‘Shocking’ report reveals extent of environmental decline across Australia

Firefighters struggling against strong winds amid bushfires near the town of Nowra, New South Wales, on Dec 31, 2019. PHOTO: AFP
The central rock-rat and Christmas Island flying fox are among mammals considered most at risk of extinction. PHOTO: UNSPLASH

SYDNEY – Australia faces devastating losses of native species and ecosystems, according to a government report warning that the nation’s environment is under intensifying pressure from threats such as climate change, land clearing, pollution and mining.

The nation has lost more mammal species than any other continent during the past two centuries and has 19 ecosystems that are at risk of or near collapse. 

Since the release of the last report in 2016, the number of species listed as threatened has increased by 8 per cent, with 533 animal and 1,385 plant species now listed.

The troubling picture of the health of the environment was outlined in a 2,000-page report released on Tuesday (July 19) by the federal government. 

“Overall, the state and trend of the environment of Australia are poor and deteriorating,” the report said. 

“Our inability to adequately manage pressures will continue to result in species extinctions and deteriorating ecosystem condition… Social, environmental and economic impacts are already apparent.”

The latest State of the Environment report, a review conducted by a team of scientists and experts every five years, was completed late last year but the former Coalition government chose not to release it until after the federal election in May.

Ms Tanya Plibersek, the new Minister for the Environment from the ruling Labor Party, said the “shocking” report highlighted the consequences of a decade of government action and “wilful ignorance”.

“Australia’s environment is bad and getting worse,” she told reporters. “If we continue on the trajectory that we are on, the precious places, landscapes, animals and plants that we think of when we think of home may not be here for our kids and grandkids.”

A lead author of the report, Professor Emma Johnston from the University of Sydney, said climate change was increasingly exacerbating the damage to the environment from other threats such as land clearing, pollution and invasive species.

“In previous reports, we’ve been largely talking about the impacts of climate in the future tense,” she told ABC News.

“In this report, there’s a stark contrast because we are now documenting widespread impacts of climate change.”

Record-breaking droughts, bush fires and floods have taken a heavy toll, including the catastrophic bush fires of 2019-2020 that killed or displaced one billion to three billion animals. In the Great Barrier Reef, marine heatwaves have caused mass coral bleaching and widespread coral losses in 2016, 2017 and 2020, as well as this year.

Elsewhere, vast amounts of land have been cleared for farming and urban use, including 290,000 hectares of primary forest destroyed in the five years to 2019. Between 2000 and 2017, 7.7 million hectares of land were cleared or had been degraded.

The Australian Conservation Foundation said extinctions and environmental deterioration are set to worsen due to a failure to address pressures that have been outlined in previous reports, such as climate change, habitat destruction and invasive species.

A goanna climbing a charred tree following a bushfire in the Budgong area of New South Wales, on Jan 15, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

“Animals we all love, like the koala, are threatened because we keep destroying their homes,” said the foundation’s chief executive Kelly O’Shanassy.

“To halt Australia’s nature crisis, we need strong national environment laws, an independent regulator to enforce them and adequate funding for the recovery of Australia’s threatened species and the restoration of degraded landscapes,” Ms O’Shanassy said.

Describing the report as a “wake-up call”, Ms Plibersek presented a range of measures that the government will roll out to address the environmental decline. The steps include a goal of conserving 30 per cent of Australia’s land by 2030 – up from about 26 per cent – new environmental protection legislation, and raising the emissions reduction target.

“I will be guided by three essential goals: to protect, to restore and to manage Australia’s environment,” said Ms Plibersek.

“I won’t be putting my head in the sand.”

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Professor Chennupati Jagadish, president of the Australian Academy of Science, said the outlook for the country’s environment was “grim” and that urgent action was required to address climate change and to invest in environmental research.

“What matters most is what steps governments take from here,” he said in a statement.

“To protect our environment, Australia must revisit its emission reduction commitments and work with other countries to provide the leadership and collaboration required to place Australia and the world on a safer climate trajectory.”

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