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Record heat, bushfires and drought have resulted in 2019 being marked the worst environmental year "in a century or more" for Australia, according to a new report. 

The report, released annually by the Australian National University, scores environmental conditions in Australia from zero to 10 based on seven categories: inundation, streamflow, vegetation growth, leaf area, soil protection, tree cover and the number of hot days. 

2019 rated 0.8 out of 10 —  the worst score of any year analysed since detailed data became available in 2000.

The year saw the mean temperature increase by 0.85 degrees compared to the average from the past 19 years. Days over 35 degrees celsius increased by 36%, rainfall decreased by 40% and the threatened species list had 40 new additions.  

"[The report] reveals the worst environmental conditions in many decades, perhaps centuries, and confirms the devastating damage global warming and mismanagement are wreaking on our natural resources,” the report’s authors wrote for the Conversation. “Immediate action is needed to put Australia’s environment on a course to recovery.”

Very low soil moisture and vegetation growth were likewise recorded, and river flows decreased by 43%.  

Extensive fires severely affected parts of Australia, particularly New South Wales and Tasmania — where the burn extent increased by 2.4% and 3.8%, respectively. Areas like the world heritage-listed Gondwana rainforests were hard-hit, and fire-linked carbon emissions increased by 24% compared to the 2000–2018 average.

According to lead researcher Albert van Dijk, the basis of the poor environmental score can, in part, be attributed to global warming, population growth and the expected yearly variability in Australia’s environment.

The nation’s greenhouse gas emissions were also a player. Despite emissions per person dropping 11% below the 2000-18 average, the nation’s emissions remain some of the highest worldwide due to issues like high rates of coal burning.

Cool temperatures in the Indian Ocean, meanwhile, accounted for a delay in the monsoon in Australia's north, in turn, limiting the flow of moisture to the rest of the country and contributing to extraordinarily hot and dry weather. 

Van Dijk and his co-researchers explained there is “much we can do” to improve the environment in the short and long term.

Government agencies and landowners can urgently help natural ecosystems recover by ending logging and reducing the number of invasive species — like weeds and feral foxes — in areas hit by bushfires.

Curbing greenhouse emissions must also be prioritised.

The researchers drew parallels to the current coronavirus pandemic, which has shown the drastic collective action that can occur when communities “acknowledge the urgency of a threat.” Reversing environmental destruction will be less expensive than the coronavirus response, they explained, whereas the long-term impact of not reacting will be considerably higher.

For individuals, the researchers urged those who can to give time or money to organisations working to protect the environment and make note of what they encounter during bush walks to assist rangers working in ecological revival.

"Beyond that, individuals can also make a contribution: recycle and reuse rather than buy new, choose low-emission and renewable energy technology and reduce waste,” van Dijk and his co-researchers explained. “Let governments and politicians hear your voice. Try to convince friends and family that things need to change.” 

"In the long term, we must find a more balanced relationship with the natural world, understanding that our own survival will depend on it,” they added. 


Defend the Planet

Australia’s Environment Scores 0.8 Out of 10 in 2019: Report

By Madeleine Keck