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Department of Environment: who is collecting the data?

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Larissa Waters 26 May 2015

Senator WATERS: Senator Singh asked many of my questions on the State of the environment report; thank you. I am interested in the general state of information about biodiversity conservation, the state of the environment and all of the things that we know and all of the things that we know we do not know. The program called the environmental information program is administered by BoM and they told me last night that, yes, it is now an ongoing program, albeit with slightly reduced but not terribly much reduced funding. But they did mention that it was not focused on continental-scale data collection. Is anybody doing that work? Is that you, or are you aware of any body in government collecting data at that scale?

Ms Olsson: The essential environment information program that we are starting is teasing out that very question in terms of what are the available datasets and what are the impediments in the way it is formulated that can bring it together into continental-scale information. It is a big task and we are developing a framework around the biodiversity as well as starting off with testing the water quality and the vegetation condition themes. Part of the State of the environment report will involve a series of analysis papers up-front which are testing out the data that is available. They will be published. We are doing those for all themes except the Antarctic, where in fact the subject matter is much more contained and we know where the information is. The intent of those is actually to scope out the available data, who else may have information, explore it with the science community and see what the level of information is. No doubt there will be significant gaps in continental-scale information.

Senator WATERS: Just so that I am understanding you correctly, that sounds more like a lay of the land on what do we know and what have we identified that we do not yet know. Is there a process in place for filling those knowledge gaps once they have been identified?

Ms Olsson: There will be research into threatened species and marine diversity of northern Australia. But I still think that, in terms of continental-scale gathering of information on biodiversity, that will not fill the gaps.

Senator WATERS: So there is nothing in place yet to garner and continue to collate continental-scale biodiversity information?

Ms Olsson: No; not unless some of my colleagues from the relevant areas of the department have anything to add.

Mr Thompson: Not as a gap-filling exercise. As Ms Olsson has said, we draw on a number of databases and a number of sources of information. We have ones which we are stewards of in the department, including SPRAT, whose name I cannot remember.

Senator WATERS: Species something, something. Yes, I know what you mean.

Mr Thompson: That is right. Also the Atlas of Living Australia has become quite an important tool for us both as somewhere we place the data from projects that we fund but also as a place for us to draw on data.

Senator WATERS: I was going to ask how much funding and staff time is allocated to consolidating environmental information on a continental scale particularly about biodiversity. Would you consider that you could describe the work that you have outlined as consolidating that information?

Ms Olsson: I would probably have to take that on notice. We have a number of staff involved in all of the databases that were referred to before We have staff involved in the essential measures program and in SoE, but it would be not possible for me, off the top of my head, to come up with a figure for you.

Senator WATERS: Thank you for taking that on notice.

Dr de Brouwer: I would describe it as consolidating. That is—

Senator WATERS: You would or would not?

Dr de Brouwer: Would. When you look at the datasets, they put it on a spatial scale and it tells you what species are where. That is a catalogue of that and it is electronically available. So that is consolidating the data.

Senator WATERS: That is consolidation. Thank you, if you can get me, on notice, some figures on funding and staff time. Still on this theme, given that BoM yesterday was saying that that is not their purview and we have some process of consolidation but it is not clear that we have new information being generated in any sort of systematic way, how then will we have up-to-date data on which to base the State of the environment report?

Mr Thompson: Just before I answer, I would say that this data is updated on a regular basis and it draws on many different information sets. The information sets can come from conservation groups, they can come from our own work and they can come from the Green Army or other things that are done through the department. So it is a very broad-based information collection. I think it is a live and broad-based consolidation process that is updated regularly. That was in the Atlas of Living Australia. Mr Thompson may go through some of that, but that draws on new information that becomes available on a regular basis. It says where that information comes from and talks about the quality of that information, how sure you can be or how confident you can be about that.

Senator WATERS: It sounds as though we are ad hoc filling the gaps, and that is better than not at all. But I was asking before about any sort of systemic program to fill the knowledge gaps in terms of biodiversity on a continent-wide scale, and I thought you said that we are not really doing that systemically.

Dr Wright: There is a lot of systematic collection of information. The State of the environment report draws on a broad range of information that comes from states and territories, from the private sector, from databases such as the Atlas of Living Australia and these are updated on various time scales. The State of the environment report that will be finished by December 2016, we are envisaging, will be much more of an online version so that the data that is provided will be available to the public and researchers much more readily. You have been asking about biodiversity. Biodiversity is a very broad concept and there is no one indicator. So the State of the environment report has been, to date, some 900 pages long because it has to cover such a broad field. The research to which Ms Olsson has been referring to define a set of environmental indicators is exactly that. It is not a case of being able to go out and say, 'This is what we need,' because it is such a broad area. You could collect lots of data and it would not be useful. So there are aspects that are being looked at such as: what is the surrogate for a healthy ecosystem? There is some thinking that bird life could be one surrogate that would give you a very good indication. So that is work ongoing. What we are seeking to do—and it is a targeted program—is to specifically identify what information would deliver most value and how to get it efficiently. Rather than just going out and collecting data, it is very, very structured and we are road testing, as Ms Olsson has said, two indicators to really get to grips with what is possible. And this has not been done before. So it is really the start of a journey, but it has a very specific goal in sight.

Senator WATERS: Are they the water quality and vegetation conditions that you are referring to?

Dr Wright: That is correct, yes.

Senator WATERS: Obviously they are interrelated with biodiversity, but there would be many more indicators that perhaps are more suited to measuring the health of biodiversity. How will we be able to measure adequately the state of health of biodiversity using those broad measures?

Dr Wright: There are a broad range of indicators in terms of threatened species that are collected on a species-by-species basis. There is information that has been collected through a broad range of the department's programs, through 20 million trees and the Green Army. We have a threatened species commissioner. There is data that is actually sent back on line through applications on how things are improving. In fact, it could be said that there is a wealth of information; the problem is trying to make sense of that in a coherent way. That is one of the reasons why the State of the environment report is being dealt with on a themes basis, to try to make that much more understandable.

Senator WATERS: I will think on that and come back to you with some more specific questions. There was an external review of our environmental information gathering in 2012 by Morton and Tinney. Can you tell me whether any actions were taken as a result of that review?

Dr Wright: I would need to take that question on notice.

Senator WATERS: That is all I have. Thank you, Chair.

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