New plan needed for en­vi­ron­ment

The West Australian - - OPINION - JOSH WIL­SON Josh Wil­son is shadow as­sis­tant min­is­ter for the en­vi­ron­ment

Aus­tralia’s most en­dan­gered mar­su­pial, gil­bert’s po­toroo, was al­most burnt to ex­tinc­tion in the fire at Two Peo­ple’s Bay near Al­bany in 2015.

The species was saved by the coura­geous fire­fight­ing and an­i­mal res­cue ef­forts on the day. Since that time the painstak­ing work of lo­cal rangers and the valiant Gil­bert’s Po­toroo Ac­tion Group has sta­bilised the pop­u­la­tion, but only 30 to 40 an­i­mals now ex­ist in their nat­u­ral range.

In this sum­mer of cat­a­strophic fires the near wipe-out of the gil­bert’s po­toroo and its ten­u­ous re­cov­ery is a salu­tary tale. Our dam­aged and frag­ile en­vi­ron­ment is fac­ing new threats. Our na­tional pro­tec­tion frame­work has not yet risen to the task. While there is a re­cov­ery plan un­der the En­vi­ron­ment Pro­tec­tion and Bio­di­ver­sity Con­ser­va­tion Act for the gil­bert’s po­toroo, it’s es­ti­mated that 40 per cent of threat­ened species have no such plan.

We are half­way through a sum­mer of un­prece­dented bush­fires on the eastern se­aboard. So far 10 mil­lion hectares have been scorched and ecol­o­gists es­ti­mate more than one bil­lion an­i­mals have been lost. In­evitably worse is to come be­cause with­out habi­tat and food the sur­vivors will fail to re­pro­duce and many will starve. It is not un­likely that en­dan­gered species have been lost. It is cer­tain that ad­di­tional species will have be­come en­dan­gered and those al­ready en­dan­gered will have been pushed to the brink.

West­ern Aus­tralia’s unique south-west bio­di­ver­sity hotspot has been harmed by re­peat fires in ar­eas like the Stir­ling Range Na­tional Park and the Fitzger­ald River bio­sphere. Three fires since 2015 in the Cape Arid Na­tional Park have put the west­ern ground par­rot at se­vere risk.

All this comes against the back­ground of an acute bio­di­ver­sity cri­sis. The IPBES Re­port in 2019 showed that within a global tale of woe in terms of de­clin­ing bio­di­ver­sity, Aus­tralia has the bit­ter dis­tinc­tion of be­ing a mega-di­verse con­ti­nent with a poor record of pro­tect­ing its dis­tinc­tive flora and fauna.

De­spite re­peated warn­ings about this aw­ful fire sea­son the lack of na­tional pre­pared­ness has ex­tended from the realm of hu­man safety, com­mu­nity in­fra­struc­ture, and live­stock to the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment as a whole. A let­ter from 248 sci­en­tists to the Prime Min­is­ter in Oc­to­ber last year warned of Aus­tralia’s ex­tinc­tion risk: “Cur­rent laws are fail­ing be­cause they are too weak, have in­ad­e­quate re­view and ap­proval pro­cesses, and are not over­seen by an ef­fec­tive com­pli­ance regime.”

This is not the time for ex­cuses and com­pla­cency. This is not the time for tall sto­ries about how ev­ery­thing is go­ing well and how we’re do­ing our bit in a can­ter. The facts speak for them­selves. In­stead of re­duc­tion in car­bon emis­sions we have seen re­duc­tions in fund­ing to the Aus­tralian Re­new­able En­ergy Agency. In­stead of prepa­ra­tion for cli­mate im­pacts we have seen the Sec­re­taries Group on Cli­mate Risk side­lined and the Na­tional Dis­as­ter Risk Re­duc­tion Frame­work buried. The 2019 na­tional im­ple­men­ta­tion plan never even ap­peared.

It is no­table that the Gov­ern­ment’s Threat­ened Species Strat­egy Year 3 Re­port was de­liv­ered six months late and that 10 of its 21 tar­gets were not met. The strat­egy was es­tab­lished to im­prove the tra­jec­to­ries of 20 mammals, 20 birds, and 30 plant species by 2020, but these tar­gets are off-track and un­likely to be achieved.

Aus­tralia needs an en­vi­ron­ment pol­icy with a clear pri­or­ity on steeply im­prov­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal out­comes, not fur­ther bend­ing our land­scape and its crea­tures into profit-yield­ing stress po­si­tions. Aus­tralia has al­ready suf­fered mass de­for­esta­tion and the bru­tal im­pact of feral an­i­mals. We now add the scour­ing heat and drought of cli­mate change with more fre­quent and more fe­ro­cious fires. When the fire sea­son is over we need to con­sider the in­ad­e­quacy of our en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion frame­work in ad­di­tion to the in­ad­e­quate prepa­ra­tions for com­mu­nity safety. That is why La­bor has called for a na­tional eco­log­i­cal au­dit, a meet­ing of State and Fed­eral en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ters, and a change of course whose nav­i­ga­tional logic is the rel­e­vant sci­ence.

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