Environment in Australia Essay

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Australia is the world’s sixth largest country by land area (7,692,024 square kilometers, excluding external territories), but is sparsely populated. 86.2 percent of the population of just over twenty million people lives in one percent of the land area of the continent. This is mostly near the east coast, with a smaller population concentration in the south-west corner. The average population density of the country is less than two people per square kilometer, which is very low compared to 26 people per square kilometer in the United States and 238 people per square kilometer in Britain. Australia, in the southern hemisphere, is the driest of the inhabited continents, with much of the country being classified as arid or semi-arid. Inland settlements are often based on mining activities. Australia has 36,700 kilometers of coastline.

Australia has been home to indigenous people for at least 40,000 years. While sometimes known collectively as Aborigines, the diversity of indigenous peoples should be recognized, and the Torres Strait Islander people should also be considered as indigenous. This diversity is highlighted in the variety of languages that were present in Australia. There were about 250 Aboriginal languages at the time of European incursion into Australia; further division into dialect differences gives some 600 distinct linguistic varieties. This makes Aboriginal Australia one of the most diverse areas of the world linguistically, and in some districts an 80-kilometer journey will pass through the territories of three languages less closely related than English, Russian, and Hindi,” explains language scholar Nicholas Evans.

The country of Australia is a federation of six states which were former colonies of Britain. There are also a number of territories, including two self-governing territories. These are the Northern Territory (where Darwin is the largest city and capital) and the Australian Capital Territory, which is the location of the national capital of Canberra. In 1901 Australia had a population of 3,773,801, excluding indigenous people who were not counted in the Census. The largest city was Sydney, with a population of 496,000. Other significant cities included Melbourne (478,000), Adelaide (141,000), Brisbane (119,000) and Perth (61,000).

The six states, their state capitals and largest cities in descending order of population, are New South Wales (Sydney, with a population exceeding four million people), Victoria (Melbourne), Queensland (Brisbane), Western Australia (Perth), South Australia (Adelaide) and the island state of Tasmania (Hobart). There are also over seven hundred local governments in Australia. The structure and resources of the local governments vary enormously. For example, there are 37 local governments in Sydney, ranging in population from 256 364 in Black town to 12 692 in Hunters Hill.

The history of European exploration in Australia is complex. There are claims of Portuguese exploration, and reliable evidence of Dutch exploration of the northern and western coasts. Dutch vessels sailing to Batavia (modern Jakarta, Indonesia) were sometimes shipwrecked on islands off the Western Australian coast if they did not turn north in time. Despite extensive Dutch knowledge of the coast of what they called “New Holland,” it was not until 1770 that Captain James Cook claimed the continent for the British crown, narrowly defeating French explorers in this endeavour. The actual settlement did not occur until 1788, when Sydney was founded as a penal colony on the shores of Port Jackson, or what the local Eora people called Werrong. Other Australian cities had different foundation histories. Private settlers established Melbourne as a settlement. Perth was originally settled as a free colony in 1829, but imported convict labour from 1842 onwards. By the late 19th century, some of the key components of Australia’s urban pattern, and the structure of individual cities within this urban pattern, were in place. The largest Australian cities have always held a high degree of primacy (that is, the dominance of the largest city in relation to the rest of each state). The degree of primacy is less in Queensland due to the presence of other large urban centers.

The composition of the population is diverse. While there were many English and Irish people among the early settlers (not all of whom arrived by their own free will), Australia has benefited enormously from many other nationalities. Other industries, such as pearling, relied on various non-European workers. Aboriginal people were crucial in the establishment and survival of the pastoral industry in many parts of Australia. Following the second world war, “displaced persons” from many southern and eastern European countries migrated to Australia. More recent waves of immigration have included refugees and other settlers from Vietnam and other parts of Asia, and even more recently from countries such as Lebanon.

Australia also has great diversity in its environment, ranging from tropical rainforests to deserts. The north of Australia is geographically close to Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. The south of Australia is more temperate, with Perth having a “Mediterranean” climate. Water use is a major environmental issue, and the lack of reliable annual rainfall limits settlement and land use activities in much of Australia.

Australia is richly endowed with both non-renewable energy resources such as coal and natural gas, and renewable energy resources such as solar, tidal and wind power. Energy commodities are a major source of export earnings in Australia and development of these resources in a sustainable manner is a primary policy goal of the country. One of Australia’s main objectives in developing a sustainable energy policy is to ensure that the country’s energy sector is well placed to take advantage of economic and environmental opportunities and challenges that will emerge both domestically and internationally in coming years.

Environmental Issues

The Australian government is aware of the environmental challenges that are currently facing the country, including urban air quality, pollution and climate change. In order for Australian energy exports to remain competitive in world markets, the government realizes that it is both economically and environmentally in its national interest to produce these resources in the most efficient manner possible.

In 1999, in a comprehensive effort to outline the environmental responsibilities of the Commonwealth, Australia enacted the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The legislation attempts to coordinate national, state and territory measures to protect the environment, providing for Commonwealth leadership, while still respecting state and territory authority. As of 2002, however, Australia’s environmental progress was still slowed by a lack of clear federal leadership. For instance, in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, Australia agreed to limit its increase in greenhouse gas emissions to 8 percent above 1990 levels by the 2008-2012 time period. According to the Australian Greenhouse Office, this represents approximately a 30 percent reduction against current business-as-usual scenarios. However, the country has not yet decided upon a national abatement strategy. In March 2002, Australia and the United States concluded the U.S.-Australia Bilateral Climate Agreement in order to jointly investigate ways to achieve the two countries’ Kyoto greenhouse gas emissions goals without ratifying the protocol.

Other significant sectors of the Australian economy include manufacturing, tourism and education. These industries are increasingly mechanized, often resulting in increased production but little or negative growth in employment. Developing the Australian economy to be more ecologically sustainable economy will be a challenge.


  1. Australian Conservation Foundation, Out of the Blue: An Act for Australia’s Oceans. (Australian Conservation Foundation, 2006);
  2. Commonwealth of Australia, Australia’s Fourth National Communication on Climate Change: A Report under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Department of the Environment and Heritage/Australian Greenhouse Office, 2005);
  3. David Dale, The 100 Things Everybody Needs to Know About Australia. (Pan MacMillan Australia, 1998);
  4. Nicholas Evans, “Aboriginal languages” in Davison, G., Hirst, J. and MacIntyre, , eds., The Oxford Companion to Australian History (Oxford University Press, 1998);
  5. Phil McManus, Vortex Cities to Sustainable Cities: Australia’s Urban Challenge (UNSW Press, 2005);
  6. Bill Pritchard and Phil McManus, Land of Discontent: The Dynamics of Change in Rural and Regional Australia (UNSW Press, 2000).

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