Scientists wary of government biodiversity pitch as new study projects over a quarter of species lost in next 80 years

Scientists warn the Albanese Government’s response to an independent review into the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act might not go far enough to prevent species loss.

It comes as a new report published in Science Advances projects the loss of 10% of the world’s plants and animals in the next 28 years, and over a quarter by the end of the century.

Several senior environmental science researchers expressed to Cosmos their wariness of the government’s proposed changes to environmental protection laws.

Federal environment minister Tanya Plibersek last week slated reforms to the EPBC Act for 2023, prior to leading Australia’s delegation at the UN’s COP15 Biodiversity Conference in Montreal this week.

She will call on other nations to back proposals for 30% of the world’s land and sea areas to be protected from destruction by the end of the decade.

That’s the centrepiece of the Government’s response to the EPBC review conducted by Graeme Samuel, which found the 20-year-old legislation was incapable of delivering environmental, community or business outcomes.

The government will also implement an independent environmental regulator, which will oversee and enforce development decisions and formulate national standards, which proposed activities impacting the environment must meet.

The response came on the back of an earlier commitment to halt species extinctions in Australia and reverse the decline of endangered plants and animals by the end of the decade.

Modelling shows climate set to smash species

That commitment is sizeable, particularly in the context of the research published today.

Modelling generated by one of Europe’s most powerful supercomputers by European Commission/Helsinki University scientist Dr Giovanni Strona and Flinders University Professor of Global Ecology Corey Bradshaw demonstrates the world is currently undergoing a mass extinction event.

They simulated 15,000 Earth food webs under various climate and land use change scenarios.

Modelling shows Australia’s climate already at “worst case” for 2030

The results are disturbing. Beyond the loss of one-in-four plants and animals by the midpoint of the century, ecosystems will experience a 20% reduction in diversity.

Diversity loss does not equate to species extinctions, rather it means the balance of all species within a community is diminished. The massive decline of koalas – now endangered in Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT – is an example of this.

They also found co-extinctions would dramatically accelerate – by nearly 200% – the rate of extinctions among higher-level animals, such as carnivorous predators.

He points to the massive drop in bogong moth numbers in Eastern Australia, which are also the primary source of nutrition for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums as potentially leading to a co-extinction event.

Australians are helping to track bogong moth numbers

“At the current trajectory, you’re probably going to see 30% fewer species than you would today,” Bradshaw tells Cosmos.

“We’ve lost about 70% of vertebrate individuals since the 1970s.

“People don’t realise that every third spoonful of food they shove into their mouth is thanks to an animal pollinator. Over 80% of world crops are highly dependent on animal pollinators to persist. If we knock [them] out, we don’t eat.”

The modelling by Bradshaw and Strona points to climate change as the major driver of biodiversity destruction.

The absence of a ‘climate trigger’ in the government’s proposed changes to the EPBC – effectively an instrument that could stop projects proceeding due to carbon emissions – was one of the few points of criticism levelled by Australia’s major environmental NGOs at the government’s response.

“The plan has no mention of a climate trigger and fails to properly consider the impact of climate change on nature,” said WWF Australia’s chief conservation officer Rachel Lowry. Australian Conservation Foundation chief executive Kelly O’Shanassy described the omission as “deeply disappointing”.

Bradshaw says governments attending COP15 need to consider climate change and biodiversity as paired – rather than separate – crises.

The little penguins having a big decline

“All the protection in the world isn’t going to matter very much if we don’t get a handle on climate change as well,” he says.

“If you solve one, or at least mitigate one, you’re going to help the other. Think about forest protection: the massive carbon sequestration component of that that will attenuate climate change, so it works both ways.

“So we need a much better amalgamation of policies that are targeted both towards climate change mitigation but as well as nature preservation.”

Sydney blue gum high forest
Sydney Blue Gum Forest / Credit: Peter Woodard

Scientists take a mixed view towards government actions

Although the government’s Threatened Species Action Plan was launched in October with the bold ambition of no further species extinctions and the recovery of 100 species and 20 ecological communities over the next 10 years, scientists are concerned the allocation of $224.5 million falls well short of what’s needed.

In 2019, an assessment by some of Australia’s leading environmental scientists found spending on threatened species of around $122 million under the previous government was a tenth of what the United States puts into their equivalent programs.

The new government’s commitment adds an extra $100 million, but based on that study, would still be around only a fifth of the US’s commitments, and less than a third of what is likely needed to adequately fund species recovery.

University of Queensland Professor James Watson was a co-author of the study and spoke after Plibersek’s announcement.

He’s concerned by the government being unable to find the estimated two billion dollars required to safeguard Australia’s native species, particularly given the continent is the site of nearly 20 percent of the world’s mammalian total extinctions.

Explained: How Australia decides its threatened species

“Unless you’ve got the systems in place to get that funding from business in a way that really is oriented towards conservation, it’s just going to lock in devastation,” Watson tells Cosmos.

“The science shows that we need about $2 billion to safeguard threatened species and start the process of species recovery, and yet the government can’t find that money.”

Like others, he’s also concerned about the lack of initial detail in the government’s response.

But he welcomed the proposition of an independent regulator that would referee the environmental risk of land use proposals.

Professor Sarah Bekessy leads RMIT’s Interdisciplinary Conservation Science research group. She hopes the government’s response is indicative of a changed approach to the environmental sciences and biological diversity.

“I feel like society is moving pretty rapidly towards appreciating that there’s some real advantages to having nature,” Bekessy says.

“From the centre of our cities, to our most remote locations and everything in between, nature enhances development in all of those contexts, and enhances people’s lives, the habitability, liveability and health and wellbeing of our cities, and enhances agricultural production.”

The COP15 UN Biodiversity Conference concludes on Monday 19 December.

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