Will the Labor government take our catastrophic biodiversity decline seriously?

Dec 24, 2022
Top view of a forest of trees forming the map of Australia. Top view. Environmental , Ecology, and sustainability concepts.

Now is not the time to assume Australia is back in the global forefront of environmental rectitude. Sadly, we are in the dark ages in terms of our record on biodiversity.

Tanya Plibersek has indeed turned up to the global COP 15 biodiversity conference and lent Australia’s support for the 30/30 target (conservation of 30% of our land and marine resources by 2030). Wonderful stuff except the Federal budget allocated less than 1/5 of the estimated funding needed to arrest biodiversity decline in Australia.

Why the need to allocate so much more? Globally, the decline in biological diversity is faster now than at any time in our history. This in turn is underpinning a future global economic crisis of climate change proportions. This is because not well understood is that the interaction of biodiversity’s living organisms with non-living natural resources generate a flow of goods and services that are absolutely essential for our economic and social wellbeing. And while that means there has been an historic catastrophic decline in the world’s range of animal species there is a growing recognition that this is not the sort of issue we should be making our first priority. It is argued that spending millions by well meaning NGOs on arresting the extinction individual exotic species could be better directed to the more urgent need of protecting the world’s eco- systems.

In other words, natural capital – marine and terrestrial resources such as forests, river systems catchments and ecosystems – is just as an essential ingredient of our economy as produced capital (that recorded in GDP) and, human capital (e.g. education and health). The problem is we are rapidly destroying natural capital. While we doubled producer capital per head between 1992 to 2014, human capital increased by only 13%. But the stock of natural capital declined by 40%. There is no reason to believe these ratios are not still operating today.

This danger inherent in biodiversity decline is forcefully and eloquently explained by Cambridge Professor Pratha Dasgupta in his 2019 study globally acknowledged as a landmark treatise on the economics of biodiversity. “Truly sustainable economic growth and development means recognising that our long-term prosperity relies on rebalancing our demand of nature’s goods and services with its capacity to supply them.” Consequently, he points out, GDP is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to judging the economic health of nations being based on a faulty application of economics that does not include depreciation of assets and in particular the degradation of the biosphere.

We should indeed be worried that since 1970, there has been a 70% drop in the populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. Some one million animal and plant species –a quarter of the global total – are being threatened with extinction. Australia is leading the way here. For years we have been ranked at the bottom with five other countries as the globe’s worst protectors of biodiversity decline. Recent massive fires and floods can hardly be improving our ranking. But while we are among the richest countries globally, we remain one of the bottom 40 countries in terms of expenditure on biodiversity protection. Indeed, under the previous environmentally brain dead government expenditure on environmental management in Australia over the past decade was cut by around one third. Research puts the needed funding to arrest biodiversity decline in Australia at around $1.6 billion annually – most of which could be funded if subsidies on diesel fuel use by mining companies was withdrawn,

Our policy blind spot is further enlarged by our Environment Minister’s rejection of demands from developing countries for greatly increased funding to ensure an equitable collective global effort to realise the 30/30 goal. That support is critical given how far we are from rebuilding our natural capital and achieving sustainable development – as prescribed by the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. To meet this goal the efficiency with which natural capital’s goods and services are converted into global GDP would need to increase 3 times the rate at which it has been increasing in the recent past.

But as for carbon emissions, a significant portion of the decline in natural capital in the third world is a result of the developed world offshoring their production for its excessively high levels of consumption. It would be rewarding if the media did their homework and pressed Plibersek on why recognition of offshoring was not a compelling reason for far greater assistance to third world countries as is the fact that reversing biodiversity’s decline has to be achieved globally if we are to properly reap its benefits.

An underlying problem in getting the government to focus on biodiversity is that the issue of climate change has long been occupying the environment’s centre stage with its politically demanding requirement for outsized resources and fundamental change in economic policies. Thus, while governments are now only just beginning to embrace solutions to this threat, no such level of recognition is afforded the similarly existential threat posed by depletion of natural capital and the embodied loss of biodiversity. As Dasgupta, aptly points out the importance of ecosystems are not well appreciated if for no other reason that they are often both silent and hidden from view.

In Australia in particular, biodiversity is being starved of oxygen in the arena of public awareness and government action. The solution to this conundrum lies in a recognition that climate change and biodiversity are inextricably linked – a fact not well appreciated either by the public or government. Maintaining and increasing soil’s capacity to store carbon is also critical for sustaining biodiversity. Equally, sustaining and expanding diverse natural vegetation rather than single species plantations is far more efficient in both sustaining and improving biodiversity and increasing sequestration of carbon dioxide. This nexus is well recognised in the Convention on Biological Diversity which is proposing an ecosystem-based approach to reducing carbon emissions which would contribute at least 10 GtCO2e per year to mitigation.

Ultimately of course both climate change and biodiversity decline are a product of a world – and no less for Australia – in which the production of goods and services is beyond the biosphere’s capacity (current estimates are that we would need 1.6 earths to maintain humanity’s current way of life). Governments need to use this lens to shape an integration of climate change and biodiversity policies which deliver sustainability. An innovative start for Australia would be to create an integration of carbon and biodiversity offsets so that choice of region and type of governance maximises both biodiversity support and carbon emissions reduction.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers has gently opened the door to this new way of thinking by floating the view that the GDP infused notion of economic growth needs to be replaced by a broader wellbeing metric. We are enjoined to submit what we would like this to include. Natural capital and its active ingredient biodiversity, should arguably rank as the key new inclusion.

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