Brendan Mackey. Green vision for a brown country

Jun 13, 2015

Policy Series


Like we do in many areas, such as sport and financial services, Australian conservation punches above its weight in the international arena. Australia is signatory to all major multilateral environmental agreements including the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, we have environmental law in all three tiers of government, have established one of the world’s best national reserve systems including some of the largest world heritage areas, along with supporting cutting edge conservation science and management practices. All these conservation measures are worthy achievements that should be celebrated. They are certainly necessary and warrant the ongoing support of all concerned citizens and organisations. They are, alas, insufficient in the face of the overwhelming pressure on the natural environment we now face. Unfortunately, we are not fixing conservation problems at a faster rate than we are creating them. We are not saving species and ecosystems at a faster rate than they are being extirpated and degraded. While technological innovation brings both welcomed conveniences and economic efficiencies, it also opens the doors to novel ways of exploiting natural resources on land and sea, exposing ecosystems that we previously never imagined being threatened.

There is a great deal of public policy and private action aimed at promoting nature conservation, however, little attention is directed to identifying a vision and long term goal for biodiversity and nature conservation in Australia. Given what we have lost in this continent over the last 200 years and what we face losing in the coming century, focus on a conservation vision and a long term conservation goal (or goals) for Australia will provide the necessary context for federal and state strategies and regulatory frameworks, along with private and civil society efforts. Among other things, we need to be able to evaluate what the anticipated accumulated outcomes of our current web of conservation policies and programs will be and how these match with our long term goals?

Australia’s principle legal instrument for nature conservation is the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. Its objectives include to provide for the protection of the environment, especially those aspects of the environment that are ‘matters of national environmental significance’, to promote the conservation of biodiversity, and to provide for the protection and conservation of heritage. These are admirable objectives but provide no guidance as to how much of Australia’s biodiversity and natural heritage should be protected and conserved in the long term.

In the absence of a national dialogue (or perhaps we should call it a “national yarn”) on a vision and long term goals, along with their enshrinement in law, we risk ever-shrinking conservation ambitions as Australia’s ecosystems are destroyed and degraded, populations of endemic species are extirpated disrupting ecological and evolutionary processes, and more species are pushed to the brink and beyond of global extinction. As a community we are already losing sight of Australia’s natural richness and beauty, setting our conservation sights lower and lower with each passing decade. What will be left in the year 2100 of Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘Green tangle of the brushes, where the lithe lianas coil…’ and her ‘…wilful, lavish land[1]?

In considering a conservation vision and long term goals for Australia, there are four questions that require our attention.

How much does nature need?

In both international and national conservation policy debate there is considerable attention paid to targets but not much on long term goals. For example, at the 2010 conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity – which met in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan – the world community adopted a revised and updated Strategic Plan for Biodiversity, including the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, for the 2011-2020 period[2]. Commitments included Target 11 for at least 17% of terrestrial and inland water and 10% of coastal and marine areas to be conserved through protected areas and Target 15 which calls for restoration of at least 15% of degraded ecosystems. Australia has already met Target 11 for land with the National Reserve System covering 17.88% of mainland Australia. Does this mean we have done our job and can now rest on our laurels and simply get on with development in the rest of the country without regard to the consequences for conservation?

There is of course a difference between intermediate targets and long term goals. The Aichi Targets are clearly milestones to be reached by 2020 on the road to somewhere. The problem is that where or what that somewhere is has not been discussed either internationally or within Australia, at least in policy circles. There is a fundamental difference between a long term goal based on the best available conservation science as to what nature needs and an intermediate term target that is the outcome of political negotiations. Based on scientifically rigours studies, 25-75% of a region must be managed with conservation of nature as a primary objective to meet long term biodiversity goals, with 50% – slightly above the
mid-point of recent evidence-based estimates – scientifically defensible as a global target[3]. Should this be the long term protected area goal for Australia?

What land uses are ecologically compatible with conservation?

About 80% of the Australian continent has a native vegetation cover, is outside a protected area, and is not used for agriculture or forestry. Around 56% of these natural landscapes are held under commercial grazing leases[4] and subject to a range of land use impacts including mining. Clearly, the future of biodiversity lies as much outside protected areas as it does within them. The challenge therefore on these extensive leasehold lands and unallocated crown lands is how conservation outcomes can be integrated into their land management objectives.

One approach is to identify land uses that are compatible with conservation, those that could be made compatible with appropriate management and regulatory regimes, and those that are incompatible. It is now entirely feasible to identify for a given bioregion a range of land use activities and classify them in terms of their long term effects on natural values and ecological processes drawing upon documented evidence of environmental problems from unsustainable land use activities. For example, broad scaling clearing is incompatible and should not be allowed. Some activities will be largely disconnected from country, e.g., information technology services, and therefore compatible with conservation. While for many activities the manner in which they are carried out will determine their level of compatibility[5].

We lack a national land use policy per se let alone a land use plan that integrates long term conservation goals into land management across half our continent. This is not only a concern for biodiversity but also for the agriculture sector given the connections between good land management, healthy and productive natural vegetation, and a sustainable pastoral industry. A laissez-faire, benign neglect, policy for half our continent will serve neither conservation nor industry in the coming decades. Careful land use evaluation inclusive of a rigorous analysis of conservation compatibility would be a good start to addressing this policy vacuum.

What are the implications of land use change and climate change?

Two big pressures for nature conservation in Australia are from land use change and climate change. The rate and scale of land use change reflects both financial globalisation and technological innovations which together support industrial agriculture and mining enterprises of increasing magnitude and impact including coal seam gas mining, coal mining, bauxite mining and new mega-irrigated farming schemes. For example, the imminent extraction, approved by the Queensland Government, of water for large scale irrigation from two major Gulf of Carpentaria river systems, the Flinders and Gilbert Rivers[6]. Another example is the massive and rapid expansion of coal seam gas mining over the last 10 years in prime agricultural areas affecting both natural and agricultural values [7].

Layered over the ever-increasing extent and intensity of industrial-scaled land developments, human-forced climate change is driving a myriad of direct and indirect impacts on species and ecosystems which are now well documented by science and recognised by government[8]. Direct effects include the need for some species to disperse away from their established territories as climatic conditions begin to fall outside their physiological niche and they migrate to find more suitable habitat. Indirect impacts include new fire regimes and subsequent shifts in the distribution of vegetation types.

Human-forced, rapid climate change will bring new challenges to Australia’s biodiversity and exacerbate current threats. Climate change per se is not new to the Australia continent and our biodiversity has evolved to have a certain natural adaptive capacity. Examples include species with populations that undergo micro-evolution or possess ‘phenotypic plasticity’ so they can persist in situ under the new conditions. Other examples are species with high dispersal ability that can readily migrate to suitable habitat locations, species that contract their range to persist in refugia locations, and species that possess broad niche requirements and are generalists rather than specialists. Conservation responses that support the natural adaptive capacity of our biodiversity include expanding the current national reserve system and assigning priority to protecting large intact landscapes, ensuring ecological connectivity is maintained and restored across the continent, and reducing threats in the landscape across Australia[9].

There is an additional pressure from climate change that may well transform how we value land use should we commit to achieving the deep cuts in CO2 emissions needed to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees below pre-industrial levels as per the Cancun commitment[10]. There are two primary sources of anthropogenic CO2 emissions. First, the emissions from burning fossil fuel carbon for energy. Second, the emissions from destroying and degrading ecosystems, especially forests and woodlands, through land use impacts such as industrial logging and clearing for intensive agriculture[11]. Policies and programs aimed at changing land use and management to avoid and reduce emissions from the land sector are already in operation internationally with REDD+ and nationally with the Australian Government’s Direct Action Plan[12]. As the world community increases the value it puts on keeping carbon out of the atmosphere, carbon offsetting and related payments for ecosystem service schemes will rapidly expand.

How important is the contribution of Indigenous land?

At least 15% of Australia is legally recognized as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land; in South Australia and northern Australia Indigenous peoples hold title to more than 20% of the land area. Much of this country is intact compared to south-eastern Australia and has been under traditional stewardship for millennia. Traditional owners have a pretty good conservation track record (notwithstanding the evidence that Aboriginal people may have been implicated, albeit indirectly, in the extinction of some megafauna species around forty thousand years ago). In the period between Aboriginal people being established in Australia and the British first settlement in 1788, the dingo was the only known introduced mammal species. It was probably introduced by humans and is thought to have displaced the native thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus), as the apex (nonhuman) predator. Otherwise, to our knowledge, every species that was present when the British explorer Captain Cook arrived in 1770 had persisted through the fifty thousand years of Aboriginal influence. Evidently, Aboriginal Australian cultural practices and land management were conducive to the conservation of much of Australia’s evolved biodiversity[13].

Around 7.2% (55,028,856 ha) of Australia is an Indigenous Protected Area with these areas comprising about 40% of the National Reserve System[14]. An Indigenous Protected Area is an area of Indigenous-owned land or sea where traditional owners have entered into an agreement with the Australian Government to promote biodiversity and cultural resource conservation[15]. Given this is a voluntary scheme there are evidently many Indigenous communities who see biodiversity conservation as congruent with their traditional cultural values and practices. Indigenous lands and their traditional owners and communities are central to the long term conservation of Australia’s biodiversity.


What would a long term conservation vision and goals for Australia look like? In terms of a vision, I am thinking here of something more fulsome than a typical business vision statement – a one-liner that captures the essence of the enterprise’s aspirations. The Preamble to The Earth Charter is more like the kind of long term conservation vision we need articulated for Australia. At around 400 words, the Preamble provides an inspiring narrative and synthesis of the 77 ethical principles detailed in the document’s main body[16]. We’ve done this before – develop a vision with objectives and goals through a broadly based,
multi-sectoral consultation process – when Australia produced the 1992 National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development[17].

We also need to give attention to the kinds of long term conservation goals that are needed particularly in light of the issues raised here. Conservation goals are usually defined in technical terms that are inaccessible to those concerned citizens, communities, and businesses who must be engaged if we are to succeed. The proposed Sustainable Development Goals perhaps provide a useful model in terms of both the process by which they are being negotiated and the accessibility of the text[18].

The Sustainable Development Goals process is also relevant as it speaks to the root causes of the growing threats to our biodiversity and natural heritage including the pursuit of GDP growth when much of this growth is increasingly uneconomic with the benefits failing to out-weigh the total costs, including the costs to the environment and future generations which are externalised[19].

It is worth noting that the ‘ecological’ component is too often omitted from conversations about sustainable development and that for nature and people to have a healthy long-term future we must re-frame the sustainability conversation to ensure that it is more ‘biosensitive’[20]. It is inevitable that a national dialogue about a long term conservation vision and goals for Australia will entail issues of sustainability writ large: the challenge of reconfiguring the human endeavour to live within the boundaries of a finite planet, leaving enough for the greater community of life and future generations.

Brendan Mackey

Director, Griffith Climate Change Response Program, Griffith University.


[1] Quotations from My Country by Dorothea Mackellar;

[2] Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Convention on Biological Diversity;

[3] Noss et al. (2012) Bolder Thinking for Conservation. Conservation Biology, 26, 1-4.

[4] Mackey B.G. et al. (2007) Towards a scientific framework for the WildCountry project. In Jianguo Wu and Richard J. Hobbs (editors) Key Topics and Perspectives in Landscape Ecology. Cambridge University Press, pp. 92-208.

[5] Woinarski J.C.Z.R., Mackey B.G., Nix H. and Trail B. (2007) The Nature of Northern Australia: its natural values, ecology, and future prospects. ANU E Press, Canberra;

[6] Flinders Gilbert Agricultural Zone. Queensland Government, Department of Agriculture and Fisheries;

[7] “The coal seam gas rush”.Updated 28 Jun 2012, 7:27am.  Produced by ABC Radio Multiplatform & Content Development, and presented by ABC News Online. This data journalism site was compiled in April 2012; see and references cited therein.

[8] Australia’s biodiversity and climate change – A strategic assessment of the vulnerability of Australia’s biodiversity to climate change. Biodiversity and Climate Change Expert Advisory Group, 2013

[9] Mackey B., Watson J.E.M. and Hope G. (2008) Climate change, biodiversity conservation, and the role of protected areas: an Australian perspective. Biodiversity 9, 11-18.

[10] This commitment was recorded in Conference of the Parties Report of the Conference of the Parties on its sixteenth session, held in Cancun from 29 November to 10 December 2010 Addendum Part Two: Action taken by the Conference of the Parties at its sixteenth session. FCCC/CP/2010/7/Add.1

[11] Mackey B., et al. (2013) Untangling the confusion around land carbon science and climate change mitigation policy. Nature Climate Change 3, 552–557; doi:10.1038/nclimate1804; Mackey B., et al. (2015)   Policy options for the world’s primary forests in multilateral environmental agreements. Conservation Letters 8, 139–147.

[12] See REDD Web Platform. UN Framework Convention on Climate Change []; and Direct Action Plan and Emissions Reduction Fund, Australian Government Department and Environment [].

[13] Mackey B. (2014) The future of conservation: an Australian perspective. George Wuethnre, Eileen Crist and Tom Butler (eds) In Keeping the Wild: against the domestication of Earth. Island Press.

[14] Collaborative Australian Protected Area Database – CAPAD 2014. Australian Government, Department of Environment;

[15] Indigenous Protected Areas. Australian Government, Department of Environment;

[16] The Earth Charter Initiative Handbook 2010. Earth Charter International Secretariat, Costa Rica;

[17] National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development 1992. Prepared by the Ecologically Sustainable Development Steering Committee. Endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments December, 1992. ISBN 0 644 27253 8;

[18] Open Working Group proposal for Sustainable Development Goals. United Nations document A/68/970;

[19] “Uneconomic Growth Deepens Depression” by Herman Daly. The Daly News – Steady State Economy and Related News;

[20] Stephen Boyden (2015). Patron’s Corner: Part 1 – past, present and future, a biorenaissance – the hope for the future. Biounderstanding the story of life and the future of civilisation. Frank Fenner Foundation;

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