The New South Wales government has admitted that land clearing has increased threefold over the past decade, woodlands and grasslands are deteriorating, and 62% of vegetation in the state is now under pressure from too much fire.
The NSW State of the Environment 2021 report, released every three years, paints a grim picture for land and freshwater ecosystems, which are under increasing threat from habitat destruction, invasive species and the climate crisis.
The report provides an overview of the environmental issues facing the state including for biodiversity, waterways and the climate.
The number of species in NSW threatened with extinction has grown by 18 (to 1,043) since the previous report in 2018 and 64% of mammals are now considered to have suffered long-term reductions in their habitat range.
Clearing of woody vegetation increased to an annual average of 35,000 hectares between 2017 and 2019, up from 13,000 hectares between 2009 and 2015. The rate of clearing for non-woody vegetation such as shrubs and grasses was even higher.
Bird populations are declining, so too are freshwater fish populations, which were singled out as being in “very poor condition” across the state.
More than 70% of endangered plants, animals and habitats in the state are threatened by invasive species, with pest animals and weeds costing the state’s economy $170m and $1.8bn respectively each year.
The report, released on Wednesday by the NSW Environment Protection Authority, notes that although 62% of land-based species in the state are not considered to be threatened, the number of endangered species is expected to continue to grow.
Although habitat restoration and revegetation programs are in place, these are “not restoring native vegetation at the rate of permanent clearing”, the report states.
“Management and conservation efforts will not be enough to save many species without addressing key threats such as habitat removal and climate change.”
The report highlights the devastating effects of the 2019-20 bushfires disaster, which affected 62% of the state’s vegetation communities, which are now under pressure from too much burning.
It finds that although native vegetation covers 69% of NSW, the ecological carrying capacity of this vegetation is estimated to be just 31% of natural levels in the aftermath of fires.
The state’s mean temperature from 2011 to 2020 was 1.1C higher than late last century and the period covered by the report included the warmest years on record (2018 and 2019).
The report states emissions in NSW were now 17% lower than in 2005. Eighty-one per cent of electricity in NSW in 2019-20 was generated from fossil fuels, a decline of 7% since the previous report in 2018. Energy consumption had fallen overall but energy use for transport, along with transport emissions, was increasing.
The report also finds the amount of waste generated per person has increased by 9% and total waste was up 17%.
It states 64% of all waste was diverted for recycling and the volume of litter decreased by 43% between 2013 and 2020.
The state’s new environment minister, James Griffin, said the report shone a light on the environmental issues the state was facing and “challenges us to do more”.
He said in the three years covered by the report the state had experienced its worst bushfire season and one of its worst droughts.
“I fundamentally believe that nature underpins everything on this planet, and for that reason, this report should matter to business leaders, it should matter to environmental advocates, it should matter to academics, and to every citizen in the state,” Griffin said.
“Protecting and conserving the environment requires a concerted effort from all of us, and I’m eager to work collaboratively to achieve that goal.”
Penny Sharpe, the opposition’s environment spokesperson, said the state’s environment was in serious trouble.
“For all the talk from the previous minister [Matt Kean], this report is an indictment on his tenure as minister,” she said. “The report is so bad that he refused to put his name to it.”
Sharpe said the new minister’s tenure would “mean nothing” without serious action to protect habitat, reduce clearing and allow landscapes to recover from the fire disaster.
Comment was sought from Kean.