What will Australia's nature look like in 50 years’ time?

By EDO NSW Executive Director Jeff Smith

8 September 2014

By 2070, nature will be a very different beast in Australia. Our environment will be substantially and radically changed. In fact, scientists are telling us that, even under moderate climate change scenarios, our environment will be more ecologically different than it is the same.

The threatened leadbeater's possum (Courtesy of Zoos Vic)

The current rate of global warming is roughly ten times faster than when the Earth moved out of ice ages over the past million years.  The climatic changes, which are already starting to occur, are likely to be too rapid for many species to adapt, especially in Australia’s biodiversity hot spots such as the Australian Alps, the rainforests of Queensland’s Wet Tropics, Kakadu and the Great Barrier Reef.

More extreme weather events caused by climate change, such as more severe droughts, heatwaves, floods and increased bushfire risk, are expected to take a heavy toll on plant and animal species. Sea level rise and acidification of the oceans will have major impacts on marine biodiversity.

To deal with these challenges, we will need new and innovative legal approaches. 

Australia’s current legal and regulatory systems are failing to stop an alarming decline in the number and diversity of plant and animal species. Current planning laws, in particular provisions for the assessment of major projects, effectively override threatened species laws in all State and Federal jurisdictions, according to a recent report by the Australian Network of Environmental Defender’s Offices (ANEDO). Levels of impact assessment required tend to be discretionary, and projects can be approved even where they are found, for example, to have a significant impact on critical habitat.

The rate of species extinctions in Australia is amongst the worst on the planet.

Thylacinus Tasmania Tiger Washington Zoo 1904 - Smithsonian Institute archives via Wikimedia Commons

In essence, what the law tries to do now is to save everything as it is and where it is. This three-pronged approach speaks to a time when climate change was not a threat to our species.

Saving everything will become increasingly problematic in the future. Scientists are already talking about distinguishing between inevitable and avoidable loss. In NSW alone, 1000 species are endangered and more species are added each year. Species rarely if ever come off the list, cataloguing the extinction crisis we now have.

The idea of saving everything as it is is emblematic of a snapshot approach to nature conservation, where the environment is static and we know what needs to be done. It is clear that this approach will become increasingly unviable in light of climate change.

The third element – saving everything where it is – has been a hallmark of nature conservation for many, many years and is reflected legally in international and domestic laws alike. But onsite or in situ conservation will be problematic as habitats and ecosystems change and species move around.

What can we do?

A radical rethink is needed if we are to minimise extinctions over the next 50 years as species struggle to survive the impacts of climate change.

In particular, we will need to consider new conservation objectives, including a discussion about what to save and why. This is a controversial change, and the community need to be involved in this. Otherwise, species extinctions will undoubtedly continue under ad hoc approaches.

Our regulatory system of protecting threatened species also needs to move from a ‘rear-view mirror’ approach, as exemplified by the current process for listing threatened species, which fails to anticipate and provide protection for the ecosystems and species most at risk from climate change. If we are to succeed in not just protecting but ensuring the recovery of threatened species, we need to develop an approach to management that focuses on ecosystem functioning, including identification of functional or keystone species and regional habitats of importance.

Importantly also, the framework for species management needs to shift. We need to manage for change, not to manage statically. This will involve a greater focus on active adaptive management – trialling new approaches within the framework of clear goals – rather than more targeted approaches, such as species recovery plans. Land managers will need to be equipped to deal with these challenges.

To have a chance of saving the most number of species possible we need to broaden protection to whole landscapes which are representative of unique habitats and ecosystems and ensure there are more corridors and areas of refuge connecting existing reserves. The criteria for protected areas – comprehensive, adequate and representative – build resilience into nature conservation and offer the prospect of insuring against potential loss if properly funded and managed. An emphasis on private conservation will also be increasingly important, providing bridges and refugia for species, as a complement to the public protected areas estate.

50 years is a long time. But the cracks in our approach to nature conservation are clearly evident now. We need to start rethinking and changing our approach now. Without such fundamental changes, our current systems for protecting what remains of Australia’s unique plants and animals will be overwhelmed and out-dated as climate change begins to radically alter whole ecosystems over the next half century, seriously depleting Australia’s biodiversity.