Bushfires, storms, floods and extreme temperatures are tangible and often traumatic events that remind us of the close interrelationship between people and the natural environment. There are also less visible but important changes in the environment that escape attention because they develop over a long time or because they occur in remote areas, under the ground, in water, out in the ocean or up in the atmosphere. Some environmental changes may be overlooked because of inadequate data, and their significance may only become clear with the collection of long-term information.

Because of the strong relationships between the natural environment, human wellbeing and economic progress, it is important to have good information about the health of our natural resources and trends in environmental quality. One important source of environmental information for government, business and the community is the state of the environment report produced by the Environment Protection Authority at least every five years, under the Environment Protection Act 1993. These reports assess the condition of South Australian environmental resources, identify significant trends in environmental quality, and review the effects of programs and activities by public authorities to protect, restore and improve the environment.

The 2013 report reveals mixed results in the condition of the state’s natural assets and trends in environmental quality over the last five years. There is good news—such as sustained growth in generation of renewable energy, more efficient use of water and electricity, and continued increases in recycling. There is also cause for concern—such as further decline of already poor biodiversity, increased use of natural resources, increased average temperatures, increased development and industrial activity in sensitive areas such as the coastal zone, increased use of private motor vehicles, reduced water flows for the natural environment from the River Murray, and changes in the acidity, salinity and temperature of the marine environment.

Reporting approach

The report’s assessments have been prepared based on the driving forces, pressures, state, impact, response, outlook (DPSIRO) reporting framework (see Figure 6 in the Introduction). In this framework the state of the environment (S) is the result of specific drivers (D) and pressures (P), which impact (I) on the environment. The response (R) represents the policies, programs and projects of government agencies to improve or maintain the state, while the outlook (O) considers what is expected to happen to the environment into the future.

The report examines what is happening overall in South Australia, and in the key themes of people and places, climate change, water, biodiversity, and the coastal and marine environment.


Figure 6 State of the environment reporting framework—driving forces, pressures, state, impact, response, outlook (DPSIRO)

Driving forces and pressures

Many of the drivers and pressures of environmental change in South Australia are similar to those for other Australian states and territories, and for many other parts of the world, with some variation in scale and intensity. Many significant environmental trends are the result of global socio-economic and environmental drivers and pressures (also called mega-trends), such as:

  • a growing and ageing population that is highly urbanised and more affluent and in which the average person consumes more, releases more carbon and wastes more resources than previous generations; on average, Australians consume more than most other peoples in the world
  • a global economic system that relies on exponential growth in production and consumption of many products that are reliant on scarce or non-renewable natural resources and that are often produced by industries with large environmental impacts, including high water and energy use, and harmful emissions
  • historic and current human activities such as large-scale land clearing, contamination of land and introduction of pest plants and animals
  • rapid technological change and innovation with profound effects on production systems and consumerism
  • global climate systems (the Southern Oscillation system and related La Niña and El Niño events) and their impact on species, ecosystems and natural cycles
  • global climate change; the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than it has been for at least 800 000 years (397 parts per million—25% higher than 1960) and the global warming effect is profoundly changing our climate.

All of these mega-trends are well established and are expected to persist for at least the next few decades (Australian Academy of Science 2012), if there are no dramatic interventions or culture changes.

In addition to these global drivers, environmental quality in South Australia is also affected by more local pressures, as discussed in individual chapters in the report. For example, water quality is affected by dryland salinity, loss of riparian vegetation, intensive agricultural practices, soil and stream bank erosion, sedimentation, changes in land use and pollution.


The expected impacts of these forces and pressures include:

  • loss of species, ecosystems and biodiversity
  • pollution and degradation of air, land and water
  • increase in volume and diversity of waste products
  • increase in extreme weather events and escalation of damage from floods and bushfires
  • pressures on food supply
  • unsustainable use of natural resources, including mineral and energy resources, and on waste management and minimisation generally
  • pressures on freshwater supplies, including predicted declines in stream flow.

Given the scale and persistence of key drivers and pressures such as a growing population and a growing economy, the only feasible approach for mitigating some of the identified impacts is to ‘decouple’ the drivers from the impacts. For example, the pressures on water supplies can be reduced by increasing water efficiency, especially in agriculture and industry; increased resource use can be offset by recycling; and the carbon production associated with increased energy needs can be reduced through the use of renewable energy sources.

In addition, some pressures will resolve naturally—for example, through depletion of non-renewable resources, including coal, even if at significant impacts and costs.

State and condition

The following is a summary of the condition of environmental resources and significant trends in environmental quality in South Australia by theme—people and places, climate change, water, biodiversity, and the coastal and marine environment.