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Monday, 12 February 2018 02:47

Is the Federal Government Really Concerned about Biodiversity?

The Australian government has a framework of strategies and programs for the management of biodiversity. According to the Department of Environment and Energy, Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010–2030 guides how governments, the community, industry and scientists manage and protect Australia's plants, animals and ecosystems.

The recent review of the strategy is puzzling. A well-defined program seems to have been thrown out the window in its implementation but some parts of it are working well such as the Threatened Species Action program.

The Australian Conservation Foundation and WWF Australia recently released their joint submission on the 2018–19 budget. This revealed that the Australian government has slashed environment spending by one-third since 2013. This cut in spending is one of the reasons for the sorry record in maintaining biodiversity.

State of the Environment reports document the extent of the problem. For example, between 2011 and 2015, there was a 66% increase in the number of critically endangered animals (from 38 in 2011 to 63 in 2015) and a 28% increase in critically endangered plants (112 in 2011; 143 in 2015). By critically endangered, we mean that extinction is a real possibility in the short term for these species. Immediate action is needed if we are to avoid terminating millions of years of independent evolution, as these biological lineages die out.

2010 Biodiversity Strategy

The Australian government first developed a biodiversity strategy in 1996. An update was made in 2010. It is intended to provide a guiding framework for all levels of government to conserve our national biodiversity over the next 20 years.

The document is comprehensive, comprising 100 pages. It provides an overview of the state of Australia’s biodiversity and outlines collective priorities for conservation. The vision of this strategy is that Australia’s biodiversity is healthy and resilient to threats, and valued both in its own right and for its essential contribution to our existence.

The strategy identifies three national priorities for action to help stop the decline in Australia's biodiversity:

  • engaging all Australians in biodiversity conservation
  • building ecosystem resilience in a changing climate
  • getting measurable results

The strategy contains 10 interim quantified national targets for the first five years.

Five Year Review of the Strategy

A review of the first five years of the strategy was released in 2016.

The review report is very critical of the strategy but to my mind the main reason is that not enough effort has gone into its implementation. For example it is criticised for being long and technical but also for providing inadequate guidance for decision makers to determine how best to direct investment for biodiversity conservation. That detail would have made the document much longer and even more technical. There is confusion in the review between the roles of the strategy and the programs to implement action.

New Strategy – How can they be Serious?

On 25 November 2016, Australian, state and territory environment ministers agreed to revise the 2010 strategy taking into account the findings of the five year review.

Called Australia’s Strategy for Nature 2018–2030: Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy and Action Inventory, the draft revised strategy is open for public comment until 16 March 2018. Click here to make a submission.

In response to the review the government has thrown out the baby with the bath water. The Department of Environment and Energy’s website states:

The strategy has been revised to improve its ability to drive change in biodiversity management priorities, and its alignment with Australia's international biodiversity commitments.

How can that be? The 100 page document has been replaced by one with 17 pages. There is a complete absence of actions, only statements about what could be done.

Vision

The vision of the new draft is that:

Australia’s nature, now and into the future, is healthy and resilient to threats, and valued both in its own right and for its essential contribution to our health, wellbeing, prosperity and quality of life.

Basically unchanged from the previous strategy.

How much information can be contained in a 17 page document that uses up lots of pages in preambles and background?

The goals are simplistic to say the least; that is:

  • to connect people with nature
  • to care for nature
  • to build and share knowledge

The priorities in meeting these goals as described are all text book stuff. They could be applied to any country. There is nothing specific to Australia’s characteristics and biodiversity situation. As usual with the current governments there is no mention of climate change.

Here are three quotes to give an idea of the lack of specifics:

Objective 3. Increase understanding of the value of nature

Australians understanding of the value of nature, and its role in health and wellbeing can be improved through increasing children’s learning about nature, encouraging organisations and businesses to report their performance against environmental measures, or using environmental accounts to more clearly demonstrate the value of nature.

Objective 8. Use and develop natural resources in an ecologically sustainable way

… Sustainable use and management of natural resources can be achieved through strategic planning and trade-offs between use and protection …

Objective 10. Increase knowledge about nature to make better decisions

There are opportunities to target research to reduce gaps in knowledge and improve management strategies, to support development and implementation of innovative tools and techniques, and to build connections between the environmental disciplines and social sciences …

Is there any Action Guidance?

The draft strategy devotes one whole page to the proposed actions but there is no proposed action. The proposal is for governments to develop an ‘action inventory’, a giant database that will illustrate efforts that ‘contribute to the strategy’s goal and objectives’. The content of this one page then goes on to suggest what information might be included and who might find the inventory useful:

It is a concept for testing and discussion. The online capabilities, content and timelines for an action inventory are yet to be finalised and will be informed by this consultation process.

Threatened Species Action

The biodiversity document is puzzling when there are examples of successful action. In 2015 the government launched a threatened species strategy and promised to make it a priority. The year one report card showed that 21 of the 26 objectives in that report were achieved. The targets and actions were clearly defined and included tackling feral cats and fox-baiting programs. Certain species were identified for action to improve their population numbers and habitat. This contrasts with the overall biodiversity strategy that should be focused on actions that reduce the risks of more species becoming threatened such as land clearing and increasing the reserve system.

The government doesn’t seem to know what to do about our loss of biodiversity or are they just totally disinterested?