Environmental Problems in Australia

Table of Content


A few major salient Environmental facts of Australia are as follows:

  •          With 0.3% of the world’s people Australia produces 1.6% of the world’s CO2 emissions (a greenhouse gas)
  •          There have been high rates of species loss in the last 200 years–five times the global average for mammals, with one-half of Australian mammal species risk to extinction in Australia:  this is the worst record of mammal extinctions in the world
  •          There is extensive land degradation, more than 60% of crop lands and 55% of arid grazing lands being affected.
  •          Soil erosion rates often exceed rates of soil formation by 500 times.
  •          There are common water management problems affecting both surface and ground water resources.
  •          There are extensive losses of forests and woodlands, with over 75% of Australian rainforests already being lost.
  •          There is insufficient national park coverage of Australian diverse ecosystems.
  •          There are problems of toxic wastes and contaminated sites.
  •          Urban air quality continues to decline as a result of population growth and increased motor vehicle traffic.
  •          Land clearing continued at record high levels, particularly in Queensland, in spite of overwhelming evidence that this is a main cause of both land and water degradation, not to mention habitat loss and species extinction.

Australian Environment: Primary Causes

The huge land clearing that has occurred in the last 200 years, and the intrinsic weakness of the Australian environment and its native species to disturbance, and the result is one of the most terrible environmental records in the world today.   When one considers that scarcely 200 years ago the whole of the Australian continent was in an in effect flawless environmental condition, the magnitude of change since then possibly has no equivalence in Earth history.   Even the Americans took some 400 years to do the damage they have done, however perhaps 20 million Australians have done even more damage to Australia’s natural environments in just 200 years than 275 million Americans have done in twice that period.

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Australian Environment: An International Comparison

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) published some data that allows comparing Australian environmental performance with that of some similar nations.   Australia is paired with the US as a laggard, since both want developing countries to be subject to constraints on their emissions (see Paterson, 1996: 69).

Between 1990 and 2020 Australia is likely to face more rapid population growth than OECD countries: though differences between Australia and Canada and the US are modest, they are huge compared to the EU (29.6 per cent and 1.7 per cent, respectively).  Australia also relies greatly on major industries (agriculture, forestry, fisheries, mining and quarrying), accounting for 8 per cent of GDP compared to 3 per cent across the OECD (OECD 1998: 39).  Agriculture represents a long-term challenge since farming accounts for 17 per cent of CO2 emissions, particularly as a result of land clearing.

 The economy, especially energy supply industries, has long relied on fossil fuels, more so than other OECD countries.  Australia exports more coal than any other country, and large amounts of natural gas and oil.  Lastly, Australia’s pattern of trade, excluding depending heavily on exporting ‘resource-based’ goods produced by large volumes of energy, is shaped by exports to the Asia-Pacific region, which has undergone high rates of economic growth.

The answer to these economic arguments is they overstate the costs of abatement measures to Australia.  For example, the balance of trade shows Australia also imports many energy-intensive products.  Therefore it is perhaps only a little bit a net exporter of energy-intensive products (Hamilton, 2001: 25).  Moreover, there is poor application on energy efficiency measures like the introduction of mandatory standards for fuel efficiency of vehicles, reforming the taxation system (Hamilton, Hundloe and Quiggin, 1997) and  reducing land clearing (Hamilton, 1994).

An elementary point of difference between Australia and the European countries appears to relate to the general approach to tackling global warming, principally the use of emissions trading and the Clean Development Mechanism.

Australia has always argued against efforts by the European and some G77 countries to limit the use of these mechanisms (Hillman, 2000b; 2000c).  In commenting on COP6 in The Hague, the Australian government drew attention to divisions in the European countries on whether or not to take a ‘hard-line on capping the use of market-based mechanisms, limitations on the use of sinks and a punitive compliance system’ (Hillman, 2001a).

There is certainly a strong public relations dimension to these comments and the European Commission is clearly responsive to how its challengers might look for to exploit these highly publicized divisions and ‘a lack of cohesion and coordination’ at the COP6 talks in The Hague (European Commission 2001: 28).

The Australian government has also emphasized that on issues like sinks and market mechanisms the European countries are fundamentally concerned about questions of competitive advantage: ‘These countries have argued that the US would avoid large emissions reductions at home by purchasing Russian emission credits arising from the slump of the Russian economy.

The European countries i.e. EU is also worried that this could considerably reduce the cost to the US of meeting its Kyoto target compared to those costs in the EU.  In this respect, an important element of the EU’s position is to enhance its own competitiveness by limiting access by the US to low-cost options’ (Hillman, 2001b).  Despite the fact that there are important differences in the positions of the EU and Australia (allied to the US), mainly over issues like the use of sinks, the arguments over global warming between nations that otherwise agree strongly on many issues could well be viewed as ‘preliminary sparring’ (Hillman, 2000b).

In fact, positions that sometimes appear to reflect basic differences – e.g. on emissions trading are modified eventually. For example, the first disinclination by the EU even to consider this option has given way to much more careful consideration than previously of this option for limiting greenhouse gas emissions.  This reluctance by the EU has been in sharp disparity to the strong support of ‘unrestricted use of market-based mechanisms’ by Australia along with the rest of the Umbrella Group (Hillman, 2001b).

The most important ally for Australia in promoting market mechanisms is the United States. This alliance with the United States also extends to the question of creating a broader framework that includes developing countries: ‘We will also continue to work with other countries, including the United States, to develop a truly global and effective framework to deal with climate change’ (Hillman, 2001b).

Australian Engagement with Sustainable Development

The significance of studying diverse institutional and historical traditions either of a nation state or such a transnational organization cannot be overstated when it comes to moving away from binary codes and conflicts evoked by many commentators.  Remarkably, issues of legitimacy are integral to the evolution of environmental policy in Australia.   Rather than happening in a vacuum, the changes summarized below reflected the importance of environmental policy to a significant number of voters.

Especially, there was an important shift in opinion between February and June 1989 – caused mainly by increasing concern about climate change and by the unexpected success of the Green Independents in Tasmania, where they attracted nearly 20 per cent of the vote (see Papadakis, 1996: 172-3).   This signaled clear warning Australian political parties to take the environment earnestly or risk losing office.  Moreover, ever since 1983, when the environment was first exploited as a major election concern at the Federal level, the preferences of green parties and recommendations by green political organizations became important to Labor’s success. Labor was therefore particularly keen to adopt such notions as sustainable development as a way of resolving environmental and economic objectives.

In pursuing the evolution of policy in Australia, one is also able to use the kind of criteria applied to EU Member States, including the pioneering ones.  These criteria have been developed by such writers as Jänicke (1997) and Jänicke and Weidner (1997: 147), who assume strategies for environmental capacity building modify in relation to different types of regime and their stage of development. New strategies are adopted as environmental advocates expand.

The first set of responses is immediate and usually involves regulation or technical approaches to environmental problems.  The final stage, ‘ecological modernization’, involves a deep-seated response.  In this stage technical innovation makes it economically efficient and competitive for industry to adopt environmentally friendly practices, green enterprises play an increasingly prominent role in the economy, and there are significant changes in patterns of production and consumption.

Application of this framework to Australia is inherent in accounts that draw on neo-corporatist theory.  It is explicit in analyses of institutional change by Papadakis (1996; 2000) and Papadakis and Young (2000).  For example, in assessing environmental capacity in the 1950s one finds a lack of Commonwealth government responsibility for the environment.

 This reflects its omission in the Constitution, making it a residual power and therefore placing it within the sphere of influence of state governments. This corresponded to an absence of institutional means to protect and manage the environment, and the prevalence of economic development in addition to low priority to environmental issues.

To prevail over this inattention, by the mid-1960s, state governments accepted some responsibility for regulations like air pollution laws.  Catalysts for change from other countries included the 1952 killer fog in London, nuclear weapons testing (by the United States, Soviet Union and Britain), the 1967 Torrey Canyon oil spill, and publication of Silent Spring, The Population Bomb and The Limits to Growth.  Among intellectual elites and commentators in addition to social movements there were strong supporters in Australia for an reformation of prevailing economic, political and social structures that generated abusive and flawed attitudes to the environment.

 The response by governments in developed industrial nations, including Australia, was wary rather than accepting of radical prescriptions. They recognized some problems and the need for regulation. Nevertheless, the approach was to use well-established techniques of ‘administrative rationalism’, which requires using existing bureaucratic expertise and mechanisms (see Dryzek 1997) and viewing environmental issues as ‘minor, technical, soluble and politically uncontentious’ (Jacobs, 1997: 3).

 There were official inquiries into air and water pollution, the Office of the Environment was created in 1971 and the Australia Environment Council in 1972 and from 1972 Environmental Impact Statements became mandatory in assessing Cabinet decisions of environmental importance.  State governments established their own laws and agencies.


The Australian environment has a range of serious problems resulting from growth, lifestyle, technologies and demands on natural resources. There is increasing recognition that many of her practices are not sustainable and she needs urgently to satisfy her requirements with less impact on the natural systems of the Earth.   Australian government is also developing a broader understanding of the impact of her actions globally, such as with acid rain, climate change and ozone reduction and these problems can only be resolved through international cooperation of an exceptional kind.

The understanding of the Australian environment is limited by the lack of data which has either been not collected or is not in the public domain.  Research must address these absences to clarify whether the management of the environment is satisfactory.  Australia needs to improve her understanding of the complex biological systems and the impacts of human activities on them.  A major obstacle to achieving these is the regular erosion of her basic science capacity.  Several changes need to be made in her approach to these issues.


  1. Dryzek, J. (1997), The Politics of the Earth. Environmental Discourses, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Economist Intelligence Unit. 2001.
  2. European Commission. (2001), ‘Strengthening Europe’s Contribution to World Governance’, White Paper on Governance Working Group N° 5 An EU Contribution to Better Governance beyond Our Borders, May 2001, Brussels: European Commission.
  3. Jacobs, M. (1997), ‘Introduction: the New Politics of the Environment’ in M. Jacobs (ed.) Greening the Millennium? The New Politics of the Environment, Oxford: Blackwell.
  4. Jänicke, M. (1997), ‘The Political System’s Capacity for Environmental Policy’ in M. Jänicke and H. Weidner (eds). National Environmental Policies. A Comparative Study of Capacity-Building, Berlin: Springer-Verlag.
  5. Jänicke, M. and H. Weidner. (1997), “Germany” in M. Jänicke and H. Weidner, National Environmental Policies, Springer Verlag.
  6. Hamilton, C. (1994), “A Comparison of Emission Sources and Emission Trends Among OECD Countries”, Background Paper No. 1, The Australia, Institute.
  7. Hamilton, C. (2001), Running from the Storm. The Development of Climate Change Policy in Australia, Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.
  8. Hamilton, C., T. Hundloe and J. Quiggin. (1997), Ecological Tax Reform in Australia: Using taxes, charges and public spending to protect the environment without hurting the economy, Discussion Paper No.10, The Australia, Institute.
  9. Hillman, R. (2000b), Statement by Mr. Ralph Hillman, Australian Ambassador for the Environment, to the Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Reference Committee: Climate Change.
  10. Hillman, R. (2000c), Address by Mr. Ralph Hillman, Australian Ambassador for the Environment, to The Australian Greenhouse Conference, ENVIRO 2000, Sydney.
  11. Hillman, R. (2001a), Address by Mr. Ralph Hillman, Australian Ambassador for the Environment, to the Greenhouse Policy Workshop, 16 May, Sydney.
  12. Hillman, R. (2001b), Address on climate change by Mr. Ralph Hillman, Australian Ambassador for the Environment, to the Institute of International Affairs, 9 May, Canberra.
  13. OECD (1998), Environmental Performance Reviews. Australia, Paris: OECD.
  14. Papadakis, E. (1996), Environmental Politics and Institutional Change, Cambridge: Cambridge University, Press.
  15. Papadakis, E. (2000), ‘Australia: Ecological Sustainable Development in the National Interest’ in W. Lafferty and J. Meadowcroft (eds), Implementing Sustainable Development. Strategies and Initiatives in High Consumption Societies, Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 23-52.
  16. Papadakis, E. and Young, L. (2000), ‘Environmental Policy’ in M. Keating and P. Weller (eds.) The Future of Governance in Australia, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, pp.153-76.

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Environmental Problems in Australia. (2016, Aug 07). Retrieved from


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