CSIRO experts weigh in on State of the Environment Report

By Melissa Coade

July 20, 2022

Larry Marshall
CSIRO CEO Larry Marshall urges all Australians to ‘engage deeply’ with the 2021 State of the Environment report. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Some of the national science agency’s best and brightest have highlighted the big themes of the latest SOE, including threats facing Australia’s oceans, atmosphere, and air quality, as well as the consequences of competition for land and extreme weather.

Deteriorating: that is the general outlook for Australia’s environment according to the 2021 State of the Environment (SOE).

The cause for such a dire scorecard? Australia’s climate is rapidly changing, and the country is developing and using the country’s resources unsustainably. 

CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall urged all Australians to ‘engage deeply’ with the report. He said the report’s rigorous analysis was critical for making better decisions on how Australia’s environment would be managed in the future, including balancing competing environmental uses with protection and restoration. 

“Scientists from across Australia have meticulously gathered and assessed the evidence that has contributed to this timely snapshot of Australia’s environment, which is facing significant challenges due to increasing pressures from climate change, pollution, resource extraction, habitat loss and invasive species.  

“A declining environment affects all of us. By working together to take action, we can help our environment to heal,” Marshall said.

The report is an independent and evidence-based review, which is required to be produced every five years under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

Public servants at the CSIRO independently contributed to the report released this week. Six of the report chapters were co-lead by CSIRO personnel, with the agency’s published science, data sets, models and tools used as evidence for its comprehensive findings. 

The report found extreme weather events, such as drought, fire and flood, which have besieged the Australian landscape for what feels like a hellish few years now have changed in intensity, frequency and distribution.

The CSIRO’s Dr Dan Metcalfe, director of oceans and atmosphere, was a co-lead author for the SOE chapter on extreme events. He pointed to habitat fragmentation, land management practices and invasive species as additional exacerbating factors.

“Research on extreme events and climate change is integrated widely across the report, as impacts of such acute events are felt widely across the built and natural environment, and affect biodiversity, production systems, industry, and community,” Metcalfe said.

“We need to continue to improve our understanding of the interplay between hazards, risks, vulnerability and impact to determine where to make the most significant investments.”

Even the air we all breathe in Australia is now a risk, with Dr Kathryn Emmerson explaining health effects were already being observed from ‘relatively low levels of air pollution’.

The CSIRO principal research scientist said bushfires posed the biggest threat to air quality in Australia, leading to harmful smoke conditions for days or even weeks at a time. 

“The most effective way of improving air quality is through targeting pollution sources and minimising our exposure to low air quality,” Emmerson said.

“Ongoing development, testing and deployment of low-cost air quality sensors to supplement existing monitoring networks will be effective for localised real-time air quality information.”

Closer to home, wood heaters were also a ‘major cause’ of poor air quality. Emmerson noted that banning their use – particularly in cities – would improve air quality, particularly in the winter.

The report also declared Australia’s overall state of land and soil as ‘poor’, with a declining amount and condition of what was referred to as ‘land-based natural capital’ or native vegetation, soil and biodiversity.

Principal research scientist Dr Kristen Williams said intense competition for land resources had degraded many parts of the country, extensively clearing native vegetation. This had a wider impact on biodiversity, which was also being seriously affected by habitat quality, climate change and the prevalence of invasive species.

“Australian landscapes have a key role to play in carbon storage, above the ground in vegetation and below the ground sequestered in soils,” Williams said.

“While nationally there has been a slight decline in primary forest clearing from very high past levels, the amount of regrowth forest re-clearing has remained high. Healthy soils and functioning ecosystems represent a significant opportunity for sequestering and storing carbon.”

Williams went on to describe nature conservation land management as ‘relatively steady’. The private sector and Indigenous estate had contributed to most increases, however. 

“Managing for climate change and invasive species remains a significant and growing challenge,” she said. 

“Renewed focus on landscape recovery, and greater recognition and empowerment of Indigenous land management practices, where possible, can help us to heal Country and find new ways to gain a broad range of benefits.”

Co-lead author for the SOE chapter on biodiversity, Dr Helen Murphy, said the issue was intrinsically linked to human survival, wellbeing and economic prosperity. Since the last SOE in 2016, she said pressures on Australian biodiversity had not improved and the outcomes for species and ecosystems were ‘generally poor’.

“Habitat loss and degradation, and invasive species, result in persistent and sometimes irreversible impacts on biodiversity across almost all areas of Australia,” Murphy said.

“Our inability to adequately manage pressures will continue to result in species extinctions and deteriorating ecosystem conditions unless current management approaches and investments are substantially improved.”

For Australia’s marine environment, climate change and pollution are contributing to ‘rapid deterioration’ but the CSIRO’s Dr Rowan Trebilco said Australia’s oceanic marine areas were in a ‘good cognition overall’.

He said climate change and cumulative pressures were driving the deterioration of Australia’s nearshore environments, like reefs. 

“Looking at pressures and components in isolation only tells part of the story for our marine environment,” Treblico said. 

He added effective management of the marine environment required a widespread uptake of integrated management approaches.

“The SOE Report suggests that new national systems are needed for integrated, inclusive and participatory ocean management. This could be enabled by a national integrated, adaptive, long-term marine environmental monitoring with strong Indigenous engagement,” Treblico said. 

Mibu Fischer, lead co-author for the SOE marine and coast chapters, said the ‘profound impact’ of sea level rise and climate change would quickly overtake the negative impacts population and industry were having on the coastal environment. 

“There is limited Indigenous leadership in the management of our coasts in Australia, with further investment needed to improve power imbalances and to allow for increased relationships and partnerships when caring for Country,” she said.


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