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Australia’s long global isolation and unique patterns of biological evolution were disrupted by the comparatively late and sudden settlement of ambitious, technologically advanced Europeans. From the start, the settlers’ optimistic aspirations collided with the continent’s environmental constraints on development, especially its arid or semiarid climatic conditions, low levels of soil fertility, chronic water shortages, and vulnerable native animal and plant species. The settlers, deluded in part by the sheer immensity of Australian space and low population densities, strove to adapt the land to their own purposes. Although there were important dissenting voices, even in colonial times, popular attitudes and government policies largely favored rapid development until the latter half of the 20th century. Beginning in the 1960s, vigorous environmental activism targeted high-profile and controversial issues, such as the damming of Tasmania’s Lake Pedder. This activism successfully stirred public awareness by articulating the environmental impacts of development. Attitudes gradually began to change, in response to grassroots environmentalism as well as in recognition of a much-depleted resource base.
Two major environmental goals became increasingly evident: the sustainable development of natural resources and the conservation of relatively undisturbed areas. At the regional and local levels, governments stepped up their policing of pollution and other abuses of the environment, while activists clashed periodically with developers over threats to forests and woodlands, native wildlife, water bodies, and natural recreational areas. Robust monitoring by environmentalists eventually produced more sensitive approaches to development planning in both urban and rural areas, including the standard incorporation of environmental-impact statements.
Since the 1990s the federal government has made efforts to better coordinate environmental policies at the national and regional levels. Under the commonwealth constitution, individual states retain control of environmental management within their own borders. Many natural regions span state borders, however, and they require coordination between federal and state authorities to be effectively managed. One prominent example of coordination between federal and state authorities on environmental issues is the management of the Murray-Darling Basin. This gigantic river basin in southeastern Australia extends over three-quarters of New South Wales, more than half of Victoria, significant portions of Queensland and South Australia, and the entire Australian Capital Territory. Due to past irrigation practices, land and water salinity now threaten the basin, which is the heartland of agricultural productivity in Australia. Legislation introduced in 1993 put the basin under the joint supervision of the federal and state governments to create an integrated catchment management program. Local communities have also been included in the decision-making process. Community concerns about increasing soil salinity and water shortages in certain hard-pressed rivers were important factors in the decision to cap water diversions in the basin beginning in the mid-1990s.
In 1999 comprehensive new environmental legislation, the Commonwealth Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, extended federal rights and responsibilities for environmental matters of national significance. The legislation reflected rising concerns over the need to protect the rich biodiversity of Australia. It strengthened the federal role in the National Reserve System program, which aims to establish a network of protected areas that includes all types of ecosystems across the country. The Natural Heritage Trust was set up in 1997 specifically to fund the program. The system protects about 16.8 percent of Australia’s land area, including about 16 percent of the country’s forests. In addition to terrestrial parks and reserves, the system includes a number of marine and estuarine reserves, such as the massive Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The system encompasses 14 World Heritage Sites, which are places designated for their outstanding universal value by the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and a number of biosphere reserves, which are designated under UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Program. The National Reserve System also includes a number of Indigenous Protected Areas, which are established on a voluntary basis on lands held by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This system is supplemented by the Australian National Estate, which includes more than 2,000 natural places that are considered significant components of the country’s environmental or cultural heritage.
Despite the growing number of protected areas, some of the most treasured areas in Australia continue to be environmentally threatened. Overuse by tourists and divers and increased industrial shipping in nearby waters threatens the health of the Great Barrier Reef. The lush, old-growth tropical forests of northern Queensland are coveted by the timber industry and tourist developments. These issues continue to be the focus of environmental activism in Australia. Environmental agencies, some of which are government funded, work to coordinate management of the coastal rain forests and reefs of northeastern Australia for multiple uses, including tourism, recreation, and conservation.
Although many of the environmental issues facing Australia are shared by other industrialized nations, certain aspects are uniquely Australian. For example, Australia has one of the lowest overall population densities of any country, but its per capita consumption levels and waste production are among the highest in the world. On a per capita basis, Australia is a leading contributor to the production of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, that contribute to atmospheric pollution and global warming.
Australia has ratified some international agreements to protect the environment, including arrangements to preserve Antarctica’s pristine state. Regionally, Australia cooperates with other South Pacific nations in the protection of the marine environment. Agreements to protect migratory birds have been made with Japan and China.