Australia’s environment is ‘poor and deteriorating’, says damning new report

“Our waters are in trouble, and so is the land,” Labor’s new environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, said as she released the long-awaited state of the environment report on Tuesday. Although completed in 2021, the report was not published by the previous coalition government.

The report found that Australia’s environment is “poor and deteriorating” due to “climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and resource extraction”.

But despite the grim toll of rising global temperatures on the Australian landscape, Plibersek said the new Labor government would not renege on its pre-election promise to allow new coal mines, if they won environmental approval and support. commercial.

Nor would the government increase Australia’s targets to reduce emissions by 43% below 2005 levels by 2030, or to achieve net zero emissions before its stated 2050 target.

“Some people would say we shouldn’t have any mining anywhere. It’s just not a sustainable or reasonable proposition for a modern economy like Australia to say that,” she said.

“We made the promise of net zero emissions with an interim target of reducing carbon pollution by 43%. We will deliver on that promise.”

The report notes that Australia’s emissions have likely peaked. But climate scientists say they are not declining fast enough to meet the Paris Agreement to limit the average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. According to researchers from Climate Analytics, the Labor Party’s 43% target corresponds to global warming of 2 degrees Celsius.

How serious is the environmental degradation?

The report found that Australia has lost more mammal species than any other country of the 38 members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (a group that includes the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand); that there are now more alien species than native species; and the country has experienced “a plague of marine plastics,” Plibersek said in a speech to the National Press Club after the report was released.

In the country’s northern waters, lost or abandoned fishing nets strangle up to 14,000 turtles a year, and along the east coast, warming seas have killed kelp beds, threatening reef habitats and fish. abalone and lobster stocks, she added.

On land, more than 77,000 square kilometers (30,000 square miles) of habitat for endangered species has been cleared over the past two decades – an area roughly the size of Tasmania or Ireland. “Much of this clearing has happened in small increments,” Plibersek said. “In fact, over 90% of it has never been assessed under our environmental laws.”

Hundreds of koalas are believed to have been burned to death in bushfires on the east coast of Australia.

The clearing has impacted Australia’s koalas, which are now endangered in three states and territories.

Since the publication of the last State of the Environment report in 2016, there has been an 8% increase in species listed as threatened under the National Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC).

The most recent report indicates that the number of threatened species could be even higher due to shortcomings in the risk assessment process, as could the number of extinctions.

“Most mammalian extinctions in Australia have been caused by predation from introduced species, particularly the wildcat and the European red fox,” he added.

What is the government doing about it?

The Labor government has placed the blame for Australia’s environmental degradation on the feet of the Liberal-National coalition, which was in power from 2013 until its May election defeat.

“The previous government’s budget cuts have held back business, they have hurt the economy and they have undermined concrete efforts to protect our environment,” Plibersek told a televised press conference at the National Press Club in Canberra. She said that so little effort had been made to achieve certain goals that they would be almost impossible to achieve.

Former environment minister Sussan Ley, now deputy opposition leader, accused Plibersek of using the report as support for attacks on the government, pointing out that the Morrison administration has spent billions of dollars in green initiatives.

“We focused on the job, not wasting the majority of our energy on misguided attacks on our political opponents,” Ley said, less than two months after a bitter election campaign that saw both parties tackle issues. policies covering everything from the environment to relations with China.

Plibersek announced a number of new goals on Tuesday, but postponed others – including “once in a generation” reform of Australia’s environment and biodiversity laws (EPBCs) – until it is completed. have time to consult more widely.

Beach erosion at Collaroy on Sydney's northern beaches on February 10, 2020.

The Labor government also plans to “expand the country’s national domain” by setting a target to protect 30% of Australia’s land and 30% of its oceans by 2030, and exploring the creation of new national parks and marine areas. protected, Plibersek said. This includes the “continuation” of the East Antarctic Marine Park, a proposal backed by Australia, France and the European Union to protect a large slice of the Ross Sea.

New proposals also include greater protection of Indigenous sites to avoid the destruction seen in 2020 when mining giant Rio Tinto destroyed the sacred Juukan Gorge caves in Western Australia to expand its iron ore mine.
Juukan Gorge in Western Australia was one of the earliest known sites occupied by the First Nations peoples of Australia.

“We are so lucky to be so rich in First Nations cultural heritage, of course we need to have better systems to protect it that don’t lead to appalling and shameful results, like Juukan Gorge,” Plibersek said.

The report also highlighted the need to give Australia’s First Nations people more control over the protection and rehabilitation of the land. To this end, the government has also promised to double the number of aboriginal guards to 3,800 by the end of the decade.

Nicki Hutley, an economist at the Climate Council, said changes to Australian environmental laws must force the government to consider the impacts of climate change when considering applications for new coal and gas projects.

Earlier this year, the previous government won an appeal against a court ruling that would have forced the federal environment minister to consider the impact on children of new coal projects.

Kelly O’Shanassy, ​​chief executive of the Australian Conservation Foundation, said independent oversight was also needed to ensure government targets were met.

“To end Australia’s nature crisis, we need strong national environmental laws, an independent regulator to enforce them, and adequate funding for the recovery of Australia’s endangered species and the restoration of degraded landscapes.”

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