Australia’s biodiversity at breaking point – a picture essay | Environment
Australia’s biodiversity is in trouble. The UN global assessment report painted a stark picture: the decline of the world’s natural support systems means that human society is in danger. According to the report, nature is being destroyed at a rate tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past 10 million years. More than a million species are at risk of extinction, natural ecosystems have declined by about 47% and the biomass of wild mammals has fallen by 82%. All of this is largely because of human activity. And the resulting impacts are likely to worsen unless we take action immediately.
As Guardian Australia has reported, Australia’s natural support systems are at breaking point. Increased land-clearing, warming oceans and a drought exacerbated by climate change are taking their toll on our biodiversity. The country is already experiencing rising oceans, marine heatwaves, longer fire seasons and extreme heat patterns. These are consistent with a changing climate.
However, there has been a lack of leadership from state and federal governments in this area, protections and funding have been slashed and emissions continue to rise unabated. Without drastic action, the future of Australia’s biodiversity looks bleak.
There is a “extinction crisis unfolding in plain sight” in Australia. More than 50 animal and 60 plant species have been lost, with Australia recording the highest rate of mammalian extinction in the world over the last 200 years. There’s more to come. Conservative estimates put more than 1,800 plant and animal species and woodlands, forests and wetlands at risk of extinction due to the intertwined pressures of climate change, land use practices, habitat loss and invasive species. The downward trend could be stopped, say conservationists, but only if there is meaningful government intervention. The Australian Conservation Foundation’s James Trezise told Guardian Australia: “From a conservation standpoint we know what needs to happen, but it seems there isn’t the political will to get us there.”
The lack of political engagement in these issues is staggering. In February 2018, it was revealed that less than 40% of Australia’s nationally listed threatened species have recovery plans in place and, for the 10% of listed threatened species that require plans, supporting documentation was unfinished, according to the environment and energy department’s own data. There hasn’t been any critical habitat listed on the federal critical habitat register for threatened species since 2005. And the Coalition has been accused of spending the $255m in threatened species funding on unrelated projects. Then in March, the federal environment department was forced to admit that it didn’t know whether recovery plans to prevent extinctions are actually being implemented.
Land-clearing and deforestation
The disregard for the protection of these areas was made clear when Liberal senator Anne Ruston, the federal minister responsible for forests, said in February during a Senate debate: “I’m sure that trees were put on this earth in the very first instance because they were able to be cut down, because they would grow again and because they would provide a resource for myriad different things.”
Climate change is increasing the pressure on our biodiversity – yet Australia’s emissions rise unabated. National emissions are the highest they have ever been, with the increased production of LNG the major contributor. Guardian Australia reported that emissions growth between 2015 and 2020 from the rapidly growing natural gas industry will effectively wipe out any gains already made.
Questions have been raised about the government’s $2.5bn emissions reduction fund and whether it provided value for money with funding wasted on projects that would have gone ahead regardless. Emissions from land and forest clearing are also negating any gains made under the ERF. According to government data, forest-clearing has released more than 160m tonnes of carbon dioxide since the emissions reduction fund began in 2015, with an estimated 60.3m tonnes to be emitted in the next year.
Although there has long been rainfall variability in Australia, King said other measures of drought including temperatures effects and evaporation changes pointed to a changed climate, with these patterns set to continue into the future.
The UN report identified agriculture as one of the primary causes of the deterioration of biodiversity around the world. The deterioration of the Murray-Darling, the so-called food bowl of Australia, is a case in point. Some of Australia’s most eminent environmental scientists have warned that the Murray-Darling basin plan, the strategy set up to save Australia’s largest river system, is not delivering the environmental outcomes promised. They point to watered down rules, state and federal governments shy of delivering reform, over-extraction and a lack of compliance by irrigators and no allowances for climate change.
The South Australian royal commission set up to investigate the issues found that government and MDBA officials were “guilty of maladministration, negligence and unlawful actions”. The commissioner, Bret Walker SC, also warned the Murray-Darling basin plan’s failure to take account of climate change was “potentially catastrophic”. Scientists have already reported that the climate in the region is changing, with temperatures rising and rainfall decreasing.
The federal government and the authority, who had refused to take part in the royal commission, dismissed the findings.
The UN report found the accelerating factors of climate change, pollution and invasive species were impacting the biodiversity of the world’s oceans.
Climate change is also causing marine heatwaves to happen more frequently and with more intensity, which have a devastating impact on the ocean’s ecosystems. In our region, the extreme intense marine heatwave of 2017-18 caused major disruption including kelp habitat loss, new species invasions and fisheries season changes. It’s a stark warning of things to come.