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Learning from the past

South Australia has a 30-year history of state of the environment reporting. Most of the current formal reporting requirements commenced in 1995 under section 112 of the Environment Protection Act 1993. Two additional requirements were later included that require:  

  • an assessment of the condition of the River Murray (2003)
  • a response by the Environment Minister to each SOER for tabling in Parliament (2005).

The 1998 SOER was the first produced under the current statutory provisions, with 2 reports produced previously, in 1988 and 1993.

Approaches to reporting have changed over the past 30 years in terms of:


  • Generally only contributing agencies were actively involved in report development until the late 1990s.
  • In 1997 and 1999, the SA Government released position papers on indicators and performance measures for public comment.
  • Non-government members were included in the SOER steering committee in 2003 and 2008, and once again for this 2018 report.
  • Expert peer reviews were included for 2003, 2008 and 2013 reports.
  • A government response has been formally required since 2005, but was also provided in 2003.


  • A separate summary document has been produced since 1998. In 2003 and 2008, the report was also available in digital format.
  • An educational resource for schools was produced in 2003 and 2008.


  • An assessment of progress against priorities identified in each previous report was included in 1993, 1998 and 2003, but not in 2008 and 2013.
  • The number and types of recommendations have varied greatly. In the first 3 reports, there were 9, 13 and 18 recommendations, respectively. Subsequently, the 2003 report provided 116 recommendations and the 2008 report provided 43. The 2013 report only made one recommendation – to prepare an SA environmental information strategy and plan.
  • Natural resources was not a distinct topic in any of the reports. This was addressed by including state NRM Council membership on the 2008 SOER Steering Committee and, in 2013 a subgroup of the NRM Council reviewed the draft report.
  • River Murray, the coast and native vegetation became separate report topics in 2003, and climate change was elevated as a standalone topic in 2013.
  • Ozone appeared as a topic in the first 4 reports, but not in 2008 and 2013.
  • Urban planning started to feature from 2003, but population health only in the initial two reports.
  • Forests disappeared as a theme after the first 2 reports.
  • Heritage featured as its own chapter in 1988 and 1998, but not in 1993 or 2013.
  • Biodiversity was referred to as ‘wildlife resources’ in the first report only. In all subsequent reports, individual species were considered under biodiversity, but not landscape-scale ecosystems and processes. The 2013 report had a separate biodiversity chapter.
  • Coverage of the coast, mining, fisheries and transport varied between reports.
  • Radiation was included for the first time in 2013.


Renewable energy

Virtually no renewable energy sources existed in the 1990s. However, electricity generated from renewable resources grew to 4.6% in 2003, 22% in 2011 and 43% in 2016. This came mainly from wind, followed by rooftop solar, and is attributable to the national Renewable Energy Target, and SA’s natural endowment in wind resources and comparatively high power prices.

By comparison, 17% of the national annual electricity generation in 2017 were from renewables, with hydropower as the biggest contributor. The 1998 SOER highlighted, as an achievement, the construction of one of Australia’s largest cogeneration plants at Osborne, which is fuelled by natural gas from SA’s Cooper Basin.

Air quality

Following the introduction of unleaded petrol in 1985, airborne lead in metropolitan Adelaide declined by 80% over 10 years. A national phase-out of lead in petrol was completed in 2002, by which time Adelaide’s airborne lead levels were well below 10% of the national standard of 0.50 µg/m3, with levels below 1% of the standard at some monitoring sites.

Together with the introduction of stricter controls on emissions from various industries, this contributed to consistent improvements in air quality in SA, despite a growing population and economy.

Native vegetation protection

South Australia was the first state to address native vegetation clearance, with the introduction of voluntary Heritage Agreements in 1980. This was followed by statutory controls under the Planning Act 1982, restrictions with compensation under the Native Vegetation Management Act 1985, and finally, the introduction of the Native Vegetation Act 1991, which collectively brought broad-scale clearance to an end.

The Native Vegetation Act 1991 also introduced requirements to offset non-permitted clearing. Unfortunately, by this time, the extent of remaining native vegetation was already insufficient to provide adequate habitat for the survival of a number of species.

Pollution and waste management

South Australia has among the best recycling rates in Australia and the world, which is attributable to effective policy and financial instruments such as the waste levy and container deposit legislation. An increasing volume of wastewater and stormwater is reused, leading to improvements in coastal water quality and seagrass health. Knowledge and management of site contamination have improved and regulatory standards reflect leading practice.

Water conservation

South Australia’s stormwater harvesting capacity has increased from ≤6 GL per year in 2009 to almost 23 GL in 2016. Also, our wastewater recycling capacity has more than doubled from ≤30 GL per year in 2002 to almost 75 GL in 2016. The construction of the Adelaide Desalination Plant improved water security. This plant can provide about half of Adelaide’s annual water needs (100 GL) with production able to respond to changing demand, natural supply and emergencies. In addition, almost half of SA households have a rainwater tank installed.

Persistent challenges

Biodiversity loss

Australia has the highest per capita number of extinct and threatened species in the world. Unfortunately, Australia also leads the world in recent mammal extinctions. Half of Australia’s marsupials and 30% of native rodents have become extinct or had their distributions drastically reduced in the last 220 years. South Australia’s extinction rate is one of the highest in Australia. About a quarter (over 1,000 species) of all SA’s terrestrial plants and vertebrate animals are threatened.

Some 63% of our mammals and 22% of our vascular plants are formally listed as threatened. The Native Vegetation Council’s annual reports show an ongoing rate of illegal native vegetation clearance of about 200 ha per year. This is in addition to approved, non-regulated and undetected clearing of vegetation. Other significant threats to biodiversity include invasive species and climate change.   

Climate change

The past decade has been the warmest in SA since records began. There has also been an increase in the frequency of heatwaves and a decline in rainfall. These trends are projected to continue.

Pest animals and plants

Established pest animals and plants continue to inflict major harm on the environment and primary production. Measures to manage pests have had mixed success. For example, the Rabbit calicivirus introduced in Australia in 1996 has been highly effective in reducing the number of wild rabbits, even though its effectiveness has declined over time. On the other hand, feral cats are estimated to eat 10s of millions of native animals each night in Australia, including at least 16 species considered threatened. Cats have been implicated in the extinction of at least 20 mammal species in Australia.</p


Competing interests regarding noise emanating from various land uses and mobile sources have been an issue since the first report in 1988. With ongoing urban intensification, this continues to be the cause of most complaints to the EPA.

Growing per capita waste generation

Between 2003–04 and 2016–17, SA’s population increased by 13%, but waste generation increased by 59%. In addition to the volume of waste, the complexity of resource recovery and recycling is also increasing.


Each of the themed sections in this report provides an overview of actions taken over time to protect, restore and enhance the environment in response to identified pressures and impacts. Specific achievements since the 2013 State of the Environment Report include:


First regional Climate Change Adaptation Plan

South Australia’s Climate Change Adaptation Program wins 2 national awards

Murray–Darling Basin Plan: South Australian Implementation Strategy 2013–19

Adelaide Coastal Water Quality Improvement Plan and subsequent 5-year Catchment to Coast Project

EPA’s first Annual Compliance Plan


Legislation to enable solar installation and wind farms on pastoral lease land

New target of 50% for renewable energy generation by 2025

Environment Protection (Movement of Controlled Waste) Policy 2015


South Australia’s Climate Change Strategy 2015–2050 and Low Carbon Economy Experts Panel Final Report

South Australia was the first jurisdiction in Australia to adopt target of zero net emissions by 2050

Environment Protection (Water Quality) Policy 2015

South Australia’s Waste Strategy 2015–2020

Building Upgrade Finance legislation

South Australia’s Low Carbon Investment Plan

South Australia wins 2 United Nations Association of Australia 2015 World Environment Day Awards

South Australia signed international agreement – Compact of States and Regions

Green Industries SA to facilitate a circular economy

National Clean Air Agreement


Environment Protection (Air Quality) Policy 2016

Local Nuisance and Litter Control Act 2016

Carbon Neutral Adelaide Action Plan 2016–2021

Climate adaptation plans for all regions across the state

Planning, Development and Infrastructure Act 2016

Aquaculture Regulations 2016


World’s biggest lithium ion battery – a Neoen and Tesla partnership

$8 million committed to construct hydrogen production facility, refueling station and a trial involving 6 hydrogen-fuelled buses

$1 million allocated to kickstart carbon sequestration industry in South Australia

$150-million Renewable Energy Technology Fund

European Union recognition of Adelaide leadership on sustainable development through World Cities program

Nyrstar Port Pirie Transformation Project (initiated by the EPA in 2012) to achieve large reductions in air emissions, and Whyalla Steelworks’ GFC Alliance

Renewable Technology Fund to accelerate private sector investment in renewable technologies

Trial to restore oyster reefs in Gulf St Vincent

Guide to the Native Vegetation Regulations


Towards a Resilient State: South Australia’s Climate Change Adaptation Action Plan

Reform package to secure a sustainable fishing future

Acknowledging these and the many other actions already being undertaken by all levels of government, community organisations and individuals to conserve, protect and improve our invaluable natural environment, a few more opportunities are identified at the end of each of the themes in this report. Many of those are already in progress or planned, and their implementation will be reviewed as part of the next state of the environment report.