Let's get serious about protecting wildlife in a warming world

Stephen Williams, James Cook University; Brett Scheffers, University of Florida, and Lorena Falconi, James Cook University

In the rainforests of northern Queensland, scientists and government are getting serious about protecting wildlife, plants and ecosystems from climate change. A couple of years ago, Mount Baldy in the Herberton Range near Atherton became part of Queensland’s protected area estate, in part because the mountains will remain cool enough under global warming for many species to survive there.

The area will act as a refuge as species move from the warming lowlands. Now the Queensland government is using resilience to climate change as the primary factor in deciding what new national parks to add across the state.

Climate change poses a significant threat to animals, plants and ecosystems over the coming decades. Queensland’s World Heritage Wet Tropics Rainforests are particularly vulnerable, as many species are adapted to a narrow temperature range.

To save wildlife we’ll need to mitigate climate change (reduce our greenhouse gas emissions) and adapt to the warming already coming our way. New national parks are just one of the methods Queensland is developing to give wildlife room to move.

From science to action

A whole host of research groups have worked on conservation in the Wet Tropics, supported by the Australian and Queensland governments. These include: the Wet Tropics Management Authority, Rainforest-CRC, Marine and Tropical Science Research Facility and the National Environmental Research Program.

Each of these groups has worked with the management authorities and built on previous research. That research is starting to pay off. Here’s how it worked.

Biodiversity research in the Rainforest-CRC fed directly into the Marine and Tropical Science Research Facility program. In 2011 this research identified refugia that will remain cooler than average under climate change. This is due to buffering of temperature by cloud, forest canopy and the natural topography of the landscape.

The JCU team then combined projections of future species distributions with the refugia mapping to identify areas of high conservation importance. These areas have high refugial potential and both high current and future biodiversity value.

The green-eyed tree frog is found only in the Wet Tropics.
Stephen Williams

These analyses identified places that are currently cleared but could support many species in the future if the rainforest was restored and existing patches reconnected. This information directly informed the Wet Tropics Management Authority conservation plans and priorities and contributed to the new Mt Baldy National Park being gazetted.

The scientists, the Wet Tropics Management Authority, landholders and community groups worked together under a federal Caring for Country grant to figure out where and how to restore habitat in places that would connect remaining patches of rainforest. Connecting habitat patches is important. It allows animals to move across the landscape as the climate changes in order to stay in their comfort zone.

This led to the Making Connections project, which is actively revegetating and connecting rainforest areas. This helps build resilience for the region’s biodiversity.

The research was further developed and adapted nationally under the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility to identify climate refuges Australia-wide.

The Queensland government then used this knowledge to make informed decisions about how to increase the state’s protected area estate in a way that would enhance the resilience of Queensland’s biodiversity into the future.

These examples clearly emphasise how science and research can have a real and positive influence on producing on-the-ground adaptation actions that will reduce the climate change impacts on biodiversity.

Australia to the world

Tropical ecosystems are the most important reservoirs of biodiversity and ecosystem services on the Earth, but the tropics also face the greatest conflict between human well-being, sustainable development and a healthy environment.

The three most important regions for global biodiversity are South America, the Asia-Pacific and Central Africa. These tropical megadiverse regions contain approximately 80% of terrestrial biodiversity with a high proportion of threatened species. They also provide significant ecosystem services to the Earth and the well-being of billions of people.

The tropics are ‘hotspots’ for biodiversity, as shown in red and yellow.
Mannion et al. in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, CC BY

However, tropical ecosystems are under considerable threat. The tropics have 40% of the global human population, two-thirds of the world’s poorest people and the fastest growth rates in human population, economic change and habitat loss.

Until recently, habitat loss and degradation was clearly the major environmental threat in the tropics. However, in the 21st century the impact of global climate change in combination with other human-induced impacts poses the greatest challenge of our time.

It has never been more important to provide and disseminate knowledge that informs policy and natural resource management. This can then enable effective adaptation and mitigation measures to maintain the resilience of tropical ecosystems and the humans that depend on them.

We need to establish a global network that builds on the Australian model by including empirical research on adaptation and mitigation, monitoring, regional and global capacity-building and information exchange across the globe.

There are positive signs that governments in the tropics are recognising the importance of this issue and the potential benefits of bringing their scientists, stakeholders and the public together to increase their capacity to adapt and mitigate.

The Singapore government has expressed interest in establishing an Asia-Pacific network in collaboration with our Australian network. Similarly, the Ecuadorian government has funded the initial development of a South American network in partnership with Yachay Tech University.

We need to make the momentum created in Australia snowball into a global network of people, organisations and monitoring sites across the tropics. This will enable us to make the right decisions in the face of the combined threats of global climate change, habitat loss and illegal logging and poaching. This will hopefully reduce the negative impacts of global climate change on biodiversity and on the livelihoods of the growing economies and populations of the tropics.

The Conversation

Stephen Williams is Professor, Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate Change & Prometeo – Visiting Scientist Yachay Tech University, Ecuador. at James Cook University.
Brett Scheffers is Assistant Professor at University of Florida.
Lorena Falconi is Research worker, Terrestrial Ecosystems and Climate Change at James Cook University.

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Wait and pay: action on climate change is cheap, delay is costly

Luke Kemp, Australian National University and Frank Jotzo, Australian National University

A plethora of economic studies on the costs of climate action share a common message: action on climate change is cheap, and delaying it will be costly.

This has implications for Australia’s post-2020 emissions targets, to be decided by government the in coming weeks or months. We’ve reviewed the evidence.

The results are published in two short reports for WWF Australia. Our first brief highlighted that there is a general consensus amongst economists on the costs of mitigating climate change. That consensus is invisible to most, but it is clear across all major reports and studies: the cost of reducing emissions for Australia, and the world, is low.

Our second brief, released today, shows another points of emerging consensus: that the costs of delaying action on climate change outweigh the benefits.

The cost of taking action is low

All major studies find that the costs of achieving deep reductions in carbon emissions are a small fraction of future economic growth. And that is before extra benefits such as reduced air pollution and more stable energy prices are taken into account. These are significant benefits that most models ignore. The co-benefits of the US Clean Air Act have been estimated to be 30 times greater than the costs of compliance.

Australia’s economy will keep growing comparatively rapidly, to perhaps two and a half times its current size by 2050, while emissions are cut – and cut deeply if strong effort is made.

With each successive study, the estimated cost of cutting emissions to a given level has dropped, or the emissions reductions achievable at a given cost increased. More is possible at lower cost than we thought just a few years ago.

This is for several reasons.

First, the technological progress with many low-emissions technologies consistently outpaces projections, LED lighting and electric cars being among the examples.

Second, the costs of technologies are falling much faster than expected. Solar panels are the prime example. Astonishingly, large-scale solar panel power
stations are already only half the cost that the Treasury’s 2008 and 2011 modelling studies estimated they would be in the year 2030.

Third, the underlying drivers of emissions growth are not as strong now than many thought they would be, including because of the end of the mining boom.

Fourth, analysts and businesses are becoming aware of ever more ways in which emissions can be reduced.

The falling modelled estimates of macroeconomic costs of achieving a 25% emissions reduction (2020 target relative to 2000).
Author provided

The costs of delay

Given the plummeting costs of renewable energy it is reasonable to ask why doesn’t Australia wait until costs are even lower and then make the transition?

Unfortunately despite the falling price of renewable energy technology, delaying mitigation has a range of significant costs. It reviews the literature on delay, showing that the costs of delay outweigh any potential benefits.

The longer that emissions increase or plateau, the steeper reductions in the future must be, because greenhouse gas emissions accumulate in the atmosphere. The longer we wait, the greater the risk that global climate goals get out of reach. Delaying global action by 15 years effectively pushes the globally agreed 2C target out of reach.

Delaying action also means relying upon currently commercially unavailable technologies. Such technologies include the large-scale use of bio-energy combined with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). The IPCC finds that large-scale deployment of such “BECCS” technology could be necessary to keep warming to 2C under a scenario of delayed action.

Taking it easy at first and going for stronger action later would likely come at a high economic cost. A range of models have found that delaying global mitigation by 15 years could double or triple the cost of keeping to an overall carbon budget.

A key factor is that delay leads to the “lock-in” of emissions intensive infrastructure which becomes obsolete when action is taken to cut emissions. And rather than changing economic structures gradually, delayed action requires sudden adjustment that could cause economic and social disruption.

This is not just a question of economic efficiency but also an issue of intergenerational equity. Future generations are likely to bear the stronger impacts of climate change, and if we delay they will also face much higher costs in reducing emissions.

Avoiding a fossilised economy

The risk of carbon lock-in and high adjustment costs from delay are particularly strong for Australia given our emissions intensive economy, exports and resources.

Global coal demand will fall under strong global climate action; already China’s coal demand is tailing off despite the Chinese economy continuing to grow rapidly. Some of Australia’s mining and coal transport infrastructure may be left stranded. Indeed, over-investment in the coal industry during the mining boom means that some infrastructure may already need to be prematurely retired. This poses particular risks for low-grade, high-cost coal.

There is significant financial risk in continued fossil fuel investment.

The extent of unburnable oil, gas and coal reserves under a 2C carbon budget for OECD Asia Pacific countries, share of total reserves (based on data from McGlade and Ekins, 2015)

The reality is that a large share of global fossil fuel resources cannot be used if the world is to limit global warming to 2C. The lion’s share of coal resources in Australia will be “unburnable”. For developed countries in the Asia Pacific -principally Australia- this share of “unburnable” coal could be above 90%.

Strong global climate change action is in Australia’s interest, as acknowledged in the government’s issues paper on the post-2020 emissions target. What also needs to be understood is that strong and early domestic emissions reductions are also in Australia’s short and long-term national interest. Dragging our feet is not a smart, or fair, idea.

The Conversation

Luke Kemp is PhD Candidate in International Relations and Environmental Policy at Australian National University.
Frank Jotzo is Director, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy at Australian National University.

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Meet the Australian wildlife most threatened by climate change

Jasmine Lee, The University of Queensland; Ramona Maggini, The University of Queensland, and Richard Fuller, The University of Queensland

Nearly half of 200 Australian species are threatened by climate change, according to our research published today in PLOS ONE.

Climate change is one of the major contributors to global biodiversity loss, and plant and animal species can be affected by climate change in different ways. Some may be directly affected by sea level rise or snow melt, whereas some may lose a pollinator or prey species that they rely on.

Species that cannot move to more suitable habitats, or who have no suitable habitat left, risk becoming extinct. Understanding how each of our species is affected by climate change means we can help them survive it.

A recent global study showed that between 11-15% of amphibian species are threatened by climate change (depending on how much the world warms), yet we rarely know how to help these species because we don’t know why individual species are vulnerable.

We set out to document how many of Australia’s threatened species are likely to be impacted by climate change, and which aspects of their biology was leading to the vulnerability. We chose a balanced selection of species, including mammals, amphibians, reptiles, birds and plants for our analysis, and assess them using a method developed by NatureServe.

Which species?

Over 45% of all the threatened species we assessed were moderately to highly vulnerable, including a wide range of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and plants.

The species most vulnerable to climate change was the Mountain Pygmy Possum, threatened by increased snow melt, and further habitat loss through development of ski resorts.

Overall, and perhaps not surprisingly, amphibians are most highly vulnerable to climate change. They have small and fragmented distributions, and rely heavily on particular moisture regimes and aquatic habitats.

Plants were the next most vulnerable group, because they often have low dispersal ability (they cannot move freely like animals) and rely on specific soil types. Birds, who are very good dispersers, were the least vulnerable group.

The Green and Golden Bell Frog (Litoria aurea) is one of Australia’s threatened frog species. Potentially manipulating water sources or providing artificial water points may be the best way to ensure the future of many Australian amphibians under climate change.
Jeremy Ringma

Where should we focus our efforts?

The three most pervasive factors for all the assessed threatened species were low genetic variation, dependence on particular patterns of disturbance (often fire, required for reproduction or to maintain suitable habitats), and reliance on particular patterns of rainfall or habitats.

Crucially, the reasons why threatened species are vulnerable to climate change varied markedly across Australia. Along the south-east coastline, the major driving factors were reliance on particular patterns of disturbance and low genetic variation, while in contrast one of key factors driving vulnerability of the species residing in the upper Northern Territory was reliance on particular moisture regimes and habitats.

Each of these regions will require a set of on-ground actions targeted specifically to address the factors causing climate change vulnerability of the species living there.

Fires play a large role in maintaining suitable habitat for many Australian species and are required by some for reproduction. Reliance on fire regimes is one of the factors driving species climate change vulnerability across the south-east coastline.
Julian Murphy/WWF

What can we do?

Once the drivers of climate change vulnerability are understood for different species, groups of species and regions, we can start to take action. Actions that are targeted to help species adapt to the changing climate and give them the best chance of surviving into the future.

But how do we go about it? As an example, we can increase moisture in an environment to help amphibians by installing microhabitat refuges (such as fallen logs and cover boards), or directly manipulating the moisture levels at breeding sites by installing irrigation sprayers.

We can target actions to specific sites. The south-east coastline for example could be benefited by having dedicated areas that are specially managed to maintain appropriate patterns of fire.

Other actions may be broader and target a larger number of species, such as habitat restoration, or corridors to counter increasing fragmentation. We need to identify and protect critical refuges for as many species as possible. Whatever the case, helping our species adapt to climate change is going to require novel and unique management strategies.

Now that we know which of our threatened species are being impacted by climate change and why, we can begin to design on-ground management strategies to start combating the impending changes.

In conjunction with increasing on-ground actions, we must keep in mind that the cost and difficulty of more intensive management to save threatened species underlines the importance of bringing about rapid and deep cuts to the greenhouse gas emissions that are creating this crisis.

This article was co-authored by Martin Taylor, Conservation Science Manager at WWF-Australia.

The Conversation

Jasmine Lee is PhD candidate, biodiversity conservation and climate change at The University of Queensland.
Ramona Maggini is Honorary Research Fellow at The University of Queensland.
Richard Fuller is Associate professor at The University of Queensland.

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We've only monitored a fraction of the Barrier Reef's species

Mark Hamann, James Cook University and Andrew Chin, James Cook University

This long-read article is part of a series examining in depth the various threats to the Great Barrier Reef.

When the Great Barrier Reef was first placed on the World Heritage List in 1981, it was recognised as being home to a huge diversity of species, many of them threatened. Conserving the reef’s habitats would therefore be a great way to protect many different species all at the same time.

Naturally, some of these thousands of species have attracted more attention than others. Generally these are large animals with high tourism value – often called the “charismatic megafauna” – such as marine mammals, turtles, sea snakes, sharks, rays and seabirds. Many of these species are listed as either threatened or migratory under Australia’s environmental legislation.

Yet this hardly scratches the surface. Even counting only vertebrates, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) boasts a diversity of species (see page 23 onwards here) that can be found in few other places on the planet. It features 1,625 species of bony fish, six of the seven marine turtle species, 30 whale and dolphin species, dugong, 20 breeding seabird species, and some 136 species of sharks and rays.

There are also hugely valuable places such as Raine Island, the world’s largest breeding location for green turtles, which also hosts breeding colonies of 14 seabird species and provides habitat for up to 20 shark and ray species.

The Great Barrier Reef is home to some 1,600 species of bony fish.
Eric Johnson/NOAA/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Yet of these thousands of species, we only have data on population trends for a small few, and most species have never been assessed. There are nine species or species groups of marine vertebrates in the GBR – six are rated as being in poor condition and four have deteriorated since 2009.

The lack of specific data makes it hard to work out which species will be vulnerable to human-generated risks, and to decide on policies to safeguard them. And of the ones that have been assessed, the news is a mixed bag of good and not-so-good.

Good news stories

  • Humpback whales were hunted to near extinction in eastern Australia during the 1950s and early 1960s. Since whaling was banned in the early 1960s the population has recovered by an estimated 11% per year, and humpback and dwarf minke whales now support a multimillion-dollar whale-watching industry (see page 32 of the GBR Outlook Report).

  • Loggerhead turtles breeding in Queensland declined between the 1980s and 2000s as they were hit hard by egg predation and fishing bycatch. Combinations of land based-management, protected area designations and fisheries regulations (such as the 2001 requirement for turtle excluder devices) led to population recovery, although it has still not regained its original level.

  • Reef shark populations have declined in some areas, probably as a result of previous fishing pressures. However, there are early indications of recovery for some species since the rezoning of the GBR and fisheries management changes introduced in 2004. The public has also shown increasing awareness of the need for and value in sustaining healthy shark populations.

Sad news stories

  • Hawksbill turtles on the northern GBR are declining by around 3% per year. The key threats are international turtle hunting, and predation of eggs on Australian islands by native and introduced fauna. Without action, the population is forecast to decline by more than 90% by 2020.

  • Most sawfishes and the speartooth shark have seriously declined in abundance and distribution along the Queensland coast, with some species such as the green sawfish facing potential localised extinctions. Although these species are listed as protected species, they continue to be threatened by fishing and habitat loss and degradation.

  • Inshore dolphins such as the Australian snubfin and Indo-pacific humpback live in small, often isolated, local populations around the coastal areas of the GBR. Although there are no population size estimates for either species they are believed to be in decline and under considerable risk from human activities.

  • Dugong, despite being more abundant in the Torres Strait than anywhere else on Earth, are thought to be in decline in the southern GBR, according to aerial surveys, and there are concerns that declining sea grass abundance coupled with fisheries and boating related mortality are affecting the population.

Conserving homes and habitats

Rather than focus on individual species, it is perhaps easier to look at the broad habitat types where they live. The different habitats that cover the GBR World Heritage Area include islands, beaches and coastline, seagrass meadows, coral reefs, mangroves, the lagoon floor, shoals, halimeda banks, continental slope and open waters.

The GBR Marine Park Authority’s Outlook Report states that the condition of five of the ten habitat groups have deteriorated between 2009 and 2014, and for three habitats rated as “good”, their condition was inferred on the basis of limited evidence. Each of these habitats is important for many of the GBR’s most recognised species.

In particular, there have been well-documented declines in seagrass and hard coral cover across the World Heritage Area, particularly in the southern inshore region of the GBR. Additionally, coastal, estuarine and lagoon floor habitats are also affected by impacts from land-use changes such as coastal modification. Restoring the condition to these habitats is complicated and will take a long time. What’s more, when habitats change we have little idea of the longer-term flow-on consequences for many species.

There are still crucial unanswered questions: how do seagrass seeds disperse along the coast and between coastal bays? What is the abundance, distribution and status of key species (and new ones yet to be discovered)? How and why do coastal species move within and between coastal habitats and coral reefs?

How does bottom-trawling affect seafloor invertebrate species and the flow on impacts to turtles? What is the impact of high seas and International fisheries on the GBR’s marine turtles? How will marine mammals and other vertebrates react to underwater noise from human activities?

The effect of noise pollution on whales and other marine mammals is still far from clear.
AAP Image/WWF/Jürgen Freund

What can be done?

The Commonwealth and Queensland governments’ Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, released earlier this year, is big on ambition but low on detail. Targets are well defined for water quality, having been the subject of much discussion. But for marine vertebrates and their habitats the targets are often generic, and there is no guarantee that there will be enough resources to do the necessary monitoring to make them any better.

Yet we believe there are several things that can be done. Several of the threatened and declining species are migratory, so one thing we can do is strengthen international cooperation through jointly funded conservation projects. We should also strengthen Indigenous partnerships for research and management, not just in the World Heritage Area but in the neighbouring Torres Strait and southeast Queensland.

We need to strengthen the transfer of knowledge between groups doing work on the ground and people in Government who make decisions. There also needs to be concerted effort and political will focused on reviving the integrated planning and management schemes designed to manage and protect the coastal ecosystems that drive and support coastal and reef dwelling species.

From the sheer volume of media discussion about issues such as the Abbot Point port redevelopment, it could be inferred that the people are uncertain about the government’s ability to safeguard the reef’s outstanding value. Community attitudes and support are vital for a healthy reef, and we believe that a concerted effort is needed to restore community confidence and engage the community in conservation efforts.

Meanwhile, we need to identify the species of highest priority. For each species or group of species we then need to understand the threats, work out how to manage them, and properly evaluate the effectiveness of management actions put in place to protect them.

It is unlikely that sufficient resources will be available to address each individual threat for each species or multi-species group, so we need to develop tools which allow decision makers to determine priority actions which when complete provide best conservation bang for buck.

Marine parks work, but are they generally too small to protect mobile or migratory species, so we will need to work out how to conserve species on larger scales.

Monitoring marine populations and habitats is always challenging, especially in near-shore regions with cloudy water, but if we are to save the valued animals of the Great Barrier Reef, we will need research, results, and a solid plan with realistic priorities on which we can rely on to obtain the best conservation outcomes.

The Conversation

Mark Hamann is Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science (marine focus) at James Cook University.
Andrew Chin is Research fellow at James Cook University.

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