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Displaying items by tag: biodiversity

Friday, 17 December 2021 02:42

Feeling adrift in a sea of false hope

A couple of months ago, I sat in on an Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) event via Zoom for its donors and supporters that promoted its latest climate change campaign. As a long-serving councillor and former vice president of ACF, I was interested to hear about their campaign plans, which they explained are based on a poll of 15,000 people who indicated a desire for firm action on climate change. However, at the end of it, I felt isolated and alone. I felt I had moved on in my thinking, while ACF has not.

The presentations by senior ACF staff were earnest and uplifting and the comments posted in response were enthusiastic and supportive. But I felt myself estranged from the event. I found myself recalling how often, over my 30 years of enthusiastic involvement with ACF, I had felt uplifted and inspired by the same style of presentations by ACF’s key personnel. Now, not so and it felt a bit like having lost a faith.

So, what has changed for me as ACF barrels along in its customary manner? It comes down to a realisation that ACF, and environmentalism more generally, is stuck with talking about the symptoms of the environmental crisis, while ignoring the underlying causes. It is also locked into a largely fruitless campaign mode that is focused on targeting marginal seats in each Federal election. This has been its style since I joined its council in the 1980s and it remains a deeply entrenched, culturally embedded modus operandi.

The ACF people are intelligent, well-meant and deeply committed environmentalists, and for that they have my great respect. But they, and seemingly their supporters and donors who joined in this event, now appear to me to be tunnel-visioned and misguided in their fervour. First, and foremost, there is the assumption that climate change is the major existential threat that ACF and the wider environmental movement must address. It is their highest priority. And second, there is the additional assumption that this threat can be averted through a political campaign focussed on key marginal seats that will somehow bring about a radically different response. I hear myself thinking, ‘same old, same old’, looking back over forty years of ACF campaigning strategy. When will the penny drop that this is a fruitless strategy?

I could have submitted a comment to the event along the following lines:

When will ACF connect its climate change and biodiversity work to a deeper sustainability agenda that encompasses population growth, consumption, economic growth and technology – the underlying drivers of imminent collapse?

That would have been a real ‘party pooper’ contribution that I am sure would not have been welcomed by the ACF organisers on the night. It probably also would have been dismissed as inappropriate or irrelevant by most of the supporters and donors participating in the event.

The reality is that these deeper and more complex issues have been either ignored or dismissed by most ACF staff for much of its existence. This is despite the efforts of a number of its elected councillors and former Presidents over many years (ranging from Sir Garfield Barwick in the early 1970s to Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe more recently), to draw attention to them. The focus within ACF staff remains on an agenda dominated by the twin environmental pillars of climate change and biodiversity. But it would be unfair to level this criticism only at ACF. The environmental movement more generally, both here in Australia and in most other Western countries overseas, has largely displayed the same myopia in framing their campaigning and advocacy efforts.

As to the reasons for this behaviour, a fellow ex-ACF councillor, Jonathan Miller, offered me recently the following salient observations:

  • The internal perception that it is easier to attract public support for issues such as climate change and biodiversity than for complex and less tangible issues such as population growth, consumption and economic growth.
  • The additional perception that tackling the drivers of unsustainability is more difficult conceptually, much harder to win in the long-term and that it is more difficult to identify ‘wins’ to supporters and members.
  • A shift in the profile of ACF (and other ENGO organisation) activists and their collective culture from those who deeply understand and love the bush (e.g. bushwalkers and those with natural science degrees) to those with broader social issue concerns (and whom, in turn, are particularly reluctant to tackle issues such as immigration-driven population growth in Australia).

Reinforcing the first of these points, the US founder of the Post Carbon Institute, Richard Heinberg, has offered the following observation about environmentalists more generally in a recent blog (The Only Long-Range Solution to Climate Change, Museletter #343 September 2021):

It’s understandable why most environmentalists frame global warming the way they do (by targeting the fossil fuel industry). It makes solutions seem easier to achieve. But if we’re just soothing ourselves while failing to actually stave off disaster, or even to understand our problems, what’s the point?

This succinctly echoes exactly where my own thoughts have arrived at after over 40 years of involvement with environmental law and environmentalism. I have come to believe that:

  • climate change is essentially a symptom (admittedly a very powerful one) of an underlying ‘growth’ disease; and
  • that the current political system, which is the hand maiden of capitalism and completely in its capture, is incapable of producing an effective response to climate change, much less the deeper challenge of avoiding ecological collapse and transitioning to sustainability.

On the latter score, the efforts by ACF and other ENGO’s to scramble for the crumbs falling from the table at each, successive federal election, seem both flawed and largely fruitless. Over the years, even though ACF does not directly support any political party, it has often engaged in targeting marginal seats where the ALP may have a chance of defeating the Coalition. The relationship with the Australian Greens has remained strained. And, after watching on ABC TV this week the first episode of the series, Big Deal, which laid bare the lack of any safeguards with respect to corporate political donations, it is clear where the most powerful influences on federal politics come from.

So, this is why I am left feeling alone and isolated. Where are the voices to raise the larger sustainability agenda? What is the point of environmentalism, however well-intentioned, if it proceeds in almost deliberate disregard of this larger agenda? How can this agenda be pursued when those most likely to support it do not, or are not willing to, recognise it? And what is the point of trying to engage with the current, corrupt political system in which a large proportion of Australian citizens have lost all confidence?

My response to these questions, perhaps surprisingly, remains hopeful. There are many voices emerging globally in support of a deeper sustainability agenda, including some luminaries in Australia. Environmentalism has been a meritorious movement over the past fifty years but it now must be seen as one that is limited in its vision and incapable of promoting a deeper sustainability agenda. This agenda must and will emerge from other sources and directions. And the goal must be to promote this agenda through radical social, economic and political reforms – these will be the pathways of the transition to a sustainable future that embodies ecological resilience and a human civilisation that is living within its means.

To develop these ideas further, I am engaged currently in writing a book entitled The Great Transition: From the Anthropocene to the Ecolocene which I hope to get published in about eighteen months from now.

This article is reproduced with permission. It was published in the Sustainable Population Australia newsletter, issue #145, November 2021. It was written by Rob Fowler, Adjunct Professor at the School of Law, University of Adelaide. He was a vice-president of the ACF from 2008 to 2015.

Published in STEP Matters 213

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 [1]. 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.

graphOne 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 [2].

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.

Reference

[1] 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

[2] Sánchez-Bayo, F and Wyckhuys, KAG (2019) Worldwide Decline of the Entomofauna: A Review of its Drivers. Biological Conservation 232, 8–27

Published in STEP Matters 201

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:

  1. As a result of the new biodiversity laws implemented in 2017, 99% of identified koala habitat on private land can be bulldozed.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.

Published in STEP Matters 199
Monday, 13 August 2018 19:11

NSW Government News

2018 Budget

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.

Published in STEP Matters 197
Monday, 13 August 2018 19:09

Biodiversity in Ku-ring-gai

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.

batGrey-headed Flying-fox

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.

pygEastern 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.

Microbats

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.

Freshwater Crayfish

Targeted surveys of freshwater crayfish in the last year have shown that two native species are co-existing, Euastacus australasiensis and E. spinifex.

Report Sightings

Contribute to council’s biodiversity database by report interesting fauna sightings to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Useful Apps

FrogID    https://www.frogid.net.au

OzAtlas   https://www.ala.org.au/who-we-are/downloadable-tools/ala-mobile-app/ contribute directly to the Atlas of Living Australia database

Published in STEP Matters 197
Sunday, 15 April 2018 13:32

Biodiversity Laws Court Case

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.

Published in STEP Matters 195

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?

Published in STEP Matters 194
Sunday, 10 September 2017 07:13

Protect Sydney’s Green Spaces

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.

Dear Premier

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.

Published in STEP Matters 192

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 hierarchy

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.

Timing mismatch

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.

Stakeholder participation

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.

Long-term management

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.

Case Studies

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.

Conclusion

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.

Published in STEP Matters 191

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?

Clearing Provisions

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

 

Published in STEP Matters 191
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