Outlook and impacts


Our environment holds the key to our survival and wellbeing. The natural world is not separate from the human world – it is the source of our food, water, air and raw materials. Our culture and wellbeing are interwoven with the places where we live and walk. Ongoing environmental decline also has negative economic impacts on industries, businesses, regions and individuals. In a rapidly changing climate, with declining biodiversity, the general outlook for our environment is deteriorating. The impacts of this will affect us all.

It is in our own interest to understand, protect and restore the health of our environment.

It is also our responsibility. Our environment has intrinsic value beyond direct human use. Humans have a profound influence on the environment, and we must embrace our role as custodians of the lands and seas.

Our future depends on connecting to Country

The health and wellbeing of Country and people are fundamentally connected. The oldest continuing cultures in the world – Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures – have held this truth at the core of their knowledge systems, their stories and their management practices for tens of thousands of years. In this report, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have worked side by side, combining knowledge to create the first holistic assessment of the current state of Australia’s environment.

This report explores the state of our environment (see Environment), the pressures it is under (see Pressures) and how we are managing it (see Management). We have assessed the health of every aspect of our environment – from our rivers, oceans, air and ice, to our land and urban areas – as well as how our environment is affecting the health and wellbeing of the Australian community and economy (see Impacts). We have identified the areas of greatest need for action in our environment.

To improve the outlook for our environment, communities and economy, we will need to strengthen and build connections: connecting people with Country; connecting economics with the environment; and connecting biodiversity, lands, rivers, seas, skies and soils.

We need to learn from both western scientific and Indigenous knowledge systems, and to connect with each other. Individual, community, industry and government action are all needed, and this report points to ways in which we can improve our shared outlook. Working together, we can deepen our connections and build resilient Country and people.

Connection to Country

Indigenous knowledge and connections to Country are vital for sustainability and healing Australia. Indigenous people have cared for Country across generations, yet Indigenous knowledge and world view are rarely incorporated, valued or accessed by non-Indigenous environmental management. Indigenous knowledge can provide a broader vision of sustainability for all Australia:

We’re born from this land. We belong to the land. And we take care of the land. We respect this land. And we should only ever take from the land what we can give back to the land.

Wurundjeri knowledge holder and Elder Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin (Porter et al. 2020)

Indigenous people have a deep connection with the environment – Indigenous people have lived on the land and near waters of Australia for tens of thousands of years and have a cultural responsibility to care for Country.

For Indigenous people, the term ‘environment’ is integrated with the term ‘Country’. Country is more than the physical land, waterways and seas; it includes all living things on the land and in the seas, and it also includes the connected language, knowledge, cultural practice and responsibilities. The concept of Country encompasses all aspects of the environment, including urban areas. Country is living, holistic, and constantly changing and evolving.

Indigenous people’s connection to their Country is a deep cultural and spiritual bond. Country for Indigenous people is the source of life, identity and culture, and the health of Country and people are inextricably linked. Spiritual connection to Country manifests in many forms under law, through stories, songs and knowledge. It links back to the time of the ancestors, when ancestral beings made the landforms, the seascapes, the animals and people. Indigenous people continue to revitalise, practise, teach and pass on knowledge. Caring for Country is a cultural obligation. The capacity for Indigenous people to care for Country means that Indigenous knowledge systems can continuously evolve, develop and be passed through the next generations.

Our current outlook

All aspects of the Australian environment are under pressure, and many are declining. Although there have been numerous environmental initiatives at both national and state and territory levels, there is insufficient overall investment and lack of coordination to be able to adequately address the growing impacts from climate change, land clearing, invasive species, pollution and urban expansion. Innovations in conservation practice and technologies provide new hope, and increased Indigenous leadership and involvement of business and communities are helping to deliver on-ground change.

Australia’s strategies and investment in biodiversity conservation do not match the scale of the challenge, and the state and trend of Australia’s ecosystems and species continue to decline. Australia has lost more mammal species than any other continent and continues to have one of the highest rates of species decline among countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The true number of extinctions is likely to be significantly higher because many species are poorly surveyed or poorly described, or both. Increasingly, we are resorting to the costliest conservation mechanisms of restoration, rehabilitation, ex situ conservation, translocations, and the creation of safe havens on islands and in fenced areas.

Intense competition for land and water resources in Australia has resulted in continued declines in the amount and condition of our land- and water-based natural capital – native vegetation, soil, wetlands, rivers and biodiversity – that together deliver ecosystem services. Reversing this trend requires collaboration and cooperation between governments, businesses and communities to build resilient landscapes, to achieve balanced and equitable environmental, economic, social and cultural benefits.

Infographic saying that Indigenous knowledge and values can help us achieve a sustainable future for all Australians.

The total area of land and sea that is under some form of conservation protection is increasing, but the overall level of protection is declining. If we improve our capacity to manage and monitor the state and trends of our protected areas, we will better understand the protection levels necessary to ensure ecosystem integrity. Continuing to expand the role of Indigenous land and sea management – including Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) within the National Reserve System – will be fundamental to improvements in the state of the environment. Greater recognition of the important role of Indigenous rangers in conserving both cultural heritage and natural values is required, as well as the connection between Indigenous rangers and the wellbeing gains from being on and caring for Country. The current funding arrangements for Indigenous land and sea management and IPAs are inadequate to meet the demands and require greater certainty into the future.

Our oceanic marine areas remain in generally good condition, but nearshore reefs are in poor condition. In addition, many coastal habitats and communities are highly impacted in locations where multiple pressures combine to overwhelm ecosystem health and function. Climate change continues to warm and acidify the ocean, and we have experienced several major marine heatwaves during the past 5 years, resulting in an overall deteriorating trend.

For all aspects of our environment, the outlook is affected by the increasing pressure of climate change. Increasing temperatures on land and sea, changing fire and rainfall regimes, and rising sea levels and ocean acidification are having profound effects that will continue into the future. Some of the largest climate change effects are being seen in Antarctica. Changes in sea ice extent, and land and sea temperatures will drive profound changes in Antarctic species and ecosystems. Changes in the Southern Ocean and Antarctic environments as a result of climate change will in turn have substantial and ongoing impacts on Australia's climate and sea levels.

The growing understanding of the impacts of climate change has resulted in a substantial increase in resilience planning activities from all 3 levels of government, enormous community mobilisation and engagement, and innovative approaches from commerce and industry, but the need remains to coordinate and look for synergies between approaches.

The intensity and frequency of extreme weather events are also changing. Climate science predicts that there will be increasing impact from many extreme events, including a potential expansion in their distribution, changes in their duration, and increasing complexity of linked impacts. Increasing frequency and severity of extreme events are also having direct effects on human wellbeing. Tropical cyclones, hailstorms, flooding rains, storm tides, heatwaves, bushfires, blizzards and other natural phenomena can change natural and urban landscapes, and sometimes have irreversible impacts on ecosystems and human society. Changes to our landscapes through habitat fragmentation, agricultural management practices, expansion of invasive species and other pressures are exacerbating the impacts of extreme events and inhibiting post-event recovery.

Our inland water systems, both surface water and groundwater, are coming under increasing pressure as temperatures increase and rainfall patterns are affected by climate change. Although desalinisation plants and water recycling are being increasingly used to reduce this pressure, the challenge remains to balance the needs of people and industry with environmental and cultural water needs.

Our urban populations are growing, placing the environment and resources of our cities and towns under greater pressure, and there is increasing interest in circular economy approaches. With the digital revolution and working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are considering a lifestyle change to move to regional areas or more suburban locations. As a consequence, land prices in some regions have increased faster than in cities, intensifying conflict with agricultural industries. The potential for increased impacts on the land environment (e.g. through clearing of bush remnants and loss of agricultural land) will need to be managed. Rebuilding major urban areas to be more environmentally sensitive and nature focused is also increasing in popularity.

Increased appreciation for Indigenous values in major cities and larger regional centres is reflected in recent planning legislation and policy development, as well as academic institutions that include Indigenous content in environment and planning curriculums. Managing green links and corridors within urban areas can support habitats and urban biodiversity, and help to limit the impacts of a warming climate on our cities. Managing ecological systems through empowering Indigenous communities and enabling Indigenous knowledge systems can improve environmental and social outcomes.

Our air quality is likely to remain good on most days of the year. However, changes in the climate are likely to cause more summertime smogs in urban areas, and the increasing intensity of storms in some regions may increase the potential for serious thunderstorm asthma events, which will affect health, especially for vulnerable individuals and populations. The predicted increase in the number of extreme heatwave events will also lead to increased summer bushfire activity, leading to poor air quality as a possible recurring feature of future Australian summers.

Although Australia has various heritage protections in place, lack of resourcing and inadequate governance are affecting all types of heritage, and are likely to lead to further degradation of heritage. The outlook for heritage overall is poor, given the many pressures and management issues. For Indigenous heritage, additional issues include the continued trauma and mistrust within the Indigenous community due to ongoing lack of recognition, protection and a rights-based approach, and difficulties in accessing Country. Self-determination and access to Country, along with major changes to Indigenous heritage legislation and significant governance changes regarding free, prior and informed consent, are needed.

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


The current impacts on our environment, and how well we deal with existing and emerging pressures, will affect both the future of our natural resources, and human health and wellbeing.

Impacts on the environment

The top 5 global risks in terms of likelihood to cause significant negative impacts within the next 10 years are extreme weather, climate action failure, human environmental damage, biodiversity loss and infectious diseases (World Economic Forum 2020). Environmental degradation is now considered a threat to humanity, which could bring about societal collapses with long-lasting and severe consequences. The World Economic Forum described the global risk of biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse as having ‘irreversible consequences for the environment, humankind, and economic activity and a permanent destruction of natural capital, as a result of species extinction and/or reduction’.

Multiple pressures create cumulative impacts that amplify threats. Abrupt changes in ecological systems are occurring in Australia, such as the transition of Tasmania’s giant Macrocystis kelp forests to beds of the shorter common kelp (Ecklonia radiata).

Climate change is putting pressure on all parts of the environment. The 2017–19 drought exceeded the previously worst-ever drought, the federation drought from 1895 to 1903. Extensive, catastrophic bushfires were followed by months of heavy and continuous rain. The combined effect of increasing temperatures, changing rainfall patterns and extreme weather events are affecting our soils, water and vegetation, and all the species that rely on them. Climate change and associated extreme events, compounded by other pressures, have had a major impact on biodiversity over the past 5 years, and further consequences are likely to be magnified in the future.

Many of Australia’s most valued and iconic ecosystems are at risk from climate change and environmental extremes. For example, the Great Barrier Reef is adversely impacted by unprecedented marine heatwaves that cause bleaching events and threats to coral recruitment. Bushfires have ravaged much of Australia in the past few years, including burning in ecosystems that are normally resistant to fire.

Invasive species continue to impact the environment, the economy, human health and our way of life. Australia is burdened by thousands of non-native species introduced deliberately or by accident over the past 200 years. There are now more foreign terrestrial plant species in Australia than natives. Many are likely to become even more problematic with climate change. Established invasive species require ongoing management and enhanced surveillance to prevent new incursions. The total annual cost of weeds (revenue loss plus expenditure) to Australian grain growers has been estimated at $3.3 billion (Llewellyn et al. 2016), and across all grain, beef and wool industries is nearly $5 billion (McLeod 2018).

Agriculture also faces significant effects from climate change, including damage to tree crops caused by more severe storms and cyclones, the effects of heat stress on domestic animals, and more insidious impacts that disrupt the lifecycles of pollinators and beneficial predatory insects.

The continuing legacy of colonial law and policies disempowers Indigenous environmental management practices. Clearing of land, climate change and expansion of mining are among many environmental changes damaging Country and Indigenous Australians’ heritage, cultural connections and obligations to Country. Many environmental programs pay insufficient attention to Indigenous cultural obligations. Key customary activities, cultural responsibilities and access to Country are often impeded.

Other countries increasingly will not accept our waste. Landfill and waste strategies have unacceptable impacts on our land through soil and water pollution, and illegally dumped waste also has a significant impact on the land through its direct effect on soils, waters, biota and habitats. There are estimated to be 600 registered landfill sites and potentially as many as 2,000 unregulated facilities (Infrastructure Australia 2019). Litter and illegally dumped waste have a significant impact on our land, waterways and seas through their direct effect on plants and animals, and their habitats, as well as through the spread of diseases and pest species.

Impacts on human health and wellbeing

The environment and human health are strongly linked, and environmental degradation affects our communities, economy and way of life. The current negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems will undermine progress towards most of the targets of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals related to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans and land.

Our environment sustains all life, and the link between the environment and human wellbeing is well understood. Nature provides the essential services for our food, water and clean air; the basis for many human livelihoods; cultural and spiritual connection; and physical health. Along with benefits for the environment offered by biodiversity, contact with nature is associated with positive mental health benefits, and can promote physical activity and contribute to overall wellbeing. Biodiversity and green and blue spaces in urban settings are linked to stress reduction and mood improvement (Cox et al. 2017, Schebella et al. 2019), increased respiratory health (Liddicoat et al. 2018), lower rates of depression and high blood pressure (Shanahan et al. 2016), and overall improvements in human wellbeing (Taylor et al. 2018b). There is strong evidence that participation in caring for Country activities by Indigenous people in Australia is associated with improved health and wellbeing outcomes, as well as greater participation in cultural activities and knowledge of language. Regenerative land management and Landcare volunteering have also been shown to have health and wellbeing benefits for non-Indigenous people.

The Closing the Gap initiative includes measurement of Indigenous wellbeing. In 2020, the new National Agreement on Closing the Gap acknowledged the need to accelerate progress focused on the fundamental underpinnings of community, and connections with kin and Country. Outcome 15 deals with caring for Country, and the need for Indigenous people to maintain a distinctive cultural, spiritual, physical and economic relationship with their land and waters. Indicators include the number of Indigenous Land Use Agreements, income of registered native title bodies corporate, the number of Indigenous people employed in water and land management, and Australia’s conservation estate that is managed by Indigenous people. This framework will provide critical measurements of Indigenous wellbeing for future state of the environment reports.

Our changing climate has a significant impact on the durability of our built infrastructure and the resilience of urban ecosystems. Pressures on the urban environment are expected to increase with climate change, including a rise in urban temperatures, raised sea levels and urban flooding, as well as loss of biodiversity (see also Livability). Extreme events also affect the built environment. The increased frequency and intensity of extreme events occurring with climate change will exacerbate impacts on buildings and infrastructure, and the effectiveness of current engineering solutions to these events. Changes in the distribution of events means that existing policies and regulations that are regionally based may need to be revised to ensure that codes used during construction will encompass events likely to occur in the lifetime of structures, and that such codes are also applied to maintenance and upgrade activities.

All aspects of the environment require careful planning and management, based on reliable data, to ensure that our environment continues to support human health and wellbeing, and to minimise the impacts of change on our communities in the future.

The pathway forward

Greater national leadership will help foster coordinated action and encourage investment to address our mounting environmental and heritage issues. To enable Australia to measure progress and undertake effective adaptive actions, significant new effort is required to consistently manage environmental and heritage matters. This includes monitoring and reporting across all states and territories on the state and trend of our natural and cultural assets, and to significantly extend our current efforts in data collection, curation and analysis to provide an open and accessible framework for adaptive and integrated management.

Although this overview reports on significant and ongoing declines in the environment, it also highlights where current investments and the hard work of many Australians have made a difference. By building on these achievements, we can encourage new partnerships and innovations based on what has worked and amplify them across Australia. To achieve this efficiently, new sources of innovative financing and commitment from government and industry are required to fund the level of change needed. Crucially, we must expand collaboration across governments and nongovernment sectors, including through listening and co-developing solutions with Indigenous and local communities, building on and learning from Indigenous and western scientific knowledge.

To do all of this will take courage and leadership, but it is critical if we are to reverse the declines and forge a stronger, more resilient country to face the challenges in front of us.

Infographic showing that human wellbeing relies on good air quality, ample biodiversity and healthy land, soil and oceans. Our food, recreation, jobs and mental wellbeing ultimately derive from a healthy environment.