Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 (Theme Report)
Prepared by: Dr Jann Williams, RMIT University, Authors
Published by CSIRO on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06749 3
According to Wilson (1995, p. 355):
The one process ongoing in the 1980s that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly that our descendants are least likely to forgive.
Overall, the condition of biodiversity in Australia today is poorer today than it was in 1996. Many serious pressures that undermine biodiversity conservation remain to be dealt with effectively. Many of these issues have been known for a decade or more and were explicitly identified in SoE (1996).
Based on the findings of the present Report, the prognosis for biodiversity in the immediate future is very serious. The destruction of habitat by human activities remains the major cause of biodiversity loss and threats such as weeds, feral animals, altered disturbance regimes, dryland salinity and diseases undermine the quality of the natural systems that remain. Failure to reverse these trends will not only guarantee further loss of biodiversity but also diminish the quality of life enjoyed by Australians and ultimately undermine the Australian economy.
The conservation of biodiversity can be expressed simply as saving biodiversity, studying it and using it sustainably and equitably. Saving biodiversity means taking steps to protect genes, species, habitats and ecosystems. The best way to maintain species is to maintain their habitats. However, since many of Australia's habitats have already been heavily modified for human purposes, steps to save biodiversity need to also include measures to maintain diversity on lands and in waters that have been disturbed. In addition, measures must be taken to restore lost species to their former habitats, and to preserve species held in ex situ facilities such as zoos and botanical gardens. Studying biodiversity means documenting its composition, distribution, structure and function; understanding the roles and functions of genes, species and ecosystems; and grasping the complex links between modified and natural systems as a basis to inform management. Using biodiversity sustainably and equitably means managing biological resources so that they last indefinitely, making sure that biodiversity is used to improve the human condition, and seeing that these resources are shared equitably.
This Report on biodiversity is concerned with the progress made in saving, studying and sustainably and equitably using Australia's biodiversity since SoE (1996). Since 1996, there have been several advances. For example, there is now much greater awareness of the importance of local governments in managing biodiversity, whereas previously the focus had largely been on state and Commonwealth governments. There is also now a much greater emphasis on participants other than government in biodiversity conservation and management (e.g. philanthropists, industry, and the broader community). Corporations and industry, more generally, are adopting ethical and environmental codes of practice that can support biodiversity conservation.
Today, Indigenous involvement in land management has a much higher profile, with repeated calls for Indigenous issues to be fully integrated into policy and program management. Increased attention is now paid to the integration of biodiversity conservation with production objectives across landscapes. This is consistent with greater recognition of the vital contribution that areas outside of the formal reserve system make for biodiversity conservation. The 'value' of biodiversity and the significance of ecosystem services to humans in Australia and globally is becoming more widely appreciated. Recently, for example, the Myer Foundation has provided $1 million to CSIRO for research on the value of ecosystem services to the Australia.
Until recently the focus on biodiversity conservation has been in the ILZ where broad-scale clearing for crops has occurred. However, there is a growing appreciation among government and the broader community of the potentially significant effects of altered fire, grazing and hydrological regimes, pests and weeds and mining on biodiversity in the ELZ in central, western and northern Australia. The message is that an area does not have to have been cleared for major changes in biodiversity to occur. Measures to improve the management of key regions such as the rangelands, the Lake Eyre Basin and Great Artesian Basin have been introduced. In addition, the CRC for the Sustainable Management of Tropical Savannas has recently received approval for a further seven years of funding to enhance land management across northern Australia.
Altered fire regimes were not listed as one of the key threatening process for biodiversity in SoE (1996). Today, however, there is much greater awareness of the links between fire regimes and the conservation of biodiversity, which is reflected in the increasing development of management plans that directly address these issues. There is greater appreciation of the magnitude and importance of fires for biodiversity conservation in northern Australia. The ongoing mapping and monitoring of fire across northern Australia by the Western Australian Department of Land Administration is one example of an agency using smart geospatial technology to support improved land management and biodiversity conservation goals.
Although pests and weeds received considerable attention in the first report, the issue of sleeper weeds, which have the potential to cause major problems in future years was not mentioned in any detail. These weeds are now recognised to be of major concern, as are exotic organisms (e.g. sea stars, Crazy Ants, foot-and-mouth disease) that might find their way through Australia's quarantine barriers as a result of trade, tourism and other human activities.
The potential impact of GMOs on biodiversity is yet to be systematically and comprehensively investigated in Australia. Thus far, the focus of discussions of GMOs has been principally the potential impacts on human health and the organic farming industry. However, there would appear to be considerable potential for these organisms to threaten native biota and regional biodiversity.
There has been an increased emphasis on the need for active management of landscapes and aquatic and marine ecosystems, and that this be done at the regional level if effective natural resource management is to be achieved. This thinking has resulted in the development of a numerous regional processes and plans. At present, there has been only limited success in achieving active and integrated management at the regional level whereby different people and groups and the full range of land tenures are involved. The best way to incorporate biodiversity into the objectives, plans and strategies of regional organisations is an issue that has arisen out of these activities (see Dore and Woodhill 1999). One issue in this regard is the reconciliation of overlapping and maybe conflicting non-traditional scales of management (regions, catchments) with traditional scales (Commonwealth, State and local) and the treatment of biodiversity issues (management, but also information-related) in and across these.
Given the on-going emphasis on microeconomic reform and rationalisation of public institutions, the impact of these changes on the quality of long-term management and monitoring of biodiversity is of concern and requires greater attention. Have these reforms brought changes that undermine institutional capacity for biodiversity conservation? Have these changes, for example, resulted in a reduction in field staff responsible for weed control, and led to the closure of stream gauging stations and weather stations? A related emerging issue is how cross-sectoral issues such as biodiversity conservation can be incorporated into the objectives and decision making processes of corporatised or privatised public agencies? Linked to these changes and institutional trends is the increasingly important issue of the applicability of risk management approaches to biodiversity conservation (e.g. AS/NZS 4360, Revised Version 1999, and the forthcoming Standards Australia handbook Environmental risk management: Principles and processes ). It is essential that microeconomic reform and other changes do not hinder moves towards greater interagency collaboration in support of biodiversity conservation.
The potential impacts of climate change on biodiversity was discussed in SoE (1996), and some predictions of the potential changes in species distribution were presented. Since then, the response of the Australian government to the Kyoto Protocol has significantly changed the way climate change is viewed and the amount of resources going into this area. In terms of climate change policy of the Australian government, emphasis has been placed on the mitigation of greenhouse gases emissions, with the direct and indirect impacts of climate change on biodiversity receiving relatively little attention. The vital role of native vegetation for biodiversity conservation and the role of native vegetation in the carbon cycle has effectively been ignored by governments due to their lack of preparedness to stop land clearing. In contrast, the impacts of the proposed planting of large areas with tree monocultures, and the practice of 'gaming' has government support despite the potential for serious negative impacts on biodiversity in the absence of prudent management including strong controls and enforcement.
Australian governments continue to have a fundamental and critical role in biodiversity conservation in Australia. However, the rhetoric and policies relating to biodiversity conservation are not commonly matched by effective policy implementation and good biodiversity outcomes. During the 1990s, many components of biodiversity have experienced continued degradation and decline. Land management issues such as the clearance of native vegetation, control of exotic weeds and pests, environmental flows in catchments, geographical expansion of dryland salinity, changed fire regimes and intensification of resource use in sectors such as forestry, fisheries and agriculture were well-known and widely reported, including in SoE (1996). Many attempts to address these issues have been lame or have stalled.
Overall, the prognosis for the immediate future is very serious. Informed groups such as the National Farmers Federation and ACF now say that billions of dollars will need to be invested to help redress land degradation in eastern and south-west Australia alone. The recently released Coordinating catchment management report, from the bipartisan House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Heritage, recommended that a National Environment Levy be put in place for the next 25 years to help fund programs to address these issues.
At the same time, scientific knowledge of Australia's biodiversity and the ecosystem services it supports for the Australian human population and economy has not improved significantly. The Australian scientific community charged with the responsibility of advancing biodiversity conservation goals remains underutilised as a result of limited financial resources and other support.
In all, as a nation, over the past five years the available data suggest that we have done a relatively poor job at saving, studying and sustainably using biodiversity.
What is the likely fate of Australia's biodiversity over the next 50 years? What are some of the big issues that Australian governments, industry and the community need to address, or address more effectively and comprehensively to safeguard the nation's biodiversity heritage? Will the state of biodiversity have improved by the next national State of the Environment report in 2006? Will the importance of biodiversity to the Australian way of life and the Australian economy be better recognised and valued in 2006? Will the nation have put in place significantly improved measures to safeguard an important component of biodiversity? These are important questions of much concern to many Australians and many people.
Biodiversity conservation must be addressed within the context of sustainable development if it is to succeed. While important progress has been made in regional Australia, new and enhanced contacts and partnerships within communities are required. At the same time, international cooperation is essential, given the global nature of the biodiversity crisis and the lack of national resources in many countries. Climate change and resource degradation to support economic production and global trade are issues common to every nation. Liberalisation of international trade, commodity prices and the clearance of native vegetation in many parts of Australia are linked by economic drivers. As globalisation has a more significant effect on production sectors of the Australian economy, these linkages must be better understood and dealt with if biodiversity conservation and sustainable development goals are to be achieved.
Many essential elements of biodiversity conservation require sustained commitment that may not show immediate results. Policies, institutions, laws, and attitudes do not change suddenly; expanding human capacity, carrying out first-rate research and conducting biodiversity inventories take time and money and may have no immediate pay-off. They create, however, the larger context in which enduring change can take hold. Australian governments have a vital leadership role in this way, and their preparedness and ability to do so will strongly shape the future trajectory of Australia's environment and the quality of human life enjoyed in the 21st century.
Immediate action is still needed by Australian governments. No amount of rhetoric or government policy statements can overshadow that the annual rate of land clearance across the continent, the per capita use of water, or the per capita emission of greenhouse gases by Australians, which is extraordinarily high by world standards. Irreplaceable genes, species and ecosystems are disappearing or are being depleted at an alarming rate and immediate action is required by Australian governments to stem these trends. Immediate action can help retain options for the future management of biodiversity as well as safeguard those components threatened every day by destructive human activities.