Protecting Nature’s Gifts

Dr Graeme L. Worboys AM is a former Honorary Associate Professor at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University & Bruce Gall is a former Director of the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service.

This is the fifth article in an 8-part series discussing our nature’s gifts.

In our previous article on Ranger Guardians, we looked at how rangers manage and protect our nature’s gifts in parks and reserves. In this article, we take a wider view of conserving nature and consider international factors that drive this protection.

Australia ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1993. It is the most wide-ranging of Australia’s environmental treaties, covering all our biodiversity.  Importantly, the CBD is legally binding; parties to the convention are obliged to implement its provisions.

Conventions can only be joined by a national government, which is usually also responsible for implementing them. Not so in Australia, where, in respect of the CBD, states and territories have prime responsibility for the protection and management of our nature’s gifts.

In recognition of this, in 1996, state, territory and federal governments developed a National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia’s Biological Diversity (NSCABD). It details a cooperative approach to protecting our natural assets and supporting the federal government’s CBD obligations.  

In 2010, the United Nations declared 2011 to 2020 as the Decade on Biodiversity, with the CBD developing a Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, which included the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. The targets are named after the Aichi Prefecture in Japan where they were adopted. 

Aichi Target Number 11 identifies protected areas as being the backbone of an effective nature conservation system, stating: By 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water [areas] … are conserved through … ecologically representative … systems of protected areas.  

This Aichi goal posed some interesting questions for Australia as the NSCABD doesn’t provide guidance on how Australia should respond to such a goal. For example, should the 17% apply nationally, or on an individual state and territory basis. 

At the beginning of the decade, the National Reserve System covered 13.4% of the nation, though there was a huge disparity in protected area coverage between the jurisdictions, ranging from 6.65% in Queensland to 55% in the ACT, with NSW, WA and the NT also below the Aichi target.

Did jurisdictions below the Aichi target feel any obligation to create new protected areas? Was the headline target met, and if so, how? Were the increases ecologically representative? Read on.

The national percentage of protected areas rose to 19.8% by 2020, surpassing the Aichi target. However, nearly 90% of this increase was due to the creation of large Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs), mostly in the arid regions of WA and the NT, which also enabled both jurisdictions to exceed the Aichi target.

An IPA may be created over existing Indigenous land at the request of the Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander owners; it must contain significant biodiversity values. A conservation agreement is signed with the federal government, which funds employment of Indigenous rangers.

The creation of IPAs is a relatively inexpensive way of protecting nature’s gifts, as land is not purchased. However, as with other conservation agreements, for example, those entered into with farmers over their properties, IPAs do not have the same security of tenure as national parks.

The balance of protected area increases to meet the Aichi decade target (10%) was by state and territory governments. Given this was the UN Decade on Biodiversity, this was a disappointing result.

NSW moved at a glacial pace, raising its protected area percentage by less than one percent, though former environment minister, Matt Kean, is to be congratulated for reversing his government’s apathy with a late decade splurge that created nearly 500,000 ha of new parks and reserves. 

Queensland remains the most anti-nature state, making it impossible for Australia to develop a truly national protected area system. It is a huge, biodiverse state, yet at the end of the Decade on Biodiversity, it has protected just 8.7% of its land, barely half the Aichi target. 

But hope springs eternal: in its most recent budget, the Queensland government set aside $200M for protected area land acquisition.

And over the decade, Victoria didn’t budge, sitting around 17.5% for the ten years.

The Aichi targets also called for a system of protected areas which is ecologically representative

Yet an analysis of NRS data shows that it is not representative, with less than half of Australia’s 89 bioregions, and one third of the 419 subregions, meeting the Aichi protected area target.

While this regional/subregional data is useful, it lacks precision given Australia has over 5,000 mapped terrestrial ecosystems. The conservation status of these individual ecosystems should be driving the growth of the NRS.

A new CBD decade target for 2021-2030 is being negotiated, with the headline figure being 30% cover of protected areas by 2030, hence ‘30 x 30’ is the new mantra, and good news for nature’s gifts.

More than 100 countries, including Australia, have supported the new CBD targets, but Covid issues in China, the host nation for the crucial meeting, have delayed progress. This meeting has now been re-scheduled to Montreal for December 2022.

The federal government must first conduct a review of the Aichi decade, in particular to investigate the low level of state and territory contributions to meeting the goal. The 30 x 30 goal will be far more challenging and an acquisition strategy focussing on poorly conserved ecosystems is essential.

Bioregional data first went public through the NRS in 2018, so was not available for analysis during the Aichi decade. However, it is now, so Australia’s performance in protecting priority ecosystems can be monitored.

The main difference between the two decades may well be the change of federal government and proactive leadership from a more nature-friendly administration. Hopefully, this will extend to a grants program to assist states and territories secure high priority ecosystems.

In our next article, we discuss the rise in visits to our national parks and the economic benefits this brings to governments.

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