It’s not too late to save them: 5 ways to improve the government’s plan to protect threatened wildlife



Numbats are among 20 mammals on the federal government’s priority list.
Shutterstock

Euan Ritchie, Deakin University; Ayesha Tulloch, University of Sydney; Don Driscoll, Deakin University; Megan C Evans, UNSW, and Tim Doherty, University of Sydney

Australia’s Threatened Species Strategy — a five-year plan for protecting our imperilled species and ecosystems — fizzled to an end last year. A new 10-year plan is being developed to take its place, likely from March.

It comes as Australia’s list of threatened species continues to grow. Relatively recent extinctions, such as the Christmas Island forest skink, Bramble Cay melomys and smooth handfish, add to an already heavy toll.

Red handfish (Thymichthys politus), cousin of the recently extinct smooth handfish, are critically endangered. They’re small, bottom-dwelling fish that tend to ‘walk’ on their pectoral and pelvic fins rather than swim.
CSIRO Science Image, CC BY-SA

Now, more than ever, Australia’s remarkable species and environments need strong and effective policies to strengthen their protection and boost their recovery.

So as we settle into the new year, let’s reflect on what’s worked and what must urgently be improved upon, to turn around Australia’s extinction crisis.




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How effective was the first Threatened Species Strategy?

The Threatened Species Strategy is a key guiding document for biodiversity conservation at the national level. It identifies 70 priority species for conservation, made up of 20 birds, 20 mammals and 30 plants, such as the plains-wanderer, malleefowl, eastern quoll, greater bilby, black grevillea and Kakadu hibiscus.

These were considered among the most urgent in need of assistance of the more than 1,800 threatened species in Australia.

The strategy also identifies targets such as numbers of feral cats to be culled, and partnerships across industry, academia and government key to making the strategy successful.

The original strategy (2015-20) was eagerly welcomed for putting the national spotlight on threatened species conservation. It has certainly helped raise awareness of its priority species.

However, there’s little evidence the strategy has had a significant impact on threatened species conservation to date.

The midterm report in 2019 found only 35% of the priority species (14 in total) had improving trajectories compared to before the strategy (pre-2015). This number included six species — such as the brush-tailed rabbit-rat and western ringtail possum — that were still declining, but just at a slower rate.

Threatened Species Index trends for mammals (left) and birds (right) from 2000 to 2017. The index and y axes show the average change in populations (not actual population numbers) through time.
The Theatened Species Recovery Hub, Author provided

On average, the trends of threatened mammal and bird populations across Australia are not increasing.

Other targets, such as killing two million feral cats by 2020, were not explicitly linked to measurable conservation outcomes, such as an increase in populations of threatened native animals. Because of this, it’s difficult to judge their success.




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What needs to change?

The previous strategy focused very heavily on feral cats as a threat and less so on other important and potentially compounding threats, particularly habitat destruction and degradation.

Targets from the first Threatened Species Strategy.
Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment

For instance, land clearing has contributed to a similar number of extinctions in Australia (62 species) as introduced animals such as feral cats (64).

In fact, 2018 research found agricultural activities affect at least 73% of invertebrates, 82% of birds, 69% of amphibians and 73% of mammals listed as threatened in Australia. Urban development and climate change threaten up to 33% and 56% of threatened species, respectively.




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Other important threats to native Australian species include pollution, feral herbivores (such as horses and goats), very frequent or hot bushfires and weeds. Buffel grass was recently identified as a major emerging threat to Australia’s biodiversity, with the risk being as high as the threat posed by cats and foxes.

Five vital improvements

We made a submission to the Morrison government when the Threatened Species Strategy was under review. Below, we detail our key recommendations.

1. A holistic and evidence-based approach encompassing the full range of threats

This includes reducing rates of land clearing — a major and ongoing issue, but largely overlooked in the previous strategy.

A Leadbeater's possum peers out from behind a tree trunk.
Leadbeater’s possums are critically endangered. Their biggest threat is the destruction of hollow-bearing trees.
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2. Formal prioritisation of focal species, threats and actions

The previous strategy focused heavily on a small subset of the more than 1,800 threatened species and ecosystems in Australia. It mostly disregarded frog, reptile, fish and invertebrate species also threatened with extinction.

To reduce bias towards primarily “charismatic” species, the federal government should use an evidence-based prioritisation approach, known as “decision science”, like they do in New South Wales, New Zealand and Canada. This would ensure funds are spent on the most feasible and beneficial recovery efforts.

3. Targets linked to clear and measurable conservation outcomes

Some targets in the first Threatened Species Strategy were difficult to measure, not explicitly linked to conservation outcomes, or weak. Targets need to be more specific.

For example, a target to “improve the trajectory” of threatened species could be achieved if extinction is occurring at a slightly slower rate. Alternatively, a target to “improve the conservation status” of a species is achieved if new assessments rate it as “vulnerable” rather than “endangered”.

The ant plant (Myrmecodia beccarii) is one of the 30 plants on the federal government’s list of priority species. It is an ‘epiphyte’ (grows on other plants), and is threatened by habitat loss, invasive weeds, and removal by plant and butterfly collectors.
Dave Kimble/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

4. Significant financial investment from government

Investing in conservation reduces biodiversity loss. A 2019 study found Australia’s listed threatened species could be recovered for about A$1.7 billion per year. This money could be raised by removing harmful subsidies that directly threaten biodiversity, such as those to industries emitting large volumes of greenhouse gases.

The first strategy featured a call for co-investment from industry. But this failed to attract much private sector interest, meaning many important projects aimed at conserving species did not proceed.

5. Government leadership, coordination and policy alignment

The Threatened Species Strategy should be aligned with Australia’s international obligations such as the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (which is also currently being reviewed). This will help foster a more coherent and efficient national approach to threatened species conservation.

The biggest threat to the critically endangered swift parrot is the clearing of their foraging and breeding habitat.
Shutterstock

There are also incredible opportunities to better align threatened species conservation with policies and investment in climate change mitigation and sustainable agriculture.

The benefits of investing heavily in wildlife reach beyond preventing extinctions. It would generate many jobs, including in regional and Indigenous communities.

Protecting our natural heritage is an investment, not a cost. Now is the time to seize this opportunity.




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The Conversation


Euan Ritchie, Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University; Ayesha Tulloch, DECRA Research Fellow, University of Sydney; Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; Megan C Evans, Lecturer and ARC DECRA Fellow, UNSW, and Tim Doherty, ARC DECRA Fellow, University of Sydney

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

Engineers have built machines to scrub CO₂ from the air. But will it halt climate change?



Climeworks

Deanna D’Alessandro, University of Sydney

On Wednesday this week, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was measured at at 415 parts per million (ppm). The level is the highest in human history, and is growing each year.

Amid all the focus on emissions reduction, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says it will not be enough to avoid dangerous levels of global warming. The world must actively remove historical CO₂ already in the atmosphere – a process often described as “negative emissions”.

CO₂ removal can be done in two ways. The first is by enhancing carbon storage in natural ecosystems, such as planting more forests or storing more carbon in soil. The second is by using direct air capture (DAC) technology that strips CO₂ from the ambient air, then either stores it underground or turns it into products.

US research published last week suggested global warming could be slowed with an emergency deployment of a fleet of “CO₂ scrubbers” using DAC technology. However a wartime level of funding from government and business would be needed. So is direct air capture worth the time and money?

Smoke stack with CO2 written in smoke
Direct air capture of CO2 will be needed to address climate change.
Shutterstock

What’s DAC all about?

Direct air capture refers to any mechanical system capturing CO₂ from the atmosphere. Plants operating today use a liquid solvent or solid sorbent to separate CO₂ from other gases.

Swiss company Climeworks operates 15 direct air capture machines across Europe, comprising the world’s first commercial DAC system. The operation is powered by renewable geothermal energy or energy produced by burning waste.

The machines use a fan to draw air into a “collector”, inside which a selective filter captures CO₂. Once the filter is full, the collector is closed and the CO₂ is sequestered underground.




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Canadian company Carbon Engineering uses giant fans to pull air into a tower-like structure. The air passes over a potassium hydroxide solution which chemically binds to the CO₂ molecules, and removes them from the air. The CO₂ is then concentrated, purified and compressed.

Captured CO₂ can be injected into the ground to extract oil, in some cases helping to counteract the emissions produced by burning the oil.

The proponents of the Climeworks and Carbon Engineering technology say their projects are set for large-scale investment and deployment in coming years. Globally, the potential market value of DAC technology could reach US$100bn by 2030, on some estimates.

Artist impression of a DAC facility to be built in Houston, Texas.
Artist impression of a DAC facility to be built in the US state of Texas. If built, it would be the largest of its kind in the world.
Carbon Engineering

Big challenges ahead

Direct air capture faces many hurdles and challenges before it can make a real dent in climate change.

DAC technology is currently expensive, relative to many alternative ways of capturing CO₂, but is expected to become cheaper as the technology scales up. The economic feasibility will be helped by the recent emergence of new carbon markets where negative emissions can be traded.

DAC machines process an enormous volume of air, and as such are very energy-intensive. In fact, research has suggested direct air capture machines could use a quarter of global energy in 2100. However new DAC methods being developed could cut the technology’s energy use.




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While the challenges to direct air capture are great, the technology uses less land and water than other negative emissions technologies such as planting forests or storing CO₂ in soils or oceans.

DAC technology is also increasingly gaining the backing of big business. Microsoft, for example, last year included the technology in its carbon negative plan.

Emissions rising from a coal plant.
Direct air capture is touted as a way to offset emissions from industry and elsewhere.
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Opportunities for Australia

Australia is uniquely positioned to be a world leader in direct air capture. It boasts large areas of land not suitable for growing crops. It has ample sunlight, meaning there is great potential to host DAC facilities powered by solar energy. Australia also has some of the world’s best sites in which to “sequester” or store carbon in underground reservoirs.

Direct air capture is a relatively new concept in Australia. Australian company Southern Green Gas, as well as the CSIRO, are developing solar-powered DAC technologies. The SGG project, with which I am involved, involves modular units potentially deployed in large numbers, including close to sites where captured CO₂ can be used in oil recovery or permanently stored.

If DAC technology can overcome its hurdles, the benefits will extend beyond tackling climate change. It would create a new manufacturing sector and potentially re-employ workers displaced by the decline of fossil fuels.

Red sand and tussocks of grass
Australia has ample sunlight and plenty of non-arable land where DAC facilities could be built.
Shutterstock

Looking ahead

The urgency of removing CO₂ from the atmosphere seems like an enormous challenge. But not acting will bring far greater challenges: more climate and weather extremes, irreversible damage to biodiversity and ecosystems, species extinction and threats to health, food, water and economic growth.

DAC technology undoubtedly faces stiff headwinds. But with the right policy incentives and market drivers, it may be one of a suite of measures that start reversing climate change.




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Deanna D’Alessandro, Professor & ARC Future Fellow, University of Sydney

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