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Sara Cousins From Monash University’s National Centre for Australian Studies course, developed in conjunction with Open Learning Australia
In the fourth week of the course, Sara Cousins examines Australia’s many diverse and beautiful environments. The struggle to retain this national heritage has been a prominent feature of contemporary Australia. The current generation must face the challenge of building a sustainable future in the world’s driest continent. Sara Cousins is a research fellow with the National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. 4.1 Australia’s world heritage environment 4.2 Impact of European land use 4.3 Environmental campaigns 4.4 Global warming 4.5 Land clearance 4.6 Salinity and water issues 4.7 Sustainable future? 4.8 Further reading 4.1 Australia’s world heritage environment Australia has one of the most diverse and beautiful environments in the world. There are currently fourteen world heritage listed sites in Australia, including the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Queensland, Kakadu and Uluru Kata Tjuta (Ayers Rock) National Parks in the Northern Territory, the Greater Blue Mountains near Sydney and Shark Bay in Western Australia. With only 0.3% of the world’s population in a continent nearly as big as the United States, it would be easy to assume that Australians have a lot of space and ample natural resources. In fact, two thirds of the country is arid or semi-arid and only partly habitable due to the lack of permanent water. Both Australia’s climate and annual rainfall are highly variable and only 6% of Australia’s land is classed as arable. It is classed as the driest continent in the world and water is therefore the country’s most precious commodity. Australia is also one of the most highly urbanised in the world. Over 80% of Australians live in urban centres within 50 kilometres of the coast and these areas make up only about 1% of the total land mass of Australia. 4.2 Impact of European land use Agriculture accounts for the major use of land in Australia – 60% or 454 million hectares is agricultural land. Agricultural products now make up about 3% of Australia’s gross domestic product compared to 25% in 1950. Read overview of Australia’s land resources.
© National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash University, 2005. All rights reserved. 1
strengthened and in some cases managed to halt development threatening serious degradation to the natural environment. and soils. Monash University. the policy statements of the National Farmers Federation. other industries such as manufacturing. focus their attention on major issues such as climate change. where the State Government planned to build a dam for the production of hydroelectricity. Read more… 4. soil and water degradation. particularly its agricultural industry. However much of the damage to the environment from land clearing. has soils that are ancient. riverine environments. environmental campaigns have expanded. scientists. wetlands. mining and forestry . and to a High Court case that upheld the Commonwealth’s world heritage legislation. and industry and community groups are voicing their views about the need for a sustainable approach to managing Australia’s precious natural resources. water degradation and soil acidity has already been done. particularly the limited rainfall. Land clearing . the Indigenous Land Corporation and the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists.Over time. It is not only environmentalists who are raising issues of concern regarding Australia’s environment. a continent millions of years old. desertification. Bob Brown. 2 . less rainfall. 2005. All rights reserved. Native forests.has resulted in a huge loss of biodiversity and severe soil erosion. Methods of agriculture imported from Europe by the first migrants to Australia were highly unsuitable for the climate. the government is still not committing the financial resources that are needed to combat the extent of the problem. alpine ecosystems and marine environments are © National Centre for Australian Studies. Australian farmers have already experienced the combined effects of the El Nino weather pattern. The impact on Australia. scientific research has shown that the earth is gradually warming with average temperatures in Australia rising 0.one third of native forests have already gone to make way for agriculture. Global warming is largely the result of increases in greenhouse gas emissions and carbon dioxide concentration and their effect on the earth’s atmosphere. The Wilderness Society and Friends of the Earth Australia. warmer temperatures. Australia. loss of biodiversity and damage to the coastal and marine environment. salination. A turning point in the history of such environmental activism occurred in the early 1980s concerning the Franklin River in Tasmania. Explore Australia’s landscape and biodiversity. Indigenous landowners. See for example. longer droughts and more severe bushfires. many would argue that today. Over the past thirty years. 4. Activists and environmental lobby groups today such as the Australian Conservation Foundation.4 Global warming While there is still some debate.3 Environmental campaigns Far from being merely an historical issue. Bob Brown subsequently became leader of The Australian Greens and is currently Senator for Tasmania in Federal Parliament. Greenpeace.8% since the beginning of the twentieth century. fragile and beset by accumulated salts. mining and services have expanded significantly. Many farmers. could be significant. The intense campaign led to a term of imprisonment for the most prominent activist. with the benefit of highly sophisticated scientific data and technology at its disposal. land clearing.
the Howard Government announced that Australia would not ratify the treaty because it excluded developing countries and the United States. the amount of water draining into the groundwater increases and this can then mobilise salts stored in the soil. Internationally. Rising sea-levels and extreme weather may threaten urban and coastal communities. land clearing has in fact increased in the past five or so years with most of the damage occurring in Queensland. © National Centre for Australian Studies. Read more… The National Land and Resources Audit has recently estimated that 17 million hectares in Australia will be at risk of serious dryland salinity problems by 2050. Estimates from the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicate that 470 000 hectares of land were cleared in 1990 and 90% of this land was in Queensland. part of a wider global environmental governance movement. Over time. The Federal Government has spent a substantial amount of money and committed resources to repairing the environment under the National Heritage Trust and the National Landcare Program. and can cause soil degradation leading to salinity and loss of water quality. Debate about whether or not Australia should ratify the Kyoto Protocol continues to dominate discussion of appropriate global responses to climate change. according to environmental lobby groups. birds and other wildlife relying on wetlands. It can also seriously affect urban areas damaging housing infrastructure. making a commitment to limit emissions growth to 108% of its 1990 level. with over 4 million hectares at risk – a figure that could double by 2050. This treaty. Salinity affects agricultural crops. creates targets by which developed countries will limit their greenhouse gas emissions. This is equivalent to over 740 football fields every day. 3 . 4.5 Land clearance Over a century of land clearing for agriculture has resulted in the significant loss of native forest and woodlands in Australia. Monash University. Read Government’s press release. 40% more land was cleared than in 1990. In 2002 however. water pipes and railways. and rivers that are vital water supplies. Read the ABS Report: Measuring Australia’s Progress 2002… 4. The southwest agricultural region of Western Australia is the worst affected. Given the severity of the problem. roads. with the loss of that vegetation. Listen to ABC Radio National debate on water on the Australia Forums. All rights reserved. Much of the land clearing has occurred since 1980.6 Salinity and water issues Dryland salinity and water degradation are closely associated with land clearance. 2005. most probably blown to the landscape from the seas. Australia’s soils have been accumulating salts for up to a hundred thousand years. fish. However. trees and vegetation soaked up the rainfall keeping the salt at a manageable level.likely to become even more vulnerable. In 1999. there are major questions being asked about the future of irrigated farming in Australia and to what extent it is in fact possible to tackle salinity. Prior to European settlement and land clearing. efforts have been made to combat the effects of climate change through agreements such as The Kyoto Protocol. threatens biodiversity. New South Wales and Tasmania. Land clearance destroys fragile ecosystems. Australia signed the treaty in 1997.
2005. All rights reserved. including the lobby group Sustainable Population Australia.html © National Centre for Australian Studies.net.socialchange.au/environment. Sustainability also raises concerns about population policy. While the debate continues. climate change.net.8 Further reading Contemporary issues Latest Environmental Issues Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). food security.7 Sustainable future? The recent Earth Summit 2002 was entirely focused on ways to achieve sustainable future development. freshwater and sustainable finance. It also attracted strong demonstrations and walk-outs over what protestors saw as the lack of commitment amongst some of the world’s wealthiest nations to reduce poverty and tackle greenhouse gas emissions. government bodies like Land and Water Australia are committed to achieving sustainable natural resource management.net. government and community towards an ecologically sustainable future for Australians.au/rn/science/earth The Environment Australian Policy Online http://www. some Australians worry that environmental degradation will rage out of control. The summit brought together countries from all over the world to consider issues as varied as HIV/AIDS.au/news/environment Earthbeat ABC Radio National http://www.abc. Monash University. that is what level of population Australia’s environment can sustain? Some. News Online http://www. Other groups such as the Business Council of Australia urge increased migrant intake to stimulate economic activity.shtml Environmental Campaigns Social Change Online http://media.4.apo. The question for the 21st century remains – will the necessary changes to current and past practices occur fast enough to save our natural heritage? 4. Other research organisations such as the Institute for Sustainable Futures and the Centre for Indigenous Natural and Cultural Resource Management are dedicated to working in partnership with industry. In Australia.abc. 4 .au/environ.org. argue in favour of stabilising the population for ecological reasons.
au/ Murray Darling Basin Commission Commonwealth Government http://www. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Commonwealth Government http://www.html © National Centre for Australian Studies.htm Submission to Joint Standing Committee on Treaties Inquiry into the Kyoto Protocol. All rights reserved.dfat.greeningaustralia.au Landcare Australia Commonwealth Government http://www.net.au/ National Heritage Trust Commonwealth Government http://www. Library Internet Guide http://www.au/ World Wide Fund for Nature Australia Non Government organisations http://www.green.au Green Net Australia Non Government organisation http://www.landcareaustralia.gov.wwf.aph.au/library/intguide/SCI/kyoto.htm Environmental agencies Department of Environment and Heritage Commonwealth Government http://www.gov.gov.mdbc.au/ Greening Australia Commonwealth Government partner organisation http://www. Library Internet Guide http://www.nht. Issues and Developments through to Conference of the Parties (COP7).com.gov.au/environment/climate/jscot_sub. Monash University.aph.org.ea.org.gov.bom.Resources on Environment and Natural Resources Australian Parliament. 5 . 2005.au/ Bureau of Meteorology Commonwealth Government http://www. August 2000.au/ The Kyoto Protocol The Kyoto Protocol.gov. September 2002 Australian Parliament.au/library/intguide/sci/scienv.gov.
au Back to top © National Centre for Australian Studies.abc. 6 .au/rn/bigidea/stories/s596388.apop.net.au Setting the Limits: Australia’s Population Debate ABC News Online Forum http://www2b. Australia Forums with Michael Cathcart: Population Debate ABC Radio National http://www.net.abc.org. All rights reserved. Monash University.htm Search for ‘Care for the Earth Policy’ Australian Greens http://www.au/news/forum/forum58/default.htm Big Ideas.com. 2005.Population debate The Australian Population Institute http://www.greens.
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