Environment stable in 2023 but biodiversity takes a whack

Cosmos Magazine


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By Cosmos

An annual, independent assessment of Australia’s environment has found several silver linings amid longer-term declines exacerbated by climate change.

The 2023 Australia’s Environment report, jointly prepared by the Australian National University and Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN), scores the impact of environmental conditions on the nation’s ecosystems and natural resources.

Using a relative scoring system, environmental conditions across the nation were considered to have declined across the continent, and in every state except for the Northern Territory, which saw a large increase from a particularly low score in 2022.

Those silver linings include a decrease in Australia’s regional sea surface temperatures from 2022’s record, improved hard coral surveys in the Great Barrier Reef, near-average nationwide rainfall, and above-average water resources, soil condition and vegetation mass. Fire activity was close to normal levels.

Albert Van Dijk, a professor in the ANU’s Fedder School of Environment and Society, says the report ‘plugs the gap’ between various state and territory reports and the half-decade reports issued by the federal environment department.

Overall, Australia’s environmental position is worse than it was in 2022 but still performed better than in most years prior.

“Things like weather, water availability, vegetation grown, that’s been pretty good for several years,” Van Dijk tells Cosmos.

But like many scorecards, the averages reported can mask poor results in some parts of the country.

Van Djik describes 2023 as a ‘roller coaster’ environmentally, with very wet and very dry periods in some parts of the country influenced by swings to weather systems like El Niño and a positive Indian Ocean Dipole.

“Whilst we’re having a good run of years, the underlying problems of climate change and population pressure, pressure on our land, invasive species, haven’t gone away. A few good years can’t hide that,” he says.

“Nonetheless it’s a bit of a relief, it could have been far worse.

“We’re still facing massive climate change challenges, not only for our species or biodiversity. It also hits agriculture, our living conditions.”

A bat in flight
Chalinolobus dwyeri, the large-eared pied bat, was listed as endangered in 2023. Credit: Michael Pennay CC BY-NC-ND

More bad news for Australia’s biodiversity

While Australia’s environment has been considered stable overall, the continent’s biodiversity continues to decline rapidly.

2023 saw a record number of species added to the nation’s threatened species list.

But it’s the abundance – the number of live organisms within each individual species – that continues to be hammered.

There are half as many birds in Australia now than there were in 2020. It’s a similar state of affairs for the nation’s mammals.

Plants – often forgotten in discussions of threatened species – have seen their number reduced by 71%.

And threatened species abundance has reduced by 61% – nearly two-thirds – since 2000.

Mostly, these species are being driven towards extinction by two causes: invasive species and habitat loss and change.

“Some of these are species that have got a narrow area that they appear in. Those areas may be earmarked for urban development, for instance,” Van Djik says.

“For other species it’s climate change, and for others it’s disease like myrtle rust [for plants]; chytrid fungus for frogs.

“It’s a mixed bag, but I guess what the number shows is that, on average, we’re not able to stop their decline. We already know that these are the species that are really suffering.”

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