The State of the Environment is grim

The release of the State of the Environment Report 2021 last month painted a dire picture of the status of Australian biodiversity. The Report, which is legislated to occur every five years under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), found that the Australian environment continues to deteriorate due to a grim cocktail of ecosystem threats, including climate change, extreme events, habitat loss and degradation and invasive species.

The Report reflects the scale and urgency of Australia’s extinction crisis — an unfolding ecological tragedy that has seen Australia become the site of the world’s first climate change induced mammalian extinction and experience the highest rates of biodiversity loss of any developed nation.

According to the Report, threatened mammal species monitored by the National Environmental Science Program decreased in abundance by 38 per cent between 1995 and 2016. Threatened birds decreased in abundance too, by an average of over 60 per cent between 1985 and 2016. 

Fig. 2 – Threatened Mammal Index for Australia for all threatened species to 2017, with baseline from 1995.

The threats facing biodiversity are diverse and compounding. A shocking case study described in the Report relates to Australia’s freshwater turtle species, around half of which are currently listed as Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered. The combined perils of nest predation from foxes and drying of the Murray River due to climate change saw freshwater turtle populations experience declines of up to 91 per cent in the Murray Darling Basin. Novel diseases, like the mystery disease which brought the Bellinger River snapping turtle to the  brink of extinction in 2014, are becoming more common as climate change and pollution worsen water quality. 

Crucially, the survival of individual species cannot be separated from the survival of ecosystems. The Report found that many of Australia’s most significant ecosystems were experiencing collapse, including the Gondwanan forests of Tasmania, the Great Barrier Reef, and the waterways of the Murray Darling Basin. 

As the frequency and severity of extreme weather events increase with climate change, ecosystems suffer. The Black Summer megafires typified this challenge, with swathes of at least three World Heritage Sites affected, hundreds of plant species having the majority of their range burned, and billions of animals killed or displaced in the fires. The long-term effects of the fires could be realised over several decades, with complex downstream impacts including the introduction of contaminants into estuaries.

What needs to change?

The key findings of the Report outline a number of recommendations, which emphasise the importance of immediate and meaningful climate change mitigation and the centrality of First Nations participation in Australia’s environmental management.

A challenge in Australia’s current land management regime is the failure to integrate management of different, but connected, systems. In terms of biodiversity, the Report suggests that Australia’s biodiversity management focuses far more on assessing and listing threatened species than ecosystem recovery.

Problematically, a large portion of our attempts to manage impacts on biodiversity involve the use of biodiversity offsets — according to the Report, over 70 per cent of development proposals under the EPBC Act involve offsets within their conditions of approval. This reliance on offsetting is troubling for a few reasons. 

Firstly, biodiversity offsetting is a frequently unaccountable system, with a lack of quality assurance and imperfect measurement of the damage to be averted. Despite the principle of ‘no net loss’ (i.e. that any biodiversity loss must be fully compensated for), failures to implement offsets effectively mean that habitat losses are frequent — there is limited value in an offset which does not actually provide good habitat for displaced wildlife. 

This lack of oversight (and sometimes outright malpractice) is so significant that some offsets remain undelivered 20 years after they were first promised and the NSW government  has accepted heritage-protected, government owned bushland as an offset.

Secondly, biodiversity offsetting is sorely unambitious. In the context of collapsing ecosystems, is ‘no net loss’ really sufficient? 

Biodiversity assessment to calculate offsets takes into account the quality of the ecosystems being altered or destroyed — where they are substantially degraded or fragmented, they are not considered to have relevant biodiversity value. 

Unfortunately, this assumes that the current state of biodiversity is static. If, for example, a wetland is depleted in the status quo, this does not preclude restoring its water quality and biodiversity in the future. In fact, restoring ecosystems is widely necessary, especially around urban areas where remnant habitat is highly degraded and fragmented due to urbanisation. 

More fundamentally, there are some things you simply can’t offset. 

In addition to the clearing of biodiversity-rich native vegetation, the Dendrobium Coal Mine Extension Project will impact the Illawarra’s precious upland swamps, which feed into Sydney’s drinking water catchment. These swamps are essential ecosystem functions, which store and protect rainwater and sequester carbon. 

The Project will damage 25 of these swamps, and in return, the owner, South32, will use its offset credits by transferring tracts of upland swamp into government ownership to ‘compensate’ for the damage done by the mine and engaging in PR-heavy bush regeneration. 

Can handing upland swamps over to the government really compensate for meddling with the systems behind our water supply? For destroying carbon sinks and koala habitat? Surely not — while some degree of environment change is inherent to development, our policies around biodiversity offsetting need to be far more judicious about what is an acceptable social and environmental trade off.

A path forward for biodiversity

Salvaging Australia’s languishing biodiversity is a challenge. Yet, as the State of the Environment Report notes, it is essential — both for the long-term survival of the continent’s ecosystems and for human welfare. Doing so will require a shift in the approach we take to environmental protection — challenging the stranglehold of developers and corporations in our land management, holding governments accountable, and aiming for real restoration of natural systems.

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