‘Environmental accounting’ could revolutionise nature conservation, but Australia has squandered its potential


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Peter Burnett, Australian National University and Michael Vardon, Australian National UniversityLet’s say a new irrigation scheme is proposed and all the land it’ll take up needs to be cleared — trees felled, soil upturned, and habitats destroyed. Water will also have to be allocated. Would the economic gain of the scheme outweigh the damage to the environment?

This is the kind of question so-called “land accounts” grapple with. Land accounts are a type of “environmental account”, which measures our interactions with the environment by recording them as transactions. They help us understand the environmental and economic outcomes of land use decisions.

Environmental accounting, for which Australia has a national strategy, seeks to integrate environmental and economic data to ensure sustainable decision making. Last month, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the country’s first national land account under the strategy, describing it as “experimental”.

Environmental accounting could be a game changer for conserving nature, but the account released by the ABS falls flat. It’s yet another example of Australia’s environmental policy culture: we develop or adopt good ideas, but then just tinker with them, or even discard them.

A (really) long time coming

Environmental accounting has been a long time coming and dates back to the 1980s. It’s closely related to sustainable development, and in fact, the two ideas developed in parallel.

In 1992, the Rio Earth Summit endorsed both, and nations agreed to develop an international system of environmental accounting.

But it took the UN 20 years to endorse the System of Environmental Economic Accounting (SEEA) — the rules for developing accounts — as an international statistical standard. This endorsement means they’re authoritative and compatible with national accounts.

Then, in March this year, the international standard was finally extended to cover ecosystem accounting.

So, how are environmental accounts used?

“National accounts” are a way to measure the economic activity of Australia and they tell us our gross domestic product (GDP). Linking existing national accounts to environmental accounts means important decisions can capture environmental and economic outcomes, obviously making for better decisions.

For example, the case for orienting a stimulus package towards investing in renewable energy and land restoration will be much stronger if it can quantify not only economic benefits, but gains to natural assets, such as through revegetation.

Revegetation
Gains to natural assets, such as revegetation, should be measured alongside economic gains.
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Stuck in ‘experimental’ mode

Australia, through the ABS, was an early mover in developing environmental accounting. It has produced experimental accounts since the mid-1990s.

Some countries are now taking significant steps to produce and apply accounts. And a communiqué issued by the G7 in May endorses the UN’s SEEA and encourages making nature a regular part of all decision-making – in other words, “mainstreaming nature”. This is something for which SEEA is ideal.




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It’s no accident this communiqué emerged from London. The UK is a leader in the field of applying accounting to environmental and economic management. It had a Natural Capital Committee for some years and its 25-year environmental plan provides for further account development, including for urban areas, fisheries and forestry.

Australian governments, on the other hand, have been slow to use environmental accounts. They took until 2018 to agree on an unambitious national strategy, which specified “intermediate” outcomes, only to 2023.

These targets include such policy basics as making environmental information for accounts “findable” and “accessible”. This is not far removed from what federal and state governments first signed up to in an agreement 30 years ago.

And the strategy places the holy grail of policy integration “into the future” beyond 2023 — for example, off into the never-never. As a result, we are on a slow track and seemingly stuck in “experimental” mode.

So, what’s the problem with the new land account?

The new land account is a very small step. While it has gathered a lot of information in one place, it tells us little, and essentially repackages old information (the newest data is for 2016).

It’s also in a format that cannot be integrated with national accounts, or even with other environmental accounts so far produced in Australia, such as those covering waste, water, energy and greenhouse gas emissions.

Integration of environmental and economic information is the raison d’etre for the international system. So how did this happen?

Coal plant
The new land account from the ABS can’t be integrated with other environmental accounts, such as accounts for greenhouse gas emissions. So what’s the point of it?
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For accounts produced outside the ABS (such as for greenhouse gas emissions), different accounting frameworks were used, so this is understandable, though unfortunate. For the land accounts, it is less understandable and we can only speculate.

Not being able to integrate the land, water and national accounts means the environmental-economic trade-offs cannot be assessed. It seems the government is struggling to integrate an exercise of integration!

Governments fiddle while the planet burns

Australia’s 2021 intergenerational report, released last month, shows how far we are from producing good environmental information.

The environment section of the report acknowledges climate change and biodiversity loss as major problems, and the need to account for and maintain natural capital. But it goes on to do little more than make general observations and recite standard government talking points about existing policies.




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If the report was informed by comprehensive environmental accounts, it could support the modelling of environmental trends going forward. This would give us a real sense of likely changes to natural capital and its impact on the economy.

But there are no plans for such an approach. In fact, this kind of “high potential, low ambition” approach to environmental policy is something of a trademark for this government. Another example is the recent cherry picking of recommendations from an independent review of Australia’s environment law.

While such an approach may deliver a successful political placebo, it is a formula for policy failure.

Just how loud will the wake-up call have to be? Recently, a climate-change-induced “heat dome” hit western North America. Lytton, Canada, which is closer to the North Pole than the equator, shattered temperature records with a staggering 49.6℃, before being decimated by wildfire.

If only such disasters, including our own Black Summer, would raise policy ambition more than the temperature.




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The government’s idea of ‘national environment standards’ would entrench Australia’s global pariah status


The Conversation


Peter Burnett, Honorary Associate Professor, ANU College of Law, Australian National University and Michael Vardon, Associate Professor at the Fenner School, Australian National University

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

The government’s idea of ‘national environment standards’ would entrench Australia’s global pariah status


Martine Maron, The University of Queensland; Brendan Wintle, The University of Melbourne, and Craig Moritz, Australian National UniversityA growing global push to halt biodiversity decline, most recently agreed at the G7 on Sunday, leaves Australia out in the cold as the federal government walks away from critical reforms needed to protect threatened species.

The centrepiece recommendation in a landmark independent review of Australia’s national environment law was to establish effective National Environment Standards. These standards would have drawn clear lines beyond which no further environmental damage is acceptable, and established an independent Environment Assurance Commissioner to ensure compliance.

But the federal government has instead pushed ahead to propose its own, far weaker set of standards and establish a commissioner with very limited powers. The bill that paves the way for these standards is currently before parliament.

If passed, the changes would entrench, or even weaken, already inadequate protections for threatened species. They would also create more uncertainty for businesses affected by the laws.

Australia’s ineffective environment law

Australia is one of only a handful of megadiverse countries. Most of our species occur nowhere else — 87% of our mammals, 93% of our reptiles, and 94% of our frogs are found only here in Australia.

Yet, Australia risks global pariah status on biodiversity. Last week, threatened species experts recommended the koala be listed as endangered, despite a decade of protection under national environmental law. And this week, a UNESCO World Heritage committee recommended the Great Barrier Reef be listed as “in danger”.

Indeed, Australia has one of the worst track records in the world for biodiversity loss and species extinctions.

Bleached coral
This week the World Heritage committee recommended the Great Barrier Reef be put on the in-danger list.
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Australia’s national environment law — the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act — was introduced 20 years ago, and has not slowed extinction rates. In fact, threatened species populations are declining even faster.

This isn’t surprising, given the lack of mandated funding for threatened species and ecosystems recovery, poor enforcement of the law, and the lack of outcome-based environmental standards. It has allowed for hit after hit on important habitats to be approved.

The independent review of the EPBC Act, led by former competition watchdog chair Professor Graeme Samuel, set out how Australia can turn this around.

Samuel concluded the EPBC Act is no longer fit for purpose, and set out a comprehensive list of recommended reforms, founded upon establishing new, strong national environmental standards.

And he included an explicit warning: do not cherrypick from these recommendations.

Double standards

So how do the government’s proposed standards, released in March, compare to the Samuel review’s recommended version?

The Samuel review’s standards specified what environmental outcomes must be achieved by decisions made under the EPBC Act, such as whether a particular development can go ahead. For example, the standards would have required that any actions must cause no net reduction in the population of endangered and critically endangered species.




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Samuel developed these standards by consulting multiple sectors, and attracted general support. The government’s proposed standards bear no resemblance to these.

Instead, the government’s proposed standards repeat sections of the existing EPBC Act, adding zero clarity or specificity about the outcomes that should be achieved.

Standards like these risk significant and irreversible environmental harm being codified. They are the antithesis of the global push for outcomes-based, nature-positive standards.

The bill underpinning the standards would let actions be approved even if they caused substantial environmental harm, as long as the decision maker — currently the federal environment minister — believed other activities would render the overall outcome acceptable.

To help illustrate this, let’s say a mining operation would lead to significant destruction of koala habitat. The decision maker could consider this acceptable if they thought an unrelated tree-planting program would offset the risk to the koala — even if they had no say over whether the tree planting ever actually went ahead.

A koala with a joey on its back on a branch
Last week experts recommended the koala be listed as endangered.
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What about the responsibilities of the Environment Assurance Commissioner? Samuel recommended this commissioner would oversee the implementation of the standards, and ensure transparency.

But the government’s proposed Environment Assurance Commissioner would be prevented from scrutinising individual decisions made under the EPBC Act.

So, hypothetically, if a risky decision was being made — such as approving new dam that could send a turtle species extinct — checking if the decision complied with required standards would be beyond the commissioner’s remit. Instead, the commissioner would focus on checking processes and systems, not ensuring environmental outcomes are achieved.




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The deficiencies in the proposed standards have caught the attention of Queensland environment minister Meaghan Scanlon. Last year, the federal government introduced a different bill that would allow it to hand its responsibility for approving actions under the EPBC Act to the states. But Scanlon says the state won’t partake in this re-alignment of responsibility, unless the federal government introduces stronger national environment standards.

They’ve also caught the attention of the key cross-bench senators, whose support will ultimately determine whether the government’s standards prevail.

Getting left behind

With such a rich diversity of wildlife, Australia has a disproportionate responsibility to protect the Earth’s natural heritage. And we owe future generations the opportunity to experience the amazing nature we’ve grown up with.

If we are to turn around Australia’s appalling track record on biodiversity, the government’s proposed standards are not a good place to start.

In October, nations worldwide will agree to a new global strategy for protecting biodiversity, under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. The strategy looks set to include a roadmap to halt and reverse biodiversity decline by as early as 2030. Australia risks being left behind in this global push.

And last week, the G7 nations endorsed a plan to reverse the loss of biodiversity, and to conserve or protect at least 30% of land and oceans, by 2030.

These commitments are crucial – not only for wildlife, but for humans that depend on ecosystems that are now collapsing. When nature loses, we all suffer.




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The Conversation


Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Brendan Wintle, Professor in Conservation Ecology, School of BioSciences, The University of Melbourne, and Craig Moritz, Professor, Research School of Biology, Australian National University

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

The story of Rum Jungle: a Cold War-era uranium mine that’s spewed acid into the environment for decades


Gavin Mudd, Author provided

Gavin Mudd, RMIT UniversityBuried in last week’s budget was money for rehabilitating the Rum Jungle uranium mine near Darwin. The exact sum was not disclosed.

Rum Jungle used to be a household name. It was Australia’s first large-scale uranium mine and supplied the US and British nuclear weapons programs during the Cold War.

Today, the mine is better known for extensively polluting the Finniss River after it closed in 1971. Despite a major rehabilitation project by the Commonwealth in the 1980s, the damage to the local environment is ongoing.

I first visited Rum Jungle in 2004, and it was a colourful mess, to say the least. Over later years, I saw it worsen. Instead of a river bed, there were salt crusts containing heavy metals and radioactive material. Pools of water were rich reds and aqua greens — hallmarks of water pollution. Healthy aquatic species were nowhere to be found, like an ecological desert.

The government’s second rehabilitation attempt is significant, as it recognises mine rehabilitation isn’t always successful, even if it appears so at first.

Rum Jungle serves as a warning: rehabilitation shouldn’t be an afterthought, but carefully planned, invested in and monitored for many, many years. Otherwise, as we’ve seen, it’ll be left up to future taxpayers to fix.

The quick and dirty history

Rum Jungle produced uranium from 1954 to 1971, roughly one-third of which was exported for nuclear weapons. The rest was stockpiled, and then eventually sold in 1994 to the US.

A sign for Rum Jungle rehabilitation on a fence
Rehabilitation of Rum Jungle began in the 1980s.
Mick Stanic/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

The mine was owned by the federal government, but was operated under contract by a former subsidiary of Rio Tinto. Back then, there were no meaningful environmental regulations in place for mining, especially for a military project.

The waste rock and tailings (processed ore) at Rum Jungle contains significant amounts of iron sulfide, called “pyrite”. When mining exposes the pyrite to water and oxygen, a chemical reaction occurs generating so-called “acidic mine drainage”. This drainage is rich in acid, salts, heavy metals and radioactive material (radionuclides), such as copper, zinc and uranium.

Acid drainage seeping from waste rock, plus acidic liquid waste from the process plant, caused fish and macroinvertebrates (bugs, worms, crustaceans) to die out, and riverbank vegetation to decline. By the time the mine closed in 1971, the region was a well-known ecological wasteland.

Once an ecosystem, now a wasteland.
Gavin Mudd, Author provided

When mines close, the modern approach is to rehabilitate them to an acceptable condition, with the aim of minimal ongoing environmental damage. But after working in environmental engineering across Australia for 26 years, I’ve seen few mines completely rehabilitated — let alone successfully.

Many Australian mines have major problems with acid mine drainage. This includes legacy mines from historical, unregulated times (Mount Morgan, Captains Flat, Mount Lyell) and modern mines built under stricter environmental requirements (Mount Todd, Redbank, McArthur River).

This is why Rum Jungle is so important: it was one of the very few mines once thought to have been rehabilitated successfully.

Salts litter the bed of the Finniss River.
Gavin Mudd, Author provided

So what went wrong?

From 1983 to 1986, the government spent some A$18.6 million (about $55.5 million in 2020 value) to reduce acid drainage and restore the Finniss River ecology. Specially engineered soil covers were placed over the waste rock to reduce water and oxygen getting into the pyrite.

The engineering project was widely promoted as successful through conferences and academic studies, with water quality monitoring showing that the metals polluting the Finniss had substantially subsided. But this lasted only for a decade.




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By the late 1990s, it became clear the engineered soil covers weren’t working effectively anymore.

First, the design was insufficient to reduce infiltration of water during the wet season (thicker covers should have been used). Second, the covers weren’t built to design in parts (they were thinner and with the wrong type of soils).

The first reason is understandable, we’d never done this before. But the second is not acceptable, as the thinner covers and wrong soils made it easier for water and oxygen to get into the waste rock and generate more polluting acid mine drainage.

The iron-tainted red hues of the Finniss River near the waste rock dumps leaking acid mine drainage.
Gavin Mudd, Author provided
The copper-tainted green hues of the Finniss River near the waste rock dumps leaking acid mine drainage.
Gavin Mudd, Author provided

The stakes are higher

There are literally thousands of recent and still-operating mines around Australia, where acid mine drainage remains a minor or extreme risk. Other, now closed, acid drainage sites have taken decades to bring under control, such as Brukunga in South Australia, Captain’s Flat in NSW, and Agricola in Queensland.

We got it wrong with Rum Jungle, which generated less than 20 million tonnes of mine waste. Modern mines, such as Mount Whaleback in the Pilbara, now involve billions of tonnes — and we have dozens of them. Getting even a small part of modern mine rehabilitation wrong could, at worst, mean billions of tonnes of mine waste polluting for centuries.

So what’s the alternative? Let’s take the former Woodcutters lead-zinc mine, which operated from 1985 to 1999, as an example.

Given its acid drainage risks, the mine’s rehabilitation involved placing reactive waste into the open pit, rather than using soil covers. “Backfilling” such wastes into pits makes good sense, as the pyrite is deeper and not exposed to oxygen, substantially reducing acid drainage risks.

Backfilling isn’t commonly used because it’s widely perceived in the industry as expensive. Clearly, we need to better assess rehabilitation costs and benefits to justify long-term options, steering clear of short-term, lowest-cost approaches.

The Woodcutters experience shows such thinking can be done to improve the chances for successfully restoring the environment.

Getting it right

The federal government funded major environmental studies of the Rum Jungle mine from 2009, including an environmental impact statement in 2020, before the commitment in this year’s federal budget.




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The plan this time includes backfilling waste rock into the open pits, and engineering much more sophisticated soil covers. It will need to be monitored for decades.

And the cost of it? Well, that was kept confidential in the budget due to sensitive commercial negotiations.

But based on my experiences, I reckon they’d be lucky to get any change from half a billion dollars. Let’s hope we get it right this time.The Conversation

Gavin Mudd, Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering, RMIT University

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

Pay dirt: $200 million plan for Australia’s degraded soil is a crucial turning point


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Vanessa Wong, Monash University and Luke MosleyThe food we eat, the clothes we wear, the air we breathe, the water we drink – it’s all underpinned by healthy and productive soils. Since Europeans arrived in Australia, the continent’s soil has steadily been degraded. Yet, until now, we’ve lacked an integrated national approach to managing this valuable and finite resource.

That changed in last night’s federal budget, when Treasurer Josh Frydenberg announced almost A$200 million for a National Soils Strategy. The 20-year plan recognises the vital role of soils for environmental and human health, the economy, food security, biodiversity and climate resilience.

Our soils face a range of threats, including the loss of prime agricultural land, erosion, acidification, salt accumulation, contamination and carbon loss. Climate change also puts pressure on our soils through through droughts, storms, bushfires and floods.

We contributed expertise as the soil policy was being developed, and believe the final strategy represents a long-needed turning point for this crucial natural asset.

farm in dust storm
Australia’s soils have been degrading since European settlement.
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Why soil matters

Soil contains organic matter, minerals, gases, water and living organisms. It is slow to form – the average rate of soil production globally is around 114 millimetres per 1,000 years – and is considered a non-renewable resource.

Soil underpins a myriad of economic activities. In Australia, it directly contributes about A$63 billion each year to the economy through agriculture production alone.

Healthy soil is necessary for:

  • food and fibre production
  • filtering water and retaining sediment to ensure healthy landscapes
  • maintaining air quality by preventing dust storms
  • carbon storage to help mitigate climate change
  • environmental functions such as plant growth
  • human nutrition (soil provides nutrients to plants and animals which are transferred to humans once consumed)
  • many drugs and vaccines upon which humans rely, such as penicillin
  • safe infrastructure (acid sulfate soils and salinity can damage structures such as housing, bridges and roads)
  • resilience to natural disasters such as storms, bushfires, floods and droughts.

However, land degradation, climate change and poor management practices threaten our soil resources.




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An overly saline mustard field
Soil salinity can ruin crops.
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What lies beneath?

Until now, Australia has lacked a nationally consistent approach to monitor soil health, nor a readily accessible means of storing that data. That means at a national level, our understanding of soil condition, and how it’s changed, has been limited.

Soil monitoring has largely been conducted through various regional, state and federal programs. These often operate in isolation and have differing aims and objectives. And overall investment has not been large or quick enough to create broad improvements in soil health.

In comparison, well-established standardised national systems exist to monitor terrestrial ecosystems, weather, climate and water. These allow an assessment of longer trends and changes to baseline conditions.

The need for a national soil assessment was recognised as far back as 2008. And there have long been calls for long-term monitoring, consistent information and baseline data collection.

hand holding dirt
The funding will help farmers monitor the health of their soil.
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Change from the ground up

Importantly, the strategy takes a long term view of sustainable soil management. It also considers soil beyond its traditional role in agricultural production and explicitly identifies criteria to measure progress.

The strategy has three arms:

1. Prioritise soil health

This goal takes a “soils first” approach in that sustainable soil management is the primary consideration in policy development and management strategies. This recognises how environmental and agricultural problems can start with poor soil management and create further challenges. For example, soil acidification can lead to declines in terrestrial biodiversity, and soil constraints must be addressed first to arrest this.

2. Empower soil stewards and innovation

This approach gives incentives to farmers and other land managers, such as rebates for sampling to determine the soil carbon levels. Carbon is an important measure of soil condition. Gathering such information will help land managers arrest the decline in soil condition, enhancing productivity and soil health.

3. Secure soil science

This approach aims to increase soil knowledge through standardised data collection, management and storage. It will allow for more informed decisions using reliable, up-to-date, accessible information.

Part of this aim involves strengthening training and accreditation programs, and integrating soils into the national school curriculum. This will help create a new generation of soil experts to replace the current crop which is trending to retirement.




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young woman conducting soil testing
The strategy aims to train a new generation of soil experts.
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On solid ground

Overall, the National Soils Strategy aims to deliver coordinated on-ground action and improve research, education and monitoring. The strategy broadly aligns with the needs of those who had input into its development, including governments, industry, academia, Landcare groups and non-government organisations.

However, while the importance of Indigenous land management practices is clearly acknowledged, the integration and incorporation of these practices should be more clearly defined.

The monitoring program encourages farmers to test their soil and incorporate the de-identified results in to the national database. Care should be taken to ensure sampling is done appropriately for the data to be useful.

The time frame for the initial phase of the strategy is short – pilot programs need to be delivered between two and four years. This will be challenging to deliver.

Separate to the strategy, the budget allocated A$59.6 million to soil carbon initiatives. There is increasing recognition of how improved land use and management can help boost soil carbon stores, which is key to tackling climate change. But storing carbon permanently in soils comes with a number of challenges. This funding may be appropriate only if directed to address those areas where knowledge gaps exist.

But overall, the strategy fills a vital gap – providing a national vision and shared goals for managing precious soils across Australia.




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The Conversation


Vanessa Wong, Associate professor, Monash University and Luke Mosley, Associate Professor

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

Even after the rains, Australia’s environment scores a 3 out of 10. These regions are struggling the most


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Albert Van Dijk, Australian National University; Marta Yebra, Australian National University, and Shoshana Rapley, Australian National UniversityImproved weather conditions have pulled Australia’s environment out of its worst state on record, but recovery remains partial and precarious, new research reveals.

Each year, we collate a vast number of measurements on the state of our environment. The data are collected in many different ways – including satellites, field stations and surveys – then combined to produce an overall national score.

A year ago, after prolonged drought and devastating bushfires, Australia’s environment scored a shocking 0.8 out of ten. Our new research shows nature started its long road to recovery in 2020, especially in New South Wales and Victoria. Some of the regions with the poorest scores have high levels of social disadvantage, which risks being further entrenched by environmental disasters such as drought, bushfire and heatwaves.

Nationally, Australia’s environmental condition score increased by 2.6 points last year, to reach a (still very low) score of 3.2. But overall conditions across large swathes of the country remain poor.

Environmental Condition Score for 2020 by state and territory.
ANU Fenner School

Scores rising but still in the red

From a long list of environmental indicators we report on, seven are selected to calculate an overall score for each region, as well as nationally.

These indicators – high temperatures, river flows, wetlands, soil health, vegetation condition, growth conditions and tree cover – are chosen because they allow a comparison against previous years. See the graphic below to find the score for your region.

The largest improvements occurred in NSW and Victoria thanks to good rains. The poorest conditions occurred in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, where there was little solace from dry conditions.

Comparing local government areas, the best conditions occurred in Nillubik Shire on the northern edge of Melbourne. In contrast, the worst conditions occurred in Katherine in the Northern Territory and in the Shire of Ngaanyatjarraku in remote WA.



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From drought to rain

2020 started as badly as 2019 ended – with extreme temperatures, drought and fires, especially in Australia’s southeast. The Sydney suburb of Penrith was the hottest place on Earth on January 4 and, following the bushfires, Canberra had the most dangerous air quality in the world for several days. Clearly, climate change is already affecting our cities and nature.

By the end of summer, the high temperatures also caused another mass coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef – the third such event in five years.

Only in February-March did the weather turn, providing good and in some areas very plentiful rains – for example along the NSW coast. Later in the year officials declared an La Niña event – an ocean circulation pattern that normally encourages rainfall in Australia.

While rainfall was not extraordinarily high, it lifted most regions in eastern Australia out of extreme drought. Some parts of northern and western Australia missed out, however, and in some areas the drought deepened.

Taken as an average over the year and over the country, rainfall was 10% above the average for the previous two decades. The number of hot days – those reaching 35℃ – was 11% or nine days more than the 20-year average.

Values for 15 environmental indicators in 2020, expressed as the change from average 2000-2019 conditions. Similar to national economic indicators, they provide a summary but also hide regional variations, complex interactions and long-term context.
ANU Fenner School

The improved rainfall helped replenish dried soils, and national average soil moisture was close to average. Growth conditions for the NSW wheatbelt were the best in many years and tree cover increased in northern and eastern Australia.

The rain refilled many dams and reservoirs, especially in Canberra and Sydney. It also made some eastern rivers flow again, including the Darling River in NSW. But with such dry starting conditions, wetlands in inland eastern Australia filled only modestly and waterbird numbers remained low.

Drought persisted across large swathes of inland northern and western Australia, where in some parts, vegetation growth conditions were the worst in decades. And the surplus rain was often not enough to reach wetlands, which continued to shrink.




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New shoots in forest after fire
Signs of life: some parts of Australia have benefited from recent rain.
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Bushfires: few but locally severe

Fire activity in vast areas of inland Australia was very low, because a run of dry years did not leave much dry grass to burn.

Nationally, the total area burnt was 17 million hectares – 90% below the 20-year average. This led to 80 million tonnes of carbon emissions (43% below average).

Fire activity was not low everywhere. In southeast Australia, fires in southern NSW, East Gippsland and the ACT severely damaged forests and other ecosystems as well as people and property.

The full ecological damage of the Black Summer fires was not entirely apparent in 2020. That’s partly because COVID-19 restrictions made the situation difficult to assess.

The fires burned more than 80% of the habitat of 30 threatened species, and may have been the death blow for several. Food shortages and feral cats further reduced populations of surviving animals in the burnt ecosystems.

But some wildlife proved unexpectedly resilient. For example, a great effort by citizen scientists showed frogs rebounded well after the rains.

Another 15 species were added to the Threatened Species List in 2020. In good news, three species were removed from the list, including two species of tree frogs that recovered from the global chytrid fungus.




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Stopping the slow train wreck

The accelerating impacts of climate change will not stop here. New records will inevitably be broken. Heat, drought and fire will again damage our environment and lives. Some ecosystems will be lost forever. But even worse outcomes can be avoided – if the world can rein in greenhouse gas pollution.

There’s cause for cautious optimism. International pressure may force the Morrison government’s hand on climate action. Several states and territories have already taken decisive climate action. Low-emission energy and transport are advancing quickly. As individuals we can fly and drive less, get solar panels and divest from fossil fuel companies.

In the meantime, we must adapt to inevitable climate change and reduce other pressures on our ecosystems. Citizen scientists have proven essential in monitoring how individual species are faring – so download that app and enjoy nature even more. And plant a few trees to help nature along.

Finally, pressure your local, state and national politicians. Ask them: how are you addressing vegetation loss, invasive pests and over-extraction from rivers? If you don’t like the answer, tell them, or try to vote them out.

With greater urgency and some luck, there is still much to be salvaged.

The full report and a video summary are available here.




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This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. You can read the rest of the stories here.The Conversation

Albert Van Dijk, Professor, Water and Landscape Dynamics, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University; Marta Yebra, Associate Professor in Environment and Engineering, Australian National University, and Shoshana Rapley, Research assistant, Australian National University

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

To fix Australia’s environment laws, wildlife experts call for these 4 changes — all are crucial



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Don Driscoll, Deakin University; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Brendan Wintle, The University of Melbourne; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University, and Martine Maron, The University of Queensland

The independent review of Australia’s main environment law, released last week, provided a sobering but accurate appraisal of a dire situation.

The review was led by Professor Graeme Samuel and involved consultation with scientists, legal experts, industry and conservation organisations. Samuel’s report concluded Australia’s biodiversity is in decline and the law (the EPBC Act) “is not fit for current or future environmental challenges”.

The findings are no surprise to us. As ecologists, we’ve seen first hand how Australia’s nature laws and governance failure have permitted environmental degradation and destruction to the point that species face extinction. Even then, continued damage is routinely permitted.

And the findings aren’t news to many other Australians, who have watched wildlife and iconic places such as Kakadu and Kosciuszko national parks, and the Great Barrier Reef, decline at rates that have only accelerated since the act was introduced in 1999. Even globally recognisable wildlife, such as the platypus, now face a future that’s far from certain.

To reverse Australia’s appalling track record of protecting biodiversity, four major reforms recommended by Samuel must be implemented as a package.

1. Setting standards

One of the many failings of Australia’s environmental laws is there has never been a point beyond which no further impacts are acceptable.

The government almost never says “enough!”, whether it’s undermining wetlands for a new mine, or clearing woodlands for agriculture. Species continue to suffer death by a thousand cuts.




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Death by 775 cuts: how conservation law is failing the black-throated finch


For example, the original distribution of the endangered southern black-throated finch of southern and central Queensland has shrunk to less than 10% due to land clearing and habitat degradation. Yet, further clearing was approved for coal mines, housing developments and sugar cane farms.

Biodiversity offsets, which aim to compensate for environmental damage by improving nature elsewhere, have for the most part been dreadfully ineffective. Instead they have been a tool to facilitate biodiversity loss.

Two black-throated finches on a branch, one flying, against a blue sky.
Land clearing and cattle grazing are among the threats black-throated finches face.
Stephanie Todd, Author provided

The centre piece of Samuel’s report are proposed new National Environmental Standards. These would provide clear grounds for drawing a line in the sand on environmental damage.

Legal, rigorous enforcement of these standards could turn around Australia’s centuries-long record of destroying its natural heritage, and curb Australia’s appalling extinction rate — while also providing clarity and certainty for business.

Vital features of the standards Samuel recommends include:

  • avoiding impacts on the critical habitat of threatened species

  • avoiding impacts that could reduce the abundance of threatened species with already small and declining populations

  • no net reduction in the population size of critically endangered and endangered species

  • cumulative impacts must be explicitly considered for threatened species and communities

  • offsets can only be used as a last resort, not as a routine part of business like they are at the moment.

Under the proposed National Environmental Standards, any new developments would need to be in places where environmental damage is avoided from the outset, with offsets only available if they’re ecologically feasible and effective.

2. Greater government accountability

The federal environment minister can make decisions with little requirement to publicly justify them.

In 2014, then environment minister Greg Hunt controversially approved an exemption to the EPBC Act for Western Australia’s shark cull. This was despite evidence the cull wouldn’t make people safer, would harm threatened species and would degrade marine ecosystems. Hunt could shirk the evidence, deny the impacts and make a politically expedient decision, with no mechanisms in place to call him to account.

Tiger shark swimming near the sea bed
Tiger sharks and white sharks were targeted in the WA cull.
Shutterstock

Samuel’s report states the minister can make decisions that aren’t consistent with the National Environmental Standards — but only as a “rare exception”. He says these exceptions must be “demonstrably justified in the public interest”, and this justification must be published.




Read more:
Why we’re opposing Western Australia’s shark cull: scientists


We think this epitomises democracy. Ministers can make decisions, but they must be open to public and robust scrutiny and explain how their decisions might affect environments and species.

Improved accountability will be one of the many benefits of Samuel’s proposed independent Environment Assurance Commissioner, which would be backed up by an Office of Compliance and Enforcement. Samuel says these must be free from political interference.

These are absolutely critical aspects of the reforms. Standards that aren’t audited or enforced are as worthless as an unfunded recovery plan.

3. Decent funding

Samuel urges improved resourcing because to date, funding to protect species and the environment has been grossly inadequate. For example, experts recently concluded up to 11 reptile species are at risk of extinction in the next 50 years in Australia, and limited funding is a key barrier to taking action.

A small lizard sitting on a human hand
Victoria’s grassland earless dragon (Tympanocryptis pinguicolla) is one of 11 reptile species identified as at risk of extinction.
Michael Mulvaney/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

And it has been proven time and again that lack of action due to under-resourcing leads to extinction. The recent extinction of the Christmas Island forest skink, the Christmas Island pipistrelle, and the Bramble Cay melomys were all attributable, in large part, to limited funding, both in the administration of the threatened species listing process, and in delivering urgent on-ground action.




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Vale ‘Gump’, the last known Christmas Island Forest Skink


We need only look to the COVID pandemic to know when faced with emergencies, the government can rapidly deploy substantial sums of money for urgent interventions. And we are well and truly in an environmental emergency.

Spending to care for the environment is not a cost that delivers no return. It’s an investment that delivers substantial benefits, from creating jobs to cleaner water and healthier people.

4. Increase ecological knowledge

Engaging experts is key to achieving Samuel’s long-overdue proposed reforms. He calls for the immediate creation of expert committees on sustainable development, Indigenous participation, conservation science, heritage, and water resources. This will help support the best available data collection to underpin important decisions.

Ultimately, though, much more investment in building ecological knowledge is required.

Australia has more than 1,900 listed threatened species and ecological communities, and most don’t even have active recovery plans. Ecologists will need to collect, analyse and interpret new, up-to-date data to make biodiversity conservation laws operational for most threatened species.

For example, while we know logging and fires threaten greater gliders, there’s still no recovery plan for this iconic forest possum. And recent research suggests there are actually three — not simply one — species of greater glider. Suspected interactions between climate change, fire and logging, and unexplained severe population declines, means significant new effort must be invested to set out a clear plan for their recovery.




Read more:
Environment laws have failed to tackle the extinction emergency. Here’s the proof


Samuel recommends Regional Recovery Plans be adequately funded to help develop some knowledge. But we suggest substantial new environmental capacity is needed, including new ecological research positions, increased environmental monitoring infrastructure, and appropriate funding of recovery plans, to ensure enough knowledge supports decision making.

Cherry picking recommendations condemns our species

Samuel’s report has provided a path forward that could make a substantial difference to Australia’s shocking track record of biodiversity conservation and land stewardship.

But Environment Minister Sussan Ley’s response so far suggests the Morrison government plans to cherry pick from Samuel’s recommendations, and rush through changes without appropriate safeguards.

If the changes we outlined above aren’t implemented as a package, our precious natural heritage will continue to decline.




Read more:
A major report excoriated Australia’s environment laws. Sussan Ley’s response is confused and risky


The Conversation


Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Brendan Wintle, Professor in Conservation Ecology, School of BioSciences, The University of Melbourne; Euan Ritchie, Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, and Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland

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

Taking care of business: the private sector is waking up to nature’s value



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Megan C Evans, UNSW

For many businesses, climate change is an existential threat. Extreme weather can disrupt operations and supply chains, spelling disaster for both small vendors and global corporations. It also leaves investment firms dangerously exposed.

Businesses increasingly recognise climate change as a significant financial risk. Awareness of nature-related financial risks, such as biodiversity loss, is still emerging.

My work examines the growth of private sector investment in biodiversity and natural capital. I believe now is a good time to consider questions such as: what are businesses doing, and not doing, about climate change and environmental destruction? And what role should government play?

Research clearly shows humanity is severely damaging Earth’s ability to support life. But there is hope, including a change in government in the United States, which has brought new momentum to tackling the world’s environmental problems.

Koala lies dead after a bushfire tears through forest
Now’s a good time to talk about how humans are wrecking the planet.
Daniel Mariuz/AAP

Poisoning the well

An expert report released last week warned Australia must cut emissions by 50% or more in the next decade if it’s to meet the Paris Agreement goals. Meeting this challenge will require everyone to do their bit.

Climate change is a major threat to Australia’s financial security, and businesses must be among those leading on emissions reduction. Unfortunately, that’s often not the case.

The finance sector, for example, contributes substantially to climate change and biodiversity loss. It does this by providing loans, insurance or investment for business activities that produce greenhouse gas emissions or otherwise harm nature.

In fact, a report last year found Australia’s big four banks loaned A$7 billion to 33 fossil fuel projects in the three years to 2019.

Protest banner on coal pile at terminal
Australia’s big banks have been criticised for investing in fossil fuels.
Dean Sewell/Greenpeace

A pushback for nature

Promisingly, there’s a growing push from some businesses, including in the finance sector, to protect the climate and nature.

Late last year, Australian banks and insurers published the nation’s first comprehensive climate change reporting framework. And the recently launched Climate League 2030 initiative, representing 17 of Australia’s institutional investors with A$890 billion in combined assets, aims to act on deeper emissions reductions.




Read more:
Worried about Earth’s future? Well, the outlook is worse than even scientists can grasp


Some companies are starting to put serious money on the table.
In August last year, global financial services giant HSBC and climate change advisory firm Pollination announced a joint asset management venture focused on “natural capital”. The venture aims to raise up to A$1 billion for its first fund.

Globally too, investors are starting to wake up to the cost of nature loss. Last month, investors representing US$2.4 trillion (A$3.14 trillion) in assets asked HSBC to set emissions reduction targets in line with the Paris Agreement. And in September last year, investor groups worth over $US103 trillion (A$135 trillion) issued a global call for companies to accurately disclose climate risks in financial reporting.

HSBC sign lit at night
HSBC’s investors are pushing for stronger climate action.
Shutterstock

Climate change is not the only threat to global financial security. Nature loss – the destruction of plants, animals and ecosystems – poses another existential threat. Last year, the World Economic Forum reported more than half of the global economy relies on goods and services nature provides such as pollination, water and disease control.

Efforts by the finance sector to address the risks associated with biodiversity loss are in their infancy, but will benefit from work already done on understanding climate risk

Of course, acknowledging and disclosing climate- and nature-related financial risks is just one step. Substantial action is also needed.

Businesses can merely “greenwash” their image – presenting to the public as environmentally responsible while acting otherwise. For example, a report showed in 2019, many major global banks that pledged action on climate change and biodiversity loss were also investing in activities harmful to biodiversity.

Logs felled in timber operation
The global economy depends on the goods and services nature provides.
Shutterstock

Getting it right

In the financial sector and beyond, there are risks to consider as the private sector takes a larger role in environmental action.

Investors will increasingly seek to direct capital to projects that help to reduce their exposure to climate- and nature-related risks, such ecosystem restoration and sustainable agriculture.

Many of these projects can help to restore biodiversity, sequester carbon and deliver benefits for local communities. But it’s crucial to remember that private sector investment is motivated, at least in part, by the expectation of a positive financial return.

Projects that are highly risky or slow to mature, such as restoring highly threatened species or ecosystems, might struggle to attract finance. For example, the federal government’s Threatened Species prospectus reportedly attracted little private sector interest.

That means governments and philanthropic donors still have a crucial role in the funding of research and pilot projects.




Read more:
A major report excoriated Australia’s environment laws. Sussan Ley’s response is confused and risky


Governments must also better align policies to improve business and investor confidence. It is nonsensical that various Australian governments send competing signals about whether, say, forests should be cleared or restored. And at the federal level, biodiversity loss and climate change come under separate portfolios, despite the issues being inextricably linked.

Private-sector investment could deliver huge benefits for the environment, but these outcomes must be real and clearly demonstrated. Investors want the benefits measured and reported, but good data is often lacking.

Too-simple metrics, such as the area of land protected, don’t tell the whole story. They may not reflect harm to local and Indigenous communities, or whether the land is well managed.

Finally, as the private sector becomes more aware of nature and climate-related risks, a range of approaches to addressing this will proliferate. But efforts must be harmonised to minimise confusion and complexity in the marketplace. Governments must provide leadership to make this a smooth process.

Swift parrot flies through treetops
Threatened species habitat restoration may struggle to attract private sector funding.
Eric Woehler

The power to change

Last week, a major report was released highlighting grave failures in Australia’s environmental laws. The government’s response suggested it is not taking the threat seriously.

Businesses and governments hold disproportionate power that can be used to either delay or accelerate transformative change.

And although many businesses wield undue influence on government decisions, it doesn’t have to be this way.

By working together and seizing the many opportunities that present, business and government can help arrest climate change and nature loss, and contribute to a safer, more liveable planet for all.




Read more:
You can’t talk about disaster risk reduction without talking about inequality


The Conversation


Megan C Evans, Lecturer and ARC DECRA Fellow, UNSW

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

A major report excoriated Australia’s environment laws. Sussan Ley’s response is confused and risky



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Peter Burnett, Australian National University

It’s official: Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in deep trouble. They can’t withstand current and future threats, including climate change. And the national laws protecting them are flawed and badly outdated.

You could hardly imagine a worse report on the state of Australia’s environment, and the law’s capacity to protect it, than that released yesterday. The review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity (EPBC) Act, by former competition watchdog chair Professor Graeme Samuel, did not mince words. Without urgent changes, most of Australia’s threatened plants, animals and ecosystems will become extinct.

Federal environment minister Sussan Ley released the report yesterday after sitting on it for three months. And she showed little sign of being spurred into action by Samuel’s scathing assessment.

Her response was confusing and contradictory. And the Morrison government seems hellbent on pushing through its preferred reforms without safeguards that Samuel says are crucial.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley
Environment Minister Sussan Ley appears hellbent on pushing through the government’s agenda.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

A bleak assessment

I was a federal environment official for 13 years, and from 2007 to 2012 was responsible for administering and reforming the EPBC Act. I believe Samuel’s report is a very good one.

Samuel has maintained the course laid out in his interim report last July. He found the state of Australia’s natural environment and iconic places is declining and under increasing threat.




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Environment Minister Sussan Ley is in a tearing hurry to embrace nature law reform – and that’s a worry


Moreover, he says, the EPBC Act is outdated and requires fundamental reform. The current approach results in piecemeal decisions rather than holistic environmental management, which he sees as essential for success. He went on:

The resounding message that I heard throughout the review is that Australians do not trust that the EPBC Act is delivering for the environment, for business or for the community.

Boy takes photo of burnt bush
Australians feel the EPBC Act is failing the environment.
Shutterstock

A proposed way forward

Samuel recommended a suite of reforms, many of which were foreshadowed in his interim report. They include:

  • national environmental standards, legally binding on the states and others, to guide development decisions and provide the ability to measure outcomes

  • applying the new standards to existing Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs). Such a move could open up the forest debate in a way not seen since the 1990s

  • accrediting the regulatory processes and environmental policies of the states and territories, to ensure they can meet the new standards. Accredited regimes would be audited by an Environment Assurance Commissioner

  • a “quantum shift” in the availability of environmental information, such as accurate mapping of habitat for threatened species

  • an overhaul of environmental offsets, which compensate for environmental destruction by improving nature elsewhere. Offsets have become a routine development cost applied to proponents, rather than last-resort compensation invested in environmental restoration.

Under-resourcing is a major problem with the EPBC Act, and Samuel’s report reiterates this. For example, as I’ve noted previously, “bioregional plans” of land areas – intended to define the environmental values and objectives of a region – have never been funded.

Land cleared for development
The system of environmental offsets, which compensates for damage to nature, should be overhauled.
Shutterstock

Respecting Indigenous knowledge

One long-overdue reform would require decision-makers to respectfully consider Indigenous views and knowledge. Samuel found the law was failing in this regard.

He recommended national standards for Indigenous engagement and participation in decision-making. This would be developed through an Indigenous-led process and complemented by a comprehensive review of national cultural heritage protections.




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Juukan Gorge: how could they not have known? (And how can we be sure they will in future?)


The recommendations follow an international outcry last year over mining giant Rio Tinto’s destruction of 46,000-year-old caves at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia. In Samuel’s words:

National-level protection of the cultural heritage of Indigenous Australians is a long way out of step with community expectations. As a nation, we must do better.

Indigenous women
Indigenous knowledge should be heard and respected.
Richard WainwrightT/AAP

Confusing signals

The government’s position on Samuel’s reforms is confusing. Ley yesterday welcomed the review and said the government was “committed to working through the full detail of the recommendations with stakeholders”.

But she last year ruled out Samuel’s call for an independent regulator to oversee federal environment laws. And her government is still prepared to devolve federal approvals to the states before Samuel’s new national standards are in place.

In July last year, Ley seized on interim reforms proposed by Samuel that suited her government’s agenda – streamlining the environmental approvals process – and started working towards them.

In September, the government pushed the change through parliament’s lower house, denying independent MP Zali Steggall the chance to move amendments to allow national environment standards.

Ley yesterday reiterated the government’s commitment to the standards – yet indicated the government would soon seek to progress the legislation through the Senate, then develop the new standards later.

Samuel did include devolution to the states in his first of three tranches of reform – the first to start by early 2021. But his first tranche also includes important safeguards. These include the new national environmental standards, the Environment Assurance Commissioner, various statutory committees, Indigenous reforms and more.

The government’s proposed unbundling of the reforms doesn’t pass the pub test. It would tempt the states to take accreditation under the existing, discredited rules and resist later attempts to hold them to higher standards. In this, they’d be supported by developers who don’t like the prospect of a higher approvals bar.

A koala in a tree
Australia’s iconic places and species are headed for extinction.
Shutterstock

A big year ahead

Samuel noted “governments should avoid the temptation to cherry pick from a highly interconnected suite of recommendations”. But this is exactly what the Morrison government is doing.

I hope the Senate will force the government to work through the full detail of the recommendations with stakeholders, as Ley says she’d like to.




Read more:
Environment laws have failed to tackle the extinction emergency. Here’s the proof


But at this stage there’s little sign the government plans to embrace the reforms in full, or indeed that it has any vision for Australia’s environment.

All this plays out against still-raw memories of last summer’s bushfires, and expected pressure from the United States, under President Joe Biden, for developed economies such as Australia to lift their climate game.

With the United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow in November, it seems certain the environment will be high on Australia’s national agenda in 2021.The Conversation

Peter Burnett, Honorary Associate Professor, ANU College of Law, Australian National University

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

Worried about Earth’s future? Well, the outlook is worse than even scientists can grasp



Daniel Mariuz/AAP

Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Flinders University; Daniel T. Blumstein, University of California, Los Angeles, and Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University

Anyone with even a passing interest in the global environment knows all is not well. But just how bad is the situation? Our new paper shows the outlook for life on Earth is more dire than is generally understood.

The research published today reviews more than 150 studies to produce a stark summary of the state of the natural world. We outline the likely future trends in biodiversity decline, mass extinction, climate disruption and planetary toxification. We clarify the gravity of the human predicament and provide a timely snapshot of the crises that must be addressed now.

The problems, all tied to human consumption and population growth, will almost certainly worsen over coming decades. The damage will be felt for centuries and threatens the survival of all species, including our own.

Our paper was authored by 17 leading scientists, including those from Flinders University, Stanford University and the University of California, Los Angeles. Our message might not be popular, and indeed is frightening. But scientists must be candid and accurate if humanity is to understand the enormity of the challenges we face.

Girl in breathing mask attached ot plant in container
Humanity must come to terms with the future we and future generations face.
Shutterstock

Getting to grips with the problem

First, we reviewed the extent to which experts grasp the scale of the threats to the biosphere and its lifeforms, including humanity. Alarmingly, the research shows future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than experts currently believe.

This is largely because academics tend to specialise in one discipline, which means they’re in many cases unfamiliar with the complex system in which planetary-scale problems — and their potential solutions — exist.

What’s more, positive change can be impeded by governments rejecting or ignoring scientific advice, and ignorance of human behaviour by both technical experts and policymakers.

More broadly, the human optimism bias – thinking bad things are more likely to befall others than yourself – means many people underestimate the environmental crisis.

Numbers don’t lie

Our research also reviewed the current state of the global environment. While the problems are too numerous to cover in full here, they include:

  • a halving of vegetation biomass since the agricultural revolution around 11,000 years ago. Overall, humans have altered almost two-thirds of Earth’s land surface

  • About 1,300 documented species extinctions over the past 500 years, with many more unrecorded. More broadly, population sizes of animal species have declined by more than two-thirds over the last 50 years, suggesting more extinctions are imminent




Read more:
What is a ‘mass extinction’ and are we in one now?


  • about one million plant and animal species globally threatened with extinction. The combined mass of wild mammals today is less than one-quarter the mass before humans started colonising the planet. Insects are also disappearing rapidly in many regions

  • 85% of the global wetland area lost in 300 years, and more than 65% of the oceans compromised to some extent by humans

  • a halving of live coral cover on reefs in less than 200 years and a decrease in seagrass extent by 10% per decade over the last century. About 40% of kelp forests have declined in abundance, and the number of large predatory fishes is fewer than 30% of that a century ago.

State of the Earth's environment
Major environmental-change categories expressed as a percentage relative to intact baseline. Red indicates percentage of category damaged, lost or otherwise affected; blue indicates percentage intact, remaining or unaffected.
Frontiers in Conservation Science

A bad situation only getting worse

The human population has reached 7.8 billion – double what it was in 1970 – and is set to reach about 10 billion by 2050. More people equals more food insecurity, soil degradation, plastic pollution and biodiversity loss.

High population densities make pandemics more likely. They also drive overcrowding, unemployment, housing shortages and deteriorating infrastructure, and can spark conflicts leading to insurrections, terrorism, and war.




Read more:
Climate explained: why we need to focus on increased consumption as much as population growth


Essentially, humans have created an ecological Ponzi scheme. Consumption, as a percentage of Earth’s capacity to regenerate itself, has grown from 73% in 1960 to more than 170% today.

High-consuming countries like Australia, Canada and the US use multiple units of fossil-fuel energy to produce one energy unit of food. Energy consumption will therefore increase in the near future, especially as the global middle class grows.

Then there’s climate change. Humanity has already exceeded global warming of 1°C this century, and will almost assuredly exceed 1.5 °C between 2030 and 2052. Even if all nations party to the Paris Agreement ratify their commitments, warming would still reach between 2.6°C and 3.1°C by 2100.

people walking on a crowded street
The human population is set to reach 10 billion by 2050.
Shutterstock

The danger of political impotence

Our paper found global policymaking falls far short of addressing these existential threats. Securing Earth’s future requires prudent, long-term decisions. However this is impeded by short-term interests, and an economic system that concentrates wealth among a few individuals.

Right-wing populist leaders with anti-environment agendas are on the rise, and in many countries, environmental protest groups have been labelled “terrorists”. Environmentalism has become weaponised as a political ideology, rather than properly viewed as a universal mode of self-preservation.

Financed disinformation campaigns against climate action and forest protection, for example, protect short-term profits and claim meaningful environmental action is too costly – while ignoring the broader cost of not acting. By and large, it appears unlikely business investments will shift at sufficient scale to avoid environmental catastrophe.

Changing course

Fundamental change is required to avoid this ghastly future. Specifically, we and many others suggest:

  • abolishing the goal of perpetual economic growth

  • revealing the true cost of products and activities by forcing those who damage the environment to pay for its restoration, such as through carbon pricing

  • rapidly eliminating fossil fuels

  • regulating markets by curtailing monopolisation and limiting undue corporate influence on policy

  • reigning in corporate lobbying of political representatives

  • educating and empowering women across the globe, including giving them control over family planning.

A coal plant
The true cost of environmental damage should be borne by those responsible.
Shutterstock

Don’t look away

Many organisations and individuals are devoted to achieving these aims. However their messages have not sufficiently penetrated the policy, economic, political and academic realms to make much difference.

Failing to acknowledge the magnitude and gravity of problems facing humanity is not just naïve, it’s dangerous. And science has a big role to play here.

Scientists must not sugarcoat the overwhelming challenges ahead. Instead, they should tell it like it is. Anything else is at best misleading, and at worst potentially lethal for the human enterprise.




Read more:
Mass extinctions and climate change: why the speed of rising greenhouse gases matters


The Conversation


Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Matthew Flinders Professor of Global Ecology and Models Theme Leader for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Flinders University; Daniel T. Blumstein, Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, University of California, Los Angeles, and Paul Ehrlich, President, Center for Conservation Biology, Bing Professor of Population Studies, Stanford University

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