Failing the test of environmental conservation

I have worked as a hydrologist and environmental scientist for 30 years.  Over that time hope for environmental conservation has given way to fatalism.  Governments of all ilk have failed to reverse environmental and biodiversity decline.  There has been some progress but it has been partial at best and misguided at worst.  Impacts from industry, residential development, farming and mining have declined.  Land clearing laws have seen savannah – maintained by indigenous peoples over millennia ­­– give way to woody weeds, feral species and declining biodiversity over vast swathes of the Australian landscape.

The 2002 Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment found that riparian zones are declining over 73% of Australia.  There has been a massive decline in the ranges of indigenous mammals over more than 100 years.  In the past 200 years, 22 Australian mammals have become extinct – a third of the world’s recent extinctions.  Further decline in ranges is still occurring and is likely to result in more extinctions.  Mammals are declining in 174 of 384 subregions in Australia and rapidly declining in 20.  The threats to vascular plants are increasing over much of Australia.  Threatened birds are declining across 45% of the country with extinctions in arid parts of Western Australia.  Reptiles are declining across 30% of the country. Threatened amphibians are in decline in south-eastern Australia and are rapidly declining in the South East Queensland, Brigalow Belt South and Wet Tropics bioregions.  As of 2016 – the number of extinct mammals stands at 30 and counting.

Our rivers are still carrying huge excesses of sand and mud.  The mud washes out onto coastlines destroying seagrass and corals.  The sand chokes up pools and riffles and fills billabongs putting intense pressure on inland, aquatic ecologies.  In 1992, the Mary River in south east Queensland flooded carrying millions of tonnes of mud into Hervey Bay.  A thousand square kilometres of seagrass died off decimating dugongs, turtles and fisheries.  The seagrass has grown back but the problems of the Mary River have not been fixed.  The banks have not been stabilised and the seagrass could be lost again at any time.  A huge excess of sand working its way down the river is driving to extinction the Mary River cod and the Mary River turtle.  The situation in the Mary River is mirrored in catchments right across the country.  Nationally, 50% of our seagrasses have been lost and it has been this way for at least thirty years.

It is well known what the problems are.  The causes of the declines in biodiversity are land clearing, land salinisation, land degradation, habitat fragmentation, overgrazing, exotic weeds, feral animals, rivers that have been pushed past their points of equilibrium and changed fire regimes.  The individual solutions are often fairly simple and only in aggregate do they become daunting.   One of the problems is that the issues are reviewed at a distance.  Looking at issues from a National or State perspective is too complex.  Even if problems are identified broadly, it is difficult to establish local priorities.  Looking at issues from a distance means that a focus on the immediate and fundamental causes of problems is lost.  There are rafts of administration, reports, computer models, guidelines and plans but the only on ground restoration and conservation is done by volunteers and farmers.  Volunteers are valiantly struggling but it is too little too late.  Farmers tend to look at their own properties, understandably, and not at integrated landscape function.  Governments apply greenwash with very little understanding of and support for the necessary regional approaches of farmers groups, volunteers or indeed their own staff.

I understood from my studies in hydrology that much of the variation in 20th century floods and drought was quite natural.  Indeed, data over millennia on the El Niñ0-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) show variability considerably in excess of that seen in the last century.  ENSO intensity twice that of the ‘extreme’ 1997/98 El Niño – hundred year droughts and mega-floods.  It shows also a 1000 year high last century in El Niño frequency.  These Pacific Ocean states are a large influence on global surface temperatures.  I suspect from this data that the impact of greenhouse gases has been overstated.

Nonetheless, ecological and soils restoration has immense potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2013 estimated that cumulative carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and cement production – from 1750 to 2011 – was about 365 billion metric tonnes as carbon (GtC), with another 180 GtC from deforestation and agriculture.   Of this 545 GtC, about 240 GtC (44%) had accumulated in the atmosphere, 155 GtC (28%) had been taken up in the oceans with slight consequent acidification, and 150 GtC (28%) had accumulated in terrestrial ecosystems.

The French government launched it’s 4 parts in a 1000 initiative in Paris last year.   ­­They aim to restore soil organic content in grazing and cropping lands by 4 parts in a 1000 per year.  The global land area is 13 billion hectares.  Of that 5 billion hectares – 38% of the total – is agricultural.   Cropping is some 28% of agricultural land, orchards 3% and grazing 69%.  Cropping and orchards provides staples and nutrients – as well as culinary diversity.   Grazing animals convert otherwise unusable resources on marginal lands into important sources of protein.  Australia has about 400 million hectares of agricultural land.  Agricultural land has been degraded over centuries.  Forest and their biodiversity continue to decline through conversion and exploitation.  Globally, much of this poorly managed land has turned to desert.  Reversal of degradation has the potential to not only reverse the 25% of greenhouse gas emissions from this source – but to return another 25% of current emissions to soil and vegetation over 40 years.

Increasing the soil organic content enhances water holding capacity and creates a more drought tolerant agriculture – with less downstream flooding.  There is a critical level of soil carbon that is essential to maximising the effectiveness of water and nutrient inputs.  Global food security, especially for countries with fragile soils and harsh climate such as in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, cannot be achieved without improving soil quality through an increase in soil organic content.   Wildlife flourishes on restored grazing land helping to halt biodiversity loss.   Increased agricultural productivity, increased downstream processing and access to markets build local economies and global wealth.  Economic growth provides resources for solving problems – conserving and restoring ecosystems, better sanitation and safer water, better health and education, developing better and cheaper energy sources.

This path contrasts starkly with the other outcome of last year’s Paris talks.  Something estimated by the International Energy Agency as a 3.7 billion ton increase in greenhouse gas emissions to 2030 at a cost of $13.5 trillion dollars.  The money would be far better spent on restoring soils and ecosystems – while developing 21st century energy systems.  The National Farmers Federation and the Australian Conservation Foundation estimated some time ago that restoring landscapes across Australia would cost $6 billion a year – about half from private sources.  Much of that I suspect could be recycled from programs that have failed the objective test of biodiversity conservation over a very long time.

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