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Australia’s environment is deteriorating and Canberra – the ‘bush capital’ – is no exception. The Bogong moths that once visited our city twice a year in their millions, are a memory – we’re lucky to see a couple each season; the beloved Gang-gang Cockatoo, our faunal emblem is endangered; and our natural areas are at increasing risk of pest plants and animals.

For many, the State of the Environment Report released 2 weeks ago, was a rude awakening – revealing the stark reality of Australia’s nature emergency. 

The report was released by Federal  Environment Minister Tanya Pliberseck after sitting on the desk of the previous Minister, Sussan Ley, for months – perhaps just too devastating to be released before an election. 

The message that resonated across newspapers and social media following its release was this: the majority of Australia’s natural environment is in a “poor and deteriorating” state. But what does this really mean?

Across the country, there are now more non-native plants than native ones.Rivers, the lifeblood of our inland landscapes, are drying up as only 2 of the 450 gigalitres of water promised under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has been delivered. 

Despite being a biodiversity hotspot, Australia leads the extinction crisis. We have one of the highest rates of species decline in the developed world and are a world leader in mammalian extinction. More than 100 Australian species are now listed as either extinct or extinct in the wild – a testament to ineffective Federal environment laws.

Another key indication of why environment laws aren’t working – approximately 93% of the terrestrial habitat used by threatened species that was cleared between 2000 and 2017 was not even referred to the Federal Government for assessment under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

Habitat destruction, mining, and land clearing are spearheading this crisis, and amplifying the climate emergency. Almost half of the country is now used for grazing, and the areas committed to forestry and cropping have also increased – destroying habitat for the birds, animals and plants that make up our ecosystems. 

The report confirmed that we are already living in a climate-impacted world. The severe droughts, bushfires, and floods that were warned of 20 years ago have arrived, and are taking an unprecedented toll on our natural environment.

Against the backdrop of this report, it is difficult to play the role of the climate and extinction optimist.

But this State of Environment Report did deliver positives. 

For the first time, the SOE Report was written using an Indigenous co-authorship model, which highlighted the importance of providing for and respecting Indigenous knowledge as a key tool in combating what is clearly a nature emergency. There was a greater use of citizen science data, and the importance of community initiatives such as LandCare was reinforced, which despite having experienced funding cuts, remains a critical restoration tool. 

Perhaps most importantly, this SOE report, more than ever before, got the attention of the wider community. Australians who may have never before been concerned about nature were suddenly advocating for better environmental protections. Experts across the country were met with curious questions on social media, and across family dinner tables, from newly concerned nature lovers asking – what can I do? This brutally honest and timely report generated new hope by inspiring action across the nation and rejuvenated the need for action to address the challenges facing our natural environment. 

In a pre-release briefing, lead co-author, Dr Ian Cresswell stated that “if you think globally and act locally you will be better off”. It’s good advice to live by, and reinforces the notion of environmental stewardship – that is, the care of the places we live such that those in future generations may also share in their richness, their wealth and their beauty. But make no mistake that there is a role here not just for local communities, but also for Governments at all levels, to step up and recognise that we cannot continue to deprioritise and chronically underfund our environment without paying a heavy price.

Peta Bulling

Biodiversity Campaigner