A new Climateworks Centre report investigates the environmental limits Australia must work within so it can continue to prosper for generations to come.

However, the report also finds that some of these limits have already been transgressed.

Many of Australia’s environmental systems are showing signs of stress or near failure.

Australia’s animals are being driven to extinction at alarming rates, the nation is close to exceeding its carbon budget and around half of the country’s river catchments contain environmentally unsafe concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus.

The report’s authors have examined what this all means for Australia’s land use sector, including agriculture, forestry and other land use industries.

There’s good news: There are many opportunities for the sector to play a critical role in an environmentally sustainable future for the nation.

And we’re not stopping there. Our team will use this work to find practical solutions so the sector can continue to play a role in helping Australia prosper.

The new report, Living within limits: Adapting the planetary boundaries to understand Australia’s contribution to planetary health, is based on the landmark ‘planetary boundaries’ framework, adapting it to the Australian context and examining what these boundaries mean for the nation’s land use sector.

What are planetary boundaries?

Simply put, they’re the environmental limits within which humanity can continue to thrive.

They were originally identified in 2009 by Johan Rockström and a team of 28 scientists including Australian Professor Will Steffen.

Professor Rockström‘s TED Talk on the boundaries has been viewed more than 2 million times across various platforms. 

The boundaries were updated in 2015, with scientists noting society had pushed several into unprecedented territory.

Now, Climateworks Centre’s Land Use Futures team has assessed how Australia is tracking against its share of five of these boundaries.

Striking results

The report shows Australia has transgressed three of the five planetary boundaries studied.

Infographic showing that three of five national limits have been transgressed
National limits have been transgressed for biogeochemical flows, biosphere integrity and land-system change

Its findings include: 

  • Climate change: At current rates, within four to nine years from 2021 Australia will have exceeded its budget for how much greenhouse gas can be emitted to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.
  • Land-system change: Land conversion has endangered nearly a quarter of Australia ecosystems.
  • Biosphere integrity – biodiversity loss and extinction: Australian mammals are becoming extinct at an estimated rate 430 times what might have occurred without intensive human activity.
  • Biogeochemical flows – nitrogen and phosphorus: The concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus exceed a safe level for environmental health in around half of Australia’s river catchments.
  • Freshwater: Withdrawing water for human activities has placed 13 per cent of Australia’s river catchments under stress.

As the report details, these findings have important implications for Australia’s land use sector.

Download the report: Living within limits: Adapting the planetary boundaries to understand Australia’s contribution to planetary health

Agriculture, forestry and other land use industries have a critical role to play in reducing emissions and sequestering carbon.

There are also opportunities to help Australia stay within Earth system limits nationally and contribute to the global effort for sustainable development.

Many solutions to improve human and planetary health can be found in the land use sector, such as waste management, conservation and restoration of natural lands, and shifts in food production.

But the land use sector is under increasing pressure from growing populations, the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events. 

Understanding what sustainability means in practical, measurable terms for Australia’s land use sector is critical to enable humanity to continue to thrive.

The new report can be used as a guide to help define what sustainability means for the Australian land use sector.

Watch this space — the Land Use Futures team is, right now, working to establish ways the country’s land use sector can create a vibrant, sustainable future for Australia and the planet.