The Federal Minister for the Environment and Water The Hon. Tanya Plibersek, MP released the 2021 State of the Environment Report (SoE Report) on 19 July 2022. The SoE Report is a requirement of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) (EPBC Act) and is required to be released every 5 years (the last one was released in 2016). The SoE Report is prepared by independent scientists and environmental experts.

What’s different this time?

The SoE Report covers, amongst other things, air quality, biodiversity, coastal environments, heritage, water, land and urban environments.

New chapters have been added in the 2021 SoE with the subject headings “climate”, “extreme events” and “Indigenous”, reflecting core areas of importance for the SoE Report.

What are the key findings?

The key finding of the SOE Report is that overall the state and trend of the environment of Australia is poor and deteriorating and abrupt changes in ecological systems have been recorded in the past 5 years. Some of the key chapter findings include that:

  • biodiversity is declining, and the number of threatened species is increasing. Key threats to Australia’s biodiversity are climate change, habitat loss and degradation, and invasive species. Many Australian ecosystems are experiencing cumulative and compounding pressures, leading to ecosystem collapse;
  • climate change and extreme weather events are becoming increasingly important as direct drivers of changes in biodiversity;
  • most major Australian cities are growing at a faster rate than many developed cities internationally, with the SoE Report calling for a more strategic, national approach to urban management; and
  • substantial areas of the 7.7 million hectares of habitat for terrestrial threatened species appears to have been cleared without an authorisation under the EPBC Act, including multiple small areas of clearance that cumulatively add up.

What’s next?

The SoE Report is not all gloom. It is acknowledged that resourced collaborative management measures, action on climate change, engagement with nature, holistic assessment approaches and improved data can all contribute to improving the environmental outlook.

In releasing the SOE Report at the National Press Club, the Minister described three essential goals: to protect, to restore, and to actively manage Australia’s environment. The Minister announced a number of regulatory and investment initiatives that we will be closely monitoring:

  • a commitment to the introduction of standalone Indigenous cultural heritage legislation;
  • government is committed to the 43% reduction in emissions by 2030, with climate change impacts being a key element in the SoE Report. The Climate Change Bill is expected to be introduced into the first sittings of the new government;
  • government will formally respond by the end of the year to the statutory review of the EPBC Act led by Professor Graham Samuel, which included recommendations for national environmental standards, data capture and sharing, improved compliance and a focus on landscape based assessments under the EPBC Act;
  • new environmental legislation will be developed for 2023, including a new Environmental Protection Agency with enforcement powers;
  • consultation will occur on new environmental standards with clear targets and outcomes;
  • government has committed to a national goal of protecting 30% of land and 30% of oceans by 2030;
  • supporting investments in restoration and repair of landscapes, including supporting land-based carbon projects and blue carbon projects; and
  • improved waste management and recycling.

The Minister noted the need for greater certainty and efficiency in environmental decision making, on the basis that goals of better environmental outcomes and faster, clearer decisions are not mutually exclusive.

Government has committed to an ambitious agenda around climate legislation, biodiversity protection, heritage protection, environmental assessment and landscape restoration, underpinned by First Nations advice and involvement. We expect to see significant proposals and consultation activities around environmental law reforms, particularly focussed on national environmental standards, compliance, governance and species protection.