Australia’s Nature’s Gifts and Global Conservation Agreements

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

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

On 19 December 2022, the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (KMGBF) – so named for the cities it was developed in – was signed by representatives of 188 countries, an extraordinary achievement. The decade-long framework identifies 23 national biodiversity targets, one of particular interest to NPA members being the so-called ‘30×30’ target, in simple terms, the protection of 30 per cent of a country’s ecosystems by 2030. As 2 years have already been lost to Covid, the pressure is now on governments to get cracking on this crucial target. 

The KMGBF is the most ambitious, some might say audacious, approach to protecting nature’s gifts ever, and it reflects the IUCN goal of moving from ‘business as usual’ to ‘living in harmony with nature’. In this article we explore what this means for Australia.  

This is the second global ‘decade goal’, so how did Australia fare in the Aichi decade (2010-2020, so named for the Japanese prefecture where the targets were set)? Aichi target 11 states, in part: By 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water [areas] …  are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas. 

Australians are fortunate in having easy access to the online CAPAD1 database, which holds data for the National Reserve System (NRS). CAPAD 2010 shows protected areas covered 13.43 per cent of our land area at the start of the Aichi decade. The two largest types of protected areas were national parks (4.4 per cent) and Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs, 3.07 per cent), these types accounting for over half of the land protected. 

Fast forward to 2020; CAPAD now shows that 19.75 per cent of our land area was protected, exceeding the Aichi target. Of particular interest, is that the two largest types have changed order, with IPAs (8.67 per cent) now well ahead of national parks (4.56 per cent).  

Sorry about all the figures but this is a numbers game. 

However, the Aichi target also requires protected areas be ecologically representative of a country’s habitats. CAPAD did not start providing the relevant bioregional data till 2018, so we have no decade start point for representiveness, but we can interrogate the end point. This is where CAPAD excels itself; drilling down into the data shows where Australia ended the decade – and it’s not pretty. 

Less than half of Australia’s 89 bioregions and just one third of the 419 subregions, met the Aichi 17 per cent target for protection. 

Which begs the question: How can Australia comfortably exceed the national target, but fail the more specific bioregion targets? Queensland, our second largest and most biodiverse state, provides part of the answer, as it protects a miserly 8.7 per cent of the state’s nature’s gifts

However, the main answer lies with Indigenous Protected Areas, the 76 listed in CAPAD 2020 covering nearly 67 million ha – 44 per cent of Australia’s reserved land. IPAs are important, providing many benefits for Indigenous communities, though they protect relatively few bioregions given the vast area they cover. This has distorted the percentage analyses, making Australia’s 19.75 per cent headline figure an unreliable indicator.  

The National Reserve System (NRS) is not ecologically representative. 

While the bioregional data identifies the problem, it is still a blunt tool as the 419 subregions can be further subdivided into 5,815 individual terrestrial ecosystems. A report by the World Wildlife Fund in 20211, stated 26% (1,542) of [terrestrial] ecosystems lack any protection

This shows the danger of grandstanding on the headline percentage – as politicians have been known to do – while ignoring the on-ground reality. 

Which brings us to the future, the Kunming-Montreal decade, 2020 – 2030. In relation to terrestrial ecosystems, Target 3 states, in part, Ensure and enable that by 2030 at least 30 per cent of terrestrial … areas are effectively conserved and managed through ecologically representative, well-connected and equitably governed systems of protected areas … 

Given our Aichi failure, Australia needs a comprehensive, strategic approach to reach the new 30×30 decade goal.   

In brief, it could look like this. 

The federal environment minister must provide the leadership that was missing during the Aichi decade and be an unrelenting advocate for the decade goal. This will invariably mean providing serious funding to assist jurisdictions acquire land, as was successfully done in the early stages of the NRS.  

The states and territories were also missing in action during the Aichi decade, adding only 10 per cent of the NRS growth during the 10 years. Which raises the question: What role are the jurisdictions expected to play in assisting the federal government meet its convention obligations? If the sub-national governments do the heavy lifting, the federal government must provide the means to do so, with leadership and dollars.  

That’s the politics; here’s the strategic approach. 

The bottom line is that the nine jurisdictions must agree that their strategic focus is protecting poorly conserved habitats, not chasing percentage headlines. 

Determining ecosystem protection priorities is the start point, and can be done by classifying the 419 biogeographic subregions into 3 categories based on per cent protection: urgent <15%; concern 16-30%; and protected >30%. 

CAPAD 2020 shows 249 subregions fall under 15 per cent protected and need urgent action.  Queensland will own the most. Threatened species and ecosystems listed under state and territory laws will also need to be included in this priority-setting process. 

Once the states and territories have determined their priorities, they will need to acquire land in the relevant subregion, or negotiate conservation agreements with landholders if on private land, or both, applying the CAR principles – comprehensive, adequate and representative – for the ecosystems involved.   

Expanding the NRS to meet the 30×30 goal is not complicated; it’s about discussion and negotiation. The data to determine protection priorities already exist in CAPAD; this is its role. All that is required is federal government leadership and funding, combined with political will from the states and territories.  

Former NSW environment minister and treasurer, Matt Kean has shown what political will looks like. In less than 4 years, he added nearly one million hectares to the NPWS estate, mainly through creating several large protected areas in the poorly conserved western division of NSW. Let’s hope other pollies follow his lead. 

CAPAD is updated biennially, so progress towards 30×30 can be monitored. Let’s hope we see plenty of action. If not, sharpen your pencils and start lobbying! 

This is the final nature’s gifts article. In the introduction to the series, I mentioned the late Dr Graeme Worboys AM had questioned the relevance of the words our land abounds in nature’s gifts in the national anthem. ‘Is our anthem still an accurate reflection of Australia’s nature today?’, queried Graeme. 

The past decade has not been kind to nature. Bushfires, floods, droughts and heatwaves, all legacies of our changing climate, together with government-sanctioned land clearing, has devastated vast areas of nature’s gifts across the country, killing an uncountable number of native animals. Even Dorothy Wall’s famous Blinky Bill, our much-loved koala, is in trouble. 

This is not sustainable. 

We still have places that abound in nature’s gifts, though they now share their space with destructive feral animals, noxious weeds and climate change impacts. But vast areas of the Australian bush have long been cleared, are barren, and their spring is silent. Nature is losing. 

The Aichi biodiversity decade promised much, but delivered little.  

The 8-year Kunming-Montreal decade must reverse the trend. To do this, nature needs champions, thousands of them. And the one champion most needed is federal environment minister, Tanya Plibersek.  

If Australia also fails this decade, if we continue to lose nature’s gifts, Graeme’s concerns may come to pass. We may need to rewrite the national anthem. 

Bruce Gall


  1. Taylor, MFJ (2021) Building Nature’s Safety Net 2020: The Promise of 2030. WWF-Australia., Sydney 

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.