The theme for this year’s International Day of Forests (21 March) is ‘forests and health’. It provides an opportunity to reflect on the important role that forests play in our lives and whether our national environmental laws, which are currently under review, are doing enough to ensure that future generations...
You need to steel yourself before reading the 2021 State of the Environment Report. It makes for grim reading. It opens by saying “In a rapidly changing climate, with unsustainable development and use of resources, the general outlook for our environment is poor and deteriorating”. From thereon it doesn’t pull any punches.
Speaking at the Press Club when releasing the report, federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek did not shy away from the seriousness of Australia’s extinction crisis nor its causes. Sitting in the audience, HSI campaigners were pleased to hear her raising expectations that we are finally going to see the environmental law reforms we have long been calling for.
The Minister acknowledged that:
“Too much clearing of habitat has already occurred” and “Too many ecosystems and species are under threat”.
We can’t let this be just rhetoric. We know that 6.1m hectares of primary native forest, nearly the size of Tasmania, has been destroyed in Australia since 1990. This area included habitat critical for our many threatened species, and ecological communities that are threatened in their own right. And much of this clearing has been done without any federal oversight. Our management of these impacts has to change.
In this regard, the 2021 State of the Environment Report is clear:
“We can expect further extinctions of Australian species over the next 2 decades unless current management effort and investment are substantially increased. Conservation actions are linked to reduced rates of decline for threatened Australian plants, mammals and birds, but they have not been sufficient to reverse declines overall.”
The Minister has promised legislation to reform our national environment laws in 2023 and to establish an independent Environment Protection Agency. Crucially, she added that:
To offer proper protection, we need to set clear national environmental standards—with explicit targets around what we value as a country, and what the law needs to protect.
This is what HSI has been calling for, alongside our steadfast letter writing supporters and alongside the Places You Love Alliance of 60 other conservation organisations, and all of their supporters too.
In his Foreword to the Final Report of the Independent Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, Professor Graeme Samuel AC described National Environment Standards as the “centrepiece” of recommended reforms. HSI agrees. National Environmental Standards will help to define the outcomes we want to achieve from our federal environmental legislation and ensure that everyone—decision makers, conservationists and businesses—are clear on the minimum standard that developments must meet to ensure they are safeguarding our environment for the future. In securing a commitment to an independent EPA and National Environmental Standards, the conservation community has made solid progress.
Working to turn these vital commitments into action is now my job description. My name is Dr Megan Kessler and I have joined HSI to take on the campaign for the strongest possible environment laws to stop the extinction crisis.
I come with two decades of experience fighting for nature, in the field and in the courts. For the sake of the koalas, gliders, platypus and cockatoos, and of the dugongs, turtles and sharks; in fact for the sake of all of the precious animals on this incredible continent and in its oceans, I am determined that we win this campaign.
I know it won’t be easy. Even though a sustainable environment is vital for a sustainable economy, there will still be vested interests who will lobby against stronger protections. The Albanese Government must stay the course.
The 2021 State of the Environment Report must be a turning point. A line in the sand. Five years from now when the next State of the Environment is released it must have a more positive story to tell.
For this to happen the legislation the government brings forward in 2023 must be fully equipped to halt extinctions and to ring fence all remaining threatened species habitat and endangered ecological communities from further destruction. And these legislative reforms must be supported by meaningful investment in restoration and recovery.
Importantly, in her press club speech, Minister Plibersek also acknowledged that:
“We can’t just stop future destruction—although this is essential and the most cost effective way to address the environmental crisis—we also need to actively repair past damage.”
Repairing past damage will require substantial new funding—experts tell us likely that the likely cost of recovering Australia’s listed threatened species is over $1.5 billion per year. This might sound like an intimidating number, but the same research tells us that Australians were expected to spend more than double this amount on pet cat care alone in 2019, so it’s well within our means. On the other side of the ledger, the cost of inaction is too high.
But we don’t have to wait for 2023 for the Albanese Government to show that it is serious about taking action to protect our threatened species and their habitats. In 2021, Australia signed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, a global pact to address deforestation. This pact can be acted on now. And 2022 provides an opportunity for Australia to show leadership as part of the development of the latest Global Biodiversity Framework, where we hope we will see transformative ambition from our own government and governments across the world to halt extinctions.
The 2021 State of the Environment report reminds us that there is much to do, but HSI won’t be shying away from the challenge. Until legislation that will halt extinction and drive recovery passes the Australian Parliament, that’s what you will find me working on.
 Williams KJ, Hunter B, Schmidt RK, Woodward E, Cresswell ID (2021). Land: Industry. In: Australia State of the environment 2021, Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, Canberra, https://soe.dcceew.gov.au/land/pressures/industry, DOI: 10.26194/6EAM-6G50
 Wintle, B. et al (2019) Spending to save: What will it cost to halt Australia’s extinction crisis? Conservation Letters Volume 12, Issue 6, available at: https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/conl.12682