“Our waters are struggling and so is the country,” said Tanya Plibersek, the new Environment Minister of Labour, when she released the much-anticipated report on the state of the environment on Tuesday. Although the report was ready in 2021, it was not released by the previous coalition government.
The report found that Australia’s environment is “poor and deteriorating” due to “climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and resource extraction”.
But despite the grim toll global temperature rises are having on the Australian landscape, Plibersek said the new Labor government wouldn’t break its pre-election promise to allow new coal mines if they were given environmental approval and commercial support.
Nor would the government raise Australia’s targets to cut emissions by 43% from 2005 levels by 2030, or achieve net zero emissions before the stated 2050 target.
“There are those who would say we shouldn’t have mining anywhere. It’s just not a sustainable or reasonable proposition for a modern economy like Australia to say that,” she said.
“We have made a net zero emissions pledge with an interim target of 43% reduction in carbon pollution. We will deliver on that promise.”
The report noted that Australia’s emissions have likely peaked. But climate scientists say they are not falling fast enough to comply with the Paris Agreement to limit global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. According to Climate Analytics researchers, Labor’s 43% target equates to 2 degrees Celsius of 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 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (a grouping that includes the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand); that there are now more alien species than native ones; and the country has experienced “a scourge of marine plastics,” Plibersek said in a speech to the National Press Club following the report’s publication.
In the country’s northern waters, lost or abandoned fishing nets strangle up to 14,000 turtles a year, and along the east coast, warming seas have killed kelp beds, threatening reef habitats and abalone and lobster stocks, she added.
On land, more than 77,000 square kilometers (30,000 square miles) of endangered species’ habitat have been cleared in the past two decades — an area roughly the size of Tasmania or Ireland. “Much of this cleanup happened in small steps,” Plibersek said. “In fact, over 90% of that has never been assessed under our environmental laws.”
The clearing has impacted Australian koalas, which are now threatened in three states and territories.
Since the last State of the Environment report was released in 2016, there has been an 8% increase in species listed as endangered under the country’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC).
The most recent report said the number of endangered species could be even higher due to flaws in the risk assessment process, and so are the number of extinctions.
“Most mammal extinctions in Australia have been caused by predation of introduced species, especially the wild cat and the European red fox,” it added.
What is the government doing about it?
The Labor government blamed the environmental degradation in Australia entirely on the Liberal-National coalition, which was in power from 2013 until losing the election in May.
“The previous government’s austerity measures held back trade, damaged the economy and undermined practical efforts to protect our environment,” Plibersek said at a televised news conference. She added that so little effort had gone into achieving some of the goals that they would be nearly impossible to achieve.
Opposition Environment Minister Jonno Duniam, of the Liberal Party, accused Plibersek of using the report as a mainstay for attacks on the previous government, pointing out that the Morrison administration has spent billions of dollars on green initiatives.
Plibersek announced a number of new targets on Tuesday but postponed others – including a “once-in-a-generation” reform of Australia’s environmental and biodiversity laws (the EPBC) – until she had time to consult more widely.
The Labor government also plans to “expand the country’s national estate” by setting a goal of protecting 30% of Australia’s land and 30% of its oceans by 2030, and establishing new national parks and marine protected areas, Plibersek said. That includes the “pursuit” of the East Antarctic Marine Park, a proposal supported by Australia, France and the European Union to protect much of the Ross Sea.
“We are so lucky to be so rich in First Nations cultural heritage, of course we need better systems to protect it that don’t lead to terrible, embarrassing results, like Juukan Gorge,” Plibersek said.
The report also emphasized the need to give the Australian First Nations people greater control over the protection and restoration of the country. To that end, the government has also pledged to double the number of native rangers to 3,800 by the end of the decade.
Nicki Hutley, an economist with the Climate Council, said changes to Australia’s environmental laws should require the government to consider the impacts of climate change when considering applications for new coal and gas projects.
Kelly O’Shanassy, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Conservation Foundation, said independent oversight was also needed to ensure government targets are met.
“To end Australia’s wildlife crisis, we need strong national environmental laws, an independent regulator to enforce them, and adequate funding to restore Australia’s endangered species and restore degraded landscapes.”
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the Liberal Party’s response was attributed to the party’s deputy leader. The comments were made by the party’s environment minister.