In May 2019 the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published its global assessment of the state of the earth’s biodiversity and its prospects for change up to 2050. This is the first such report since the landmark Millennium Ecosystem Assessment published in 2005. The IPBES Assessment is the outcome of negotiations by 134 governments using data provided by 500 biodiversity experts from over 50 countries.
The aim of the IPBES Assessment is explained by its chair, Sir Robert Watson:
The loss of species, ecosystems and genetic diversity is already a global and generational threat to human well-being. Protecting the invaluable contributions of nature to people will be the defining challenge of decades to come. Policies, efforts and actions – at every level – will only succeed, however, when based on the best knowledge and evidence. This is what the IPBES Global Assessment provides.
It examines causes of biodiversity and ecosystem change, the implications for people, policy options and likely future pathways over the next three decades if current trends continue, and other scenarios.
My question is how did IPBES work out the number of species existing and at risk of extinction?
How many species are there?
Several different approaches have been used to estimate the actual total number of species on earth. Frankly it is impossible to know the number with any reasonable level of precision. The various methods give a very wide range of answers – from 3 million to over 100 million. Most of the more recent estimates based on thoughtful approaches are in range of 5 to 20 million.
The main point is to understand the relative level of extinction that could take place. We are finding new species all the time. There are frequent reports of excursions into rainforest finding lots of new beetles or other insect species. New species are even being found in our local area, viz Julian’s Hibbertia.
The report uses the results of a study published in 2011 . The study uses data of past records showing how the knowledge of the number of phyla, classes, families, genii and species for each taxa have increased over time. For each level of the description hierarchy (phyla, class, etc) if fewer and fewer new types are being found then it is assumed that we are getting close to finding the final actual number. The method fits a regression line to the asymptotic graph of the known number over time to estimate the point where the line would reach the limit of increases. Then the phyla build into the number of classes and so on.
One argument in favour of this method is that species that are yet to be identified are living in small numbers or in niche areas so they are of less significance in terms of total life on the planet.
This approach was validated against well-known taxa such as mammals. When applied to all eukaryote kingdoms the approach predicted:
- ∼7.77 million species of animals
- ∼298,000 species of plants
- ∼611,000 species of fungi
- ∼36,400 species of protozoa
- ∼27,500 species of chromists
In total the approach predicted that ∼8.74 million species of eukaryotes exist on earth. Restricting this approach to marine taxa resulted in a prediction of 2.21 million eukaryote species in the world's oceans.
In spite of 250 years of taxonomic classification and over 1.2 million species already catalogued in a central database, the study’s results suggest that some 86% of existing species on earth and 91% of species in the ocean still await description.
How did IPBES derive the million at risk figure?
Species are defined as being at risk of extinction if their numbers are declining to the extent that the population may no longer be viable. They may not become totally extinct for a long time. For example, plants may live for many years but may not be reproducing.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species’ definitions of vulnerable, endangered and critically endangered are used to encompass the overall concept of being at risk of extinction.
The IUCN Red List is the world's most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of plant and animal species. It uses a set of quantitative criteria to evaluate the extinction risk of thousands of species. These criteria are relevant to most species and all regions of the world. With its strong scientific base, the IUCN Red List is recognised as the most authoritative guide to the status of biological diversity.
Currently the IUCN Red List status is that 36% of the 47,677 species assessed are threatened with extinction, which represents:
- 21% of mammals
- 30% of amphibians
- 12% of birds
- 28% of reptiles
- 37% of freshwater fishes
- 70% of plants
- 35% of invertebrates
that have been assessed.
Averaged across all the taxonomic groups of animals and plants that have had IUCN Red List assessments, about 25% of species are threatened. But the sparse data for insects so far suggest it might be lower – estimates range from 10 to 15% – so IPBES used a figure of 10% that might turn out to be conservative. If insects are three-quarters of animal and plant species, there are 5.5 million of them, of which 10% are threatened (so, more than half a million insect species are threatened). If 25% of the other 2.6 million species are threatened, that’s more than half a million non-insect species threatened. Hence the rounded total figure is about 1 million species at risk of extinction.
Are the headlines about loss of species meaningful?
Some very broad assumptions have been used in coming up with the figure of 1 million species at risk of extinction over the next few decades. One wonders if this is a meaningful exercise.
Are people going to take more notice of this announcement?
Is there a better way of illustrating the significance of the threat of massive biodiversity loss over the next few decades?
Maybe the percentages quoted earlier mean more, such as 70% of plants and 21% of mammals?
Another factor that may be more significant is the loss of biomass of plants and animals. Recent studies have pointed to the significant decline in biomass of insects. Dr Sanchez-Bayo from Sydney University pointed this out in a recent paper to the journal Biological Conservation .
Besides all the important functions that insects play in our ecosystems - such as pollination, or recycling nutrients - they are also an essential element in the food chain that supports life on our planet. When the insects go, the frogs, birds and mammals don't have food.
The IPBES Assessment is mostly devoted to describing the reasons for species decline and what should be done about it. The reasons are not hard to find: exploitation, land clearing, weed and pathogen invasion, climate change.
Currently biodiversity law and policy is inadequate to redress the situation. If we are to halt the continued loss of nature, then the world’s legal, institutional and economic systems must be reformed entirely. And this change needs to happen immediately.
 Mora, C; Tittensor, DP; Adl, S; Simpson, AGB; Worm, B (2011) How Many Species are there on Earth and in the Ocean? PLOS Biol 9(8): e1001127
 Sánchez-Bayo, F and Wyckhuys, KAG (2019) Worldwide Decline of the Entomofauna: A Review of its Drivers. Biological Conservation 232, 8–27
It is estimated that there are fewer than 21,000 koalas left in NSW. The population may have reduced by more than a quarter over the past 20 years. The species is listed as vulnerable to extinction under the federal EPBC Act in NSW.
The major reason for the decline is habitat loss with the worst areas being in the Pilliga and South Coast. NSW is a heavily cleared landscape. Almost 40% of native forests and bushland has been removed since European settlement, and only 9% of remaining vegetation is in close-to-natural condition.
Eastern Australia is one of the world’s top 11 deforestation hotspots, along with the Amazon, Borneo and the Congo according to a report prepared by the NCC and WWF. Between 1990 and 2016, at least 2 million hectares of forest and bushland in NSW have been destroyed out of the total state area of 81 million hectares.
So what is being done about this? There are a number of decisions over recent years that will make the situation worse:
- As a result of the new biodiversity laws implemented in 2017, 99% of identified koala habitat on private land can be bulldozed.
- Last November the government commenced new logging laws called Integrated Forestry Operations Approvals. The laws reduce protections for forest wildlife, including koalas. One of the worst changes is the introduction of an intensive harvesting zone over 140,000 ha of coastal forest between Taree and Grafton. The intensive harvesting zone will see large-scale clear-felling legalised on the north coast for the first time. Because most of the trees will be gone, it’s likely that most of the koalas will be too!
- In December the Premier Gladys Berejiklian gave the green light to renew the Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) with the Commonwealth for another 20 years. RFAs are the mechanism by which the states are permitted to log native forests under accreditation from the Commonwealth. They are meant to balance the needs of the logging industry with conservation and public recreation. Conservationists argue that the RFAs have not been properly reassessed with a thorough scientific analysis of the values of native forests, for example for carbon storage and enhancement of catchment water.
NSW Koala Strategy
One positive development, albeit with limitations, is the government announcement last May of a strategy aimed at securing the future of koalas in the wild. $45m has been committed. It involves:
- setting aside 20,000 ha of state forest as koala reserves on the Central Coast, Southern Highlands, North Coast, Hawkesbury and Hunter
- transferring 4,000 ha of native forest on the North Coast to national parks
- allocating $20m to purchase prime koala habitat that can be added to national parks
However the strategy fails to commit to protecting areas known to be home to koalas from a major intensification of logging in state forests under new IFOA laws.
In early February 2019, as the election looms, some parts of the strategy have been implemented. A cattle property once used as a recreational dirt motorbike and horse recreation area has been bought by the NSW government to become part of the first national park to be gazetted in NSW in 11 years. It borders the Wollondilly River in the Southern Highlands and is about 3,680 ha. Actually 1,150 ha of this land is already protected so the addition is only 2,164 ha. There is no information about how much of this area is currently cleared and degraded from its previous use. How long before it becomes genuine koala habitat?
Great Koala National Park is a Better Idea
The National Parks Association has developed a proposal that will provide definite security for koala populations. This is for a 175,000 ha Great Koala National Park on the NSW mid-north coast, new national parks for the last remaining koala populations in southwest and western Sydney, or new national parks in other areas of known koala significance. The choice of the north coast has been confirmed as most effective by studies completed by the Office of Environment and Heritage, copies of which were obtained under Freedom of Information laws.
Funding Announced for Improvements to Popular National Parks
Another government announcement is for a $150m investment to improve access to existing national parks that includes upgraded walking tracks, better visitor facilities and new digital tools such as virtual tours and live-streaming cameras. The main investment is in the Blue Mountains and Royal National Park where visitor numbers have increased rapidly. This is all aimed at the tourist dollar, not conservation that is meant to be the main purpose of national parks.
Will there be an increase in funding for the National Parks and Wildlife Service to look after the additional reserves? After the massive cuts in funding of the service highlighted in previous issues of STEP Matters one wonders!
Removal of Feral Horses from Kosciuszko National Park has been Stopped
In December the NSW Threatened Species Scientific Committee declared feral horses to be a key threatening process because they place dozens of species at risk closer to extinction. In response a spokesman for Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton said the government was preparing a plan of management that would:
identify the heritage value of sustainable wild horse populations and set out how those will be protected while maintaining environmental values.
That goal will be impossible to achieve.
Meanwhile, in response to the passing of the Wild Horse Kosciuszko Act, the number of feral horses being removed by current methods has been reduced to nil since August 2017 even though the Act was not passed until June 2018. The Invasive Species Council has obtained data showing that the peak number of removals was 600 in 2012.
The Nationals Parks and Wildlife Service in 2016 estimated there were 6000 brumbies in Kosciuszko National Park. Scientists estimate the population may grow by up to 20% a year. The drought though is believed to have curtailed brumby numbers.
Labor has committed to repeal the legislation to protect the brumbies.
The NSW government is flush with money thanks to the property boom. But, according to the Opposition, the June budget continued the trend of spending below the budget allocation and cutting future allocations to the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) for a second year. OEH contains the National Parks and Wildlife Service where 26% of permanent rangers and 35% of area managers have been dismissed.
Last financial year there was a large under-spend of $165 million and this year there was a budget cut of $66 million for the OEH. Together this is $231 million less funding available to spend on the state’s environmental challenges.
$231 million is equivalent to 20% of all spending allocated to OEH in 2018-19.The budget for the OEH is less than the government’s first budget eight years ago.
I did try to verify these figures from the Budget Papers but they keep on changing the descriptions of funding categories so it is impossible to compare year on year figures.
Another Challenge to the Land Clearing Codes
Conservationists have been very unhappy about the NSW government’s attitude to the environment for a long time. One of their worst actions is the relaxation of the land clearing codes under the so-called Biodiversity Conservation Act.
In March the Nature Conservation Council won a case in the Land and Environment Court that declared the native vegetation clearing code that came into force in August 2017 was invalid. The grounds for the decision were based on a technicality that the primary industries minister failed to follow due process and obtain the concurrence of the environment minister before making the codes, as required by law. The government immediately reintroduced the same codes without any consideration of the objections for scientists.
Now the Nature Conservation Council has found better grounds to fight against the land clearing code and has launched another legal action through the Environment Defenders Office (EDO).
On the basis of the documents received under freedom of information laws, it appears that the minister for the environment failed to give proper, genuine and realistic consideration to the decision to grant concurrence for the making of the 2018 code and to the principles of ecologically sustainable development, as required by law. The documents indicate that the minister for the environment did not have sufficient time or material to enable to her to make the decision and that as a result, the 2018 code was made unlawfully.
The CEO of the EDO David Morris has stated:
This is a remarkable state of affairs. The legal regime makes it clear: the responsibility for ensuring that the code does not have an unacceptable impact on the environment lies with the Environment Minister. The code is predicted to have significant and far reaching impacts to biodiversity.
Further Details of the Code
The land clearing code allows landholders to carry out significant amounts of self-assessed clearing of native vegetation without further approval or environmental assessment, including in areas that might be home to threatened species and ecological communities. It doesn’t require any cumulative assessment of greenhouse gas emissions arising from clearing under the code. Under the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 both clearing and climate change are listed as key threatening processes to biodiversity. Climate change is the greatest long-term threat to biodiversity.
While the 2017 code was intended to be released with native vegetation regulatory maps to assist landholders to identify where clearing of native vegetation on rural can and cannot occur, those maps are yet to be released, which means landholders continue to be required to self-assess whether such land management clearing codes even apply to their land.
If this case is successful, it will mean that there has not been a valid code in force under the act since the new native vegetation laws came into force. Given the ongoing legal uncertainty around the code, any clearing done in reliance on the code is potentially unlawful.
Over 700 native plant species and 300 vertebrate species have been recorded in Ku-ring-gai. On 19 June Chelsea Hankin (council’s Natural Areas Officer) gave an overview of council’s fauna monitoring program, including the latest results of their three long-term monitoring programs. She made the following points.
The Ku-ring-gai Flying-fox Reserve (KFFR) in Gordon has been home to flying-foxes since the 1960s with reports of occupation in the 1940s.
Every third Thursday in the month (in collaboration with Ku-ring-gai Bat Conservation Society and regular volunteers) council conduct fly-out counts at strategic locations surrounding the KFFR.
Monthly counts provide long term data and ties in with the national census.
Numbers flying-foxes have fluctuated, though a downward trend is clear.
KFFR is important during extreme heat when temperatures climb to over 40°C because it has good structural complexity of vegetation layers (canopy, mid- and understorey) so flying-foxes are able to move down into the lower cooler layers of vegetation.
Eastern Pygmy Possum
The Eastern Pygmy Possum monitoring program has been running for more than three years in collaboration with volunteers.
28 nest boxes have been installed.
Eastern Pygmy Possums have not been identified on the western Lane Cove NP side of the LGA. We’ve had continued presence of EPP in areas with connectivity to either Ku-ring-gai Chase NP or Garigal NP, with evidence of successful breeding.
Eastern Pygmy-possum have been observed foraging on a range of flora species, including Banksia ericifolia, B. spinulosa, B. serrata, Lambertia formosa, Angophora hispida and Callistemon citrinus.
Cameras have detected plenty of other wildlife: Swamp Wallabies, Feathertail Glider, Brushtail Possum, Antechinus and Sugar Glider.
Council began monitoring microbats at Pool to Pond (WildThings program) sites and creek lines in 2017. In 2018 the program was expanded to include natural bushland areas, wetlands, golf course dams and backyards without water features (a total of 64 sites).
Thirteen species have been detected, half of which are threatened.
The three most common species have been Eastern Freetail Bat, Eastern Bentwing-bat (threatened) and Gould’s Wattled Bat (a generalist species and highly adaptable to the urban landscape – sometimes seen taking advantage of insect concentrations around lights).
The specialist fishing bat Southern Myotis (threatened) has only been detected at larger bodies of water like dams, creeks and sediment ponds/wetlands. Southern Myotis require open stretches of water without clutter (aquatic vegetation or algae on surface) so they can ‘trawl’ using their large feet to catch small fish and aquatic invertebrates.
Three new records have confirmed the presence of Chalinolobus dwyeri, a species which until now had only been recorded once in 1992.
Targeted surveys of freshwater crayfish in the last year have shown that two native species are co-existing, Euastacus australasiensis and E. spinifex.
OzAtlas https://www.ala.org.au/who-we-are/downloadable-tools/ala-mobile-app/ contribute directly to the Atlas of Living Australia database
The Nature Conservation Council with the help of the Environmental Defenders Office won the case challenging the process of implementation of the land clearing codes.
The court decision was an opportunity for Premier Berejiklian to amend the bad laws her government had implemented and make some key improvements to protect habitat.
Instead, she has chosen to stick rigidly with the same destructive laws and ignore the science that highlighted the likely destruction. By the government’s own assessment, they will lead to a spike in clearing of up to 45% and expose threaten wildlife habitat to destruction, including 99% of identified koala habitat on private land.
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.
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?
One of the major concerns about the NSW government’s biodiversity laws is the fundamental flaws in the Biodiversity Offsets Scheme, which will lead to the widespread clearing of remnant bushland in the Greater Sydney area, in return for developers' cash payments – see STEP Matters Issue 191. The application of these payments is unlikely to make up for the biodiversity that is lost. Several groups are so concerned that they have written a joint open letter to the premier. It is not only environment groups involved. Others are the Heart Foundation, the Institute of Landscape Architects and the National Trust.
The letter (see below) calls for action from the government to make the rhetoric a reality that the legislation will improve biodiversity within Sydney. Members of the general public are invited to sign the letter.
With Sydney’s population projected to grow to 6.4 million by 2036 and the worsening climate change-related urban heat island effect, we write to urge you to ensure that adequate levels of green space are provided to all Sydney-siders and Sydney’s unique bushland and wildlife is protected.
Sydney-siders highly value access to a range of formal and informal green spaces – trees, bushland, parks and sporting fields. This is borne out in previous public surveys and the strong community reaction whenever public green space is sold-off or alienated for development.
Extensive research, both in Australia and overseas, clearly shows that the environmental, social, spiritual and economic benefits of green spaces are irrefutable. Green spaces cool our city, reduce energy costs, increase property values, promote healthy lifestyles, improve air and water quality, reduce net carbon emissions, prevent stormwater runoff and provide important wildlife habitat.
Sydney's green spaces also play a key role in the health of Sydney's iconic blue spaces. For example, the revitalisation and resilience of Greater Sydney's six major river systems – Hacking, Georges, Cooks, Parramatta, Nepean and Hawkesbury, as well as Botany Bay and Sydney Harbour depends on the health and connectivity of the surrounding vegetation.
Despite these benefits, current NSW government policy and legislation is failing to protect Sydney’s green spaces as these are actively being depleted by clearing and alienation for grey urban and industrial infrastructure development. The Total Environment Centre’s SOS Green Spaces map highlights over 70 green spaces currently at risk of destruction. This includes peri-urban areas undergoing rapid development and the impacts of major transport infrastructure projects such as the South East Light Rail and WestConnex. This deteriorating situation must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
A Plan for Growing Sydney Direction 3.2 aims 'to create a network of interlinked, multipurpose open and green spaces across Sydney' also known as the Green Grid. This concept is also supported by the work of the Greater Sydney Commission. However, specific actions, policies, legislative changes and funding are required to shift this concept from rhetoric to reality.
As key stakeholders representing a wide range of interests and expertise about urban green spaces, we urge you to:
- Assign responsibility for planning, implementing and monitoring Sydney’s green spaces to an independent body with the mandate, skills, funding and resources to achieve a comprehensive network of formal and informal green spaces designed to maximise benefits to Sydney-siders and protect Sydney's unique bushland and wildlife in the long-term.
- Prevent the clearing of bushland in the Greater Sydney area unless strict like-for-like offsets can be located and protected in perpetuity within the close vicinity of the bushland being cleared (note: under the government’s current draft Biodiversity Conservation Regulation 2017, the proposed Biodiversity Offsets Scheme will lead to widespread clearing of Sydney’s remnant bushland, including threatened species habitat, particularly in Western Sydney).
- Prevent the alienation of community and Crown land, as well as removal of the tree canopy, from Sydney’s green space network.
Sydney's green spaces are a vital component of its liveability and resilience as a city. Your positive action in protecting and enhancing our green spaces would strengthen your leadership in Australia’s much-loved and admired iconic first city, for current and future generations.
We, the sixteen signatories to this open letter look forward to an opportunity to discuss this important issue further with you.
Over the past 200 years NSW has lost almost half of its bushland through land clearing and only 9% of what is left is in good condition. Clearing of native vegetation and habitat modification are the greatest threats to the survival of the majority of species on the threatened list.
The biodiversity laws that the government passed in late-2016 place a great deal of emphasis on offsetting as a means of allowing development to occur. The theory is that biodiversity lost when clearing for a development can be replaced by providing for restoration or protection of biodiversity in another place.
The Nature Conservation Council recently published a report on the operation of NSW’s biodiversity offset schemes, called Paradise Lost: The Weakening and Widening of NSW Biodiversity Offsetting Schemes, 2005–16. This article outlines the key findings of the report.
As you can tell from the title, the principles of offsetting have been severely compromised. We can expect worse to come under the new laws.
Concept of Biodiversity Offsetting
Biodiversity offsetting has been in use in NSW since 2005 under various pieces of legislation.
One example is the money that was paid by NSW Transport Infrastructure Development Corporation to compensate for the loss of 0.33 ha of Blue Gum High Forest when the railway station at Hornsby was expanded. The money was used to help purchase land to expand the area of protection of Blue Gum High Forest next to Dalrymple-Hay Nature Reserve.
We have written before about the theoretical difficulties of using offset schemes to compensate for lost vegetation and habitat loss and the measures that should be taken to counteract these difficulties.
The basic principles that should be observed are given below.
Offsets should only be used after appropriate avoidance and minimisation measures have been taken according to the mitigation hierarchy. A biodiversity offset is a commitment to compensate for significant residual adverse impacts.
No net loss
A biodiversity offset should be designed and implemented to achieve measurable conservation outcomes that can reasonably be expected to result in no net loss and preferably a net gain of biodiversity.
Some areas should be off limits – red flags
There are situations where residual impacts cannot be fully compensated for by a biodiversity offset because of the irreplaceability or vulnerability of the biodiversity affected.
Consider whether restoration is possible
Biodiversity offsetting assumes ecosystems and habitats can be re-created. This is often not the case, particularly if offset sites have been highly degraded and lost essential characteristics. In Australia, a number of studies have shown revegetated areas rarely resemble the ecosystem it was intended they would replicate.
It takes some time for species to establish a viable population in a new habitat. Offsetting should allow for a phased-in approach to prevent the total loss of species that are already threatened. The loss of hollow-bearing trees is a particular example.
In areas affected by the project and by the biodiversity offset, the effective participation of stakeholders should be ensured in decision-making about biodiversity offsets. All stages including their evaluation, selection, design, implementation, monitoring and communication of results to the public should be undertaken in a transparent and timely manner.
The design and implementation of a biodiversity offset should be based on an adaptive management approach, incorporating monitoring and evaluation, with the objective of securing outcomes that last in perpetuity.
There are five types of offsets schemes operating in NSW. The performance of each of these schemes was examined through the lens of eight case studies:
- Namoi catchment property vegetation management plans – approval for land clearing under the Native Vegetation Act
- Kellyville in northwest Sydney – creation of credits under the BioBanking scheme
- Wagga Wagga local environment plan – biodiversity certification for strategic planning
- Albury local environment plan – biodiversity certification for strategic planning
- Huntlee development in Hunter Valley – Office of Environment and Heritage principles for biodiversity offsetting
- Boggabri and Maules Creek coal mines – development consent – Office of Environment and Heritage principles for biodiversity offsetting
- Warkworth mine extension – Office of Environment and Heritage principles for biodiversity offsetting
- Mt Owen mine expansion – NSW biodiversity offsets policy for major projects
The report provides a detailed description of the features of each case study and compares them with the expected standards. The criteria for the analysis were:
- be a last resort after avoidance and mitigation (including appropriate ‘red flags’)
- deliver biodiversity equivalence (like-for-like)
- provide security and achieve benefits in perpetuity
- deliver a net gain in biodiversity
- be additional to conservation measures already in place
- be enforceable, resourced and well-managed
- be subject to a rigorous monitoring and evaluation framework
- be open and transparent
It was demonstrated that biodiversity offsetting is failing to deliver the environmental outcomes promised. No case studies resulted in outcomes deemed ‘good’ and the outcomes were:
- ‘disastrous’ in one study (Boggabri/Maules Creek)
- ‘poor’ in five studies (Warkworth, Mount Owen, Huntlee, Albury, Kellyville)
- ‘adequate’ in two studies (Namoi, Wagga Wagga)
For more details read the report.
Comparison of Offset Schemes
The report considers that a scheme should have the following features:
- excludes discounting of offset credits
- excludes supplementary measures
- excludes mine rehabilitation
- clear standard for environmental outcomes
- does not allow payment in lieu of offsets
- red flags
- impacts on water quality and soil are taken into account
- like-for-like offsetting
The case studies demonstrate the features of the five biodiversity offset schemes in operation. It was found that the later models contained fewer best-practice principles and standards than the earlier ones:
- only the first offsets scheme (the Environmental Outcomes Assessment Methodology under the Native Vegetation Act) contained all eight features
- the Biodiversity Offsets Policy for Major Projects introduced by the Baird government in 2014 contained only one of the eight features
Overall, biodiversity offsetting schemes have failed to deliver the promised outcomes and they have become weaker as standards have slipped.
Draft Biodiversity Offset Scheme is Even Worse
The latest Draft Biodiversity Offset Scheme (BOS) and the Biodiversity Assessment Methodology (BAM) that will be used to determine offsetting does not include any of the features described above.
The BAM is a metric-based tool that allows biodiversity impacts and improvements to be assessed and quantified in terms of ecosystem credits and species credits, collectively known as biodiversity credits that will need to be offset.
The proponent can choose to between three methods of meeting their offset obligation:
- buying credits for a suitable site under the offset rules from the market, or they can establish a Biodiversity Stewardship Agreement on their own land and retire the credits generated
- make a payment to the Biodiversity Conservation Trust that will source the offsets
- paying for conservation actions as approved by the consent authority
Key points for submissions
The key points on the features that should be in the offsetting legislation and the changes that are needed are listed below.
1. Discounting of biodiversity credits should not be permitted
The government proposes introducing ‘discounting’ that will allow offset credit requirements to be ‘discounted’ based on claimed social and economic benefits. Economic prioritisation policies are likely to contribute to the incremental and permanent loss of significant biodiversity in NSW, and undermine the credibility of the policy.
2. Supplementary measures should not be included
The BOS allows the use of ‘biodiversity conservation actions’ that may include research or surveys into the biodiversity under threat. This is not a genuine offset. The Scientific Committee stated in a report on this idea that this:
… is clearly a case of developers being able to buy themselves out of any obligation to protect biodiversity in any meaningful way.
NSW Scientific Committee (2014) Submission on the Draft NSW Biodiversity Offsets Policy for Major Projects
3. Allowance of mine rehabilitation
Numerous critics have questioned whether degraded mine sites can be effectively restored and in any case mine site rehabilitation should be an obligation of the mining company. Recently, developers have been permitted to use mine rehabilitation sites to generate biodiversity offset credits. The government proposes continuing this practice under the draft BOS.
4. Clear standards
The Biodiversity Conservation Act requires that the biodiversity assessment method should adopt a standard that result in no net loss but the draft BAM does not have a clear objective to protect biodiversity.
5. No payment in lieu
The draft BOS would allow proponents to discharge offset requirements simply by paying money into Biodiversity Conservation Trust. The development could proceed without certainty that the required offset is possible.
6. Red flags
The BOS does include some restrictions on proposals that cause ‘serious and irreversible impacts’ (SAII) but the criteria for defining SAII are too weak. It includes only the most endangered and restricted area species and ecological communities. In the case of major projects the SAII risks can be ignored. The net effect will be that EECs and endangered species not listed in the list of SAIIs, e.g. STIF and Duffys Forest, could be cleared without offset requirements if the land area is below the clearing thresholds. A council’s discretionary DCP would be the only protection.
7. Other impacts on water and soil
Other impacts should be considered in the BAM. The assessment methodology covers only a limited range of biodiversity values such as vegetation integrity and habitat suitability but not soil health and water quality and availability.
8. Like-for-like principle
The like-for-like principle that offsets should replace the values being lost is undermined in several aspects. For example:
- Offsets can be found from a radius of 100 km. It will be easier and cheaper to find offsets outside urban areas undermining preservation of biodiversity and threatened species and EECs such as STIF. The loss of existing geographic distribution if sites in urban areas are lost will undermine species resilience and long term adaptation to climate change.
- Offsets can be used for species across similar vegetation classes or between species. This even applies to threatened species; a koala can be swapped for a wallaby.
The government is proceeding with this model despite warnings expressed by leading scientists, lawyers and conservationists. The government basically has ignored the advice of the experts because it is wants to deliver development at any cost. Implementing the BOS will in fact add extinction pressures to the very species and ecological communities it is supposed to protect by facilitating the more rapid and widespread destruction of threatened species habitat across NSW.
Please Send a Submission
Closing date: Wednesday 21 June. Lodge online or post to Land Management and Biodiversity Conservation Reforms, Office of Environment and Heritage, PO Box A290, Sydney South, NSW 1232.
In May the NSW government released regulations and codes that provide some of the detail on how the biodiversity legislation will operate in practice. But it is not complete so there is still a lot of uncertainty. The call for submissions is an opportunity to express a view on what should be in the areas that are missing as well as the available drafts.
There is a large volume of information to digest. The most useful one is the Submission Guide: Ecological Sustainable Development.
Consistent with STEP’s interests we focus on the aspects that relate to the management and preservation of urban bushland. Refer to our article on the issues regarding the Biodiversity Offsets Scheme.
The major areas that are missing are the Vegetation State Environment Planning Policy (Vegetation SEPP) and some of the maps that will underpin the decision-making process. This is most unsatisfactory! The legislation is due to come into force on 25 August. It is an abuse of due process to be conducting consultation on incomplete information.
The Vegetation SEPP will regulate clearing of vegetation in urban areas and environmental conservation/management zones where clearing does not otherwise require development consent under the main planning act, the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act. So the zones that are covered include E2, E3 and E4 zones.
The major concern is the inclusion of E2 zones in the clearing provisions. This zone is for areas with high ecological, scientific, cultural or aesthetic values outside national parks and nature reserves. The zone provides the highest level of protection, management and restoration for such lands whilst allowing uses compatible with those values.
E3 (environmental management) and E4 (environmental living) zones accommodate low-impact residential development but contain, or are near, bushland so have particular environmental or risk factors.
So why is the Vegetation SEPP regulating clearing on E-zone land, in particular E2 land? Clearing should not be allowed except for bushfire safety and other protection reasons.
Examples of land that could come under the new regulations are near the Blue Gum High Forest area in Dalrymple Hay Reserve and the area between Berowra Heights and Cowan near the Great North Walk. Most people assume the latter is national park but much of the natural scenery enjoyed by walkers is zoned E2, E3 and even RE1 (public recreation) and would have little protection under the proposed SEPP. Some E2 land is protected by being a BioBanking site or part of a conservation agreement, but not all.
Sensitive Biodiversity Values Land
There are certain areas, regardless of land area, that will require a biodiversity assessment (and offsetting if clearing is approved) if they are mapped in a Sensitive Biodiversity Values Lands map. The definition of areas included is very restricted.
Comment for submissions
The final map is not available and we understand many parts of NSW have not been properly assessed yet.
The resolution of the draft map on the website is too low to identify particular sites.
Areas that don’t meet the definition and should be included are endangered ecological communities (e.g. Sydney Turpentine Ironbark Forest and Duffys Forest EECs), buffer zones around EECs and areas of critical habitat, e.g. Ku-ring-gai Flying Fox Reserve.
Will it be possible to nominate areas for inclusion? Local land managers should be able to have a say on what is Sensitive Biodiversity Values Land.
There is a real danger that clearing of EECs such as STIF could rapidly turn it into critically endangered. A council’s discretionary DCP would be the only protection. It takes some time for a change in classification of vegetation communities to be finalised. In the meantime will they be cleared beyond hope of recovery?
The clearing provisions are determined by categories of development.
Development consent required
Development consent is required (under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act) for larger developments and infrastructure.
The Biodiversity Assessment Method (BAM) applies to clearing and the flawed offset provisions will apply.
Development consent NOT required
When development consent is NOT required, e.g. clearing of undeveloped land, the Biodiversity Offset Scheme (BOS) thresholds apply as prescribed below:
Minimum lot size
Proposed area of clearing
Less than 1 ha (10,000 m2)
2,500 m2 or more
Less than 2 ha
5,000 m2 or more
2 to 39 ha
5,000 m2 or more
The thresholds are high.
For clearing above the threshold the BOS applies and approval will be determined by the Native Vegetation Panel. A biodiversity offset obligation will be imposed. Local councils could be given authority to do this assessment. We don’t know who will be appointed to the Native Vegetation Panel.
Clearing below the threshold will be regulated under the local council’s Development Control Plan (DCP) through a permit system. This will be the most likely situation in urban areas,
There is currently wide variation in the standards of DCPs, for example in relation to individual trees. Ku-ring-gai requires a permit for clearing of most native trees and vegetation and non-native trees while Hornsby only controls clearing of locally endemic native trees or trees in heritage zones. It is possible that the government will impose standard clauses in DCPs. Indeed would these be desirable if a high standard is applied?
Comment for submissions
It is essential that the objectives of clause 5.9 of the standard LEP are carried over to DCPs under the new scheme that is ‘to preserve the amenity of the area, including biodiversity values, through the preservation of trees and other vegetation’.
Submissions should explain desirable standards for the DCP regulations. One area that has not been covered is how the DCP clearing codes will fit in with the need for wildlife corridors and the Greater Sydney Commission’s guidelines for the Green Grid and minimum tree canopy cover.
Other Impacts of Clearing Regulations
A major issue with the local regulation of clearing is that there will be no monitoring of loss of vegetation communities and assessment of cumulative impacts. There needs to be a database of regional clearing approvals.
There is uncertainty about the legal status of DCP regulations and the ability to prosecute if breaches occur.
Areas of western Sydney that will be subject to the greatest amount of new development need as much protection as possible of native vegetation and habitat. The Cumberland Plain Woodland has already had large areas cleared. The allowable clearing and the use of offsets under the proposed regulations will further reduce the area of remaining native vegetation and habitat.
Given the limited areas of bushland in urban areas, it is inevitable that there will be more losses of irreplaceable biodiversity. The offsets provisions do not adequately factor in the scarcity of suitable offsets in urban areas (see article below). The rules must be amended to ensure maximum protection of native vegetation in urban and E zones, particularly areas containing threatened species.
Please Send a Submission
Closing date: Wednesday 21 June. Lodge online or post to Land Management and Biodiversity Conservation Reforms, Office of Environment and Heritage, PO Box A290, Sydney South, NSW 1232.
The NSW government has been undertaking a major review of the biodiversity legislation in response to farmers’ complaints about the fairness and processes of the current land clearing laws. This has involved the appointment of an independent review panel whose report was released in December 2014. The report covered a lot more than rural land clearing laws and proposed a major revamp of the biodiversity protection provisions.
STEP Matters Issue 183 explained some of the concerns about the recommendations of the report, particularly the:
- use of self-assessment
- watering down of biodiversity offset standards
- reliance on private land conservation
- adequacy of provisions and resources to assess and monitor vegetation clearing
The recommendations, if adopted, would seriously undermine protections that currently limit development that is likely to lead to loss of biodiversity in rural and urban areas.
Prior to the 2015 election the NSW government promised to implement all recommendations of the report. Conservation groups have been calling on the general public to express their concerns to their local MPs in the hope that the actual legislation would recognise the issues raised but to no avail. The usual response was a standard email full of statements about the glorious improvement in biodiversity that was going to occur and made no acknowledgement of the concerns.
The Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) set out to consult with key stakeholder groups such as the NPA and NCC on the drafting of the legislation. The process was such a sham that the groups withdrew from the process in February 2016. The groups issued this joint statement about the withdrawal:
We have provided detailed analysis and constructive feedback to help develop a conservation law that addresses the increasing threats to wildlife, soils and climate, but it is now clear that the government is on a course to pursue development at high environmental cost.
Direct talks with the relevant ministers also seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
On 6 May the draft legislation was released. The closing date for submissions was 28 June.
Application to Urban Areas and Tree Preservation Orders are still Unclear
Some aspects of the application of the legislation to urban areas are not yet clear. A new State Environmental Planning Policy and Development Control Plan for urban areas are yet to be released for consultation that will define the clearing controls and consent requirements. In fact it is not clear what consultation will occur.
Of particular concern is the proposal to replace individual council Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs) with a SEPP to apply to all urban areas. TPOs are an effective tool for protecting urban trees and their associated biodiversity, amenity, heritage, shade and heat reduction values. TPOs need to take into account differences in the characteristics of urban areas such as topography, existing canopy cover and proximity to bushland.
No clear justification for the proposed replacement of TPOs with a SEPP and the purported benefits of this approach has been provided. The Final Report from the Independent Biodiversity Legislation Review Panel does not address TPOs at all.
Response to Draft Legislation
A major campaign (Stand Up for Nature) was launched by a coalition of conservation groups to inform the public urging us to contact politicians to express opposition and ask for the legislation to be withdrawn. The campaign has been very successful. Over 5,400 submissions have been made opposing the legislation.
On top of this response, just last week a group of over 400 scientists released a declaration expressing concern about the current and likely future rate of deforestation and loss of habitat and its impact on threatened species.
The government wants to pass the legislation in October. They appear to be determined to ignore expert opinion. Future generations will face the consequences. Pressure needs to be maintained on the premier to modify the draft legislation.
Government Statements are Pure Spin
Here are three examples of the disconnect between the government’s statements on the OEH website about the reforms and the likely outcomes according to assessments by the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), conservation groups and STEP.
1. OEH statement on ecologically sustainable development (ESD)
The biodiversity reforms will facilitate ESD in NSW. The introduction of a new biodiversity offsets scheme, including the new Biodiversity Conservation Trust and an expanded biodiversity certification program will, for the first time, deliver a transparent, consistent and certain approach to biodiversity assessment and offsetting in NSW.
ESD is a basic objective of the current planning legislation. Its application in the past has led to genuine offsetting decisions such as the provision of funding for preservation of Blue Gum High Forest land in Browns Forest, St Ives to offset BGHF cleared for railway expansion in Hornsby.
Under this heading the OEH identifies the flawed biodiversity offset system as the means of facilitating ESD. The idea seems to be that merely making statements about ESD will make it happen. How can biodiversity be maintained or improved when a developer will be able to pay money into a fund if suitable vegetation for offsetting is not available.
The proposed reforms ignore the principles of ESD; they do not take a precautionary approach; they do not treat biodiversity conservation as a fundamental consideration in decision-making; and they are very unlikely to achieve intergenerational equity.
2. OEH statement that reforms will enhance biodiversity conservation on private land
The proposed regime places almost complete reliance on political, budgetary decisions (which may be short-term) to achieve biodiversity gains, rather than on protections to prevent continued biodiversity decline.
Who knows whether private landowners will be given sufficient long-term support to carry out conservation on their land?
Programs like the Saving our Species will fund measures to restore habitat for identified threatened species. But at the same time land clearing will be allowed that will destroy habitat for a lot more species. It is much more expensive to restore habitat than to preserve it in the first place.
3. OEH statement that the reforms will set and achieve clear biodiversity objectives
- The objects of the draft Bill emphasise conserving biodiversity and ecological integrity at bioregional and state scales and facilitating ecologically sustainable development.
- The draft Bill objects for improving and sharing knowledge about biodiversity, ecosystem services and conservation actions will be achieved through an environmental monitoring, assessment and reporting program to be established by OEH.
The reform package will deliver balanced legislation and positive outcomes for all stakeholders. Landholders will no longer be the sole party responsible for conservation outcomes and will be able to undertake legitimate land clearing and management activities unhindered. The environment will benefit from significant new investment focused on priority threatened species and priority conservation areas.
As the EDO points out:
There are no clear environmental baselines, aims or targets. There is no ban on broad-scale clearing, no mandatory soil, water and salinity assessment, and no ‘maintain-or-improve’ standard to ensure environmental outcomes – either at the site scale or at the landscape scale. Provisions are less stringent, less evidence-based, less accountable, and are likely to result in significant clearing increases in NSW.
The government has made no attempt to quantify the extra amount of land clearing that is likely to occur.