Nature crisis and extinctions: Why Australia needs to stand up at the “Other COP”

Sturt’s Desert Pea plants flower in front of solar panels at AGL’s Broken Hill solar plant. (Photo courtesy of AGL/ARENA.)

All eyes have been on the COP27 climate negotiations in Egypt but now it’s done and dusted there’s another, just as important, COP that needs our attention.

COP15, a United Nations conference that focuses on the nature crisis, starts in Montréal, Canada, on December 7 – and while the issue is just as grave – this is probably the first many people have heard about it.   

For years, the nature crisis has lived in the shadow of the climate crisis. But the two problems are intrinsically linked – and they need equal attention and global cooperation.

The world’s scientists tell us we must solve nature and climate together or we will solve neither.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the nature COP15 – it is when world leaders will set the 2030 targets to ensure nature is in a better place than it is now.

Importantly, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has confirmed she will attend COP15 in Montreal.

It’s important because nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history. The rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world.

Australia is currently at the top of the world leader board when it comes to mammal extinctions. It’s not a gold medal we wear proudly.

Australia is one of 17 megadiverse countries, which means our species are unique and found nowhere else on Earth. Once they are gone, they are gone. The damage is irreversible.

The five-yearly State of the Environment report released by Minister Plibersek in July laid bare the situation. It found Australia’s natural environment is in poor condition and is deteriorating due to increasing pressure from climate change, habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution and resource extraction.

The report, authored by a team of top scientists, found many of the pressures outlined in previous State of the Environment reports are becoming worse and creating cumulative impacts that amplify threats to species and ecosystems.

If we don’t take immediate action to manage these pressures, it will mean more extinctions and a continued decline of the environmental capital on which all Australians depend.

Since the grim findings of the State of the Environment report were made public, Minister Plibersek has announced a new national goal of no new extinctions of Australian plants and animals – a laudable aim and one ACF welcomes.

But it won’t be easy.

We continue to have one of the highest rates of species decline among OECD countries.

Species that define Australia, like the koala and the gang-gang cockatoo, are at threat of extinction because we keep knocking down the trees they need to breed in and feed in.

ACF analysis has revealed that only 10% of the koala habitat cleared in NSW and Queensland between 2012 and 2017 was even assessed by the federal government.

Our national environment law is not doing the job it was set up to do. It needs serious surgery. Labor has pledged to overhaul the law and set up an independent environment protection agency.

And, because we are part of the global ecosystem and so many of the pressures on nature here are common to many countries, Australia also needs to be a leader in pushing for strong global goals at Montréal.

Economic rationales shouldn’t be the primary reason to protect nature, but we cannot afford to let the decline of nature continue.

Our research shows roughly half Australia’s GDP (49% or $896 billion) has a moderate to very high direct dependence on nature. Of course every single dollar that flows through the Australian economy depends to some degree on the health and survival of natural systems.

Recent floods have wiped out billions of dollars’ worth of crops – an industry that is entirely reliant on a stable climate and healthy ecosystem.

Australia’s economic prosperity depends on nature especially primary industries like agriculture, forestry, fisheries, food product manufacturing and construction.

Every industry that relies on fresh water, or pollination, or a stable climate should be speaking up to demand strong global goals to protect nature.

The destruction of nature even makes pandemics like COVID-19 more likely.

We urge Minister Plibersek to go to Montréal to champion ambitious international goals to halt and reverse biodiversity destruction, end extinction and protect at least 30% of land and seas by 2030 – and back these plans in with adequate funding.

Why? For Australia’s unique wildlife. For water and food security. For the climate. For the health and wellbeing of present and future Australians.

Kelly O’Shanassy is the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Conservation Foundation

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