As Australians seek to control rising energy costs and tackle the damaging impacts of climate change, rooftop solar has boomed.
To manage the variability of rooftop solar – broadly, the “no power at night” problem – we will also see a rapid increase in battery storage.
The question is: what will happen to these panels and batteries once they reach the end of their life?
If not addressed, ageing solar panels and batteries will create a mountain of hazardous waste for Australia over the coming decades.
Our research, published recently in the Journal of Cleaner Production, looked at the barriers to managing solar panel waste, and how to improve it.
Solar panels generally last about 20 years. And lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries, which will be the most common battery storage for solar, last between five and 15 years. Many solar panels have already been retired, but battery waste will start to emerge more significantly in 2025. By 2050 the projected amount of waste from retired solar panels in Australia is over 1,500 kilotonnes (kT).
Solar panels and batteries contain valuable materials such as metals, glass, ruthenium, indium, tellurium, lead and lithium.
Recycling this waste will prevent environmental and human health problems, and save valuable resources for future use.
Australia has a Product Stewardship Act, which aims to establish a system of shared responsibility for those who make, sell and use a product to ensure that product does not end up harming the environment or people at the end of its life.
In 2016, solar photovoltaic (PV) systems were added to a priority list to be considered for a scheme design. This includes an assessment of voluntary, co-regulatory and regulatory pathways to manage the waste streams.
Sustainability Victoria (on behalf of the Victorian state government and with the support of states and territories) is leading a national investigation into a system of shared responsibility for end-of-life solar photovoltaic systems in Australia. Our research project has supported the assessment process.
Industries play a crucial role in the success of any product stewardship scheme. As we move into assessing and testing possible schemes, Australia’s PV sector (and other stakeholders) will have critical input.
A preferred product scope and stewardship approach will be presented to environment ministers. Scheme design and implementation activities are tentatively set to start in 2020.
This approach aims to reduce the need for virgin raw materials, extend product life, maintain material quality at the highest level, prioritise reuse, and use renewable energy throughout the process.
Explainer: what is the circular economy?
Businesses in Australia currently have little incentive to innovate and improve the recycling rate. By helping implement circular business models such as lease, refurbishment and product-service systems, we can boost recycling, reduce collection costs and prolong tech lifetimes.
Requiring system manufacturers, importers or distributors to source solar panels and batteries designed for the environment makes both economic and environmental sense. By doing so, recyclers will recover more materials and achieve higher recirculation of recovered resources.
Consumers need to be provided with proper guidance and education for responsible end-of-life management of solar panels and batteries.
Now that China is no longer accepting waste for recycling, Australia needs to rapidly develop its domestic recycling industry. This will also spur job creation and contribute to the green economy.
Given Australia is struggling to recycle simple waste, such as cardboard and plastics, in a cost-effective way, we need to question our capability to deal with more complex solar PV and battery waste.
And even if China were to suddenly start accepting Australia’s waste – an unlikely proposition – we cannot simply export our problem. As a signatory to the Basel Convention, exporting hazardous materials requires permits.
A previous study suggests half of Australia’s scrap metal is exported for overseas processing, which indicates the lack of incentives for domestic recycling.
Even if we build domestic recycling capability for solar panels and batteries, it will be underused while landfills remain available as a low-cost disposal option.
It’s promising that South Australia and the ACT have banned certain e-waste categories from entering landfill, while Victoria will implement an all-encompassing e-waste landfill ban from July 1 2019. This means any end-of-life electrical or electronic device that requires an electromagnetic current to operate must be recycled.
Creating a circular economy for solar and battery waste will need a strong commitment from policymakers and industry. Ideally, we need to prioritise reuse and refurbishment before recycling.
If we combine sensible policies with proactive business strategy and education to promote recycling rates, we can have a reliable and truly sustainable source of renewable energy in this country.
The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of Michael Dudley from Sustainability Victoria to this article.
It was framed as “the climate election”, but last week Australia returned a government with climate policies that make the task of building a zero-emissions, safe climate Australia even harder.
This result comes at a time when international studies are raising the real and imminent spectre of a mass extinction crisis and many communities are already struggling with the consequences of the climate emergency now unfolding around us.
Amid the growing strength of movements like Extinction Rebellion and climate activist Greta Thunberg’s advice to “act as you would in a crisis”, Australian film-maker Damon Gameau’s new climate change solutions film 2040 focuses on highlighting the huge range of climate action opportunities being explored and accelerated, not just in Australia but around the world.
Structured as a visual letter to Gameau’s four-year-old daughter, 2040 takes us on an engaging, upbeat journey, introducing us to a wide array of climate and energy solutions already underway. The film then fast-forwards 20 years to help us imagine how a zero-emissions world might unfold.
The film and accompanying book showcase a rich tapestry of climate action stories from around the world, from renewable energy microgrids in Bangladesh, to autonomous electric vehicles in Singapore and regenerative agriculture in Shepparton, Victoria.
Economist Kate Raworth speaks eloquently about the urgent need for a new “doughnut economics” approach, which grows jobs and health and well-being rather than consumerism, pollution and inequality.
Paul Hawken, founder of the Drawdown project reminds us we already have the tools required to build a just and resilient zero-carbon economy. Our key task now is to mobilise the resources and harness the creativity required to bring this work to scale at emergency speed.
Importantly, the 2040 project also includes the Whats Your 2040 website, where audiences can explore their own personal climate action plans.
I have had the privilege to contribute ideas and advice to the 2040 film project, drawing on research I’ve undertaken over the last ten years on strategies for accelerating the creation of post-carbon economies. Its also been exciting to see such enthusiasm and determination from audiences watching 2040, particularly among students and young people.
While 2040 doesn’t avoid hard truths about the rapidly escalating risks and dangers of the climate emergency, Gameau has made a clear choice to focus his narrative of “fact based dreaming” on stories of hope and action rather than just chaos and catastrophe.
The goal is to offer viewers a refreshing and energising change from yet more images of burning forests and melting glaciers.
Of course, some will also bear in mind the cautionary warning of Greta Thunberg:
I don’t want you to be hopeful…I want you to feel the fear I feel every day…I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire. Because it is.
US author Rebecca Solnit provides another valuable perspective. “Hope”, she argues “is not about what we expect. It’s an embrace of the essential unknowability of the world. Hope is not a door but a sense that there might be a door.”
In my work with climate scientists, activists and policy makers over the last ten years I’ve had many challenging conversations about finding the right balance between fear and hope; threat and opportunity; naive optimism and paralysing despair.
One useful source of wisdom in navigating this tension is research on effective and timely responses to more immediate natural disasters, like fast-moving storms, floods and fires.
Successfully dealing with an emergency requires recognising that decisive action is urgently necessary, possible in the time available, and desirable. Broken down, this means understanding:
There is certainly no shortage of scientific and experiential evidence about the scale and speed of the climate emergency which has now arrived at our door. But the case for radical hope, defiant courage and decisive collective action also continues to strengthen.
This challenge is also being taken up by some sections of the business world. (See, for example, Ross Garnaut’s recent lecture series outlining Australia’s great potential as a renewable energy superpower.)
Ideas like this are particularly important in developing a convincing and compelling narrative about a future post-fossil fuel economy that creates high-quality secure jobs and leaves no Australian worker or community behind.
The election outcome is clearly a significant setback for those who had hoped that there might now be clearer air for a more mature conversation in Australia about the necessity, urgency and desirability of accelerating the transition to a just and resilient zero-carbon economy.
None of us know exactly how our journey into a harsh climate future will evolve. We can however be sure that the journey will be far tougher if we close our eyes and fail to act with honesty and imagination; wisdom and courage. 2040 makes an important contribution to this urgent and essential work.
2040 was released in Australia on May 22.
Don Driscoll, Deakin University; Desley Whisson, Deakin University; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University; Mike Weston, Deakin University; Raylene Cooke, Deakin University, and Tim Doherty, Deakin University
Addressing this crisis requires transformative change, including more effective environmental law and implementation.
Improved legislation is one of five main levers for realising change identified in the recent United Nation’s global biodiversity report and the key lesson arising from the Senate’s interim report into Australia’s faunal extinction crisis.
The Senate’s interim report, based on 420 submissions and five hearings, shows Australia is a world leader in causing species extinctions, in part because Australia’s systems for conserving our natural heritage are grossly inadequate.
To allow the continued erosion of this continent’s spectacular and remarkable array of globally unique plants and animals is a travesty of the highest order.
One of the problems is species may decline from common to extinct quite rapidly – faster than the time it takes species to be listed as threatened under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.
The Christmas Island forest skink was formally listed as a threatened species only four months before the last individual died in captivity, but 15 years after the decline was first reported.
Extinction of the forest skink, Bramble Cay melomys and Christmas Island pipistrelle between 2009 and 2014 may have been averted if the risk was formally recognised in a more timely manner and effective conservation actions, such as captive breeding programs, were implemented.
Currently, if a species is not listed, it is not a “matter of national environmental significance” and federal agency staff generally have no legal basis for acting to protect it.
The black-throated finch has been listed as threatened on the EPBC Act for 14 years and during this time 600,000 ha of potential finch habitat has been destroyed. Worse still, five large coal mines, including the Carmichael Coal Mine, have been given approval (pending environmental conditions being met in Queensland) to clear more than 29,000 ha of black-throated finch habitat in one of its final strongholds, the Galilee Basin.
The controversial Toondah Harbour development in Brisbane is another example of how ministerial discretion can allow disastrous environmental outcomes. The project plans to build 3,600 apartments on wetlands that provide habitat for migratory waterbirds, including the critically endangered eastern curlew.
Despite being described as “clearly unacceptable” by the federal environment department and knocking it back twice, the minister allowed a third submission to proceed for further assessment.
It was reported this decision was made in the context of legal threats and donations from the developer in question. If true, this context would make it very difficult to make impartial decisions that protect biodiversity, as environmental law intends.
Increasing ministerial discretion was a key result of 2007 amendments to the EPBC act, which meant recovery plans were no longer required for threatened species.
The amendment allowed the minister to develop “conservation advices” instead of recovery plans. This amendment downgraded protections for threatened species because a minister can legally make decisions that are inconsistent with conservation advice, but not a recovery plan.
Based on these examples and many others that demonstrate the failings of current laws, the interim report concludes that we should rip up the EPBC act and develop stronger and more effective environmental legislation.
This includes establishing an independent Environmental Protection Agency to ensure enforcement of environmental laws, and, in a forward-looking addition by the Greens senators, an independent National Environmental Commission to monitor effectiveness of environmental legislation and propose improvements.
Australia needs a well-resourced, independent umpire for the environment, with powers to investigate environmental concerns and scrutinise government policy, akin to New Zealand’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. While Australia’s Threatened Species Commissioner is an excellent champion for the environment, this role provides no ability to question government actions regarding environmental protection and nature conservation.
Although replacing the EPBC act with new legislation may seem like a radical step to some (but not all), the interim Senate report, and the global UN report, have independently concluded major reform is essential. We are not in a moment of time when tweaking the current system will do the trick.
Changing Australia’s environmental legislation is a relatively minor update compared with the fundamental social and economic changes recommended by the UN report.
Such changes are already recommended by scientific societies like the Ecological Society of Australia, non-government organisations like Birdlife Australia and the Australian Conservation Foundation, and are demanded by a growing section of society. New, fit-for-purpose legislation must be enforceable, apolitical and responsive.
Opinion polls show that the level of environmental concern is higher in Australia than in other countries , while 29% of ABC Vote Compass respondents ranked the environment as the most important issue, up from 9% in 2016.
This groundswell of environmental concern has spawned mass protest movements like Extinction Rebellion. Young Australians also have shown their concern. In March 2019, thousands of school students took part in 50 rallies across the country to protest against “the destruction of our future”.
Decisions about what and how much we buy, what we eat, how much we travel and by what means, and family size, all contribute to our environmental footprints, and are the fundamental instigators of the biodiversity crisis.
However, we must also look to our political leaders to support effective change. The simplest and most powerful action you can take to reverse the extinction crisis is to vote for a party with policies best aligned with credible scientific advice on how we can get out of this mess.
Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; Desley Whisson, Lecturer in Wildlife and Conservation Biology, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University; Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University; Mike Weston, Associate Professor, Deakin University; Raylene Cooke, Associate Professor, Deakin University, and Tim Doherty, Alfred Deakin Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Deakin University
The world’s largest assessment of biodiversity recently shared the alarming news that 1 million species are under threat of extinction.
Australia’s extinction record is poor compared to the rest of the world, and our investment into conservation doesn’t do enough to restrain the growing crisis.
Currently, 511 animal species, 1,356 plant species and 82 distinct “ecological communities” – naturally occurring groups of native plants, animals and other organisms – are listed as nationally threatened in Australia. And these numbers are increasing.
While much conservation effort focuses on protecting individual species, we are failing to protect and restore their habitats.
Our ongoing research into environmental investment programs shows that current levels of investment do not even come close to matching what’s actually needed to downgrade threatened ecosystems.
One of the programs we evaluated was the 20 Million Trees Program, a part of the Australian government’s National Landcare Program. For example, we analysed investment targeted at the critically endangered Peppermint Box Grassy Woodlands of South Australia.
Fewer than three square kilometres of woodland were planted. That’s less than 1% of what was needed to move the conservation status of these woodlands by one category, from critically endangered to endangered.
Conservation efforts are often focused on species – easily understood parts of our complex and interrelated ecosystems.
In recent years, some effective measures have been put in place to conserve species that are teetering on the edge of extinction. We have, for instance, seen the appointment of a Threatened Species Commissioner and the release of a Threatened Species Strategy and Prospectus.
But we don’t often hear about the 82 threatened ecological communities in which many of these species live.
Temperate eucalypt woodlands once covered vast areas of southern Australia before being cleared to make way for agriculture. The Peppermint Box Grassy Woodlands of South Australia, for instance, have been reduced to 2% of their former glory through land clearing and other forms of degradation.
These woodlands provide critical habitat for many plant and animal species, among them declining woodland birds such as the Diamond Firetail and Jacky Winter.
Focusing on the conservation and restoration of our threatened communities (rather than individual species) would create a better understanding of how much effort and investment is required to curb the extinction crisis and improve the outcomes of biodiversity restoration.
Large-scale restoration investment programs are often touted in politics, particularly when these have a national focus. And many recent restoration programs, such as the Environment Restoration Fund, National Landcare Program, Green Army and 20 Million Trees, are important and worthwhile.
But in the majority of cases the effort is inadequate to achieve the stated conservation objectives.
Underlying threats to the environment often remain – such as vegetation clearing, genetic isolation and competition from introduced pests and weeds – and biodiversity continues to decline.
The 20 Million Trees program, for example, is the most recent national initiative aimed at restoring native vegetation systems, attracting A$70 million in investment between 2014 and 2020.
To place the scale of this investment into context, we analysed the impact of the 20 Million Trees program on the critically endangered Peppermint Box Grassy Woodlands of South Australia.
The restoration priority for this community should be to enhance the condition of existing remnant areas. But improving its conservation status would also require more effort to increase the area of land the woodland covers.
Even if the full six-year budget for 20 Million Trees (A$70 million) was used to replant only this type of woodland, it would still fall short of upgrading its conservation status to endangered. We estimate that moving the community up a category would require a minimum investment of A$150 million, excluding land value.
And Peppermint Box Grassy Woodland is just one of the threatened ecological communities listed for conservation. There are 81 others.
Although any effort to improve the status of threatened ecosystems (and species) is important, this example shows how current levels of effort and investment are grossly inadequate to have any substantial impact on threatened communities and the species that live there.
Our estimates relate to how restoration activities affect land cover. But ensuring they are also of adequate quality would need more long-term investment.
Investment in biodiversity conservation in Australia is falling while the extinction crisis is worsening.
Protecting and restoring ecological communities will preserve our unique native biodiversity and develop an environment that sustains food production and remains resilient to climate change. But failure to invest now will lead to extinctions and the collapse of ecosystems.
To make genuine inroads and have an enduring impact on Australian threatened species and ecosystems, restoration programs must be clear on the amount they expect to contribute to conservation and restoration objectives, along with co-benefits like carbon sequestration.
The programs must be at least an order of magnitude larger and be structured to produce measurable outcomes.
Stuart Collard, Research Fellow, The Centre for Global Food and Resources, University of Adelaide; Patrick O’Connor, Associate Professor, and Thomas Prowse, Postdoctoral research fellow, School of Mathematical Sciences, University of Adelaide
We are witnessing the loss of biodiversity at rates never before seen in human history. Nearly a million species face extinction if we do not fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world, according to the world’s largest assessment of biodiversity.
Last week, in the culmination of a process involving 500 biodiversity experts from over 50 countries, 134 governments negotiated the final form of the Global Assessment of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
IPBES aims to arm policy-makers with the tools to address the relationships between biodiversity and human well-being. It synthesises evidence on the state of biodiversity, ecosystems and natures’ contributions to people on a global scale.
The IPBES Global Assessment provides unequivocal evidence that we need biodiversity for human survival and well-being. To stem unprecedented species decline the assessment sets out the actions governments, the private sector and individuals can take.
Importantly, a whole chapter of the Global Assessment (about one-sixth of the assessment) is dedicated to examining whether existing biodiversity law and policy is adequate. This chapter also outlines ways to address the vortex of biodiversity decline.
If we are to halt the continued loss of nature, then the world’s legal, institutional and economic systems must be reformed entirely. And this change needs to happen immediately.
IPBES is the biodiversity equivalent to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Assessments are a fundamental part of IPBES’s work.
IPBES Assessments review thousands of biodiversity studies to identify broad trends and draw authoritative conclusions. In the case of the Global Assessment, IPBES authors reviewed more than 15,000 publications from scientific and governments sources.
Governments and stakeholders give feedback on the draft text, and experts respond meticulously to the thousands of comments before revising and clarifying the draft. A final summary of key findings is then negotiated with member states at plenary meetings – these meetings concluded on Saturday.
Human activity severely threatens biodiversity and ecosystem functions worldwide. About 1 million species are facing extinction. If nothing changes many of these could be gone within just decades.
But nature is vital to all aspects of human health. We rely on natural systems, not only for food, energy, medicine and genetic resources, but also for inspiration, learning and culture.
The report also reveals the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem function is much less pronounced on lands managed by Indigenous peoples and local communities. It also recognises the significant role of Indigenous knowledge, governance systems and culturally-specific worldviews which adopt a stewardship approach to managing natural systems.
The report identified agriculture, forestry and urbanisation as the number one reason for biodiversity loss in land-based ecosystems and rivers. In the sea, fishing has had the greatest impact on biodiversity and is exacerbated by changes in the use of the sea and coastal lands.
This is followed closely by:
the direct use of species (primarily through harvesting, logging, hunting and fishing)
the invasion of non-native species.
These factors are aggravated by underlying social values, such as unsustainable consumption and production, concentrated human populations, trade, technological advances, and governance at multiple scales.
The Global Assessment concludes that current biodiversity laws and policies have been insufficient to address the threats to the natural world.
And yet, the Global Assessment has an optimistic outlook. It emphasises that if the world’s legal, institutional and economic systems are transformed then it is possible to achieve a better future for biodiversity and human well-being in the next 30 years.
But this is only possible if reform happens immediately, as incremental change will be insufficient.
The Global Assessment puts forward these next, urgent steps:
we need to redefine human well-being beyond its narrow basis on economic growth
engage multiple public and private actors
link sustainability efforts across all governance scales
elevate Indigenous and local knowledge and communities.
The report also recommends strengthening environmental laws and taking serious precautionary measures in public and private endeavours. Governments must recognise indivisibility of society and nature, and govern to strengthen rather than weaken the natural world.
Individuals can make meaningful change through what we produce and what we buy. Our food is an important starting point. You could, for instance, choose local or sustainably produced meals and reduce your food waste.
Indigenous and local communities need to be included and supported more than ever before. The Global Assessment provides clear evidence that lands managed by Indigenous and local communities are performing better in terms of biodiversity. Still, these lands face serious threats, and Indigenous communities continue to be marginalised around the world.
Current biodiversity laws and policies don’t adequately address the threats to the natural world. The report recommends the world include biodiversity considerations across all sectors and jurisdictions to prevent further degradation of natural systems. We have an important role in rallying our governments to ensure this occurs.
We are losing biodiversity at record-breaking rates. The majesty of the natural world is disappearing and with it that which makes life worth living. We are also undermining the capacity of the Earth to sustain thriving human societies. We have the power to change this – but we need to act now.
Over the weekend, Victoria’s Environment Protection Authority issued notices for a major recycling company to stop receiving waste at two of its sites.
While the full consequences of these notices are yet to be realised, in the short term this means at least one council will have to dump kerbside recycling in landfill.
This isn’t a new problem. It’s a result of China’s decision to stop accepting Australia’s recyclables, and a clear sign we’ve been playing catch-up but not focusing on sustainable solutions. We need to work out how to deal with recycling in Australia – and determine how much it will cost, and who will pay.
Kerbside collections are of course funded by householders as part of their annual rates. After China stopped buying Australian recycling we saw the garbage component of rates rise, so the collection aspect of the costs seems to be addressed. But of course there are a range of materials that cannot be placed in kerbside bins, but can be recycled.
As reported recently in The Age, analysis by an environmental consultancy has found the prices consumers may have to pay to ensure there are systems in place to recycle a range of specific items. For example, it would cost A$16 to recycle a mattress. Given that my local landfill charges A$23 to dispose of a mattress, it seems to make economic sense to pay into a compulsory recycling scheme (and I would not have to transport the mattress to the landfill, which is another bonus).
However, the piece of the loop that is missing is the encouragement (by levies or incentives), for businesses to use more recycled materials in their products.
It does not make sense to collect and stockpile recyclable materials until commodity prices are high enough to justify sorting them. This habit makes us dependent on overseas markets and creates domestic issues.
Nor is it good to have a stop-start approach, in which recyclables are sorted properly when there is space, but sent to landfill when there is not (or have householders call the council fortnightly to see whether they should place their recycling bin out).
A recycling industry association has provided a ten-point plan for resolving what they consider the essential issues with recycling. This very positive list includes investing waste levy funds into recycling, providing incentives for companies to use more recycled material, and educating consumers and businesses on recycling issues.
Encouraging businesses to use more recycled material is crucial. Instead of just reporting how much of their waste is recycled rather than sent to landfill, all organisations should report on the percentage of materials they buy from recycled sources.
This would help consumers make better buying decisions, and give guidance for governments to target specific sectors or programs to increase the use of recyclables.
We need a “fresh eyes” approach to how we manage waste, focusing equally on the environmental, economic and social aspects of this issue. One barrier is the lack of a centralised approach by all three spheres of government. It doesn’t make sense for state or local governments to have to to manage this large-scale infrastructure issue in isolation.
The largest portion of responsibility for waste management lies with the generator, but that is not to say others may not have a level of involvement. We all have some responsibility for the waste we create in our own homes, and how we dispose of it. Besides recycling, that also means (where possible) avoiding and reducing trash, and buying items made with recyclables – this is called “closing of the loop”.
Some businesses have made significant efforts to reduce their dependence on virgin raw materials, and are using recycled material to either make or package their products. But we do not hear much about this.
Perhaps it is time for a scheme similar to the “Buy Australian” program or energy efficiency stars, which would enable consumers to readily identify the level of recycled material in a product. Currently it is very difficult to tell.
Retailers often say they’re driven by consumers in what they can provide, so why not use our supposed power to force improvements (and more importantly, reductions), in use of virgin materials?
The banning of plastic bags by supermarkets was consumer-driven – so now is the time to encourage companies to reduce their waste burden. Perhaps you can approach a retailer about excess packaging, or make sure you check the label to see if an item was made or packaged with recycled materials.
As we move towards a federal election we should also be asking what our political parties are proposing to do about our waste crisis. It’s time to ask local candidates about their sustainable plan for resolving Australia’s issues with recycling, waste management and reducing resource use.
The recently released 2018 Living Planet report is among the most comprehensive global analyses of biodiversity yet. It is based on published data on 4,000 out of the 70,000 known species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians.
Rather than listing species that have gone extinct, the report summarises more subtle information about the vulnerability of global biodiversity. The bottom line is that across the globe, the population sizes of the species considered have declined by an average of 60% in 40 years.
New Zealand is a relatively large and geographically isolated archipelago with a biota that includes many species found nowhere else in the world. One might think that it is buffered from some of the effects of biological erosion, especially since people only arrived less than 800 years ago. But as we show, the impact on wildlife has been catastrophic.
The diversity of life may seem incomprehensible. Carolus Linnaeus began his systematic work to describe earth’s biological diversity in the 18th century with about 12,000 plants and animals. Since then, 1.3 million species of multi-cellular creatures have been described, but the size of the remaining taxonomic gap remains unclear.
Recently, sophisticated models estimated the scale of life, suggesting that multi-cellular life ranges between about five million and nine million species. Microbial life might include millions, billions or even trillions of species.
Species do not exist in isolation. They are part of communities of large and microscopic organisms that themselves drive diversification. Charles Darwin observed in his usual understated way:
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.
The main threat to biodiversity remains overexploitation of resources, leading to loss of habitat. Human overconsumption can only get worse in coming decades, and this will likely escalate the impact of invasive species, increase the rate of disease transmission, worsen water and air pollution and add to climate change.
This is the Anthropocene, the era of human domination of many global-scale processes. By the early 1990s, just 33 million of the earth’s 130 million square kilometres of ice-free land remained in wilderness. By 2016, it was down to 30 million. Most of this is either desert, taiga or tundra. In other words, humans and their cities, roads and farms occupy 77% of the available land on earth.
By 2050, wild lands are projected to contract to 13 million square kilometres, leaving ever less space for wild animals and plants. In terms of resources consumed, there is huge inequity. Preliminary estimates of the biomass of all life on earth reveal that humans, their pets and their farm animals outweigh wild land mammals by 50 to one. Poultry outweigh all wild birds 2.5 to one.
In New Zealand, a lot of attention is paid to iconic, rare species, such as kiwi and kākāpo. However, in 2017, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment reported that the proportion of forest land occupied by birds found only in New Zealand had declined in the North Island from 16% to 5% between 1974 and 2002. In the South Island, it declined from 23% to 16%.
These figures are consistent with other studies on animal populations. For example, kiwi, which currently number 70,000, may have declined by two thirds in 20 years. Thus there is a risk that continued biodiversity decline overall will see more and more species requiring last-ditch efforts to save them, with healthy populations confined to heavily protected and often fenced sanctuaries.
New Zealand is unusual in that introduced, invasive predators are a major threat and are widely seen as the predominant threat to native animals. However, land use change in New Zealand has been rapid, extensive and catastrophic for biodiversity and ecosystem resilience. The New Zealand situation is at best the global story writ small.
As the last substantial land area to be settled by humans, the land experienced an alarming rate of habitat loss. Indeed, deforestation was considered a necessity and the “homestead system” in Auckland saw tenants turned off the land if they failed to clear sufficient native bush.
Native bush in New Zealand has been reduced by about three quarters from its former 82% extent across the landscape. What remains is heavily modified and not representative of former diversity. For example, in the Manawatū-Whanganui region, ancient lowland kahikatea forest has been reduced to less than 5% of its former extent, and between 1996 and 2012, 89,000 hectares of indigenous forest and scrub was converted to exotic forest and exotic pasture. When a habitat is removed, the organisms that live in it go, too.
The Living Planet report charts a detailed, aspirational roadmap to reverse the decline in biodiversity. It takes heart from the 2015 Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals. It looks ahead to a greatly strengthened Convention on Biological Diversity for 2020.
Unfortunately, biodiversity threats are, if anything, even more pervasive and difficult to address than fossil fuel emissions. In climate change, it is broadly agreed that rising seas, acidifying oceans and destabilised weather patterns are bad. There is no such universal understanding of the importance of biodiversity.
To address this, the report details the importance of biodiversity to human health, food production and economic activity – the “ecosystem services” that nature provides to humans. The intrinsic value of nature to itself is hardly mentioned. This is not a new debate. The 1992 UN Convention on Biological Diversity is founded on “the intrinsic value of biological diversity”, while the Rio Earth Summit of the same year stated that “human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development.”
The issue should not be confined to ecologists, philosophers, and diplomats. It needs to be addressed or we may find that future generations value nature even less than present ones do. In 2002, Randy Olsen popularised the concept of the shifting baseline, which means that people progressively adjust to a new normal and don’t realise what has been lost:
People go diving today in California kelp beds that are devoid of the large black sea bass, broomtailed groupers and sheephead that used to fill them. And they surface with big smiles on their faces because it is still a visually stunning experience to dive in a kelp bed. But all the veterans can think is, “You should have seen it in the old days”.