We found a huge flaw in Australia’s environment laws. Wetlands and woodlands will pay the price



Lorraine Oliver/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Manu Saunders, University of New England; Deborah Bower, University of New England; John Thomas Hunter, University of New England, and Sarah Mika, University of New England

From ethereal kelp forests off the south east Australian coast to grassy woodlands and their stunning wildflowers, many ecological communities are under threat in Australia.

But national environment legislation — the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act — has so far been ineffective at protecting them.

In our recent paper, we identify a major flaw in the current approach to listing threatened ecological communities for protection under the EPBC Act: the requirement to meet unrealistic condition thresholds.

In other words, where areas of a community do not meet these specific minimum thresholds, they’re considered too degraded to warrant conservation and aren’t protected under the EPBC Act.

A seadragon in a kelp forest
The giant kelp marine forest of south east Australia is among 85 threatened ecological communities listed under the EPBC Act.
Shutterstock

What’s an ecological community anyway?

An ecological community is a group of species that co-exist in a specific type of habitat and interact with each other. For example, a mangrove community is clearly different in structure and the types of plants and animals is supports, compared to what you would see in a salt marsh community nearby.

Just like individual species, ecological communities can occur over thousands of kilometres, even though examples of this type of community may only be found in small and patchy areas across that range.

There are currently 85 threatened ecological communities listed in the EPBC Act, and the majority of them are listed as critically endangered or endangered.

Major threats to these communities include land clearing and development, which can increase their risk of extinction.




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For example, less than 5% of the box gum grassy woodlands remain in good condition. This critically endangered community is home to a number of threatened plant and animal species, such as the spotted-tailed quoll, but many areas have been degraded and cleared for farming, threatening their survival.

The flaw in the law

Most listings of threatened ecological communities contain very specific “condition thresholds”. These thresholds were introduced to the legislation in 2005 in an effort to prioritise habitats considered higher quality.

Condition thresholds are usually defined in consultation with experts and often involve very specific descriptive characteristics, such as minimum patch sizes or numbers of species.

A lagoon beneath a blue sky
Thomas Lagoon in Arding, NSW. These communities support different wildlife depending on the season.
Manu Saunders, Author provided

If areas of a community do not meet these specific minimum thresholds, it means a landholder doesn’t require approval to clear or develop parts of a community, if those parts are perceived to be “poor quality” habitat.

For example, the condition thresholds for Coolibah-black box woodlands suggest protection only applies to woodland patches larger than five hectares. This ignores the ecological importance of smaller patches that increase the connectivity of habitat in the landscape.

What’s more, condition thresholds make it hard to justify conservation funding to restore areas that don’t meet those criteria.

Wildflowers strewn across a dry lagoon on a cloudy day
Little Llangothlin Lagoon in Llangothlin, NSW, is one of the 58 lagoons are left in the Northern Tablelands.
Manu Saunders, Author provided

Unrealistic thresholds threaten wildlife

This is bad for biodiversity conservation in Australia for two reasons.

First, excluding examples of a threatened ecological community from protection because they don’t meet restrictive condition thresholds assumes these areas have no ecological value.

This is clearly a flawed assumption, as small, disturbed or degraded remnants can still be important to conservation. They could, for instance, be a target for restoration, a source of regeneration for nearby areas of the community as part of a larger natural corridor, or a habitat for threatened species.

Let’s take the critically endangered ecological community of the Cumberland plain woodland in the Sydney Basin as an example. Only 9% of the woodlands’ original extent remains today.

Despite providing habitat for threatened squirrel gliders, bats, and land snails, urban development in areas containing the woodland were continually approved during the 2000s — a death by a thousand cuts for the species and communities in patchy conditions.

A lagoon during drought
Saumarez Lagoon in NSW during the drought last year, and wouldn’t meet the protection thesholds.
Manu Saunders, Author provided

Second, restrictive condition thresholds aren’t appropriate for conservation and management of communities that naturally change over seasons and years. This is particularly a problem for dynamic ecosystems like wetlands that cycle through natural dry and wet phases.

Wetlands can support completely different groups of plant and animal species in different phases, from waterbird breeding events when they are wet, to kangaroos and butterflies when they are dry.




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These dynamic systems rarely exist in a state that would warrant protection under the restrictive thresholds.

For example, the listing for upland wetlands of the New England tablelands and the Monaro plateau excludes farm dams and domestic water storages.

This is a problem, because most remaining examples of these wetlands are on private property and almost all have been modified by humans in some way, including damming. Few of these modified wetlands would technically qualify for protection.

Yet some of these modified wetlands still support diverse plants and animals and are important sites for migratory waterbirds, such as Latham’s snipe.

Because this threatened community has such a small distribution and very few examples remain (only 58 lagoons are left in the Northern Tablelands), excluding even a few because of unrealistic condition thresholds greatly increases their risk of extinction.

Latham’s snipe uses threatened upland wetlands.
JJ Harrison/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

New attitudes in a changing world

It’s clear governance frameworks have struggled to keep up with the changes in ecosystems that human activity causes.




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These frameworks are often based on a flawed assumption: that natural systems remain essentially the same over time. To prevent further biodiversity loss, we need better understanding of how, when and why ecological communities shift between different states.

Importantly, we need to change our approach to environmental governance frameworks, including seriously rethinking condition thresholds in the EPBC Act, to ensure we can continue to protect biodiversity as it rapidly changes before us.The Conversation

Manu Saunders, Lecturer, University of New England; Deborah Bower, Lecturer in Ecosystem Rehabilitation, University of New England; John Thomas Hunter, Adjunct Associate Professor in Landscape Ecology, University of New England, and Sarah Mika, Senior research fellow, University of New England

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia is lagging on climate action and inequality, but the pandemic offers a chance to do better


DEAN LEWINS/AAP

John Thwaites, Monash University and Cameron Allen, Monash University

As Australia plans its recovery from COVID-19, our strategies should be based on a broader set of priorities than we have used in the past.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed to by all countries at the United Nations, provide a set of objectives and targets that can serve as a blueprint to “build back better” after the pandemic.

This week, a report card is being released on Australia’s progress toward achieving these goals. It also highlights the potential impact of COVID-19 on our ability to meet our SDG targets by 2030.

The report shows Australia is performing well in health and education but failing in climate, environment and areas linked to social inequality.

The good news is that trust in government has risen significantly since the pandemic began, no doubt reflecting in part Australia’s relatively good response to the crisis.

Australians are proud of what we have been able to achieve, and this trust and optimism will be needed as we try to tackle some of the stubborn challenges highlighted in the report.




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Why targets are critical

In adopting the SDGs, all countries (including Australia) recognised the need to take a long-term and integrated approach to national planning informed by data and evidence.

Central to this approach is the setting of economic, social and environmental targets for 2030, which help to provide clear signposts for where we want to go.

Targets are critical. They set the priorities and level of ambition, encourage a shift from short- to long-term thinking, provide investment certainty and mobilise people to collaborate to solve problems.

They also enable a clear picture of where we are on track or off track, and the scale and pace of change needed.




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With only 10 years left to achieve the SDGs, Australia still lacks national targets for many of the specific goals and this is undermining our ability to plan effectively for our future.

The report card makes three important contributions:

1) it proposes an initial set of 2030 targets for Australia across economic, social and environmental indicators

2) it assesses Australia’s progress towards these targets over the past two decades, highlighting where we are falling behind and where accelerated action is needed

3) it evaluates the affects of COVID-19 on Australia’s capacity to achieve the SDGs.

Where Australia is falling behind

Our key findings in this week’s report show where Australia needs to focus its energies to meet our SDGs.

Social challenges

  • Australians are living longer but are more obese and, since the pandemic, drinking more alcohol.

  • Domestic violence has increased during COVID-19.

  • Homicide rates have halved since 2000, yet the prison population has increased by 32% since 2006, with Indigenous Australians vastly over-represented.

  • Women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, experiencing more psychological distress and a greater chance of job disruption.

Indigenous prisoners account for just over a quarter of the total Australian prisoner population.
Peter Rae/AAP

Environmental challenges

  • Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions have declined only marginally since 2000 and little progress has been made since 2013. Australia is not on track to meet a 2030 emissions target consistent with the Paris Agreement objective to keep global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius.

  • Australia’s per capita material footprint is one of the highest in the world — more than 70% above the OECD average — and rising.

  • Hard coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef has declined and the number of species now threatened has increased since 2000.

Marine heat waves resulted in severe bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 and 2017.
Stringer/AP

Economic challenges

  • Women, young people and those without high school qualifications are more likely to have had their employment disrupted by COVID-19.

  • Australia’s relatively low levels of government debt will help in the COVID-19 recovery, yet household debt is well above the OECD average.

  • Wealth inequality is getting worse with the share of household net worth of the bottom 40% of the population declining by 30% since 2004.

  • Since 2012, middle-class wages and incomes have stalled.

  • COVID-19 has stymied trade, foreign investment and skilled migration, prompting the need for new drivers of growth.

An opportunity for major policy changes

This report comes at a pivotal moment. All countries are facing a series of complex and related crises — a global health emergency, climate change, growing inequality, unemployment and biodiversity decline.

COVID-19 has reduced pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, but emissions are now returning to pre-COVID-19 levels.

And increased public deficits and debt may constrain governments’ abilities to address social and environmental challenges in the coming decade.




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On the other hand, COVID-19 has given governments the chance to undertake much more significant interventions than previously thought possible.

Australia has a huge opportunity to design a recovery strategy that strengthens our resilience to future shocks, addresses many of the challenges of sustainable development that we have not properly dealt with, and ensures the country’s long-term, sustainable prosperity.The Conversation

John Thwaites, Chair, Monash Sustainable Development Institute & ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University and Cameron Allen, Adjunct Research Fellow, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.