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Environment improving but scientists are reluctant to admit it

Mick Keogh - Sunday, March 12, 2017

Australian land managers have dramatically improved the state of the environment over the past decade, with native vegetation clearing rates dropping to almost zero, farms being replanted with trees, native plants and animal populations reinvigorated, pest animal populations controlled, water and wind erosion significantly reduced through better management practices, and the agriculture sector leading the way in developing projects to mitigate greenhouse emissions.  However, while all these improvements are noted in the State of the Environment report released last week, the authors persisted in painting a gloomy picture of the future.

The State of the Environment report was established by the Australian Government in 1996 as a five yearly report card on trends in environmental indicators. The aim was to establish an objective process of environmental assessment, in order to provide a stronger evidence base for policies or programs that governments might seek to implement. In some respects it was designed as an attempt to get away from 'crisis-driven' reactionary environmental policy, whereby policies and programs were often knee-jerk responses to issues that were highlighted in campaigns by environmental groups - often in concert with scientists (some of whom may also have benefited through increased funding!).

The classic example of this 'crisis'-driven environmental policy were the national dryland salinity programs. These were initiated on the basis of the dryland salinity audit of 2000, which projected that the area of land severely at risk of being affected by dryland salinity would increase from around 5.7 million hectares to 17 million hectares by 2050. These numbers resulted in blazing headlines about agriculture disappearing in a sea of salt, along with regional towns and even cities. 

Unfortunately, little attention was paid to the extremely questionable methodology used to derive these numbers, despite criticism by legitimate soil scientists. It is interesting to note that, despite the proclaimed danger to the future of agriculture of the issue, the audit of areas affected by dryland salinity has never been repeated. There are occasionally grudging references to the fact that the original estimates might have been overcooked  - for example the recent released State of the Environment report notes " Increases in dryland salinity appear to have been slowed by the millennium drought, although a return to wetter conditions is likely to increase spread of dryland salinity."  This comment is somewhat curious, given that there has been no assessment of the extent of dryland salinity since the initial assessment in 2000 (so what is the basis for the 'slowed' comment?), and the main thrust of the rest of the report is that climate change is likely to result in a hotter and drier environment in the future, not a wetter environment.

The 2016 State of the Environment report actually provided a very positive picture of changes that have occurred over recent years, although it is fair to say that the authors were less than exuberant in their praise of the changes. The summary of the main findings for the land sector was as follows;


The issues noted above, ranging from increases in land reserved for conservation to improvements in land management and the development of agriculture-based carbon sequestration projects would normally attract very positive commentary, but this was overshadowed by negative commentary about potential future threats, and what seems to be a very "glass half empty" view of changes that have occurred. The following passage from the report is an example: 

"During the past 5 years, native vegetation has continued to be cleared, bushfire frequencies have increased, and the number of invasive species has also increased. Many agricultural practices have improved, reducing impacts on the environment, but there is room for further improvement. Urban expansion continues, but a slowing in the number of new mining developments has reduced alienation of agricultural land by the resources sector. The area of the conservation estate has increased, as has the area managed by Indigenous Australian

On the issue of landclearing, despite the rates of clearing on previously uncleared land declining to minimal levels, (see graph below), the report instead focused on rates of clearing of regrowth, stating that such clearing damages the future resilience of the environment. This despite the fact that clearing of regrowth (referred to as invasive native scrub) is actually encouraged in some regions and is recognised as resulting beneficial environmental outcomes. 

The carping criticism also ignores the amount of voluntary re-vegetation that has been implemented on farmland and which does not appear in any official statistics, but which has transformed landscapes which previously only had very limited tree coverage. On many farms, extensive tree planting has occurred over the past decade, and native bird and animal populations are now increasing, but no one would be any the wiser about this from reading the State of the Environment report.

The negativity evident in this most recent report has a number of long-term implications. First, it reduces the credibility of what is otherwise a sensible and logical process, and hence the resources used to develop the report are depreciated in terms of their potential impact. Second, it sends a strong message to Australian land managers that no amount of environmental restoration will ever satisfy scientists and environmentalists, therefore their messages should be ignored. 



 
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