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Drivers of environmental change

We know from the 2013 SOER that many of the drivers and pressures of environmental change in SA are similar to those of other Australian states and territories and many other parts of the world, with some variation in scale and intensity.

They are all the result of global trends and systems such as:

  • a growing, highly urbanised, affluent and ageing population, with the average person consuming more, emitting more carbon and using more resources than previous generations
  • a global economic system relying on increasing growth in production and consumption of many products reliant on scarce or non-renewable natural resources. These are often produced by industries with large environmental impacts, including high water and energy use, and harmful emissions
  • historic human activities, such as large-scale land clearing, land contamination and introduction of pest plants and animals
  • rapid technological change and innovation with profound effects on production systems and consumerism
  • global climate systems and their impact on species, ecosystems and natural cycles. Examples include the El Niño Southern Oscillation and Indian Ocean Dipole
  • global climate change with atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, at 400 parts per million, being higher than it has been for at least 800,000 years. Of this, about 30–40% is dissolving into oceans, rivers and lakes, causing ocean acidification.

These are well-established trends that are expected to persist.

The 2016 Australia SOER confirmed that:

Globally, the human-caused drivers of change to the environment are demographic, economic, socio-political, scientific, technological, cultural and religious. In Australia, the key drivers of environmental change are population and economic activity.

The extent to which these drivers lead to environmental impacts depends on a range of factors including:

  • how many of us there are
  • where and how we live
  • the goods and services we produce (for both domestic and export markets) and consume
  • the technologies we use to produce our energy, food, materials and transport
  • how we manage the waste we produce.

The relative contribution of South Australians to overall global environmental change is small. Its population grew steadily from 1 million in 1963 to 1.4 million in 1985. In the 2016 census, the population was estimated to be nearly 1.7 million. By comparison, Australia has a population of more than 25 million with the world population exceeding 7.5 billion.

In spite of Australia making up over 0.3% of the world population, our greenhouse gas emissions per person is the highest of all OECD countries and 5th highest in the world.

Australia also has the highest per capita number of extinct and threatened species worldwide, and leads the world in recent extinctions. A major threat to the environment is the continued loss of biodiversity, together with the ecosystem services this provides.

SA’s biodiversity strategy stated:

Our terrestrial, aquatic and marine ecosystems, and the benefits they provide, are under threat. These ecosystems suffer from a suite of impacts including habitat modification, fragmentation of ecological communities and populations, invasive species, altered environmental water flows and fire regimes.

This was confirmed in the 2016 Australia SOER, which describes the pressures on the Australian environment as being: 

  • ongoing and pervasive pressure from a changing climate, altering the structure and function of natural ecosystems
  • invasive species remaining a persistent and widespread threat
  • landuse change and habitat fragmentation continuing to threaten ecosystems and their resilience
  • declining species and ecological communities
  • poor or deteriorating condition of coastal waterways in more populated areas, threatened by new classes of pollutants, including microplastics and nanoparticles, which are not well regulated with poorly understood effects.

In coastal areas, threats from climate change, urbanisation, land use change and industrial activity are interacting and resulting in compounding pressures.

The World Economic Forum, in its Global Risks Report 2017, listed extreme weather events as the top global risk in terms of likelihood, and second highest in terms of impact. Major natural disasters and the failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation were identified in the top 5 global risks. Human-made environmental disasters, for example oil spills and radioactive contamination, and biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, were also identified as major environmental risks.