Life, like nature, is cyclical. Every year I get my eyes checked. Every second year, we holiday with my partner’s family. Bunya pines produce a bumper crop of nuts every third year, or so. The Olympics occur every four years. And every five years the Australian Government commissions independent experts to assess the health of Australia’s environment.
The recently released 2021 Australia: State of the Environment report is out and it is sobering. In detailing the vast scale of the environmental challenges we face, it seeks to inform and educate both everyday Australians and decision-makers about the health of our forests, rivers, wildlife, cities and reefs. And it provides an indisputable basis to inform, and measure, the future policy responses of Australian governments and businesses. The report provides a measure of the scale of our environmental problems, so we can come up with adequate solutions.
You may have seen the headlines about the report. In this blog I dig deeper into the context behind some of the big media-grabbing statistics, explain what’s causing the damage, and look into Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek’s response to the report.
The take-home message from the 2021 report is unequivocal. The health of the environment on which we all depend is poor, and the trend for its future is getting worse. From land to water, from climate to biodiversity, and from oceans to Antarctica, almost every indicator in the overview report is bad. The one exception is air quality, which is very good. However the trend is that the environment is deteriorating.
There are some shocking statistics and killer facts in the latest report. Brace yourself for somber reading.
One of the most media-quoted statistics from the report is that 7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat was destroyed in Australia between 2000 and 2017. This is an area of forest and woodland larger than Tasmania! What’s more, 93% of this threatened species habitat, or 7.11 million hectares, was destroyed without federal government assessment or approval, despite the fact that Australia's national environment laws are meant to protect the habitat of threatened species. The vast majority of this clearing was for agriculture in Queensland and NSW, though large swathes were destroyed in other states, as you can see from this map.
The extraordinary scale of this destruction was a headline finding of the government-sponsored report, but it is not a government-generated statistic. It was ACF-commissioned independent research that generated the finding. In other words, if it wasn’t for ACF, and our piercing scrutiny of the government, no one would have any idea how much habitat for threatened species had been destroyed in this country because the government certainly isn’t keeping track.
Another standout finding was that there are now more introduced land-based plants in Australia than native ones. This figure seems hard to believe given Australia’s extraordinary diversity. We are after all, one of only 17 megadiverse nations on earth with an astounding 24,000 different vascular (advanced) plants. Digging deeper, there are 27,000 introduced and invasive plants in Australia. What is perhaps more outstanding is this figure is from a 17-year-old study and the number of invasive plant species has certainly grown since then.
It’s hardly news any more, but Australia has ‘lost’ more mammal species than any other continent. Though this isn’t entirely true. We didn’t ‘lose’ them the same way I lost my keys the other day. We know what happened to these unique and irreplaceable creatures. We caused their extinction and it’s time we changed our language to reflect this fact.
What’s worse, despite two decades worth of warnings in successive State of the Environment reports, governments have stuck their heads in the sand about the problem. As a result, we have one of the highest rates of species decline amongst developed countries in the OECD. The report reveals that the list of new threatened species, and species listed in a higher category of threat, has grown by 8% since 2016 and, more worryingly, will increase substantially in coming years because of the 2019–20 bushfires. Since the last report, 17 mammal species, 17 bird and 19 frog species were added or uplisted to the federal government’s threatened species list.
The report also revealed that despite the worsening state of the Australian environment, funding for protecting and conserving nature has declined. Aside from a controversial half a billion dollar grant to a little-known Great Barrier Reef charity; funding for Landcare has been cut, there is no new funding for new national parks and reserves, there have been cuts to biodiversity at CSIRO, and the Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility was shut. ACF research has been critical in documenting the size of environmental funding cuts; we've shown that since the Coalition Government was elected in 2013, federal funding for nature conservation has been slashed by almost 40%.
Another stand out for me in the report, in comparison to past reports, was the fact that the impacts of climate change on people and nature are now clear, abundant and well documented, rather than warnings of what’s to come. The report has a new chapter dedicated to extreme weather events. We’ve seen rainforests from Queensland to Tasmania burnt for the first time ever, extreme droughts causing extensive fish kills in the Murray Darling Basin and extreme floods that wreak havoc on people and nature.
What does this mean on the ground, or under the sea? The ecological collapse of the giant Tasmanian kelp forests, due to rising ocean temperatures from climate change, is a personally disturbing example. I was a ranger in Tassie for many years and always wanted to scuba dive in these underwater forests but never got around to it. I realise now I have probably missed my chance as they have declined by 95%. The kelp forests are just one of 19 ecosystems across Australia facing collapse, or in the process of collapsing.
Nature is disappearing before our very eyes. The koalas I used to see on my grandfather's farm in the Yarra Valley as a kid are now gone. This once-common species, listed as vulnerable a decade ago, was listed as endangered this year. The once common and widespread Greater Glider was also listed as endangered this year, as was the Gang Gang Cockatoo. The once ubiquitous Bogong Moth, which I remember in plague proportions as a kid, has had an estimated 98% population crash. I can’t help but think about all the wondrous places, plants and animals I’ve had the privilege to experience, but that my children may never see, because the rate of nature destruction is accelerating.
The State of the Environment report highlights three key critical and growing pressures on our natural environment: habitat destruction, invasive species and climate change. I look at each in turn and also how they combine to make matters worse.
Habitat destruction, (shorthand for the euphemistic habitat ‘loss’, fragmentation and degradation), affects more threatened species than any other pressure. Put simply, without a place, or the right conditions, to live, native plants and animals cannot survive. The biggest driver of habitat destruction in Australia is undoubtedly land-clearing for agriculture, particularly beef production. Habitat is also destroyed when trees and other vegetation are cleared for mining, logging, urban sprawl, and for infrastructure projects like roads, ports, dams, factories and railways.
Habitat is also destroyed in other ways. Invasive species destroy habitat when they modify ecosystems. For example, introduced water buffalo and wild pigs have degraded Kakadu’s precious wetlands and feral horses have trampled sensitive Alpine ecosystems. Climate change is also increasingly destroying habitat through fueling extreme weather events like fires, floods and droughts that irrevocably alter and destroy ecosystems.
Of the three big, and interrelated, threats to nature, habitat destruction is the most avoidable, and intervenable. This is why ACF’s new nature campaign to Save our Big Backyard, focuses on what we can do to halt habitat destruction. We don’t have to bulldoze our remaining forests, grasslands, wetlands and woodlands for our food, fibre, homes or mines. There are sustainable ways of obtaining the resources we need from nature.
Yet all too often, big corporations destroy habitat because it is the easiest way to maximise their short-term profits. While the report documented promising signs of businesses increasingly accounting for natural capital, such as habitat, in their business model, many do not. Instead governments and communities are forced to spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars trying to recover and restore damaged ecosystems, when we could have simply protected them in the first place.
Introduced and invasive species are a huge threat to nature in Australia. While invasives impact a smaller number of threatened species than habitat destruction does, the impact they have is greater. While ACF supports the efforts of other organisations working on threatened species, it is not the main focus of our work.
The third threat to nature highlighted in the report is increasing, and aggravating the others. In addition to fuelling increasingly severe and more frequent extreme weather events, climate change is causing range shifts, moving the ecological envelope in which species can survive. This is especially dangerous for alpine species, such as the Mountain pygmy possum for example, which is already living on our highest mountain tops, and has nowhere left to go. Climate change can also improve conditions for invasive species, which destroy habitat, creating yet more cumulative pressure on threatened species.
For the first time the State of the Environment report has sought to document the impact and implications environmental decline is having on Australians. While links were made between specific indicators and the Sustainable Development Goals, there is still a shortage of quantifiable evidence on the impact nature destruction is having, and will have on people. We know the food we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the places we live and love, all depend on a healthy environment. Human and environmental health are inextricably linked. But much more work is needed to document the interconnections and make them tangible for Australians.
Environmental scientists and advocates have been detailing environmental decline and destruction in Australia for decades. Despite their best efforts, the key findings of the report may still be very surprising to many Australians. While ACF commissioned research shows Australians from diverse backgrounds feel a strong love for, and connection to nature, the vast majority (84%) still believe our environment is in excellent, good or fair state. Just 14% believe it is in a poor or terrible state. Our understandings about the health of nature are clearly out of step with reality and we have a big job on our hands to educate fellow Australians about the nature destruction and extinction crisis we are facing.
There is some positive news and promising signs of change in the latest report. For one, Saltwater crocodile numbers are bouncing back across Northern Australia, a statistic I can attest to personally after a recent trip to Kakadu. Once hunted to the brink of extinction, the fact they have recovered once hunters stopped killing them shows that for some species at least, removing the biggest threat they face, can dramatically improve their trajectory. This is hopefully true of other species too.
Another positive sign in the report was the focus on Indigenous co-authorship. This latest report embraced Indigenous knowledge and connection to Country as well as documenting the impact of environmental decline on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People. Centering First Nations People in Australia’s efforts to protect and restore nature and deal with climate change will be critical to our success.
The previous Environment Minister Sussan Ley was handed the report in late 2021 but did not release it. By contrast, the new Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek didn’t avoid the bad news in the report. Instead she used it as a platform to announce (and reiterate) the Albanesse Government’s environmental policies and priorities. This is a positive outcome from an overwhelmingly negative report.
When I joined ACF nearly a decade ago, the organisation was in the midst of a campaign to stop then Prime Minister Julia Gillard further weakening Australia’s already ineffective national environment laws. As a lead member of the Places You Love alliance, ACF has been incredibly successful at holding the line on environment laws, preventing the handover of federal approval powers to state governments.
Additionally, we have campaigned long and hard for strong new environmental laws that can actually protect nature. It was therefore good news to hear Minister Plibersek announce, in her official response to the report, her timeline for implementing the government’s election commitment to overhaul our failing national environment laws.
Minister Plibersek announced her government would make a formal response to the Independent review (known as the Samuel review) of the EPBC Act, by the end of 2022. She also said that legislation for new national environment laws, (significantly including an independent regulator, such as an Environmental Protection Authority) would be introduced to the Parliament in 2023. There is still a long way to go before Australia has strong new national environment laws in place, but this is the most promising position the campaign has been in for over a decade. This is a testament to those who have fought long and hard for change.
Minister Plibersek also reiterated (it had been previously announced) that Australia would take strong nature protection targets of 30% of land and 30% of water by 2030, to the Conference of the Parties nature negotiations (COP15) hosted by Canada in December. Plibersek suggested Australia had already protected 30% of our oceans (though leading marine scientists dispute this) and that 26% of land is conserved, however these areas are not adequately representative of the diversity of our land and sea ecosystems. While we don’t have too far to go to reach the 30 by 30 target, much of the so-called low-hanging fruit, such as the vast areas of the arid inland being managed for conservation under Indigenous Protected Areas, or-off-shore sub-Antarctic Islands, are already safeguarded.
In achieving 30% by 2030, the focus needs to be on protecting under-represented ecosystems, and increasing the level of protection. It is also not as simple as establishing new protected areas. These areas, and our existing ones, need to be effectively managed, and that requires adequate funding.
While 30% by 2030 sounds good, conservationists advocating for a Global Deal for Nature argue that we actually need to conserve and restore 50% of the Earth’s land area as intact natural ecosystems by 2050 if we are to stem the extinction and climate crisis.
ACF is encouraging Minister Plibersek and Prime Minister Albanese to personally attend the COP 15 nature negotiations in Montreal, to ensure Australia plays a leading role on the world stage advocating for ambitious global goals for nature that will stop biodiversity destruction, end extinction and restore nature to better health.
Minister Plibersek also reiterated election commitments of increased funding for Indigenous Protected Areas, and to double the number of Indigenous Rangers by the end of the decade, plus $225 million over the next four years to help arrest species decline and restore populations of endangered plants and animals. These commitments are a good start but they fall well short of the scale of funding needed to restore damaged ecosystems, recover threatened species and turn around the declining indicators of environmental health revealed in the report.
One study has shown that $1.69 billion per year may be needed to improve the status of all of Australia’s threatened species in the coming years. Other research also shows that spending $2 billion annually for 30 years could restore almost all (99.8%) of Australia’s degraded terrestrial ecosystems to 30% vegetation coverage.
Other environmental priorities announced by Plibersek off the back of the shocking report included renewed effort to deliver the Murray Darling Basin plan, although the goal of returning 450 gigalitres of environmental flows by 2024 will be virtually impossible to achieve because, as was revealed in the report, only 2 of the 450 gigs has been returned, so far.
As grim as the State of the Environment report is, there is always hope. With combined action we can support nature to recover. And it takes all of us - citizens, activists, businesses and governments alike. ACF’s Save our Big Backyard campaign is building a movement of nature lovers calling for strong laws that actually protect nature, adequate funding to restore and recover damaged ecosystems, and for Australia to play a leading role in efforts to secure ambitious global goals for nature. Our vision is to halt and reverse nature destruction so that by the end of the decade nature is in better shape than it is today.
Small and big businesses have a strong part to play in rebuilding the world we want to live in - and as consumers we can vote with our feet and our wallets. Who we bank with, where our superannuation lies, and even where we shop are part and parcel of letting businesses know we want transparency on how their operations contribute to nature destruction and how we want them to take action.
Our nature laws petition is the biggest in our history. Nearly 500,000 people are calling for strong national environment laws that would actually protect nature and an independent regular to enforce them. If you haven’t already, please sign the petition. If you have signed the petition, now’s the time to share it! There’s never been a more important time to be a persistent and consistent voice for action - the more people that join this journey, the louder our voice becomes until we cannot be ignored.
That strong voice is invaluable at a local level too. Speaking with or writing to your local MP puts nature on their radar and asks them to speak up in their party for action for nature protection. Whether through email or a face-to-face meeting, ask what they’re going to do to ensure our nature laws work and are backed by a strong regulator.
Working with your local community through an ACF Community group (check if there’s one near you!) is a great way to connect with others, and bring new nature lovers into our movement. If there’s one thing this Report has reinforced for me, it’s that everything is interconnected, and we have to fight for the thing we are most dependent on - nature.
You can learn more about getting involved in ACF through volunteering by looking through our volunteering opportunities, joining our next national volunteer welcome night, or signing up for a welcome call.
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