Aaron Bunch
(Australian Associated Press)

The Australian environment has started a slow recovery from some of the toughest years on record, a new study has concluded.

Researchers found robust species rebounded in 2020, despite the devastating ecological damage caused by the Black Summer fires, according to Australia’s Environment Report.

“There’s reason to hope that our environment will get a chance to rebuild,” Australian National University environmental scientist Albert van Dijk said on Wednesday.

“The extreme drought and heat conditions of 2019 and previous years eased after February (2020) thanks to increased rainfall, as La Nina climate conditions emerged,” he said.

Prof van Dijk said rainfall across Australia had been about 10 per cent above the 20-year average and replenished dry soils.

Despite the good news, Australia’s environmental conditions in 2020 were still well below average.

“Recovery was patchy and not straightforward in delicate ecosystems that remain in a precarious state,” Prof van Dijk said.

“There was another mass bleaching event in the Great Barrier Reef, while the country’s list of threatened species grew by another 12 species.”

The 2019/20 fire season also brought unprecedented fire activity to southeast Australia, with fires in southern NSW, eastern Victoria and the ACT in January and February.

However, the area burned in NSW, ACT and Victoria in 2020 was less than in 2019, but still 2.2 times the 2000-2019 average.

Continued very dry fuel and hot weather led to the high fire activity in southeast Australia, Prof van Dijk said.

Despite the setbacks, the national environmental condition score for 2020 improved 2.6 points out of ten to reach 3.2 points.

Scores improved in all states and territories except Tasmania.

National vegetation condition returned closer to the average, up seven per cent on the previous year.

But there were strong regional differences, with vegetation condition poorest in inland WA and fire-affected areas in southeast Australia.

The strongest improvements occurred in the NSW tablelands.

Population growth slowed down in 2020, growing by 188,000, which is 43 per cent below the average 2000-2019 growth rate.

This reduction was due to the effect of COVID-19 border closures on net immigration, Prof van Dijk said.

The coronavirus also caused greenhouse gas emissions to decrease 3.2 per cent from the previous year.

Temperatures were also lower than in the record hot year 2019 but remained well above average and in line with global warming.

The poorest overall environmental conditions occurred in the Northern Territory and Western Australia due to continued drought.

The largest improvements occurred in NSW and Victoria thanks to good rains, reaching above-average conditions.

Conditions in the ACT were affected by large fires in early 2020.

Researchers from ANU worked with the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network and analysed data from satellites and on-ground stations.

The environmental condition score is a score between 0 and 10 expressing condition relative to previous years.

It is calculated as the average rankings of component scores, including vegetation growth, soil protection, tree cover and the number of hot days.

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