energy transformation 08 March 2017

Our land abounds in nature’s gifts – but not for long, if our leaders fail to protect them

Funding for conservation has been in dramatic decline since 2013 and now only amounts to 5c in every 100 dollars of taxpayer expenditure.

By Kelly O’Shanassy

Australia’s national identity is deeply embedded in the wonders of our unique natural environment.

Our connection to nature underpins life in Australia and is culturally and economically important.

It is right there in our national anthem: our land abounds in nature’s gifts, of beauty rich and rare. 

But our natural environment is in serious trouble, and governments are failing in their duty to protect and restore nature across Australia.

That is a core message in the latest national State of Environment report.

Nature in Australia faces significant and unprecedented challenges.

The report shows climate change is altering the structure and function of natural ecosystems in Australia, land clearing is damaging soil, waterways and biodiversity, coal mining and the coal-seam gas industry are putting increasing pressure on nature, grazing and invasive species continue to pose a significant threat to biodiversity.

In recent years we have seen massive bleaching and coral die off across our reefs, the loss of thousands of hectares of mangroves in the north, the extinction of endemic wildlife, a rise in the number of threatened species and an explosion in forest and land clearing.

There are some positive signs in this report. Early indications are that environmental watering and natural floods have benefitted the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin.

Indigenous Protected Areas and conservation covenants on private land are playing an increasingly important role in our protected area estate, although there are worries about the availability of ongoing funding for Indigenous Protected Areas.

But on the whole, the story is pretty grim.

The report is clear that inadequate funding and a lack of effective national coordinated action has contributed significantly to the current state of our environment. 

What may surprise people is that despite successive State of the Environment reports warning of the woeful trends and the need for more investment, federal government spending to protect and restore nature in Australia is at its lowest level in more than a decade and is expected to decline further.

Unless something drastically changes at the upcoming federal budget in May it will continue to be the case that for every hundred dollars the government spends, less than five cents reaches conservation programs.

At the same time the government is getting ready to spend one billion dollars of taxpayers’ money to help build Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine in Queensland, which, ironically, will be a major source of pollution for decades to come.

ACF’s stark assessment is that the federal government needs to increase funding for conservation and environmental protection by at least 400 per cent if it is to reverse the dramatic decline of Australia’s wildlife, reefs and forests documented in the State of the Environment report.

ACF’s stark assessment is that the federal government needs to increase funding for conservation and environmental protection by at least 400 per cent if it is to reverse the dramatic decline of Australia’s wildlife, reefs and forests documented in the State of the Environment report.

The truth is spending money on protecting and restoring nature is a good investment – and makes much more sense than subsidising new coal mines.

Investing in environmental restoration is also a critical role for government in an economy where our biggest market failure has been the decline of nature at the expense of industrial production.

The importance of a healthy environment to our economy should not be understated.

Nature in Australia is one of the key drawcards for international visitors, worth approximately $40 billion dollars to the economy based on figures from eco-tourism Australia.

In fact, we are the highest rated destination in the world when it comes to nature, according to government body Tourism Australia, ahead of Hawaii, New Zealand, Canada and Switzerland.

Healthy ecosystems are also a boon for our productive sectors. Healthy water catchments reduce nutrient loading, salinity and erosion. Healthy soils increase productivity through better water retention and nutrient cycling. Increased biodiversity improves native pollinators, which in turn improve yields. Native species can play a critical role in natural pest control.

While a healthy environment has traditionally been supported by both sides of politics, the Turnbull Government has so far failed Australia’s environment on many fronts.

From gutting spending on nature programs, to a continuing war on environmental legal rights, to a lack of action on global warming and potentially handing out a billion dollars to build a mega-polluting coal mine. 

There is not much to celebrate about this government’s actions to protect nature.

Ultimately, it’s future generations that will bear the heavy burden of lack of action and investment by our leaders today.

Fixing the systemic drivers that entrench declines in our environment is the challenge of our generation.

Our leaders across the political and business spectrum need to stand up on this issue.  But it will take organised and energised citizens to get them there.  I know many, many Australians are up for the challenge.

Are you prepared to join us?

Kelly O’Shanassy is the Australian Conservation Foundation’s CEO

A version of this piece was published in the Sydney Morning Herald

Kelly OShanassy