Cosmos Q&A: Putting biodiversity in focus

The Australian Academy of Sciences (AAS) has called for an independent agency to be established to drive reform of biodiversity monitoring and management.

In a briefing paper released in response to a government review of environmental legislation, it suggested the agency “would independently observe, analyse, forecast and warn on the state and trends of Australia’s biodiversity in a similar manner to the services the Bureau of Meteorology provides on Australia’s weather and climate”.

Cosmos spoke with one of the paper’s authors, AAS Fellow Professor Craig Moritz.

You’ve suggested a national biodiversity information system. Is there a precedent elsewhere or a model you believe would work?

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The Bureau of Meteorology model is appropriate: it is an independent government organisation with a remit for nationwide data collection and reporting, as well as research and analytical capacity, technical capability, appropriate governance structures, and broad community support. 

Overseas, both the US and the European Union have continental-scale observatory systems that provide independent, standardised data to inform environmental decision making.

The US National Environmental Observatory Network (NEON) uses standardised data collection methods across 81 field sites to provide open data on the continental United States as well as Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

The European Environment Agency (EEA) coordinates national environmental data from member states, which it uses to provide environmental assessments in support of environmental management processes and environmental policy.

Are there issues specific to Australia and its governance structures that underpin the idea? And will they make it easier or harder to achieve it?

Currently in Australia, some states and the Commonwealth Government use their own protocols for listing ecological communities or ecosystems. As a result, an ecological community can be endangered in one jurisdiction but not even considered threatened in another, partly because several states do not have provisions for this in their legislation. This leads to inconsistencies and confusion and is inefficient due to the need for reassessment against differing criteria.

Australian scientists have led the world in developing systems and tools for biodiversity data collection, analytics and decision-support. Despite this, we do not have a nationally integrated biodiversity information system or agency. While yielding valuable insights and technology, the current start/stop model in investment is inefficient in translating to the needs outlined by the interim report of the Samuel review of the EPBC Act.

What role would a central agency play in the structure? How would roles and responsibilities be shared?

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Better information will help guide better decisions allow us to make better decisions to preserve animals such as the koala. Credit: Jamie Lamb /

A national environmental data, information and analysis agency would have a mission of managing risk by observing, analysing, forecasting and warning. This is similar to the mandate given to the Bureau of Meteorology, but for the protection of the environment and meeting Australia’s international obligations. For instance, such an institution could take ownership of national state of the environment reporting.

This agency would also:  

• be arm’s length from the decision-making process

• be able to commission and utilise research outputs and transform them into operational services

• have technical competencies in environmental sciences, data management, data analysis and modelling

• have cooperative and enabling relationships with state and territory biodiversity agencies • have capabilities in software and systems development and maintenance

• have the ability to manage secure and resilient IT infrastructure.

What are we missing by not have a national system? Is it simply a matter of co-ordination and efficiencies, or are there gaps in what we know and what we can do?

Many organisations, government entities, researchers and businesses collect environmental information in Australia. There are many sources of data, but no national, authoritative body with a direct mandate to observe, analyse or forecast environmental information in a form that aids decision-making, ensures compliance, increases transparency and reduces risks under the EPBC Act

You suggest that environmental data systems need reform. Do they just need updating or are they no longer fit for purpose?

The governance, accessibility, evaluation and monitoring of Australia’s biodiversity information and data systems are broken. Data systems are fragmented, analysis is lacking, the right information is not available to regulators, and the Australian Government’s information technology needs a substantial overhaul. In addition, skilled analysts dedicated to providing the required information are not embedded in the system.

You flag bushfire data as an obvious need and one that one would resonate with the public. What are the others?

Monitoring of ecological assets in the Murray-Darling Basin is one. Impacts of drought, over-extraction, bushfires and changing rainfall patterns have seriously affected the health of the river system, resulting in events like the fish kills in the Menindee Lakes region in 2018-19. There are serious and ongoing concerns about the health of key ecosystems in the Murray Darling Basin – which covers a large proportion of eastern Australia.  

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The charred remains of Flinders Chase National Park after bushfires swept through Kangaroo Island. Credit: David Mariuz

Preservation of iconic Australian species is another. While the bushfires were a national crisis, it is important to note that many iconic Australian species were on a trajectory of decline prior to 2020.  Better information will allow us to make better decisions to preserve species such as the koala, the Leadbeater possum, the long-nosed bandicoot, and the greater glider, as well as the ecological communities they rely on.

What do you see as the key issues for biodiversity protection in Australia, and indeed globally?

On every available measure, Australia is failing to halt, slow or reverse biodiversity loss and species decline. This is despite the fact that there are successes in recovering threatened species or ecosystems where there is a strong base of evidence, the necessary long-term investment and strong community engagement.

Australia’s continued prosperity and wellbeing depend on maintaining a well-functioning natural environment, capable of providing the life-giving and life-affirming services upon which we depend: clean air and water; food, fibre and fuel; soil and nutrients for agriculture; and spiritual, aesthetic, educational and recreational values.

As Professor Samuel’s interim report has observed, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) is part of the problem. The current Act, which focussed more on processes than outcomes, is not sufficient to address declines in Australia’s environmental resources and biodiversity.

Science is, unfortunately, being questioned in so many fields. How can we ensure that it does not get shouted down in an often complex area such as environmental management and biodiversity?

Australia has developed models for creating trusted sources of scientific information.  The authority and trust of any such agency would be maximised by ensuring it is independent, staffed by professionals and has a legislated mandate.

The proposed agency would be able to provide reliable, consistent, authoritative data, reducing points of conflict within the system and greatly streamlining environmental decision-making. One effect of this would be greatly improved efficiency in environmental approvals. Another would be to provide the evidence base for initiatives to engage landholders in restoration activities.

The Australian Academy of Science welcomes the interim findings of the Samuel review. The Academy holds that all the recommended elements – national environmental standards, scientific evidence through high-quality data and analysis tools, and robust and independent assurance systems – are essential to ensure that devolved decision-making retains the confidence of the Australian people. The Samuels report outlines a comprehensive program for reform and should be pursued systematically and in full.

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