By Michael Kennedy, HSI Australia Co-Founder

At its inception in the early 90s, Humane Society International (HSI) knew well the grave threat climate change poses to global biodiversity and how, in return, emissions associated with biodiversity loss (land clearing and logging) further exacerbates climate change, while the loss itself undermines resilience and adaptability – diminishing the ability of existing forests that function as vast carbon sinks. HSI has been consistently campaigning on this issue for over 25 years, and one of our primary activities in helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions has been through broad habitat protection programs and associated activities, helping to sequester and maintain carbon in native vegetation, protect biodiversity and stabilize water regimes. The task – and opportunity is large: by preventing tropical forest and other habitat destruction, it would be possible to reduce global carbon emissions by some 20%.

The following are highlights of our decade’s long climate and forests program activities:


In 2006 HSI began a major campaign for forest and biodiversity protection to be part of new international climate change agreement being negotiated at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). A key step forward was the decision of the Bali COP (Conference of the Parties) of the UNFCCC to expand the concept of RED (reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries) to REDD (…deforestation AND forest degradation…) and include it in the Bali Action Plan. HSI was able to personally and regularly brief Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett and Shadow Minister Greg Hunt at this critical Bali meeting juncture. (HSI was also an advisor on the Australian Delegation to the Cairns UNFCCC workshop prior to Bali, where we directly raised the issues of palm oil destruction of tropical forests).

While negotiations dragged on at the UNFCCC, HSI became fully active in a parallel process set up to expedite action on REDD. Launched at the Oslo Climate and Forest Conference in 2010, the REDD+ Partnership Agreement was intended to be an informal, intergovernmental forum to facilitate, coordinate, and scale up actions pledged by developed countries to ‘fast start’ REDD+ initiatives. HSI played a leading role in ensuring that non-government observers could participate in REDD+Partnership meetings and processes.

Amplifying our voice at the UN climate negotiations, HSI was an initiating/founding member of the Ecosystems Climate Alliance (ECA) – an international coalition of NGOs set up in Poznan at the 2009 COP, campaigning to keep natural ecosystems intact and their carbon out of the atmosphere, which became encouragingly influential in the negotiations. In the midst of the catastrophic disappointment of Copenhagen 2009, HSI & ECA succeeded in getting government negotiators to include text to protect natural forests against conversion to plantations and safeguards for biodiversity and indigenous peoples in the proposed UN decision on REDD.

The ECA comprised Humane Society International, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA, UK), The Rainforest Foundation (UK), Rainforest Foundation Norway, the Wilderness Society (Australia),  Wetlands International (Netherlands), Global Witness (US) and FERN (Netherlands). The ECA continued to be a key NGO influence on the UNCCC negotiations up to and beyond the Paris Agreement. ECA produced a range of high-quality policy publications and briefs, giving negotiating governments’ instant access to advice on developing an appropriate REDD mechanism.  

This work is epitomized by HSI’s series of Special Bulletins on conserving carbon and forests, distributed in advance of negotiations to many thousands of officials, negotiators, scientists and NGOs, followed up by physical presentations and hard copy distribution at UNFCCC venues. The four and three issue policy briefs `Truth in Targets’ and `Forest Carbon Counts’ were highly regarded policy documents by UNFCCC negotiators.

In late 2008, in an effort to help countries direct REDD investments to maximize the benefits for biodiversity, HSI signed an agreement with the United Nations Environment Program and its World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) to provide seeding funding for an Atlas of Biodiversity and Carbon in the Tropics. HSI had also helped convince the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety to contribute significant resources to this project, which resulted in the final publication of `Carbon and biodiversity – A demonstration atlas’.

“The atlas contains three carbon and biodiversity maps of the three main tropical regions together with maps of six individual countries (including Papua New Guinea & Vietnam). The atlas also contains an illustrative map showing the deforestation in protected areas in tropical Asia, together with text discussing the biodiversity co-benefits of climate mitigation actions in tropical forests” (UNEP).

The atlas was formally launched at two events in Poznan at the UNFCCC COP – at a UNEP press conference and at a UNEP-WCM side event on World Forest Day – with the atlas receiving an overwhelmingly positive response and comprehensive global press coverage. HSI subsequently contributed further seed funding to develop and produce a web-based carbon and biodiversity atlas, highlighting the potential for actions on reducing emissions from land-use change to secure additional important benefits for biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Working with the Australian Government, we also saw it as important for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to provide advice to the UN climate negotiators on the benefits of protecting biodiversity for climate mitigation and ensured the Australian Government supported and supplied suitable experts for the global working group on this at the CBD.

HSI Australia acts as the UNFCCC `Designated Contact Point’ for the global network of Humane Society International offices and the Washington Head Office of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), organising our collective participation. This included specialist publications on issues such as climate, food and agriculture, and staging various policy side-events during UNFCCC COPs. HSI also worked closely with Markets for Change and INTACT (International Action for Primary Forests), sharing UNFCCC HSI/NGO representative spots. HSI is a registered observer at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

HSI is also now registered to attend the critical UNFCCC meeting in Glasgow at the end of 2021.

Carbon accounting

HSI is very proud to have played a part in the successful conclusion of the Paris Climate Agreement, with nearly all nations agreeing to avoid dangerous climate change through a range of mechanisms. Work continues at the UN on how the achievements of countries will be effectively measured against their commitments, and on assessing how adequate the sum total of actions is to meet the international target to keep temperature rise below 2 degrees C and attempt to limit it to 1.5 degrees C. Post the Paris meeting HSI has continued with Markets for Change and other NGOs to push very hard for the most accurate accounting systems possible for determining carbon emissions sequestration in forests, which is vital to underpin climate policy and commitments.

We lobbied to convince the Australian Government to come up with a joint Environment/Foreign Affairs initiative that would keep faith with both the Paris Agreement and the original intent of REDD – and with the Australian public’s clear support for saving tropical rainforests. While we were able to ensure that all elements needed to establish a REDD mechanism were put in place between the 2011 Cancun UNFCCC meeting and Paris meeting in 2015, the final Paris Agreement did not reflect this and used a “Sustainable Development” mechanism instead. Hence our continuing efforts with the Australian Government on forest conservation.

Domestic/Regional efforts – keeping carbon in the ground

HSI has worked hard to prevent the loss of native vegetation in Australia. Keeping carbon in the ground and emissions out of the atmosphere by preventing habitat degradation and deforestation has remained a prime focus. Primarily using Federal and state environment laws (in which we had previously played a leading role in getting onto the statute books), HSI was able to secure the legal protection of over 7 million hectares of threatened ecological communities (TECs) (this does not include figures for an additional 26 TECs listed under NSW law); 1.2 million hectares of biodiversity hotspots; and an extra level of protection for millions of hectares of National Heritage listed places. This work has included working in coalitions with key NGOs to reduce land clearing around the nation, particularly through the HSI initiated National Biodiversity Alliance (NBA).

We have also been successful in identifying and protecting nationally threatened coastal/estuarine/marine habitats that are particularly important for climate change mitigation, with wetlands providing the largest terrestrial carbon store globally. Studies by the Western Australia’s Oceans Institute, for example, show that “seagrass” ecological communities act as natural “carbon sinks”, preventing erosion of carbon deposits and the consequential release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. “Kelp marine forests” are also crucial for carbon storage and recycling. Thus far, HSI has triggered national legislative protection for the following nationally threatened marine/coastal ecological communities, critical for maintaining the carbon cycle: “Assemblages of species associated with open-coast salt-wedge estuaries of western and central Victoria”, “Subtropical and temperate coastal saltmarsh”, “Giant kelp marine forests of south-east Australia”, and “Posidonia australis seagrass meadows of the Manning-Hawkesbury ecoregion”, (These marine/coastal listings represent legal conservation firsts in Australia).

Following scientific nominations by HSI approximately 20 years ago, `climate change’ and ‘land clearing’ were legally recognised under New South Wales, Victorian and Commonwealth law as ‘key threatening processes’ to a range of threatened species and habitats.  These listings presented governments with the legal opportunities/obligations to develop threat abatement/actions plans to mitigate these threats. These listings also helped spur the Commonwealth’s Biological Diversity Advisory Council (BDAC) and the CSIRO to work with the Australian Government to produce a National Biodiversity and Climate Change Action Plan 2004-2007, where NGO representatives to BDAC, including HSI, played a seminal role. Initial implementation of the Action Plan included the planned identification of places that would act as biological refugia for threatened species as their habitats shift and degrade with climate change.

In 2017/2018, HSI undertook an initiative to determine the potential for developing/establishing a meaningful and national Green Bonds program – aimed at maintaining biological diversity and keeping carbon in the ground – directed at farmers and rural landholders. HSI had in mind a very significant amount of money that would be used to offer commercial rural businesses interest-free loans if they undertook certain conservation measures on their properties– measured against existing and legislated national conservation goals.

Pressure in Canberra 

HSI organised high-level approaches to consecutive Australian Prime Ministers’ on the topics of climate change, land clearing and national environment law from 121 of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Global 500 Role of Honour Laureates, urging Commonwealth action. Signatories included Sir David Attenborough, Dr Tom Lovejoy, Professor Norman Myers, Dr Peter Raven, Dr Bob Brown, Dr Anne Ehrlich, Professor Paul Daphne M. Sheldrick, MBE, MBS, and HSI Director & Global 500 Laureate, Verna Simpson.

We continued at the national level to undertake significant campaign activities in Canberra, lobbying the Environment and Foreign Affairs Ministers, seeking Australian action to help avoid the destruction of tropical forests and peatlands in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, through perverse UN international subsidy processes (CDMs) – allowing the emission of large amounts of greenhouse gases.

Following years of concerted campaigning in Canberra by HSI over these perverse forest subsidies issues,  in 2007, we were credited with inspiring then Federal Environment Minister, Malcolm Turnbull to announce a $200 million fund (Global Initiative on Forests and Climate – GIFC) to combat carbon emissions from illegal logging and deforestation in south-east Asia. HSI was subsequently invited to speak as an international observer at the Australian Government initiated `High-Level Meeting on Forests and Climate’ in Sydney in mid-2007.

The fund established REDD pilot projects in Indonesia and continued under the ALP Government, where it was replenished. In subsequent cooperation with Fauna and Flora International (FFI), Carbon Pool (CP) and Wildlife Warriors Worldwide (WWW – Australia Zoo), HSI continued campaigning in Canberra to promote NGO projects and effective implementation programs (REDD pilot projects) under the Commonwealth’s announced Global Initiative on Forests and Climate (in cooperation with 3 provincial Indonesian Governors). This was an attempt to retain 10 million hectares of tropical forest that would have saved 5 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions, seeking to effectively direct Commonwealth funding.

Along with earlier efforts to persuade Australia to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, HSI worked very hard to try and have a climate change trigger included in new and emerging national environment law, specifically the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, 1999. We were unsuccessful in our early attempts, although the Government had committed to negotiating a greenhouse trigger once the Act was passed. Post the passage of the Act, HSI worked with the office of Senator Robert Hill, Commonwealth Minister for the Environment, to see the publication of the first discussion paper for the inclusion of a climate change trigger (Matter of National Environmental Significance) under the EPBC Act in 2000. The 2009 Hawke Review of the EPBC Act, to which HSI made a significant input, also recommended an interim greenhouse trigger until an economy-wide carbon price was in place.

Working with Malcolm Turnbull, this time as Opposition leader, HSI provided technical and legal advice which helped him secure amendments to the Rudd Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) to enable native vegetation protection initiatives to be eligible for carbon credits as part of an `agricultural offsets’ package and adopted by Government.  The Coalition Government later adopted this package of amendments as their own policy, with further legislative advice on “avoided deforestation” programs being provided by HSI to all political parties at the 2010 Federal election. The Government subsequently committed to a “Carbon Farming Initiative”, containing many of the components earlier proposed by HSI.

Over a long period of time, HSI also used its political access as a member of a number of Commonwealth Ministerial advisory bodies to promote the need for actions to mitigate the effects of climate change. These included: the Biological Diversity Advisory Council; the Australian Heritage Council; the State of the Environment Reporting Council; the Expert Committee on Biodiversity Hotspots, the Endangered Species Advisory Committee, and the National Oceans Advisory Group.

Following on from the UNEP Global 500 Laureate letters’ to consecutive Prime Ministers’ over the issues of climate change, land clearing and environment laws, HSI supported a four-week tour, in a cooperative program co-funded with the Commonwealth Government, of international (UK) climate change and biodiversity expert Professor Norman Myers (creator of the global `Biodiversity Hotspots’ concept). Promoting the need for action on climate change/forest/biodiversity conservation/ effective energy use and ocean acidification, the tour included the briefing of relevant Commonwealth Ministers, politicians, business leaders, senior bureaucrats, Universities, NGOs and the considerable national media. Work included an appearance at the National Press Club and an important seminar on the emerging issue of climate refugees.

HSI similarly toured, on a number of occasions, world-renowned climate change/ biodiversity expert and past US Presidential and World Bank advisor Dr Tom Lovejoy (the person who coined the term `Biodiversity’).  He spends much time in Canberra and across Australia talking up climate/biodiversity issues, briefing ministers, bureaucrats and the media, and heavily promoting the use of Commonwealth environment laws to mitigate and manage the effects of increasing temperatures, including ocean acidification.

Legal reviews and advices

HSI undertook a number of ongoing legal reviews on the potential to undertake climate change litigation in cooperation with other key NGOs, including, for example; commissioning legal advice on Commonwealth powers in relation to climate change (including proposing a national Climate Change and Forest Protection Act); commissioning further legal advice in relation to specific and existing coal-fired power stations; financially supporting the Queensland Conservation Council in their appeal case against the extension of the Xstrata coal mine in that state, and joined a number of major conservation organisations in Washington DC in an “Amici Curiae” (Friends of the Court Brief) urging the US Supreme Court to rule the Environmental Protection Agency was authorised and required to regulate greenhouse gases (supporting a multi- US State Government application).

We provided the Bob Brown Foundation with significant resources to successfully defend an appeal by Forestry Tasmania in the Federal Court against a forest conservation win under the EPBC Act. The win had protected Regional Forest Agreement areas and the Wielangta Forest in Tasmania from logging and stopping what would have been significant carbon emissions from planned forestry actions.

Further resources were given to the Bob Brown Foundation in 2020 to use the EPBC Act again to fight the legality of the Regional Forestry Agreement (RFA) in Tasmania, highlighting damage to threatened species and their habitats and dangerous future carbon emissions. A successful challenge could be a forerunner to further legal actions in every state and territory, but an initial and unfortunate loss in the Federal Court is now being assessed by the Foundation. We had earlier financially supported a successful EPBC Act case in the Tasmanian Supreme Court, being fought by the Tasmania Conservation Trust (TCT), to protect highly threatened habitats and halt carbon emissions (including a threatened ecosystem listed under the EPBC due to an HSI nomination).

HSI sought legal action by the ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) following misleading palm oil industry TV adverts that ignored rainforest destruction and greenhouse gas emissions caused by palm oil plantations. Advice was also sought on the potential for legal action internationally to pursue Indonesia for its annual forest fires that cause such immense regional pollution.

Working with the NSW Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) over a number of years, developing reforms for significantly improved national environment laws, proposals were drafted for a new climate change trigger and other amendments to help deal with the threat. It was proposed that the Government would have to approve all projects with a major greenhouse pollution footprint between, for example, 250,000 and 500,000 CO2-e (`Threatened – An overview of HSI’s Threatened Species Program &235 suggested Commonwealth policy actions’). This was pushed heavily in Canberra.

In 2018, HSI worked with EDO to publish the `Next Generation Laws – Best Practice elements for a new Commonwealth Environment Act’, which also contained a major recommendation for a new climate change trigger. This legal policy was supported by the Places You Love (PYL) alliance (largest in Australia and co-founded by HSI) and was to be adopted and implemented by an incoming Labor Government after the May 2019 Federal election.

HSI had proposed to the Environmental Defenders Office in Sydney in 2017/18 the establishment of a new HSI/EDO Litigation Centre. The aim was to encourage and generate new and thought-provoking legal challenges for the benefit of climate change and biodiversity conservation, and that would also have an eye on international matters. This initiative has not progressed yet and is currently being reassessed.

Over a 25 year period, HSI has prepared a large number of legal and other policy proposals and papers concerning climate and change and forest protection measures, published domestically and globally. Most of these papers can be found by searching HSI’s website.

Climate change emissions, tropical forest protection and palm oil

HSI worked very hard to ensure the Labor Government fulfilled its 2007 election commitment (which we had helped gain) to ban the importation into Australia of timber that has been illegally logged and to argue for this prohibition to be extended to unsustainably logged timber. Broad legal advice had been presented by us to the Government on a range of options open to them, with the Government eventually passing legislation to control such imports.

We subsequently commissioned broad legal reviews by the NSW Environmental Defenders Office in determining a range of legal options for key recommended amendments to vastly strengthen the Illegal Logging Prohibition Regulation 2012 and a new Bill regulating the sale and import of palm oil and improved labelling of palm oil products. HSI then undertook government lobbying to have such amendments accepted.

Significant resources were also provided to the Papua New Guinea Eco-Forestry Forum between 2006 – 2008. This included supporting their two successful court actions against the PNG Office of Climate Change and Environment Department over the inappropriate issuing of carbon trade licenses and illegal logging, consequently protecting 800,000 hectares (2 million acres) of tropical forest in the Kamula Dosa Forest in the Western Province (retaining of many million tons of carbon emissions in the ground).

Still in Papua New Guinea, in 2002, HSI instigated and published a report by a renowned German investigative NGO, Profundo, that identified all the Australian companies (primarily banks) investing in palm oil plantations in Papua New Guinea forest areas, resulting in tropical forest destruction and large greenhouse gas emissions. The report was presented to all political parties, the media and the global ‘Round Table on Sustainable Pail Oil’.

Providing funds for in-situ forest protection

HSI ploughed significant resources into a number of species related projects globally that also involved working to halt tropical rainforest destruction in Indonesia (Kalimantan and Sumatra), Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Uganda, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Brazil and many other countries (including small land purchases and working on a number of occasions with INTERPOL). We had also worked with the Australian Democrats to trigger a $10 million Government biodiversity hotspots program – primarily targeting tropical forest areas – which saw dozens of programs funded in S.E. Asia and the South Pacific (leveraging a further $13 million).

Our work has included, for example, funding a number of NGOs in Indonesia (primarily Kalimantan) to undertake on-ground education, community protection and leadership programs aimed at fighting the establishment of new palm oil plantations that destroy primary forests and major create greenhouse gas emissions. Such work extended to include helping Friends of the National Parks Foundation (FNPF) develop a carbon-neutral/offset program in Kalimantan. In Australia, we have supported the work of UNEP/GRASP in their campaigns to prohibit/control the import of palm oil taken unsustainably in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.

HSI also continued to work with Fauna and Flora International (FFI) on research, policy development and engagement on climate change/biodiversity issues regionally (particularly REDD pilot schemes) and made a significant financial contribution to the development of FFI global strategies to guide governments on the role forest conservation in mitigating climate change.

More recently, HSI has been proposing a program to the Commonwealth: `Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Protecting Rainforests and Rewetting Peatlands in the Asia-Pacific Region’, by implementing REDD+ pursuant to Article 5 of the Paris Agreement annexed to the UNFCC Paris COP 21 Decision (basically reward landowners, communities and/or governments able to demonstrate emissions reductions through rewetting of drained peatlands and permanent protection of rainforests). Focusing on Indonesia.


Particular effort was made to engage the media in the national and global arena and to reach as broad a section of the public as possible. This included running national radio advertising campaigns to alert the public and pressure governments’ over climate change and offering communities easy and practical ways that individuals can help save energy. TV adverts were also launched nationally and internationally to promote individual action on forests and climate change (one campaign reached more than 180 million households and nearly 200,000 hotel rooms and spread throughout Utube). TV stations utilised included CNN, Asia Television and Australia Television – covering dozens of countries from Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific, north through Asia, and Russia. Funds were also contributed to a trilogy of documentaries (UK/US productions), including ‘Asia’s Disappearing Green Heart’, in cooperation with film-maker Steve Taylor, the Born Free Foundation and Conservation International, which described the effects on climate and biodiversity of destroying Borneo’s green tropical heart.

What we are doing

HSI continues to work at the UNFCCC as a global organisation (registered to attend the upcoming 2021 UNFCCC meeting in Glasgow at the end of 2021), maintains its national program to keep carbon in the ground through various habitat protection programs; keeps campaigning for the introduction of a “climate change trigger” and other legislative requirements under new national environment laws; and continues to provide funding for NGOs in developing countries to help protect tropical forest habitats and sequester carbon.

Special bulletins published by HSI on Climate and Biodiversity

Next Generation Biodiversity Laws – prepared by EDO NSW for HSI Australia

HSI Forests and Carbon Counts (2015)

Conserving Australia’s Threatened Ecosystems (2014)

HSI Special Bulletin – Truth In Targets (2011)

Conserving Australian Landscapes Beyond the National Reserve System (2009)

Forests and Climate (2009)

Terrestrial Landscapes, Biodiversity and Climate Change (2008)

* Humane Society International, Australian Centre for Environmental Law, Birds Australia, Greening Australia, Humane Society International, World Wide Fund for Nature, Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Australian Bush Heritage Fund. Scientific Advisory Committee, Prof. Andy Beattie, Dr Gerry Casis, Dr Hal Cogger, Dr Chris Dickman, Dr Gordon Friend, Dr Warren Musgrave, Prof.Henry Nix, Prof. Tony Norton, Prof. Hugh Possingham, Paul Sattler, Dr Denis Sauders.

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