“Our water is struggling and so has the land,” said Labor’s new environment minister Tanya Plibersek, when she released the long-awaited report on the state of the environment on Tuesday. Although the report was completed in 2021, the report was not published by the previous coalition government.
The report found that Australia’s environment is “bad and deteriorating” due to “climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and resource extraction.”
But despite the grim strain global temperature rises are on Australia’s landscape, Plibersek said the new Labor government would not relinquish its promise before the choice to allow new coal mines, if they won environmental approval and commercial support.
Nor would the government raise Australia’s target of cutting emissions by 43% at the 2005 level by 2030, or achieve net zero emissions before the stated target of 2050.
“There are some people who would say that we should not have any mining anywhere. It is just not a sustainable or affordable proposal for a modern economy like Australia to say that,” she said.
“We made a promise of zero net emissions with a preliminary target of a 43% reduction in carbon pollution. We will keep that promise.”
The report noted that Australia’s emissions are likely to have peaked. But climate scientists say they are not declining fast enough to fulfill the Paris Agreement to limit the global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. According to researchers at Climate Analytics, Labor’s target of 43% is in line with 2 degrees Celsius with global warming.
How bad is the environmental degradation?
The report found that Australia has lost more mammal species than any other country in the 38-member Economic Cooperation and Development Organization (a group that includes the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand); that there are now more alien species than native ones; and the country has experienced “a nuisance of marine plastic,” Plibersek said in a speech to the National Press Club after the report was released.
In the country’s northern waters, lost or abandoned fishing nets suffocate up to 14,000 turtles a year, and down the east coast, warmer seas have killed kelp beds, threatening reef habitats and populations of abalone and lobster, she added.
On land, more than 77,000 square kilometers (30,000 square kilometers) of habitat belonging to endangered species have been cleared over the past two decades – an area about the size of Tasmania or Ireland. “A lot of this clearing happened in small steps,” Plibersek said. “In fact, more than 90% of it was never assessed under our environmental laws.”
The clearing has affected Australia’s koalas, which are now threatened in three states and territories.
Since the last environmental report was published in 2016, there has been an 8% increase in species listed as endangered under the country’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act (EPBC).
The latest report said that the number of endangered species may be even higher due to deficiencies in the risk assessment process, as can the number of extinctions.
“Most mammal extinctions in Australia have been driven by predation from introduced species, especially wildcats and European red foxes,” it added.
What is the government doing about it?
The Labor government blamed Australia’s environmental deterioration simply at the feet of the Liberal-National Coalition, which was in power from 2013 until the lost elections in May.
“The previous government’s cuts in funding held back business, damaged the economy, and undermined practical efforts to protect our environment,” Plibersek said during a televised news conference. She added that so little effort had been put into achieving some goals that they would be almost impossible to achieve.
Opposition Environment Minister Jonno Duniam, from the Liberal Party, accused Plibersek of using the report as a prop of attacks on the previous government, pointing out that the Morrison administration spent billions of dollars on green initiatives.
Plibersek announced a number of new goals on Tuesday, but postponed others – including a “once-a-generation” reform of Australia’s Environmental and Biodiversity Act (EPBC) – until she had time to consult more broadly.
The Labor government also plans to “expand the country’s national property” by setting a goal of protecting 30% of Australia’s land and 30% of its seas by 2030, and exploring the creation of new national parks and marine protected areas, Plibersek said. It includes “pursuing” East Antarctic Marine Park, a proposal backed by Australia, France and the EU to protect a huge part of the Ross Sea.
“We are fortunate to be so rich in First Nations cultural heritage, of course we need better systems to protect those who do not lead to terrible, shameful outcomes, such as the Juukan Gorge,” said Plibersek.
The report also highlighted the need to give Australia’s First Nations people more control over the protection and rehabilitation of the country. To that end, the government has also promised to double the number of indigenous peoples to 3,800 by the end of the decade.
Nicki Hutley, an economist at the Climate Council, said changes to Australia’s environmental laws must force the government to assess the effects of climate change when considering applications for new coal and gas projects.
Kelly O’Shanassy, chief executive of the Australian Conservation Foundation, said independent oversight was also needed to ensure the government’s goals were met.
“To stop Australia’s natural crisis, we need strong national environmental laws, an independent regulator to enforce them and adequate funding to restore Australia’s endangered species and restore damaged landscapes.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story was attributed to the Liberal Party’s response to the party’s deputy leader. The comments came from the party’s environment minister.