In Brief | Biodiversity

State of the Environment 2011 Committee. Australia state of the environment 2011.
Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.
Canberra: DSEWPaC, 2011.

In Brief

This is a summary of Australia state of the environment 2011, which is an independent report presented to the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities by the State of the Environment 2011 Committee

Biodiversity

Main messages

Biodiversity has declined since European settlement.

Many of Australia's species are unique to this continent, and Australia is identified as one of the world's 'megadiverse' countries. However, there have been major declines in many components of biodiversity since European settlement and data on pressures suggest that many species continue to decline. Although we can reliably establish recent trends in distribution or abundance for only a small proportion of species, data on these suggest that population size, geographic range and genetic diversity are decreasing in a wide range of species across all groups of plants, animals and other forms of life. Unexpected declines in numbers of birds and mammals in northern Australia in particular suggest that trends might be worse than previously expected.

Despite promising investment by all jurisdictions in addressing the main pressures on biodiversity, pressures are not being substantially reduced, nor is the decline in biodiversity being arrested or reversed.

While all jurisdictions have appropriate goals in high–level plans, these are often not matched with implementation plans or levels of resourcing that are capable of achieving the goals. State of the environment reports from around the nation do not suggest any great improvement in biodiversity or reduction in pressures.

Most pressures on biodiversity that arise directly or indirectly from human activities appear to still be strong.

Those pressures that have decreased, such as land clearing, continue to have legacy effects that will continue for some years or decades. However, other pressures, such as those from invasive species, are generally increasing.

The major future drivers of change—climate change, population growth, economic development and associated consumption of natural resources—must be managed carefully if a sustainable relationship between biodiversity and human society is to be achieved.

Human activities have the potential to further reduce genetic, species and ecosystem biodiversity, which will seriously affect the delivery of environmental benefits to Australians and reduce our quality of life.

Data on long–term trends in biodiversity are limited, making it difficult to interpret the state or trends of major animal and plant groups in most jurisdictions.

The development of a new national approach to environmental information is intended to address this serious deficiency, which has now been identified by four national State of the Environment reports. The ability of all jurisdictions in Australia to develop and enact evidence–based biodiversity policy is severely constrained by the lack of such data.

Australia can improve its biodiversity management significantly.

Australian governments and nongovernment organisations are trialling a range of new approaches to managing our environment, including better stakeholder engagement and supporting connected corridors of vegetation. Australia is poised to build on these 'experiments' and, if wise decisions are made, could make major advances in biodiversity management. However, the legacies of past pressures like land clearing, ongoing pressures like invasive species and emerging challenges like climate change will take decades to address fully. Even the most optimistic scenarios envisage gradual, rather than immediate, progress.

State and trends

Australia is one of the world's 'megadiverse' countries. Many of Australia's species, and even whole groups of species that comprise taxonomic families, are endemic (unique) to this continent. Between 7% and 10% of all species on Earth occur in Australia.

However, biodiversity in Australia has declined since European settlement. This decline is seen in all components of biodiversity—genes, species, communities and ecosystems—and the evidence from pressures suggests that many components of biodiversity continue to decline. The evidence from changes in extent, composition and quality of vegetation communities, and from case studies on selected species, points towards continuing decreases in population sizes, geographic ranges and genetic diversity, and increasing risks of population collapses in substantial proportions of most groups of plants, animals and other forms of life across much of Australia.

This trend is variable, because components of biodiversity appear to be persisting well in some areas, especially where human impacts are minimal, but declining significantly in others. Historically, problems have been greater in southern Australia than in the north, especially in woodlands and grasslands of the agricultural zones of the southeast and south–west. However, recent reports of significant decreases in abundance of small mammals and birds in northern Australia suggest that at least some components of biodiversity in the north are less secure than previously thought.

We have limited long-term data on virtually all groups of plants, animals and other organisms. This means that Australia has a very poor ability to assess rates and directions of change in elements of biodiversity, and to assess whether or not some components might be approaching points at which much more rapid change might occur, beyond which return to previous conditions might be very difficult or impossible. Research from around the world and case studies within Australia suggest that such threshold change is a possibility in a number of places and ecological systems. Where it occurs, it is likely to lead to irreversible loss of biodiversity.

Pressures

Despite promising investment by all jurisdictions in addressing the main pressures on biodiversity, state of the environment reports around the nation continue to conclude that the decline in biodiversity is not being arrested or reversed. Most pressures on biodiversity that arise directly or indirectly from human activities appear to still be strong and those that have declined, such as land clearing, continue to have legacy effects that will continue for years or decades.

The main pressures negatively affecting biodiversity have not changed greatly over the past three national State of the Environment reports, except that climate change has received greater recognition as a current and future driver of environmental change, and local climate has become a more prominent pressure as the nation has faced a decade of drought. Steps have been taken to limit clearing of native vegetation, but it remains a significant pressure in some places and the legacy effects of past clearing mean that the impacts are not yet reducing. Inadequacy of systematic information limits our ability to assess trends in other pressures with confidence, but available evidence and expert consensus suggest that pressures from grazing, invasive species, altered fire regimes and changed hydrology are still major and have been growing worse over the past decade. There is also the possibility that risks that are just emerging could become bigger problems (e.g. micropollutants, large-scale functional shifts in soils, geoengineering that goes wrong, misuse of genetic engineering, failure of protected areas and widespread failure of people to support action to protect natural assets).

For some or all of these pressures, improvements are possible once remedial actions start to take effect, but there is as yet no strong evidence of that improvement.

Effectiveness of management

Assessing the effectiveness of biodiversity management in Australia is made difficult by a lack of clarity in many jurisdictions about specific biodiversity conservation objectives and targets. In addition, long–term data on trends in biodiversity and their implications are very limited.

In general, the context of most past and current pressures on biodiversity is well understood. Most jurisdictions have detailed plans and strategies to deal with most current pressures. A notable exception is planning to address the dependence and impacts of Australia's human population on biodiversity and other natural resources; this remains poorly developed. Most other planning appears to be at least partly effective and improving.

Inputs and processes to address land clearing have improved greatly but it continues to be a significant pressure in some places and the legacy effects of past clearing are expected to continue to drive degradation and fragmentation of ecosystems for some decades. State of the environment reports from most jurisdictions have, for more than a decade, identified grazing pressures, invasive species and pathogens, altered fire regimes and changed hydrology as significant problems. Continued identification of these problems suggests that inputs or processes are not adequate to deal with these pressures (sometimes for understandable reasons). For most of these pressures, there is insufficient information to design good management or assess management effectiveness, and there is insufficient investment in filling knowledge gaps compared to the potential benefits of having that information.

Outlook

There is increasing recognition that protecting other species is a smart strategy for the long–term benefit of humans. For example, many of our crops, domestic animals, pharmaceuticals and other chemicals, building materials, fuels and many other products that have allowed humans to thrive in a range of environments come from other species. In addition, our ecosystems and the biodiversity that they support provide services that are fundamental to human life, such as regulation of the atmosphere, maintenance of soil fertility, food production, regulation of water flows, filtration of water, pest control and waste disposal. As Australia's population grows, the Australian community will need to decide how best to protect both biodiversity and human wellbeing.

There is hope for the future. Australian governments and nongovernment organisations have been debating and trialling new approaches to biodiversity management, including ways to engage the right stakeholders at the right times and in the right places. This nation is poised to build on these trials and, if wise decisions are made, there is potential to make major advances. However, the legacies of past pressures like land clearing, ongoing pressures like invasive species and emerging challenges like climate change will take decades to address, so even in the most optimistic scenarios, we will not see overnight change.

Many risks facing biodiversity in the short and medium term relate to potential failure to take current opportunities for better management. A major challenge for Australians, not just those in government but across all sectors, is to understand the dependence of humans on ecological processes that are mediated by different elements of biodiversity; and to manage the size and distribution of our population, as well as our consumption of natural resources, in this context.

It is vital to improve the collection of information that will allow us to understand the effects of interactions and interrelationships between humans and biodiversity over the long term. Another key requirement for preparing for the future is to develop processes to support strategic thinking, anticipation of potential challenges and opportunities, monitoring of emerging change and preparation for change. Most of the potential risks and surprises affecting biodiversity also present opportunities if Australians think strategically, anticipate, prepare and act.