Habitat Destruction in Australia is Accelerating, Making Way for Property Development and Agriculture

Habitat Destruction in Australia is Accelerating, Making Way for Property Development and Agriculture

Australia is home to eight of the world’s fourteen different terrestrial habitats, with over one million unique species and thousands of distinct regional ecosystems. Around 20% of Australia’s landmass is protected under the National Reserve System (NRS): a framework introduced in 1992 to conserve Australia’s international status as a “region of mega-diversity”. Different regions provide an abundance of “ecosystem services” to every aspect of Australian society, particularly cultural & inspirational services – Australia is, after all, best known for its stunning landscapes and unique wildlife. Tourism (one of Australia’s fastest growing industries) relies heavily on the presence of multiple, iconic natural areas, and in recent years climate-induced, biodiversity-loss events (coral bleaching and bushfires) have had a direct impact on the numbers of incoming visitors, even before COVID-19.

Sadly, habitat destruction is accelerating outside Australia’s NRS areas to make way for property development and agriculture. Australia is now considered a “hotspot” for deforestation, with logging and land-clearing reaching record levels in states like Queensland and New South Wales. Currently, more than 1,500 football fields worth of woodland and scrub are cleared every day in Queensland. Even though scientists proved excessive logging worsened Australia’s summer bushfires, state governments have given the green light for new forest areas to be felled in 2020, including crucial koala habitats in NSW. In addition, habitat destruction is driving species decline – Australia holds the dubious honor of having the highest rate (and climbing) of mammalian extinctions worldwide, including the first mammal to be declared extinct due to climate change.

More than 50% of Australia’s landmass is used for agriculture: a mixture of cropping, grazing and intensive production. Agriculture contributes around 16% of Australia’s annual greenhouse emissions, mostly comprised by enteric fermentation emissions (ie. livestock flatulence). Historically, land-use change and forestry has been a net-negative emitter and was the driving force behind emission reductions in the early 2000s. But the wave of programs incentivizing land owners to maintain natural vegetation or plant new carbon sinks has ended, and projections indicate this sector will account for very little emissions abatement by 2030.

Activity Rating: * Falling behind

Australia’s biodiversity in dire need of protection

A recent scorecard from the Australian National University rated Australia’s current environmental health as less than 1 in 10, with climate change, habitat destruction and drought driving ecosystem collapse across the country. The true value of ecosystem services to Australian society is chronically underestimated by the current government, who consistently put the earnings potential of agricultural land or resource extraction above considerations like world-class drinking water catchments, extreme weather protection, long-term soil health, wildlife and ecotourism. Terrestrial forests are under threat from the logging industry, and land owners keen to clear their land for livestock are being given a free pass by state governments who barely enforce laws. To top it all off, Australia’s premier environmental legislation – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act – is weak, rarely enforced, doesn’t mention climate change and is now at risk of being watered down by a government keen to speed up environmental approvals and get infrastructure projects moving post-COVID. In the absence of a national Environmental Protection Agency it is often left to NGOs to go public with breaches of the EPBC Act and take the federal government to court over misapplications of the law.

Take Action

Send your action alert message:

Dear Minister Ley,

I think you’d agree with us that Australia’s megadiverse environment is a global icon worth protecting at all costs. Our landscape, our wildlife and our connection to natural spaces is the #1 drawcard for overseas visitors, as well as a core part of Australian identity. These ecosystems provide essential services to Australian society: drinking water, food production, climate change mitigation, nutrient cycling and waste processing. And yet, Australia’s environmental health has never been in worse shape. A recent health rating of <1 out of 10 from ANU researchers should be cause for great concern in your department, with drought, habitat destruction and climate change driving ecosystems to collapse across the country.

We urge you to use the current review of the EPBC Act to strengthen the legislation and prioritise biodiversity protection. There can hardly be any concern over “green tape” when rejection of environmental approvals under the Act occurs so rarely. If the Act’s “water trigger” wasn’t applied to the Carmichael coal mine – a project which CSIRO found poses a significant threat to groundwater and for which the Adani company requested an unlimited water license for operations – then what exactly will it take? Our EBPC Act is embarrassingly weak, and it often falls to environmental NGOs to call out the government on breaches and misapplications of the Act. In the absence of a national EPA Australia must take environmental protection more seriously, lest iconic ecosystems begin to collapse on your watch.  

We also urge you to uphold your remit as Environment Minister and make sure environmental health is not sacrificed in a post-pandemic economic recovery plan. The temptation will be to wave through resource and infrastructure projects, but recognising the true value of ecosystem services should be the way forward.

In addition to sending a message to Australia’s Environment Minister, please consider leaving a brief comment for a public review of the EPBC Act that’s open for input until October. The Australian Conservation Foundation has set up a quick guide for talking points you can use, but you can always keep it simple like above:

Australia’s “flagship” environmental legislation is toothless, rarely enforced, doesn’t mention climate change, and is often ignored or misapplied by the federal government when granting approval to projects like the Adani coal mine. In the absence of a national EPA robust laws that protect biodiversity and recognise the intrinsic, irreplaceable value of Australia’s ecosystem are needed – the EPBC Act in its current iteration does not provide this protection.

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This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Australia Country Manager Julian Atchison

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