Averting biodiversity collapse requires almost half the world’s land to be protected

With an ambitious biodiversity agenda on the table at COP15, environmental scientists are urging Australia to follow suit at home.

Since the Albanese government came to power it has unveiled a decade-long plan to deliver a ‘zero new extinctions’ outcome, legislated a net zero carbon by 2050 target and a 43% reduction on greenhouse gas emissions on 2005 levels by the end of the decade, and promised national water market reform.

Environment minister Tanya Plibersek will shortly present the government’s response to the independent review into the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC), conducted by former head of the ACCC Graeme Samuel; the recommendations of which were detailed in Cosmos’ preview of COP15, which starts in Montreal today.

It’s expected Australia will join a chorus of nations pushing for a global commitment to protect at least 30% of the world’s land and ocean areas. This is one of 21 targets set for negotiation in Montreal.

But environmental scientists say it’s also one where Australia has a poor historic record.

Global agreements don’t always translate to national action

The United Nations Rio ‘Earth Summit’ in 1992 led to three environmental conventions, each focussing on critical planetary crises: climate change, desertification and biodiversity.

Regular meetings related to these issues are Conferences of the Parties (or COPs), referring to the nations participating in each convention.

While the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change COPs – like the recent COP27 in Egypt and its major predecessors in Glasgow, Paris and Copenhagen – have taken the public limelight in the last decade, the others are just as important.

COP15 is a biodiversity conference.

The meeting taking place in Montreal has the potential (if nations can reach an agreement) to stem the tide of a planetary crisis that could see the collapse of the biosphere and the crucial natural systems that keep our environment running.

For context, scientists believe the world is experiencing a mass species extinction, which has already seen the loss of 70% of the world’s wildlife in the last 55 years.

Of all mammalian biomass on the Earth today, wild animals comprise just four percent. Humans and livestock comprise the other 96%.

Among all animal, plant, fungal and microbial species identified, over a quarter are at risk of extinction according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, so a global compact to avoid this makes sense.

But as climate conferences have shown, the success of agreements relies on nations doing their bit.

Despite targets set out in the Paris agreement, the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise to unprecedented levels.

Similarly, the last major, agenda-setting biodiversity conference held in Nagoya in 2010 charted a set of biodiversity objectives to meet within a decade.

None were.

And Australia’s report to the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2020 singled-out “good progress” on just five of the 20 Nagoya targets, indicative of the disconnect between big international agreements and domestic implementation.

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About half the planet’s land needs to be protected

Despite the difficulty converting global undertakings into local action, there is a view that the targets proposed at COP15 are easier to measure and have an implementation focus.

“The goals themselves are much better than they were 10 years ago,” University of Queensland conservation scientist Professor James Watson tells Cosmos.

Australia’s performance will be followed by Watson and his peers closely. He points out that the continent is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet: almost 1 in 10 of all species are found in Australia, and high proportions of these are endemic (they are only found there).

He says Australia has an “appalling” track-record for abating biodiversity loss

“The EPBC Review is critical… it [the law] actually needs to be enforced,” Watson says.

“There’s got to be an independent body that actually goes through and, as per the Samuel Review… there has to be a far more concentrated effort dealing with the threats that species face, which is primarily land clearing, but other threats as well like fire management, disease and invasive species.”

Protecting 30% of land and sea is a good step given Australia’s long history of land clearing, but Watson says it’s not enough.

He was senior author on a recent study published in Science which drew contributions from several of Australia’s most experienced conservation biologists. It found 44% of Earth’s land must be “ecologically sound” to prevent major biodiversity losses. That’s the equivalent of protecting 64 million square kilometres, an area the combined size of Asia and North America.

It also relies on habitat protection where threatened species live, rather than protecting land that is sparsely inhabited, low on species diversity or otherwise unoccupied by critical species. Australia’s government is yet to determine the “red lines” around such critical habitats.

“If we put protected areas in the wrong places again, like we’ve done in the last 10 years, and continue clearing habitat, we cannot possibly achieve the outcome of stopping species extinction and abating the biodiversity crisis.”

COP15 in Montreal runs from 7 to 19 December.

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