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Environment

Introduction

These performance statements present results against the Department of the Environment and Energy's 2019–20 performance targets.

Purposes

The Department of the Environment and Energy Corporate Plan 2019–20 listed 4 purposes. Two of these relate to the environmental responsibilities of the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment:

  1. Conserve, protect and sustainably manage our environment and heritage.
  2. Advance Australia's strategic, scientific and environmental interests in the Antarctic.

In 2019–20 we delivered major environmental initiatives relating to these purposes. We delivered additional outcomes through our cross-cutting science, information and research activity.

Outcomes

In the Department of the Environment and Energy Portfolio Budget Statements 2019–20, we had 2 relevant outcomes:

  1. Conserve, protect and sustainably manage Australia's biodiversity, ecosystems, environment and heritage through research, information management, supporting natural resource management, establishing and managing Commonwealth protected areas, and reducing and regulating the use of pollutants and hazardous substances.
  2. Advance Australia's strategic, scientific, environmental and economic interests in the Antarctic region by protecting, administering and researching the region.

Table 9 shows the alignment of our purposes and outcomes.

Table 9 Alignment of Department of the Environment and Energy purposes and outcomes, 2019–20

Portfolio Budget Statements

Corporate Plan

Outcomes

Programs

Purposes

Outcome 1: Conserve, protect and sustainably manage Australia's biodiversity, ecosystems, environment and heritage through research, information management, supporting natural resource management, establishing and managing Commonwealth protected areas, and reducing and regulating the use of pollutants and hazardous substances.

Program 1.1: Sustainable Management of Natural Resources and the Environment

Conserve, protect and sustainably manage our environment and heritage.

Program 1.2: Science, Information and Research a

Program 1.3: Commonwealth Environmental Water

Program 1.4: Conservation of Australia’s Heritage and the Environment

Program 1.5: Environmental Regulation

Program 1.6: Management of Hazardous Wastes, Substances and Pollutants

Outcome 3: Advance Australia's strategic, scientific, environmental and economic interests in the Antarctic region by protecting, administering and researching the region.

Program 3.1: Antarctic Science, Policy and Presence

Advance Australia's strategic, scientific and environmental interests in the Antarctic.

a Contributes to all purposes.

Summary of performance

Table 10 shows the results against each of the performance measures towards our 2 environmental purposes.

Based on these results the department's assessment is that in 2019–20 we were on track to achieve these purposes.

Table 10 Summary of results against Environment performance measures, 2019–20

Target

Result

Program objectives are delivered under the National Landcare Program and other key programs, including the Improving Your Local Parks and Environment Program, the Australian Heritage Grants Program, the Communities Environment Program and the Environment Restoration Fund

Achieved

Contracts are in place to deliver Australian Government investment under the National Landcare Program and other key programs, including the Improving Your Local Parks and Environment Program, the Australian Heritage Grants Program, the Communities Environment Fund and the Environment Restoration Fund

Achieved

Native habitat condition: establish a baseline and methodology

Achieved

Native habitat connectivity: establish a baseline and methodology

Achieved

Native habitat extent: establish a baseline and methodology

Achieved

Percentage of terrestrial and inland water in protected areas: 17%

Achieved

Threatened Bird Index improves: establish a baseline

Achieved

Percentage of natural resource management projects that demonstrate an improvement in environmental outcomes: establish project baselines

Achieved

Reef programs deliver on the Reef 2050 Plan and Reef Trust objectives

Achieved

A reduction in nutrient, sediment and pesticide loads consistent with meeting targets in the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan

Partially achieved

Program objectives are delivered under the National Landcare Program and other key programs, including the Improving Your Local Parks and Environment Program, the Australian Heritage Grants Program, the Communities Environment Program and the Environment Restoration Fund

Achieved

Contracts are in place to deliver Australian Government investment under the National Landcare Program and other key programs, including the Improving Your Local Parks and Environment Program, the Australian Heritage Grants Program, the Communities Environment Fund and the Environment Restoration Fund

Achieved

Percentage of World Heritage listed properties are being managed under management plans that are consistent with the management principles in the EPBC Regulations: 100%

Partially achieved

Percentage of National Heritage listed properties are being managed under management plans that are consistent with the management principles in the EPBC Regulations: 16%

Partially achieved

Number of times water quality in the Alligator Rivers Region exceeds statutory limits: 0

Achieved

Biological community structure in the Alligator Rivers Region: no significant change to dissimilarity values (over time or compared to background levels)

Achieved

Water-dependent ecosystems are protected and restored

Achieved

Contribute to flushing of salt from the Murray–Darling Basin into the Southern Ocean

Achieved

Ramsar Information Sheets for Wetlands of International Importance listed under the Ramsar Convention (Ramsar sites) are prepared and updated, and include appropriate descriptions of the ecological character of the sites and threats to the sites

Partially achieved

Environmental regulation: activities required by legislation are conducted within statutory time frames

Achieved

Review baseline compliance of audited approved actions

Achieved

Annual radiation dose to the public remains below 1 mSv

Achieved

Import of controlled chemicals does not exceed the limits set out in the Ozone Protection and Synthetic Greenhouse Gas Management Act 1989 and regulations

Achieved

The department tracks Australia’s synthetic greenhouse gas emissions profile and implements policies and programs that contribute to reducing Australia’s synthetic greenhouse gas emissions

Achieved

Management of hazardous wastes, substances and pollutants: activities required by legislation are conducted within statutory timeframes

Achieved

Compliance activities are undertaken to deliver environmental health outcomes

Achieved

Level of chemicals or wastes of concern in the environment: establish baseline for some chemicals or wastes; establish trends for other chemicals

Achieved

Human health impacts: establish baseline

Achieved

National Pollutant Inventory Data published by 31 March each year

Achieved

Australian Government agencies effectively manage climate risk

Partially achieved

Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan is delivered in accordance with stated time frames and priorities

Partially achieved

Number of institutions collaborating in the Australian Antarctic Program (target: average of at least 100 over previous 5 years)

Achieved

Number of scientific publications published in peer-reviewed journals (target: an average of at least 100 over previous 5 years)

Achieved

National Environmental Science Program projects deliver collaborative, practical and applied research to inform decision-making and/or on-ground action

Achieved

National environmental-economic accounts are developed, publicly released and used by decision-makers

Achieved

Geological and bioregional assessments are completed for the Cooper, Isa and Beetaloo regions by June 2021 to inform decision-makers and the community

Substantially achieved

Key activities

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 affected a range of our environment and heritage work, in some cases adding to challenges following the Black Summer bushfires. We worked with our partners to ensure the continued safe delivery of projects under a range of programs. Some of the on-ground works continued without major disruption, but local restrictions have caused some delays. We worked with partners to extend project end-dates and to adapt to new ways of delivering where appropriate to achieve outcomes.

Parks Australia closed its national parks and botanic gardens to comply with health restrictions. Key operational staff continued to maintain these significant protected natural and cultural environments. The closure presented an opportunity to undertake maintenance work on buildings, fencing and visitors' displays.

To support the tourism industry the government waived and reimbursed the cost of permits and licence fees for commercial tourism businesses operating in Commonwealth National Parks starting from 1 January 2020. For the parks that have reopened, tourism businesses are still required to hold a valid licence or permit to resume operations. However, no fees will be charged to operators until 31 March 2021.

Parks Australia is focusing on infrastructure improvements to support the recovery of tourism and create new and improved tourism offerings.

We worked with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to waive all Environmental Management Charge categories from 1 January 2020 to assist tourism operators.

We recognised the impact of movement restrictions on the waste management industry and coordinated $7.8 million in temporary emergency funding for oil recycling facilities affected by the pandemic.

The pandemic had a significant effect on the Australian Antarctic Program. Careful management of the program prevented COVID-19 from spreading to teams on our stations in the Antarctic and on Macquarie Island. However, the pandemic forced substantial changes to our operations in the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean. Our precautions included:

  • limiting movement of people travelling by ships and planes
  • decreasing our operational capacity
  • changing our supply chains, which resulted in increased costs.

We have scaled back our program for the 2020–21 summer season. All expeditioners will go through quarantine before they travel to the Antarctic. The 2020–21 program will focus on changing over teams and resupplying stations. We will not conduct major construction activities and will limit science projects to automated data collection.

Conserve, protect and sustainably manage our environment and heritage

Bushfire recovery

We implemented the initial $50 million package of the Australian Government's $200 million investment to support the recovery of our native wildlife and their habitat following the 2019–20 bushfires.

We brought together environmental groups, scientists, wildlife carers, land managers, heritage experts, traditional owners, philanthropists and finance and investment institutions from across the country to discuss recovery needs. We also established the Wildlife and Threatened Species Bushfire Recovery Expert Panel, chaired by our Threatened Species Commissioner, Dr Sally Box.

We worked with all levels of government to produce the National Indicative Aggregated Fire Extent Dataset to assess fire severity. Guided by the expert panel, we worked with state and territory governments to assess the impact of the bushfires and identify priority animals, plants, invertebrates and threatened ecological communities requiring urgent management action. This science has helped direct the government's investment to where it is most needed.

The recovery package provided $25 million for immediate support to wildlife rescue organisations, zoos, natural resource management groups, Greening Australia and Conservation Volunteers Australia. The funding is being used to carry out activities on the ground and to establish seed supplies and a volunteer base for a longer-term restoration effort.

A $25 million emergency intervention fund is supporting the recovery of affected animals, plants and ecological communities. This includes grants to 19 projects approved in the first tranche of the Wildlife and Habitat Bushfire Recovery Program.

In response to the bushfires, the Australian Government established the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements. The Royal Commission is considering Australia's preparedness for, response to, and recovery from natural disasters. During 2020 we made a significant contribution to the Royal Commission, providing responses to notices. Department witnesses provided evidence on the impact of the bushfires on biodiversity, the operation of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) and forest management and tenure across the country.

The Royal Commission is due to release its final recommendations on 28 October 2020.

Congestion-busting under environmental law

In November 2019 the government committed $25 million through to June 2021 for our department to reduce unnecessary delays in environmental approvals under the EPBC Act. We have focused on:

  • improving service delivery
  • recruiting extra assessment officers
  • reducing the backlog of decisions
  • progressing the assessment of major projects.

In the first 6 months of 2020 we significantly accelerated environmental assessments and approvals. In the December quarter of 2019 only 19% of key decisions were made on time. That improved to 87% in the March 2020 quarter. In the June 2020 quarter we made 98% of key decisions on time. We are committed to reaching and maintaining the benchmark of making 100% of key decisions on time.

We have been able to reduce the backlog of decisions by more than 60% – from 78 key decisions across 57 projects to 26 decisions across 22 projects. We are on track to clear this backlog of decisions by the end of 2020. These improvements have supported strong economic development while ensuring the protection of Australia's unique heritage and environment.

We are implementing the Digital Environmental Assessment Program to move the Commonwealth environmental assessment and approval process to a user-focused digital platform that integrates systems and data across jurisdictions. We are also building a biodiversity data repository that will store and share information, enabling proponents to reuse data and reduce assessment costs.

The Australian Government is providing funding to Western Australia to develop a system that other jurisdictions could use to build a nationally consistent digital environmental assessment system.

Reviewing the EPBC Act

We provided administrative support to Professor Graeme Samuel AC in his independent review of the EPBC Act. The legislation requires a review to be undertaken every 10 years, to consider how the Act is operating and to what extent its objectives have been achieved.

Professor Samuel released a discussion paper in November 2019, which generated around 30,000 responses.

In July 2020 Professor Samuel released his interim report, to share and test his early thinking on key reforms to environmental protection. We will support public consultation on the interim report, ahead of the release of the final report in October 2020.

Investing in biodiversity and natural resource management

The National Landcare Program is a key element of the Australian Government's commitment to natural resource management, with an investment of $1 billion over 6 years from 2018–19. This includes $450 million over 5 years for the Regional Land Partnerships program. At the end of 2019–20 a total of 223 projects were delivering on the 6 Regional Land Partnerships outcomes.

In 2019–20 we delivered on the Australian Government's commitment to design and roll out the $22.65 million Communities Environment Program and the $100 million Environment Restoration Fund.

The Communities Environment Program is supporting community-led environment projects that address local environmental priorities across Australia.

The Environment Restoration Fund is supporting on-ground environmental projects that aim to protect and restore Australia's environment. Projects focus on:

  • protecting threatened and migratory species and their habitat
  • protecting Australia's coasts, oceans and waterways by addressing erosion, improving water quality and protecting coastal threatened and migratory species
  • the clean-up, recovery and recycling of waste.
Commonwealth environmental water

The Commonwealth Environmental Water Office (CEWO) collaborated with governments, industries and communities to manage watering events that delivered more than 1,197 GL of water. These events maintained habitat refuges during the drought.

In partnership with other water holders, we delivered more than 530 GL of Commonwealth-owned water for the environment through the River Murray and its tributaries, as part of connected winter–spring watering events. This provided much-needed food and shelter for a range of native plants and animals all the way to the Coorong. These winter–spring releases were grouped under a flow event labelled 'the Southern Spring Flow', which is referred to in our reporting on the Water Act 2007.

We used around 22 GL of Commonwealth environmental water in the Lachlan River system to improve native fish, plant and animal health along the river and in key sites including Booberoi Creek, Yarrabandai Lagoon and parts of the Great Cumbung Swamp.

We provided up to half of the 90 GL inflow into the culturally significant, Ramsar-listed Narran Lakes – the first significant flows since 2013.

In a world first, the CEWO also conducted an assessment of possible per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination of a Ramsar site and developed a Ramsar site climate change vulnerability assessment methodology for use by natural resource managers, stakeholders and site owners.

Protecting the Great Barrier Reef

The Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan is Australia's strategy for protecting and managing the Great Barrier Reef. The Australian and Queensland governments are investing more than $2.7 billion through to 2023–24 to implement the Plan, including the Australian Government's $443.3 million Reef Trust Partnership with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

Since the plan was launched in 2015 progress has been made on:

  • improving water quality
  • tackling outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish
  • doubling the on-ground joint field management program
  • rehabilitating island and coastal habitats.

The sustainability plan is formed as a rolling series of plans, and must be reviewed and updated every 5 years. In 2019–20 we worked with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Queensland Government to begin the first 5-yearly review. In the first stage, we engaged the plan's scientific and stakeholder advisory bodies and representatives of the Reef's traditional owners. We will undertake public consultation on the draft updated plan in the second half of 2020.

During the year, we also worked with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to secure funding of $40.1 million for upgrades to Reef HQ in Townsville.

Managing Australia's waste

In August 2019 the Council of Australian Governments agreed to ban the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres, while at the same time building Australia's capacity to generate high-value recycled commodities and associated demand.

We worked with state and territory governments, the Australian Local Government Association and industry on a national response strategy to implement the waste export ban. The strategy sets out the actions needed from all levels of government and industry to make the transition to the export ban and drive long-term change in the waste and recycling sector.

We are developing Commonwealth legislation and implementing systems to commence the export ban, which will be phased in from 1 January 2021. We are also implementing the Australian Government's $190 million Recycling Modernisation Fund to build Australia's recycling infrastructure.

We worked with stakeholders to develop the National Waste Policy Action Plan, which sets a new unified direction for improving waste management and recycling. The government provided $35 million for the department to deliver on Commonwealth commitments under the action plan. In March 2020 we held the National Plastics Summit, hosted by the Minister for the Environment, to identify solutions to the plastics waste challenge and mobilise further action.

National Waste Account

We partnered with the Australian Bureau of Statistics to compile and release an Experimental National Waste Account. This is the first account to be released under the National Strategy and Action Plan for Environmental-Economic Accounting.

The National Waste Account is a comprehensive account of all waste material in Australia in 2016–17. The account provided information about waste flows in the Australian community, including:

  • how much waste is produced by households and industry
  • how much waste is directed to landfill or recycling, is used for energy recovery or is exported
  • how much Australians spend on waste disposal
  • how many people are employed in the waste management industry
  • how much the waste industry earns by managing waste.

In September 2019, as part of Australia's participation in the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, we awarded funding to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific to advance ocean accounting capacity-building activities in the region.

The grant supported delegates from Papua New Guinea and Palau to attend the Global Dialogue on Ocean Accounting, held in November 2019 in Sydney. Funding is also being used to develop an ocean waste account pilot in partnership with the Samoan Government.

Product stewardship review

Product stewardship is an area of focus under the National Waste Policy Action Plan. It ensures a shared responsibility between producers, users and governments to manage the impact of a product from the beginning to the end of its life.

In 2019–20 we finalised the first review of the Product Stewardship Act 2011. The government supported the review's 26 recommendations, which we will implement in 2020–21.

We also support the establishment of industry-led schemes for priority products. In June 2020 we brought together the major battery industry stakeholders to establish a national battery stewardship scheme.

Managing chemicals

Chemicals are an important part of everyday life, but some can pose a significant environmental risk. We work to ensure these risks are properly managed. In 2019–20 we conducted risk assessments of more than 1,300 industrial chemicals.

We are leading work to strengthen chemicals management through a new National Standard for Environmental Risk Management of Industrial Chemicals. In January 2020 we consulted on an exposure draft of the legislation to establish the national standard.

We delivered several key pieces of work on PFAS and published a National PFAS Position Statement, setting out nationally agreed objectives for phasing out the use of PFAS chemicals of concern in Australia. We also published updated national guidance on the environmental management of PFAS contamination, following 2 years of work with states and territories.

Ozone and air quality

The world's ozone layer continues to recover. CSIRO data showed the ozone hole over Antarctica in 2019 was the smallest since it was first discovered in the early 1980s. Our management of ozone-depleting substances and synthetic greenhouse gases continues to reduce emissions of these chemicals in the economy.

Air quality and emissions of pollutants and harmful gases into the atmosphere were key concerns in 2019–20. Many Australians were affected by bushfire smoke over the summer.

We continue to manage priority activities under the National Clean Air Agreement to address the release of harmful pollutants. We monitored the imports of 5.6 million products to ensure compliance with product emissions standards for outdoor power equipment and marine applications.

Geological and bioregional assessments

We manage the Geological and Bioregional Assessment Program, a series of independent scientific studies undertaken by CSIRO and Geoscience Australia, supported by the Bureau of Meteorology. The assessments provide independent scientific advice to governments on the potential impacts of shale, tight and deep coal gas development on water and the environment.

In May 2020 we released the baseline analysis reports for the Beetaloo, Cooper and Isa regions. The baseline analysis reports support the government's efforts to increase regulatory efficiency by improving reporting, data provision and management. This will encourage industry development and growth while maintaining the highest possible environmental standards.

Australasian Environmental Law Enforcement and Regulators Network

In 2019–20 the Assistant Secretary of our Environment Compliance Branch, Monica Collins, was elected chair of the Australasian Environmental Law Enforcement and Regulators Network (AELERT). AELERT is a high-profile and well-regarded network of environmental regulators from across Australia and New Zealand, and its membership includes countries from Guyana to Canada.

AELERT provides a forum to share regulatory innovations and collaborate to find regulatory practice solutions to emerging environmental issues and challenges. Ms Collins' election supports our commitment to collaboration and capability-building in environmental regulation.

Advancing Australia's strategic, scientific and environmental interests in the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean

Australian Antarctic Strategy

The Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan sets out whole-of-government actions to support Australia's national Antarctic interests. In 2019–20 we made progress across a range of objectives.

We successfully established the Australian Antarctic Program Partnership, funded through the Antarctic Science Collaboration Initiative. The initiative is providing $5 million a year for 10 years to support Antarctic researchers. We also developed a draft strategic plan for the new Australian Antarctic Science Council. ​The council was established in June 2019 to provide independent expert advice to government on the Australian Antarctic Science Program.

We completed the most comprehensive synthesis of tagging and tracking of Antarctic wildlife ever produced. The results show that the importance of the Southern Ocean for these animals varies, but that relationship will be affected by climate change. We also delivered the most detailed map of the Antarctic ice sheet's coastal grounding line. The map has revealed areas of vulnerability for ice loss such as beneath the Denman Glacier, the deepest point on continental Earth. This work builds on a decade of ICECAP airborne surveys.

Other research work during the year included:

  • an international workshop on the Southern Ocean Clouds, Radiation, Aerosol Transport Experimental Study (SOCRATES)
  • research providing new insights into the importance of aerosols over the Southern Ocean for climate models
  • a key study showing past ocean response to warming and the resulting CO2 rise
  • research showing the importance of Antarctic krill in cycling of nutrients and the export of carbon to the deep ocean
  • a major review study specifying past progress and future requirements for delivering sustained coordinated and integrated observations of the Southern Ocean.
Building our capability

In 2019–20 we made progress across all the capability projects outlined in the strategy and action plan.

Construction and testing of Australia's new icebreaker, RSV Nuyina, continued until the outbreak of COVID-19. We continued the development of Australia's inland traverse and deep-ice coring capability throughout the year, and this work remains on track.

The Davis Aerodrome Project moved into its planning phase. We are continuing the planning phase for the Macquarie Island Research Station Modernisation Project. Stabilisation works are underway on Macquarie Island's infrastructure to allow it to be used for future construction activities. We also commissioned stabilisation works on current station infrastructure across all Antarctic stations.

Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources

We contributed to important decisions by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CAMLR). The 26-member commission met in Hobart in October 2019.

The commission improved environmental protections by prohibiting the discharge of plastics into the sea, and expanding restrictions on the dumping and discharge of oil or fuel to the whole CAMLR area.

We achieved agreement on updated catch limits for toothfish and icefish at Heard Island and McDonald Islands for our fishing industry. The commission also agreed to a work plan to deliver contemporary management of the krill fishery by 2021.

The Hobart meeting endorsed Australian Antarctic Division scientist Dr Dirk Welsford as chair of its Scientific Committee. This will enable us to continue to lead work to protect and sustainably manage marine life in the Southern Ocean.