Tag Archives: biodiversity

Why aren’t Australia’s environment laws preventing widespread land clearing?

The Conversation

Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

Australia has national environment laws – the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act). Yet given the staggering rates of land clearing taking place, resulting in the extinction and endangerment of plants and animals in Australia, these laws are clearly not working.

About 395,000 hectares of regrowth and old growth vegetation were cleared during 2015-16 in Queensland. Australia is set to clear up to 3 million hectares of native forest by 2030, and more than 1,800 plant and animal species are currently listed as threatened nationally.


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When the EPBC Act was first implemented in 1999, the idea was for it to provide reinforced federal environmental protection to areas of national environmental significance. But in reality, many projects that come within the ambit of the Act are not rigorously evaluated for their environmental impact.

Why isn’t the EPBC Act working?

Land clearing was listed in the 2001 and 2006 State of the Environment Reports as one of the greatest threats to biodiversity.

Deforestation and excessive land clearing fundamentally impacts existing biodiversity, damages fragile ecosystems, destroys wildlife habitat, and increases greenhouse gas emissions. In Queensland, where much of the land clearing is taking place, the state law (Vegetation Management Act) is not strong enough to diminish incentives for land clearing. Yet the national environmental laws have not provided greater protection.

There are several reasons for this. While land clearing is indirectly regulated by the EPBC Act due to the significant impact it can have on the environment, land clearing is not directly addressed by the EPBC Act.

As it stands, land clearing will only attract EPBC Act application where it can be established that it impacts a directly protected entity such as a World Heritage area, Ramsar wetland, threatened species, ecological community, or migratory species. If this connection cannot be established, no environmental assessment under the EPBC Act will occur.

Even where projects do attract the application of the EPBC Act, its capacity to advance best practice environmental impact assessment is highly questionable. One of the biggest problems is that the process of assessment is insufficiently robust.


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This problem is evident in other environmental issues too. Where a bilateral state and federal assessment is approved, as was the case with the Adani coalmine, the federal department often relies on state counterparts to undertake a thorough environmental assessment. Many of the proposals evaluated by state departments are assessed with reference to the least onerous environmental impact assessment available.

This documentation is generally prepared by the project proponent. Unsurprisingly, as a consequence, many of the projects that are evaluated under the EPBC Act are approved, subject to the imposition of environmental conditions. This means the environmental conditions need to be carefully monitored if environmental protection is to be optimised.

This creates a new set of problems. Where a breach is alleged, it must be proved and appropriate sanctions enforced. In reality, this rarely happens, and the sanctions that are imposed can be woefully inadequate. For example, Adani was fined A$12,000 for breaching an environmental condition relating to the release of coalwater in Abbott Point coal terminal, which flowed into the fragile Caley Valley Wetlands.

The substantive problem with the EPBC Act is that its implementation is subject to departmental discretion and therefore the vagaries of government administration. This is particularly problematic given the political nature of many of these decision-making processes.

Lack of rigorous scrutiny

In circumstances where, for example, there is a need to challenge the approval of a resource title in light of its environmental consequences, the EPBC Act relies heavily on environmental groups or other third parties to scrutinise the federal decision-making process.

For example, the Australian Conservation Foundation took strong action in challenging the issuance of the mining licence for Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine. It argued the endangered species and climate change impacts were insufficiently taken into account by the then Environment Minister Greg Hunt in exercising discretion under the EPBC Act.


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The case was dismissed because the Federal Court found that this decision was authorised by the discretions included within the EPBC Act. The minister was therefore within his power to decide not to take account of the climate change impacts of such a vast new coalmine. This is concerning given the profound impact that climate change can have upon fragile ecologies in areas of national environmental significance.

These findings indicate a lack of preparedness by the federal minister to accept a causal connection between climate change and domestic coal production, and to focus on narrow jurisdictional boundaries and strict domestic obligations. It also strongly highlights the deficiencies of our national environment act because the existing triggers do not address some of the most important environmental concerns of the modern world.

New environment laws urgently needed

Climate change is almost universally accepted as one the most serious environmental threats. Yet the EPBC Act does not include a climate change trigger (or a land clearing trigger, as discussed above).

This means these key threats to Australia’s environment will not be protected by EPBC Act. They may attract the EPBC Act indirectly, but only if it can be established that they raise a different trigger that is listed under the Act. This calls into question the capacity of our national environment laws to truly protect areas of national environmental significance.

The ConversationIn order to reverse unacceptable rates of land clearing, preserve ecosystems and habitats and diminish greenhouse gas emissions, a new framework for our national environment act is urgently needed.

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Invasive predators are eating the world’s animals to extinction – and the worst is close to home

The Conversation

Tim Doherty, Deakin University; Chris Dickman, University of Sydney; Dale Nimmo, Charles Sturt University, and Euan Ritchie, Deakin University

Invasive species are a threat to wildlife across the globe – and invasive, predatory mammals are particularly damaging.

Our research, recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that these predators – cats, rats and foxes, but also house mice, possums and many others – have contributed to around 60% of bird, mammal and reptile extinctions. The worst offenders are feral cats, contributing to over 60 extinctions.

So how can we stop these mammals eating away at our threatened wildlife?

Counting the cost

Our study revealed that invasive predators are implicated in 87 bird, 45 mammal and 10 reptile extinctions — 58% of these groups’ contemporary extinctions worldwide.

Invasive predators also threaten 596 species classed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List. Combined, the affected species include 400 birds, 189 mammals and 149 reptiles.

Twenty-three of the critically endangered species are classed as “possibly extinct”, so the number of extinctions above is likely to be an underestimate.

Until now, these shocking statistics have been unknown, and the heavy toll of invasive predators on native biodiversity grossly underappreciated. Species extinctions attributed to invasive predators include the Hawaiian rail (Zapornia sandwichensis) and Australia’s lesser bilby (Macrotis leucura).

Australia’s lesser bilby, now extinct.

Who are the worst offenders?

We found that three canids (including the red fox and feral dogs), seven members of the weasel family or mustelids (such as stoats), five rodents, two primates, two mongooses, two marsupials and nine species from other families negatively impact threatened species. Some of these species, such as hedgehogs and brushtail possums, don’t immediately spring to mind as predators, yet they are known to prey on many threatened species.

Feral cats threaten the most species overall (430), including 63 that have become extinct. This equates to one-quarter of all bird, mammal and reptile extinctions – making the feral cat arguably the most damaging invasive species for animal biodiversity worldwide.

Five species of introduced rodent collectively threaten 420 species, including 75 extinctions. While we didn’t separate out the impacts of individual rodent species, previous work shows that black rats (Rattus rattus) threaten the greatest number of species, followed by brown rats (R. norvegicus) and Pacific rats (R. exulans).

The humble house mouse (Mus musculus) is another interesting case. Despite their small size, house mice have been recorded eating live chicks of albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters.

Other predators that threaten large numbers of species are the domestic dog (Canis familiaris), pig (Sus scrofa), small Indian mongoose (Herpestes auropunctatus), red fox (Vulpes vulpes) and stoat (Mustela erminea).

Invasive mammalian predators (clockwise from top left): feral dog, house mouse, stoat, feral pig, feral cat, brushtail possum, black rat, small Indian mongoose and red fox (centre).
Clockwise from top-left: Andrey flickr CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/4M2E7y; Richard Adams flickr CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/7U19v9; Mark Kilner flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/4D6LPe; CSIRO CC BY 3.0 http://www.scienceimage.csiro.au/image/1515; T. Doherty; Toby Hudson CC BY-SA 3.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BrushtailPossum.jpg; CSIRO CC BY 3.0 http://www.scienceimage.csiro.au/image/10564; J.M.Garg CC BY-SA 3.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Herpestes_edwardsii_at_Hyderaba.jpg; Harley Kingston CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/ceWFr7 (centre).

Island species most at risk

Species found only on islands (insular endemics) account for 81% of the threatened species at risk from predators.

The isolation of many islands and a lack of natural predators mean that insular species are often naive about new predators and lack appropriate defensive responses. This makes them highly vulnerable to being eaten and in turn suffering rapid population decline or, worse, extinction. The high extinction rates of ground-dwelling birds in Hawaii and New Zealand — both of which lack native mammalian predators — are well-known examples.

Accordingly, the regions where the predators threatened the greatest number of species were all dominated by islands – Central America and the Caribbean, islands of the Pacific, the Madagascar region, New Zealand and Hawaii.

Conversely, the continental regions of North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia contain comparatively few species threatened by invasive predators. While Australia is a continent, it is also an island, where large numbers of native birds and mammals are threatened by cats and foxes.

Along with feral cats, red foxes have devastated native mammals in Australia. Tom Rayner

Managing menacing mammals

Understanding and mitigating the impact of invasive mammal predators is essential for reducing the rate of global biodiversity loss.

Because most of the threatened species studied here live on islands, managing invasive predators on islands should be a global conservation priority. Invasive predators occur on hundreds of islands and predator control and eradication are costly exercises. Thus, it is important to prioritise island eradications based on feasibility, cost, likelihood of success and potential benefits.

On continents or large islands where eradications are difficult, other approaches are needed. This includes predator-proof fencing, top-predator restoration and conservation, lethal control, and maintenance of habitat structure.

Despite the shocking statistics we have revealed, there remain many unknowns. For example, only around 40% of reptile species have been assessed for the Red List, compared to 99% for birds and mammals. Very little is known about the impact of invasive predators on invertebrate species.

We expect that the number of species affected by invasive predators will climb as more knowledge becomes available.


This article was co-authored by Al Glen from Landcare Research, New Zealand.

The ConversationTim Doherty, Research Fellow, Deakin University; Chris Dickman, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, University of Sydney; Dale Nimmo, Lecturer in Ecology, Charles Sturt University, and Euan Ritchie, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.
 

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Global count shows tree numbers have halved since dawn of human civilisation

The Conversation

Eliza Berlage, The Conversation and James Whitmore, The Conversation

There are more than three trillion trees worldwide, but that’s only half as many as were around at the start of human civilisation, according to new research.

The study, published today in Nature, updates the estimate for the total number and density of trees on Earth. It found that each year more than 15 billion trees are lost through a combination of deforestation, disturbances such as fire, and changes in land use. Since the beginning of human civilisation, the world has lost 46% of its trees.

The research team, led by Thomas Crowther, postdoctoral fellow at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental studies, challenges previous estimates from satellite data by using more than 400,000 on-ground tree density estimates to produce the first complete global map of trees.

Crowther said the map contributes to our fundamental understanding of the Earth’s ecosystems, allowing us to comprehend the global forest spread in terms of tree numbers.

There are 1.39 trillion trees in tropical and subtropical forests, 610 billion in temperate regions, and 740 billion in northern, boreal regions.

Crowther argued that without a solid baseline of tree numbers it is difficult to develop targets and projects to conserve forests.

Bill Laurance, a biologist at James Cook University, said the findings of the study were both striking and alarming.

“It’s remarkable that there are so many trees on the planet but concerning that we are losing the trees so rapidly,” he said.

Laurance said it was important to consider the consequences of the shift in tree sizes, where small trees are rapidly replacing large trees that are vulnerable to environmental factors such as drought and human intervention through logging.

Rod Keenan, a forestry professor at University of Melbourne, said “high tree numbers may not always be a good indicator of forest condition”.

Lots of trees may indicate young forests recovering from disturbance, and tree numbers would decline as forests mature, he said.

The worst tree loss is already known to be in tropical regions but the global scale of forestry decline highlights how historical land use has shaped natural ecosystems.

Peter Kanowski, a forestry professor at Australian National University, said “all sorts of forests are valuable for all sorts of reasons, and we’re losing too much of them”.

“The scale and rate of loss of biodiversity, carbon stock and other forest values, that has been at unprecedented rates for much of the past 50 years, is impacting profoundly and perhaps irreversibly on ecosystems, livelihoods, forest values and climate at scales from global to local,” he said.

The ConversationEliza Berlage is Editor at The Conversation and James Whitmore is Editor, Environment & Energy at The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.
 

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We have more parks than ever, so why is wildlife still vanishing?

The Conversation

By Bob Pressey, James Cook University and Euan Ritchie, Deakin University

While we can never know for sure, an extraordinary number of animals and plants are threatened with extinction — up to a third of all mammals and over a tenth of all birds. And the problem is getting worse.

At the same time, we have more land and sea than ever in protected areas (“parks”) — more than 200,000 protected areas covering about 15% of the world’s land area and 3% of the oceans.

So why are protected areas making so little difference?

This is a vital question about the future of nature that should be discussed at Sydney’s World Parks Congress, beginning today.

This once-in-a-decade Congress, led by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), will be attended by thousands. A sobering reality will lie behind the excitement and networking: while protected-area systems expand, we are losing the planet’s species at an alarming rate.

One reason is that protected areas are only one of our tools, and will never do the job alone. IUCN could say, though, that it’s doing the best it can.

But another reason, more confronting for IUCN, is that protected areas tend to be in the wrong places.

Bison in Yellowstone National Park in the United States
Rich Flynn, CC BY-NC-SA

Protecting the leftovers

Just about anywhere people have looked, the majority of protected areas are residual — leftover areas of the world pushed to the margins where they least interfere with extractive activities such as agriculture, mining, or forestry.

On land, protected areas are mainly remote or high, cold, arid, steep, and infertile. Similar patterns are emerging in the sea.

Residual protected areas, by definition, make least difference to conservation.

Meanwhile, biodiversity continues to be lost in landscapes and seascapes suitable for clearing, logging, grazing, fishing, and extraction of minerals, oil, and gas.

Residual protection also gives the false appearance of progress because many people equate the number of protected areas and their extent with success.

These figures are only “good news” if they tell us about the difference these parks make to conservation. They don’t.

Failing to stop the losses

The most rigorous estimates of the difference that protected areas make are small.

By 2008, only 7% of Costa Rica’s much-lauded protected-area system would have been deforested in the absence of protection.

Sloth in Cahuita National Park, Costa Rica
Marika Lüders, CC BY-NC

Globally, in 2005, the loss of native vegetation prevented by protected areas was 3% of their extent.

These numbers get to the very purpose of protected areas. They are small because protected areas are mainly residual.

Aiming for the wrong targets

Protected areas that make little or no difference should be a major concern for IUCN, especially because targets for protection endorsed by the Convention on Biological Diversity at best obscure and at worst encourage the failure of protected areas to make a difference.

The Convention’s targets are meant to guide decisions on protected areas to 2020. The only unambiguously quantitative target (number 11) says nothing about making a difference. It aspires to 17% of land and 10% of the sea under formal protection.

The result has been a rush to proclaim large, remote protected areas where they are easiest to establish and make least difference. The story is familiar in conservation and beyond: provide a simplistic metric that implies success, and it will be manipulated to achieve high scores.

Another of the Convention’s targets (number 5) gets closer to the real purpose of protected areas, but remains problematic: “By 2020, the rate of loss of all natural habitats, is at least halved and where feasible brought close to zero, and degradation and fragmentation [are] significantly reduced.”

But there are problems here too. Before we halve the rate of loss, we need to know what the “baseline” rate of loss is — and over what period it should it be measured. Should it be measured in the past, when loss might have been slower, or now? Habitat loss also varies across the world — does that mean that reduction in loss rates of some areas can offset faster losses elsewhere?

Several kinds of tropical forests, for example, housing most of the world’s terrestrial species, are being lost rapidly. For these, even a halving of the rate of loss will mean mass extinction.

Australia setting a bad example

IUCN’s mission is hindered by recalcitrant governments.

Australia, as host of the World Parks Congress, will show off its conservation wares. The display window is less impressive than when Australia genuinely led global conservation thinking from the 1970s to 1990s.

Our protected areas on land, such as those in the host state, are strongly residual (claims of an improving trend are based on inadequate data).

Australia’s marine parks, which are directed more at satisfying total protected area than protecting threatened marine biodiversity, show other countries how not to protect the sea.

Australia is setting a bad example of how to protect our oceans
Chris Ford, CC BY-NC

And the only quantitative targets in Australia’s Strategy for the National Reserve System — for protected extent and coverage of regional ecosystems — leave plenty of scope for more parks that make little or no difference.

Not content with marginalising protection, Australian governments are weakening what’s there. Parks on land are being opened up for livestock grazing, industrial logging, mining, “conservation hunting”, and commercial development.

No-take zones in marine parks are being opened up for fishing. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is in jeopardy and the plan to fix it is destined to fail.

Four steps to make parks work

Here are four ways for IUCN to lead the way to parks that make a bigger difference:

  • Stop using targets that give the illusion of conservation progress. These include the number and extent of protected areas and percentages of countries, states, or regions covered. At best they will inadvertently obscure the real signal. At worst they will be used perversely to dress up residual protection.
  • Measure success as the difference protected areas make relative to no protection. This is “impact evaluation” in fields such as medicine, education, and development aid, where difference means saving and improving human lives. If saving species is also important, evaluating the impact of protected areas is essential.
  • Establish an IUCN Task Force to develop ways for evaluating the impact of protected areas, considering both biodiversity and human livelihoods. Assess the impact of current protected areas to provide lessons for management and future planning. And test approaches to setting priorities as the predictions they are.
  • Develop targets for the impact of protected areas: how much threat should be averted and how much loss should be avoided?

Ultimately, the success of conservation depends on what natural resources are left unexploited by humans so that other species can survive.

Protection that does not avoid the loss of species and ecosystems merely gives the appearance of conservation progress under exploitative business-as-usual.

Real conservation – the kind that makes a difference – depends on IUCN’s leadership. Every year of delay means irreversible, avoidable loss of biodiversity.

This article was co-authored by Dr Piero Visconti, Board Member of the European Section of the Society for Conservation Biology in Washington, D.C.

The ConversationThe authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Republished with permission). Read the original article.

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