible verification. A range of philanthropic and commercial entities are working on various aspects of the emerging natural capital marketplace to catalyse private sector and ESG investment at scale. Governments could significantly boost this by creating an enabling environment for finance and investment in private conservation, so that innovative financing can expand private and public investment in nature, such as through the National Reserve System.

Case Study The Australian restoration economy

Renee Young, Western Australian Biodiversity Science Institute

Australia, as a large, sparsely populated, politically stable country, is well placed to take advantage of major national and international investment opportunities through the restoration economy (Young et al. in press). The restoration economy is defined as the market consisting of a network of businesses, investors and consumers engaging in economic activity related to ecological restoration (BenDor et al. 2015).

Internationally and across Australia, major private, philanthropic and government investments are driving large-scale restoration efforts by obtaining carbon credits through biodiverse plantings. Carbon credits issued by the Clean Energy Regulator have increased from 100,000 tonnes (t) per month in 2018 to 350,000–400,000 t in 2020 (pre-COVID-19) (Foley 2021). The international market price for carbon is projected to double in the next 15 years (EDF 2018), and carbon projects that deliver co-benefits will return a premium price. Further, it is likely that industry will soon need to report on nature-related risks to support a shift in global financial flows towards nature-positive outcomes (TFND 2021), giving additional value and security to the market.

Australian philanthropists are pledging tens of millions of dollars to fight climate change – for example, Norman Pater and Gita Sonnenberg are aiming to restore 1 million hectares and testing carbon farming models at scale. Queenslanders Julie and Jeff Wicks set up the ACME foundation, which directs funding to 25–30 organisations, including Beyond Zero Emissions (Sommer 2020).

Investment in the restoration economy translates to jobs, predominantly in our regional communities. Government economic stimulus as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a boost in ‘green’ jobs, with direct funding going towards environmental projects. These include Western Australia’s $15 million Native Vegetation Rehabilitation Scheme, which has created more than 1,000 jobs.

Coupled with these economic activities is the realisation that well-designed, biodiverse and knowledge-rich restoration has the capacity to deliver environmental, social, economic and cultural co-benefits that:

  • support environmental assets such as improved biodiversity and habitat for threatened species, as well as healthier soils, wetlands and water systems
  • improve the resilience and strength of regional communities by supporting direct and indirect jobs, and increasing economic opportunities
  • provide on-Country business opportunities and new service delivery businesses, as well as supporting cultural and customary connections (Land Restoration Fund 2020).

Threatened species and environmental restoration funding

Recent reviews have highlighted that existing programs and funding for recovering threatened species are insufficient to achieve this goal (Samuel 2020, VAGO 2021).

Biodiversity conservation and research are undertaken through a range of efforts, at state and local government levels; through nongovernment organisations, community groups, industry, Indigenous rangers and Traditional Owners; and through other Australian Government initiatives, and so it is difficult to understand the full extent of investment benefiting biodiversity across Australia.

It is possible to examine the amount spent by government on recovery of threatened species. Wintle et al. (2019) estimated that the targeted threatened species spending for 2018–19 by the Australian Government was $49.6 million, and the total annual spending from all Australian governments is around $122 million, but that is only about 15% of what is needed to avoid extinctions and recover threatened species (which is estimated at $1.69 billion dollars per year) (see also Threatened communities and species). The efforts of the private sector, local government, nongovernment organisations and private citizens make a significant contribution to threatened species recovery and are not included in the estimates in Wintle et al. (2019). There are also many caveats associated with the estimates, in part because clear reporting on expenditure is not available, and the costs of managing pressures are very difficult to estimate.

Another measure of financial adequacy is the amount needed for environmental restoration more broadly in Australia, which has been estimated at approximately $10 billion annually (Ward & Lassen 2018) – this is substantially greater than current levels of investment. The independent review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) noted that, although it is unrealistic to expect government and the taxpayer to fund this level of investment, attracting greater private investment in natural capital and restoration of the environment requires national leadership (Samuel 2020).

A 4-year $100 million Environment Restoration Fund commenced in 2019–20 and is delivered through a mixture of grants, procurement and specific-purpose payments to the states and territories. It focuses on 3 key areas: protecting threatened and migratory species; protecting coasts, oceans and waterways; and the clean-up and recovery of waste.

Research funding

Funding of the NESP is critical for environment and climate research in Australia, underpinning policy and on-ground management. The first phase invested $145 million (2014–15 to 2020–21) into 6 research hubs. The second phase will invest $149 million (2020–21 to 2026–27) into 4 new research hubs. NESP Phase 1 research has generated key content provided throughout this report. An ongoing challenge for NESP has been to appropriately recognise Indigenous knowledge and decision-making. NESP Phase 2 includes increased Indigenous inclusion in research. The NESP principles for Indigenous partnership include recognition of the right to Indigenous cultural and intellectual property, co-created research, and respect and mutual benefit (DAWE 2021h).

Environmental research funding is also made through competitive grant schemes (e.g. Australian Research Council, Cooperative Research Centres) under Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification Division 41 (environmental sciences), including groups for climate change, ecological applications, biotechnology, pollution, soil and other environmental science, and environmental management.

Scientific research to understand the status and trends of our environment relies on access to high-quality data, and world-class research infrastructure plays a fundamental role. The Australian Government funds NCRIS (Table 2), which supports Australian researchers’ access to national research infrastructure. NCRIS projects are led by universities, publicly funded research organisations and not-for-profit companies. Of more than 20 NCRIS projects, 5 focus on supporting the assessment and monitoring of our environment relevant to the state of the environment reporting framework, delivering fundamental infrastructure and data that help researchers in academia, government, the community and industry understand environmental state and change. This includes the Atlas of Living Australia, Bioplatforms Australia, the Integrated Marine Observing System, the Marine National Facility and the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (Table 2).

Table 2 Overview of major national environmental assessment, monitoring and data infrastructure investment through NCRIS since 2013


NCRIS project

Atlas of Living Australia

Bioplatforms Australia

Integrated Marine Observing System

Marine National Facility

Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network





























































Total investment






NCRIS = National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy

Note: This does not include Australian Research Data Commons funding, which also includes environmentally focused data initiatives such as the Biodiversity and Climate Change Virtual Laboratory, EcoCommons and many shorter-term initiatives linked to NCRIS.

An area of ongoing concern across Australia is the inadequate level of funding provided to taxonomic research, to keep up with the need for the naming of the huge number of undescribed species in Australia. This limits our ability to truly understand environmental change. Reductions in the number of taxonomists employed in museums and herbariums is a key factor, along with our over-reliance on retired or honorary researchers. The Australian Government, through the Australian Biological Resources Study, manages the National Taxonomy Research Grant Program, which is only able to fund 1 in 6 grant applications. The annual contribution of $2.03 million has remained unchanged for more than a decade, meaning that its ability to support the sector is declining in real value. This program includes a vital postdoctoral fellowship grant stream, which has an even lower success rate of grants. Following university training, many early-career researchers are unable to find long-term research positions or institutional tenure, and many leave the industry before becoming established taxonomists.

There is also minimal research funding available for heritage management, specifically for cultural heritage and geoheritage. This is severely constraining the ability to improve the identification and understanding of this heritage, the ability to respond to the various pressures and the capacity for effective adaptive management.

Freshwater and marine funding

The Australian Government, states and territories, and industry continue to invest in water knowledge and research, but current investment levels in water research in Australia are close to historical lows. Even at the peak funding levels of the mid- to late 2000s, the funding allocated to research was modest compared with the importance of the public policy issues at stake. In a joint submission to the Productivity Commission, the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, and the Australian Academy of Science noted that uncertainty in funding levels and the absence of effective funding mechanisms had degraded the potential efficiency and effectiveness of the water research community. Less than one-third of the water research and development funding programs involve end users in governance of the research, or in undertaking rigorous performance and cost–benefit assessments.

Water research effort is also not coordinated at a national level. Environmental water management is a relatively new area of activity, which would benefit from increased knowledge to inform adaptive and integrated management. There is no national platform to coordinate generation and sharing of water knowledge, and no national process for identifying water research priorities, including in groundwater, integrated water management and Indigenous water. Given the scale of the challenges, investigation of a more coordinated approach is warranted.

In 2018, the Australian Government announced increased investment in protection for the Great Barrier Reef of more than $500 million, including a one-off, $443.3 million, 6-year Reef Trust Partnership with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation (a not-for-profit charity). The objective of the partnership is to ‘achieve significant, measurable improvement’ in the health of the Reef, in accordance with the Reef 2050 Plan, ‘underpinned by innovation, science and community engagement’. The Great Barrier Reef Foundation committed to leveraging a further $300–400 million from partner co-contributions; $157 million of the leveraging target is currently pledged from partner co-contributions and other funds, but there is no publicly available information on the breakdown of those contributions. As at 30 June 2021, the partnership has 200 projects underway with more than 300 partners. However, critics of this approach to environmental funding hold that the funds were too concentrated on a small organisation, and that it created potential duplication.

In April 2021, the Australian Government also announced a broader $100 million Ocean Leadership package. Of this, over the next 4 years, $18 million will target practical actions to protect iconic marine species, improve the sustainability of our fisheries through reducing bycatch, commence national ocean accounting and encourage investment in our marine ecosystems.

Indigenous funding

The Australian Government Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet funds the Indigenous Ranger Program, which has been extended from 2021 to 2028 at $102 million per year to support activities that protect and manage land and sea Country and culture, including fire management, protection of threatened species and biosecurity compliance. However, further funding opportunities and initiatives are required to support the demand for, and growth in, Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs), as well as the increasing value placed on traditional knowledge and engagement in biodiversity conservation, land management and research. Resources enable communities to shift from aspirations to developing, designing and monitoring their environment.

In concert with the Australian Government’s investment in ranger programs, state and territory support for Indigenous land and sea management practitioners has continued to grow. The Western Australian Government has invested $20 million from 2017 to 2021 into its Aboriginal Ranger Program; this has now been increased to $50 million between 2021 and 2025 to expand the program so that more Indigenous organisations can employ and train rangers to manage Country. In February 2021, the Queensland Government committed to doubling the number of its land and sea rangers to 200 positions, at an additional cost of $24 million.

Heritage funding

Heritage funding is primarily a government responsibility, but funding to heritage agencies has been progressively cut or has remained the same since the mid-1990s, while the scale of work has increased. This has resulted in inadequate staffing levels, reduced staff expertise and a very limited opportunity to initiate research programs, including for heritage identification and condition monitoring. This is severely constraining the ability to improve the identification and understanding of heritage, to respond to the various pressures and to undertake effective adaptive management.

Government funding models have shifted from agency support to support for particular programs seen as priorities, with a competitive process for accessing these funds (e.g. World Heritage initiatives, National Heritage owners’ grants). An updated funding model would allow better strategic planning and resources to protect and manage Australian heritage. Two types of funding are required: increased recurrent funding to agencies for adequate levels of skilled staff and core tasks (including monitoring, strategic planning and restoration); and special project funding for research and conservation, based on identified needs.

There is also room for industry funding for heritage; however, to avoid potential conflicts of interest, these need to be limited to appropriate activities, such as improved conservation on industry-owned or industry-managed land, or the repair of adverse legacies of industry. Private funding is generally focused on purchasing land for nature conservation. Private owners of heritage properties may also provide support through volunteer maintenance activities.


Data and information form the basis of protection, strategic planning and adaptive management. As noted in the recent review of the EPBC Act (Samuel 2020), ‘better data and information are needed to set clear outcomes, effectively plan and invest in a way that delivers them, and to efficiently regulate development’.

Many aspects of our environment are under-resourced in terms of routine inventory and condition monitoring. For example, much of Australia’s heritage is poorly understood or monitored, although there are significant specific exceptions such as the Great Barrier Reef. There is limited sharing of data and no national data standardisation. Funding is needed for the coordination, sharing and management of heritage data nationally (du Cros 2019). Marine, coastal and freshwater management is complicated by the difficulties in collecting accurate ecosystem information from underwater environments and our inability to effectively manage diffuse sources of impacts in aquatic ecosystems, such as urban and agricultural run-off, marine debris, invasive species, recreational harvesting and climate change.

Data on land and its management have increasing substantially since 2016, particularly with the delivery of an experimental National Land Account (DAWE 2021a) and Geoscience Australia’s ‘Digital Earth Australia’, launched in 2018. Although the amount and type of data required for land management are improving, there is a lack of consistent, agreed methods to transform the data into products that support assessment of consistent indicators to drive aggregation and reporting of the information. Leadership is required to foster collaborative agreement on classifications and standards, and engagement of users to validate results and co-develop products with data custodians, to encourage broad adoption across multiple programs of work. For example, current Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences datasets on land use and forests are well curated and policy-ready datasets that are accompanied by good-quality metadata and interpretive documentation.

The 2016 state of the environment report stated that ‘during the past few decades, there has been a massive increase in investment (in data collection) from industry as part of development approvals. However, much of the information collected is not available more broadly for decision-making (and no information is available on the size of that investment)’.

This has markedly changed in the past few years, beginning in Western Australia, where government and industry have worked together to begin a digital transformation of environmental impact assessment, driven by demands for increased efficiency, reliability and transparency. The first major steps have been the launch of the Index of Biodiversity Surveys and Assessments in 2018 and its marine counterpart the Index of Marine Surveys of Assessments in 2020. Together, these products capture $90 million of industry-generated survey data per year to be made available as a resource for the better management of Western Australia. Further investments announced in 2020 by the Western Australian ($25 million) and Australian ($30 million) governments have seen the formation of a Biodiversity Information Office, Environment Online, and a Digital Environmental Assessment Program. This program will also feed information into a new Commonwealth Biodiversity Data Repository. These initiatives are a significant step towards creating a sustainable data value chain that incorporates industry, state, national, research and community data. They were highlighted in the 2020 Samuel Review of the EPBC Act, which specifically referred to these advances made in Western Australia and noted these developments as a model to be followed nationally.


Monitoring is an essential element of environmental management across all the chapters of this report. Monitoring data underpin the evaluation of the effectiveness of management investments and help determine the urgency of management interventions.

Alignment between the national, state and territory governments on monitoring and reporting is lacking, but there has been some movement in gaining a level of concordance under the UN SDG framework. In this report, we have made progress in mapping SDG targets to state of the environment assessments, but there is further to go. National environmental standards could provide a direct mechanism for agreement between all jurisdictions that would significantly simplify and improve state of the environment reporting at all levels (see National framework for environmental standards).

Monitoring of land cover (see Land clearing) through surveys and remote sensing provides valuable insights into how land cover changes over time. Different approaches to land-cover monitoring and classifications have been established in different areas of government (Guardian Australia 2021). Nationally, monitoring of vegetation cover has primarily been undertaken for the purpose of greenhouse gas accounting. At state and territory levels, monitoring has been independently undertaken for jurisdictions’ own regulatory purposes. A lack of agreement on key national monitoring datasets is potentially leading to independent development of similar products (i.e. duplication of effort for very similar purposes).

Poor use is made of the rich sources of data compiled for the purpose of greenhouse gas accounting (woody vegetation and change attribution data) in environmental applications related to native vegetation and soil management.

At the national level, considerable effort is focused on consistent mapping of the extent and type of forest cover across broad areas, including attribution of changes in cover due to human activities such as mechanical clearing, land-use intensification and use of fire (planned or unplanned). The Australian Government Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources is responsible for the methodology and data used in the greenhouse gas accounts, consistent with international standards and agreements. The annual woody vegetation cover data series is published regularly, and version 5.0 was recently released (DISER 2021f). However, the spatial attribution data, which are also a valuable resource for environmental management, are not published. Despite this rich source of spatial land-cover data being available publicly for many years, it is not uniformly used in national environmental management applications at the national level (e.g. environmental assessments, grant assessments, environmental status and trend reporting), because it requires further interpretation for these purposes.

Although the amount and type of data required for land management is improving, the next challenge is to better organise the data in a way that will support assessment of consistent indicators that drive aggregation and reporting of the information. This involves putting governance in place for collaborative agreement on classifications and standards, and engaging users early to validate results and co-develop products with data custodians; these could be published with the datasets to encourage broad adoption across multiple programs of work.

Over the past 7 years, the work of the NESP has greatly improved knowledge about biodiversity, the state and trend of threatened species and ecosystems, and the actions required to support their recovery (particularly the Threatened Species Recovery Hub, the Marine Biodiversity Hub and the Northern Australia Environmental Resources Hub). However, there are still very large gaps in our understanding of the state and trend of the environment. For example, researchers have recently published a comprehensive assessment of monitoring of the extent and adequacy of threatened vertebrate species (Legge et al. 2018), threatened plant species (Lavery et al. 2021) and threatened ecological communities in Australia (Legge et al. 2018). The assessment demonstrates that monitoring of threatened species and communities is mostly inadequate, and that 21–46% of threatened vertebrates, 69% of threatened plants and 70% of threatened ecological communities are not monitored at all. Where monitoring does occur, its quality in terms of national extent and adequacy is generally poor.

NCRIS supports long-term high-quality environmental monitoring data through the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network, the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS), and the Atlas of Living Australia for Australia’s terrestrial and marine ecosystems and species (Figure 35).

IMOS operates a range of ocean-observing infrastructure and maintains long time-series data on ocean variables that are relevant to environmental management and reporting. IMOS data have supported policy and management decisions in state, national and international processes, including successive state of the climate reports, marine park zoning and size, potential climate change effects on fisheries, and World Meteorological Organization statements on the state of the global climate and sea level rise. To increase the capacity of IMOS data streams to inform the state of Australia’s marine environments, IMOS supported a synthesis of numerous long time-series datasets. This work culminated in the State and trends of Australia’s oceans report (Richardson et al. 2020), which was designed to support the 2021 state of the environment report. The report provides a baseline for marine assessments, providing information on the state and trends of 27 ecosystem indicators. There is no ongoing monitoring of the deep sea floor in Australia, so biodiversity or oceanographic trends and the impacts of pressures are unknown in these zones.

In relation to the heritage data required to inform and assess management generally, the most comprehensive, systematic and nationally standard data currently available are for natural heritage and biodiversity values, and underwater cultural heritage. This may be because there are national frameworks for these, although even these are not considered adequate. Historic and Indigenous heritage have significantly less data available. Minimal routine condition monitoring is undertaken for Australian heritage sites, except where there are specific site-based issues (e.g. monitoring of climate change impacts on the Great Barrier Reef). This lack is concerning because of the increasing pressures on heritage places.

Figure 35 Monitoring locations for TERN and IMOS, overlaid on species record density by region from the ALA, 2016–20

ALA = Atlas of Living Australia; IBRA = Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation for Australia; IMCRA = Integrated Marine and Coastal Regionalisation for Australia; IMOS = Integrated Marine Observing System; km2 = square kilometre; TERN = Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network

Source: Based on an image from the EcoAssets project using data from TERN, the ALA and IMOS.

Data sources

In the past decade, data collection has rapidly changed from being the domain of ‘pure scientists’ (predominantly academic researchers and government) to citizen science and industry (see Citizen science). Over recent decades, tools and infrastructure have been established to collate and mobilise the vast amounts of biological data generated by research (e.g. Atlas of Living Australia, Global Biodiversity Information Facility, NatureServe). Big industry is now also engaging in biodiversity information and infrastructures to support access to analytics (e.g. Microsoft and Google). It is clear that industries see a potentially huge market emerging in biodiversity and environmental information.

Indigenous Australians play an important role in environmental monitoring, including for threatened species that occur on their lands and in remote areas, which can help refine investment supported by the Australian Government. Often, although the data collected to support environmental management processes has included information about native flora and fauna, and landscapes, Indigenous people have had limited or no access to, or control over, these data. Moreover, where Indigenous environmental data are available, the data are often outdated or insufficient to meet community needs (Hill et al. 2013).

A welcome and increasing trend in environmental sciences combines non-Indigenous views and methods with traditional knowledge to support the aspirations of Traditional Owners to manage their Country to lead to long-lasting and successful outcomes (Figure 36). Respectful, bottom-up, collaborative approaches that incorporate local skills and interests are fundamental to the success of monitoring programs (Paltridge & Skroblin 2018).

Figure 36 Outcomes from 2-way monitoring of threatened species on Indigenous land

Big data

Monitoring environmental change is a massive undertaking that can only be achieved with the power of big data and big analytics. Building on existing initiatives, we can improve how we monitor and understand ecosystem dynamics and trajectories to be able to forecast the impact of human activity and to help inform decisions about what to do differently. Environmental data have traditionally come from field research and surveys, but these sources are now dwarfed by improvements in satellite imaging across a variety of wavelengths, LIDAR surveys, GPS tracking, environmental DNA (eDNA), and the thousands of citizen scientists using smartphones.

We can expect an increasing demand for high-resolution, high-precision and close-to-real-time analysis of ecosystem data to support economic shifts towards market instruments driving a restoration economy. This includes compliance monitoring required by international markets for investment in our ecosystem goods and services. However, there is a significant shortfall in our current monitoring efforts to inform critical areas of management.

Science, government and industry will need new ways to handle, sort through, and make effective use of, massive volumes of data being generated by remote sensing and other sources to observe multiple facets of biodiversity and ecosystems. Finding new ways of monitoring the environment is necessary to provide ‘leading’ indicators (those that measure progress towards goals to anticipate a future direction) in addition to traditional indicators (which give a retrospective measure of status).

The next 5 years will see the evolution of new ways for collaboratively sharing and evaluating big datasets, synthesising into information products that predict and forecast system dynamics, and enable effective decisions in a much more timely manner than in the past.

A good example of how integrated and interactive ecosystem monitoring is developing is the Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program for the Great Barrier Reef, jointly managed by the Australian and Queensland governments, and soon to be delivered through an online Reef Knowledge System. The Reef Knowledge System is designed as a ‘first-stop shop’ that allows users to easily access a wide range of information about the Reef, including interactive maps, reports, datasets, monitoring and modelling information, and guidance tools for managers (GBRMPA 2021b).

Human resources

Human resources are essential to provide research capacity and expert advice, and to enable on-ground activities in many sectors. Some of these resources are provided by professionals and government experts, whereas others are provided by volunteers or private personnel.

Expert capacity

Key deficits in access to experts is an ongoing concern across many areas of environmental management and research. Two areas of the state of the environment report have consistently reported on inadequate numbers of experts to meet needs: taxonomy and heritage protection. An area of growing concern is a shortfall in Australia’s digital analytical capacity, specifically in artificial intelligence and machine learning, to meet the growing need for capability to address big data analytics.

The Australian Biological Resources Study surveys and then analyses the taxonomic community every 10–12 years, providing a useful snapshot of the sector’s health and capacity. The last survey was in 2016 (DEE 2017). It found that the number of researchers actively working in taxonomy and systematics has fallen over the years, but that proportionally more women are working in the field. It also found that the field is supported substantially by retired or honorary researchers, with over a quarter of the workforce in unsalaried positions. This enables a sustained level of productivity, but masks the fact that there are fewer paid positions in the field. A consistent concern of researchers in the field is the lack of funding, job security and career opportunities, highlighted in surveys in 2016, 2003 and 1991.

One of the resourcing issues for heritage protection in Australia is the inadequate number of expert staff in many heritage and protected areas agencies at all levels of government. Australia faces a declining skills base in areas of heritage management, as well as in trades and crafts required for heritage construction, repair and restoration methods, materials and tools. Lack of relevant expertise and skills is a particular issue for small to medium local government bodies with limited resources. In some jurisdictions (e.g. New South Wales, Victoria), a heritage adviser system has been established to bring in expertise on an as-needed basis.

For Indigenous land management, rangers working on Country are the foundation upon which almost all environmental and wellbeing outcomes are based. The value created by an IPA is, therefore, largely proportional to the size of investment in ranger employment opportunities. Indigenous management has various benefits (Social Ventures Australia 2016):

  • Indigenous land management is efficient and cost-effective.
  • When rangers work on Country, they experience personal benefits, including increased skills and confidence, and better health and wellbeing.
  • Community members benefit directly from ranger activities, with the reassurance that Country is being cared for, and opportunities are realised for the transfer and preservation of cultural knowledge.
  • The broader community has greater understanding of, and respect for, traditional knowledge.
  • Rangers and community members report that there is less violence, resulting in safer communities.

Indigenous ranger programs have also been identified as central to women’s employment opportunities. The Strong women on Country report (Country Needs People 2018) explores the central role of women in caring for Country and the many reciprocal benefits of employing Indigenous women in this field.

However, although there are growing numbers of Indigenous people working in environmental management, few Indigenous people are working in the coordination of ranger groups and in heritage management. Solutions should be devised through co-design with Indigenous people already participating in these industries to identify gaps in opportunity and potential changes. There is a need to expand Indigenous opportunities, education and training in natural resource management and environmental research, and it is also clear that these systems and structures would benefit greatly from co-design. 

Citizen science

In citizen science, members of the general public help to collect and analyse scientific data in collaboration with scientists. A white paper in 2015, Occasional paper on citizen science by the then Chief Scientist of Australia (Chief Scientist of Australia 2015), and the subsequent formation of the Australian Citizen Science Association reflect the growing contributions of the public to Australia’s research capacity. Australia has fostered an increasing number of citizen science projects, due to increasing funding, infrastructure and government support.

Citizen science has multiple benefits (Steven et al. 2019). The collaboration between scientists and society may produce larger volumes of data than if only professional scientists were employed. Citizen science can provide access to data on private land not normally accessible by researchers or the public. More broadly, citizen science can fill data gaps and grow support for environmental actions, with positive outcomes for government policy, and land and conservation science. In addition, citizen science projects can potentially persist much longer than conventional research projects by leveraging community support in place of limited research funding cycles (Lloyd et al. 2020). They can also achieve high levels of public education and awareness, and participants benefit from a sense of contribution, wellbeing and learning.

In 2017, 133 citizen science projects in Australia were evaluated, spanning marine and terrestrial realms. Almost half (45%) of these were focused on birds, 34% on mammals, 10% on fishes, and 5% each on frogs and reptiles. Most projects provided training or training resources, and almost half (49%) used structured monitoring methods (Steven et al. 2019). Most data from most projects (65%) were shared with Australia’s national biodiversity repository and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.

The Atlas of Living Australia hosts the Australian Citizen Science Project Finder online database (ACSA 2021), which links to almost 600 projects. Many of these deal with the land environment – for example, 11 on agriculture, 14 on geology and soils, 56 on marine and terrestrial areas, and 107 on natural resource management. Projects include the Atlas of Living Australia’s BioCollect platform, Reef Life Survey, Redmap, Tangaroa Blue, Waterwatch, FrogWatch and NatureMap.

Volunteers contribute to heritage management in a wide range of ways, including through surveys and recording, archaeological excavation, invasive species control, land restoration, animal care and rehabilitation, presentations and guiding, and running promotion and celebration events. Volunteers have also made a critical contribution to identification and protection of underwater cultural heritage.

Community volunteers have been instrumental in climate observations in Australia since the earliest days of formalised weather recording. A large proportion of the Bureau of Meteorology’s rainfall observations have been made by volunteers, many of them on rural properties. Many of these observation sites have operated for 100 years or more, spanning multiple generations. Although these observations are not often considered under the term ‘citizen science’, they are critical to our understanding of rainfall change and variability in Australia. A specific application of citizen science in the climate area has been in the recovery of historical data. Significant quantities of historical data exist only on paper and are effectively inaccessible for further analysis. The first major Australian citizen science project of this type was completed in 2020, drawing both on volunteers working under the auspices of the Bureau of Meteorology and on the broader community. In this project, daily observations from Adelaide from 1839 onwards were digitised, combining with existing Bureau of Meteorology data (starting in 1887) to produce the longest single dataset in Australia and one of the longest in the Southern Hemisphere (Gergis et al. 2020)

Case Study Armchair citizen scientists double their efforts to address Australia’s big challenges

Sources: Atlas of Living Australia and the Australian Museum

A growing band of citizen scientists across Australia are helping to protect our environment by contributing to science through the crowdsourcing platform DigiVol.

Identifying animals to help support bushfire recovery efforts is one of the many areas where citizen scientists are making a significant contribution.

DigiVol was first developed in 2011 by the Australian Museum in collaboration with the Atlas of Living Australia. Since then, more than 10,000 citizen scientists have used the DigiVol volunteer portal (Australian Museum 2021) to transcribe specimen labels, field notes and Wildlife Spotter images.

DigiVol provides a way to harness the power and passion of volunteers to help in the digitisation effort to make more information available to science. The DigiVol platform is an inclusive solution to addressing challenging problems, enabling a range of organisations to process images, specimens and field notes. It produces data to assist scientists in transcribing their images much more quickly than was previously possible. 

Along with its success in attracting citizen scientists, DigiVol is an excellent example of infrastructure designed to meet many objectives. 

In recent years, DigiVol has added capture of camera trap data by citizen scientists to its portfolio through Wildlife Spotter. Wildlife Spotter allows organisations to upload images captured on cameras mounted in the environment, and volunteers then identify and tag animals in the photographs. This process produces large volumes of high-quality data to assist in monitoring Australia’s fauna species, including helping to understand the impact of fire and recovery of fauna in fire-affected areas.

Following the Black Summer bushfires and national lockdowns in 2020, the number of volunteers using DigiVol doubled to more than 9,000 individuals. Since then, DigiVol volunteers have contributed more than 6 million transcriptions to expeditions across the platform.

In the future, DigiVol is looking to integrate artificial intelligence into its software to complement the workflow and support the public’s effort in species identification.

Figure 37 The DigiVol platform allows anyone with access to a computer and the internet to contribute to science

Photo: Australian Museum

New research technologies

The digital revolution continues to change how we monitor and manage the environment. To date, field observation and monitoring have required significant investment of time, money and human resources; however, in the future, remotely sensed data and increasing diversity of satellite-based sensors and modelling systems will reduce these costs when coupled with accessible data infrastructure. Big data offer significant opportunities for conservation and sustainability in terrestrial (Runting et al. 2020) and aquatic (Dafforn et al. 2015) ecosystems (see Big data).

Australia is already gaining the benefits from programs that support land management using new satellites, such as Digital Earth Australia (GA 2020). A new Australian civil space strategy (Australian Space Agency 2019) and the SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre will progress research that aims to improve technology and data that can potentially inform land management.

The current knowledge of Australia’s biodiversity – including species that are important for economic and ecosystem services functions – is very incomplete. New technologies, including high-throughput DNA sequencing and machine learning, promise a substantial increase in the discovery, naming and documentation of Australia’s wildlife. The Australian Academy of Science has proposed an ambitious mission to discover and document all remaining Australian species in a generation. A cost–benefit analysis has shown that the returns to society of achieving this goal could be as much as 35 times greater than the investment, with benefits for biodiversity conservation, biosecurity, biodiscovery, and agricultural research and development (Deloitte Access Economics 2020).

Metabarcoding of eDNA is increasingly proving to be an effective and efficient method to survey important groups such as soil bacteria and fungi. Older methods of identification are notoriously problematic for these groups, which are the most genetically and ecologically diverse communities on Earth, but poorly understood. eDNA techniques have been used to demonstrate the return of the native soil bacterial community in areas that have been revegetated (Gellie et al. 2017, Yan et al. 2020). Molecular techniques are also increasingly used to monitor the health of marine and coastal ecosystems that have previously suffered from a lack of taxonomic clarity (e.g. Birrer et al. 2017). Such techniques can detect changes not only in marine biodiversity but also in ecosystem functioning, which underpins ecosystem services such as climate regulation (Birrer et al. 2019).

The continuing increase in computing power and the growth of well-designed datasets provide novel opportunities to use artificial intelligence and machine learning (AIML) tools to better understand the state and trend of the environment. AIML can automate repetitive and time-consuming tasks involved in monitoring and evaluation, guide the collection of information where it matters the most by optimising the design of experiments, and help to make cost-efficient decisions by predicting future management outcomes.