Our ‘grim’ environmental scorecard for 2019 revealed

A major scorecard gives the health of Australia’s environment less than one out of 10.

‘Grim’ environmental scorecard

Albert Van Dijk, Australian National University; Luigi Renzullo, Australian National University; Marta Yebra, Australian National University, and Shoshana Rapley, Australian National University

2019 was the year Australians confronted the fact that a healthy environment is more than just a pretty waterfall in a national park – a nice extra we can do without. We do not survive without air to breathe, water to drink, soil to grow food and weather we can cope with.

Every year, we collate a vast number of measurements on the state of our environment: weather, oceans, fire, water, soils, vegetation, population pressure and biodiversity. The data is collected in many different ways: by satellites, field stations, surveys and so on.

We process this data into several indicators of environmental health at both national and regional levels.

The report for 2019 makes for grim reading. It reveals the worst environmental conditions in many decades, perhaps centuries, and confirms the devastating damage global warming and mismanagement are wreaking on our natural resources.

Immediate action is needed to put Australia’s environment on a course to recovery.

Environment scores in the red
From the long list of environmental indicators we report on, we use seven to calculate an Environmental Condition Score (ECS) for each region, as well as nationally.

These seven indicators – high temperatures, river flows, wetlands, soil health, vegetation condition, growth conditions and tree cover – are chosen because they allow a comparison against previous years. In Australia’s dry environment, they tend to move up and down together, which gives the score more robustness. See the interactive graphic below to find the score for your region.

Environmental condition scores by local government area, and values for each of the seven indicators. See more data on www.ausenv.online.

Nationally, Australia’s environmental condition score fell by 2.3 points in 2019, to a very low 0.8 out of 10. This is the lowest score since at least 2000 – the start of the period for which we have detailed data.

Condition scores declined in every state and territory. The worst conditions were seen in the Northern Territory (0.2 points), New South Wales (0.3 points) and Western Australia (0.4 points), with the latter also recording the greatest decline from the previous year (-5.7 points).

What is most striking is that almost the entire nation suffered terrible environmental conditions in 2019. In each case, the changes can be traced back to dry, hot conditions. Only parts of Queensland escaped the drought.

Comparing local government areas, the worst conditions occurred in Armidale and Gwydir in northern NSW. In contrast, Winton and Townsville in Queensland escaped the overall poor conditions, thanks to the beneficial impact of high rainfall early in the year – although those same events also caused floods, killing around 600,000 livestock.

Extreme drought and extreme heat
So, what exactly happened in Australia in 2019 to cause such widespread environmental damage? There were several causes.

Across most of Australia, the environment was already reeling from poor conditions in 2018. Also, cool temperatures in the Indian Ocean delayed the onset of the monsoon in northern Australia and reduced the flow of moisture to the rest of the continent, creating hot and dry conditions. Average rainfall was a mere 229mm across the continent, the lowest in more than 119 years and probably longer than that.

The heat was also extraordinary. The average number of days above 35°C across the country was 36 per cent more than the average for the 19 years prior.

Values for 15 environmental indicators in 2015, expressed as the change from average 2000-2018 conditions. Similar to national economic indicators, they provide a summary but also hide regional variations, complex interactions and long-term context. ANU Centre for Water and Landscape Dynamics

In eastern Australia, arid and hot conditions pushed farmers and ecosystems deeper into drought. In many regions, dryness and declining protection from wind erosion created the worst soil conditions in at least 20 years. Consequences included several dust storms and widespread dieback of forests, especially in NSW.

The severe drought also affected inland water systems, especially the Darling River and its tributaries. Town water supply reservoirs ran out of water, the rivers stopped flowing, and the heat turned the remaining pools into death traps for fish.

Other rivers in north-west Australia, south-east Queensland and north-east NSW also saw their worst flows in 20 years.

Australia’s environment degraded under extreme drought in 2019. Dan Peled/AAP

Unprecedented fires
Of course, 2019 will be remembered as the year of unprecedented bushfires. Nationally, the total area burnt was not unusual, not even when the fires of early 2020 are included. But this is only because fire activity was much below average in northern Australia, where ongoing dry conditions left little vegetation to burn.

The extent of forest fires last year was unprecedented, however. As predicted well in advance, the tinder-dry forests in eastern Australia provided the fuel for a dramatic fire season that started in September. Between then and the first month of 2020, vast areas of forest in NSW, eastern Victoria, Kangaroo Island and the Australian Capital Territory went up in flames.

The fires destroyed more than 3000 homes and directly killed 33 people. Indirectly, the most hazardous air quality in living memory created major but poorly known health impacts. The fires also damaged the reliability of drinking water supplies.

The ecological damage was also profound. Fires raged through ecosystems poorly adapted to fire, from rainforests in tropical Queensland to alpine vegetation in Tasmania and the Snowy Mountains of NSW. It remains to be seen whether they can recover. Across NSW, 35 per cent of rainforests were turned to cinders.

About 191 species of animals and plants saw more than one-third of their living area burnt, among them 52 species that were already threatened. Thankfully, the last remaining stands of the prehistoric Wollemi pine and the rare Nightcap Oak were saved.

Even before the fires, 40 plant and animal species were added to the threatened list in 2019, bringing the total to 1890. Following the fires, more species are likely to be added in 2020.

2019 was a year of unprecedented bushfires. Jason O'Brien/AAP

We’re not doomed yet
Last year was neither an outlier nor the ‘new normal’ – it will get worse.

Greenhouse gas concentrations continued to increase rapidly in 2019, causing the temperature of the atmosphere and oceans to soar. Australia’s population also continued to grow quickly and with it, greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution, and our demand for land to build, mine and farm on.

Whether we want to hear it or not, last year represented another step towards an ever-more dismal future, unless we take serious action.

The current coronavirus pandemic shows that as individuals, and collectively, we can take dramatic action once we acknowledge the urgency of a threat. By comparison, addressing environmental decline will cost less, whereas the long-term costs of not acting will be far greater.

There is much we can do. In the short term, we can help our natural ecosystems recover from the drought and fires. Government agencies and land owners can cull and manage invasive species in fire-affected areas - from weeds, to foxes, cats and feral horses - and stop damaging logging in fire-affected areas.

Individuals can do their bit. We can donate money or time to organisations committed to helping ecosystems recover. Record what you see on bushwalks to help environmental managers monitor and assist ecological recovery.

Record and upload what you see on bush walks to help experts monitor fire recovery. Darren England/AAP

But the damage of climate change is not limited to natural environments. We must get serious about curbing greenhouse emissions. Humanity has the tools, technology and ingenuity to do it and Australia, one of the countries worst affected by climate change, should lead the world.

Beyond that, individuals can also make a contribution: recycle and reuse rather than buy new, choose low-emission and renewable energy technology and reduce waste – it can save money even now. Let governments and politicians hear your voice. Try to convince friends and family that things need to change.

In the long term, we must find a more balanced relationship with the natural world, understanding that our own survival will depend on it.

The full report and webinar are available here.

Albert Van Dijk, Professor, Water and Landscape Dynamics, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University; Luigi Renzullo, Senior Research Fellow, Australian National University; Marta Yebra, Senior lecturer, Australian National University, and Shoshana Rapley, Research assistant, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Our government has acted promptly on the COVID-19 pandemic, should it give the same attention to our environmental issues?

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    To make a comment, please register or login
    14th Apr 2020
    And the QLD government has just quietly waved through the Adani coal mine while we are all looking the other way and the Victorian government has done the same with tracking and a new forestry agreement with the Federal government, God help us all
    14th Apr 2020
    That should read 'fracking'
    Old Silver Fox
    14th Apr 2020
    Bad news about the Chinese Flu a little slow today so there is always the fake news about how the climate is going to kill us. Some hard scientific evidence to support the usual wildly hysterical climate change alarmism would be a change for the better. By the look of your wildly irrational comments Gerry you want to eventually live in a cave?
    14th Apr 2020
    Professors and senior researchers from universities just make all this up do they? You sound like a disciple of Andrew Bolt and a fully paid-up member of the IPA
    14th Apr 2020
    There's none so blind as those who will not see - and we could add the same about hearing.
    There is a mass of scientific evidence out there but nothing on earth will convince you otherwise will it? You are just going to keep on spouting your nonsense. Leave us alone will you? It's so boring.
    No the climate probably will not kill you but, if you have grandchildren it sadly may kill some of them.
    Witness the loss of life in the terrible fires this last summer. Whole species in the animal kingdom are dead or dying out.
    It's got a name, this virus and it is not Chinese flu.
    You open yourself up to a charge of racism there. How ugly is that?
    14th Apr 2020
    And please don't bother to respond because I won't read it.
    Old Silver Fox
    14th Apr 2020
    No Gerry...just a person that doesn’t take their B.S. without challenge; obviously, unlike the way you think. Perhaps an intelligent search will give you the answers or has ‘group thinking’ permeated your logic. As for the professors and senior researchers; don’t hang your hat on their assumptions; remember to ‘follow the money’ where they are concerned...they want their jobs to remain secure and are prepared to give the organisations the results they want because they pay the bills. To believe otherwise is naive in the extreme. Andrew Bolt is a senior journalist not a scientist. Obviously you need to go back to the drawing board on this subject and try and come up with some verifiable scientific proof instead of the alarmism you are spouting.
    14th Apr 2020
    Read The Guardian Maggie - more to your liking for sure.
    15th Apr 2020
    Ignoring scientists who are leaders in their field of expertise will surely have us living in caves sooner, Old Silver. Sticking your head in the sand doesn't make our problems go away.

    Accusing Gerry of ‘group thinking’ permeating his logic is rich, like your thinking isn't straight out of screens of the Murdoch/Sky/Fox/IPA group of thinkers?

    Follow the money indeed! Who do you think pays for the vast majority of Research & Development in the world? It's not Greenpeace, I can assure you - it's big business. Why? Because they make $kazillions from selling you the latest drugs, the latest farm chemicals and the latest technology. You may be deluded into thinking research is ideologically neutral, but most Universities rely on commercial sponsorship for any serious studies because it's so expensive. They use science to make money, otherwise they wouldn't fund it. Have you noticed that funding to the CSIRO has been decimated over recent years? Why? Because they're not beholden to big business and they might find out truths that the powers that be don't want the public to know. Things like that fracking poisons ground water, that coal steals water from farmers and human communities, that burning fossil fuels and creating other greenhouse gases is changing our world very quickly and irrevocably.

    Did you hear half the Great Barrier Reef has just had an enormous bleaching event, again? This time, it's at the southern end of the reef, previously unscathed. How will we and our children be compensated when you destroy the biggest living structure on Earth? Who pays then? Betcha it's not the ones who are making the money from fossil fuels! Yes, by all means, follow the money.
    Old Silver Fox
    15th Apr 2020
    Well Hoohoo you certainly have had your cage rattled haven’t you. It’s obvious you haven’t done any worthwhile research on the subject you would like us to think you know all about. Perhaps if you did some you would see what is going on and not trot out ‘greenie’ dogma. You have done a splendid job of telling anyone who reads this about big business paying for research; exactly what ‘follow the money’ means. They set the agenda and expect certain results...the universities and the staff therein want their bills paid so the results are usually a foregone conclusion.
    Group thinking emanating from the ‘green movement’ gives you the idea of what the problem really is...since Greenpeace was taken over their agenda is the socialisation of the western world, destruction of jobs and reliance on the state. Don’t continue to be a puppet of the Marxists as your headlong flight into their dogma is akin to religious fanaticism and we know where that will lead you, think of communist China, Venezuela, North Korea and other regimes that started as the peoples utopia and finished up killing their most fanatical supporters. Be careful what you wish for.
    17th Apr 2020
    Communist China, Venezuela, North Korea and other such regimes would not tolerate independent thinkers such as myself. I've never been a member of a political party because I don't believe anyone should tell me how to think on any issue.

    All I know is I love my country and I hate seeing her bullied by the likes of Corporate China, Corporate USA or Corporate USSR remnants, who are now in effect capitalist countries, despite being run by tyrants, despots and dictators. Just because they want to invest in Australia isn't an excuse to give them a free pass to rape us. Money is the root of all evil, it is said. And fuck democracy - that's a concept sold to children who still believe in fairytales.

    You say I "have done a splendid job of telling anyone who reads this about big business paying for research; exactly what ‘follow the money’ means. They set the agenda and expect certain results...the universities and the staff therein want their bills paid so the results are usually a foregone conclusion." So are you agreeing with me? My point was that Greenpeace don't pay for research in Unis, Big Pharma and fossil fuel corporations do, so they get the 'correct' results that back up big business and corporate domination of government policy (via donations). Show me one Greenie who gets money from stopping the world from heating up?
    Horace Cope
    14th Apr 2020
    I note that the first thing we can do is donate money. Well, Australia has been donating money to Paris for years and yet we still have a problem according to Paris and the only way to fix the problem is, you guessed it, more money.

    How's the recycling going? Millions of tonnes of garbage is sitting around waiting to be recycled because it's too costly to turn the garbage back into usable products. Remember when we recycled paper which was to be pulped and turned back into usable paper? Well, that failed because the method of removing ink from any printed paper was too costly and made the exercise unworkable. Recycling paper was to save the trees and then some bright spark found that, unlike coal, trees are a renewable product.

    Renewable energy is great until you realise that if the cost of digging up the ore to make the steel for the wind turbines and the cost of electricity in the construction of the wind turbine was factored in it was found that the amount of electricity generated was less than the energy required to build the wind turbine. But, hey, it gives some people a good feeling and you can't measure that.
    "Greenhouse gas concentrations continued to increase rapidly in 2019, causing the temperature of the atmosphere and oceans to soar." This is a totally subjective, emotive statement which has no figures to support the claim. The average seawater temperature at the surface is about 17ºc and has increased by approximately 0.13°C per decade over the past 100 years. I don't consider that increase to attract the verb "soar". CO2 is about 400ppm and at this level, plant life flourishes and there is no ill effect on man or animals. The dangerous level for man is 2000ppm which has never been recorded since man first trod the Earth.

    As to the "unprecedented" fires, there are many examples of fires in Australia that burnt more hectares, destroyed more homes and took more lives than the 2019/20 fires. Time and again we have been told by experts that the fires were not caused by climate change. It was a combination of factors starting with the current drought, lightning strikes, arson and a very heavy understory that was allowed to build up because of the lack of hazard reduction.

    I note that the authors of this article are all involved in research of different areas affecting our ecology and the common thread that binds them is the need to attract funding to enable them to carry out their research. Using emotive statements and painting a grim outlook will raise more funds than telling people the truth. I note that sea levels have been recorded at Fort Denison in Sydney harbour for over 100 years and the sea levels according to them are falling, not rising.
    14th Apr 2020
    Old Silver Fox - you should be in politics because you make sense more so than many alarmists on this topic. Thanks!
    Old Silver Fox
    14th Apr 2020
    Horace Cope...I agree
    Old Silver Fox
    14th Apr 2020
    Maggie I will put you in the climate change alarmist category also. You are unable to say anything that is verifiable so continue to waffle with the alarmist dogma. How pathetic is that. As for the Chinese Flu... call it for what it is; that is where it was first detected so that is the correct name for it; not the politically correct version you want to trot out. For the record I am not a racist, having Chinese in my DNA precludes that rubbish... and you should apologise for the racist slur you just tried to foist on me.
    15th Apr 2020
    Yep, you and Trump the ignorant chump call it the Chinese Flu. And now that idiot wants to blame WHO (World Health Organisation) for not warning people of the dangers. HE IGNORED ALL THE WARNINGS! He even called it a hoax. Fake news, no less. Look at the disaster he has created in the USA! I don't think he cares because it's mainly poor people who are dying like flies.

    Call it the Wuhan Flu if you must.
    Old Silver Fox
    15th Apr 2020
    Again Hoohoo, follow the money. In this case Communist China being the main sponsor of the mouthpiece of the WHO. Unfortunately this person was unable to get the thought of his next paycheck out of his brain when he put his mouth into gear and tried to defend the indefensible. Trump did what all sensible people wanted to do; pull the funding from these overpaid, left wing, communist, arse kissing twats that call themselves the WHO. Before you bust a gasket on what Trump allegedly didn’t do you had better stop watching main stream media and their direct feed from MSNBC and CNN; both avowed anti Republican/Trump channels and again, as I told you before, do some validated research into what is going on in the USA and realise you have been sold a pup again by the Trump Derangement Syndrome media. Will you never learn?
    14th Apr 2020
    Land clearing is out of control in N.S.W. due to our city based Premier.
    14th Apr 2020
    Isn't it amazing how we can listen to the experts about our current health, but ignore the experts when it comes to the longer term. The same with money - listen to advice about the stock exchange sure bets, but ignore advice about putting money away in super for your future.

    I suspect it takes a level of intelligence to make long term decisions, to comprehend that what we do now will only have an effect in 50=100 years, and that in terms of climate, 1000 years is a blink in time.

    Sad but true. i am deeply sorry for my grandchildren.
    15th Apr 2020
    There are a lot of intelligent comments here especially from Horace Cope and Old Silver Fox. Well done. How a grim environment problem has anything to do with climate change in Australia beats me. I have said quite often, if you have a problem with our climate change performance then leave and go to China, America or India to solve it. Until they have it under control we will face environmental problems here because of them.
    19th Apr 2020
    mitch1945, what makes you imagine that "China, America or India" have addressed climate change any better than Australia? Sorry, but yours is a childish and ignorant comment.

    Why don't YOU leave and go to America with all those backward types who love their guns and Trump? See? It's a stupid, flawed idea. You can't leave and move to USA, just as I can't, even if we wanted to.

    If you don't understand that producing unnaturally high greenhouse gases affects weather that leads to more extreme droughts, bushfires, floods, cyclones, storms, more coral bleaching events and consequently more flora and fauna extinctions, then perhaps this isn't a subject you should be commenting on. This quote from you has informed my opinion: "How a grim environment problem has anything to do with climate change in Australia beats me". Do you think climate change starts or stops at the border of a country?
    19th Apr 2020
    Here's some science for starters, with Einstein's conservation of matter:
    Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

    So in regard to climate change, when we burn fossil fuels we heat up the atmosphere, the expended energy MUST be converted into a reaction. It can't just disappear into nothing.
    15th Apr 2020
    Has any of what we have seen not happened before ? We need to look at the world now .
    Stop blaming , do something about it. Everyone has questions, how about we have some answers . Global warning is being addressed , but not fast enough for some .

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