Few countries can match Australia's natural wonders and diversity of wildlife. From our coastal eucalypt forests to the Great Barrier Reef, a staggering 600,000-plus species call Australia home. Many are found nowhere else on Earth.
Given our nation's wealth and land size, you'd expect that our native wildlife would be abundant and well protected. Sadly, this isn't the case.
Many of our iconic species are at risk of disappearing from large parts of Australia. New peer-reviewed research from WWF scientist Dr Michelle Ward has found that threatened birds have disappeared from almost 70 per cent of Australia. Ten birds have become locally extinct from 99 per cent of their historical habitat. The regent honeyeater, for example, was once found in flocks of thousands from Adelaide to north of Brisbane. Today, only 100 breeding pairs remain.
This problem isn't limited to birds. Australia is also marching mammal species towards extinction faster than any other country. Even the koala has moved one step further along the path to extinction, after being listed as an endangered species in the ACT, NSW, and Queensland. Koala numbers have halved in the past 20 years due to land clearing and the impacts of climate change.
More than a decade ago, world leaders met at the UN Biodiversity Conference and agreed to 20 targets to address biodiversity loss. Unsurprisingly, Australia failed to meet or measure every single one of these targets. Now the targets have expired, the conference is back. The question is, how will we fare this time?
Representatives from Australia will travel to Geneva in March for negotiations ahead of this year's UN Biodiversity Conference, COP 15.
Leaders from across the globe are expected to strike a deal to finally halt the extinction crisis and reverse declines. The Australian government's strategy at this summit, however, appears to be to weaken the proposed targets.
Australia supports a global target of 30 per cent protection of land and 30 per cent protection of sea areas by 2030. However, on the domestic front, we are only committing to a combined 30 per cent target across land and sea. This is to reduce the work the government needs to do to increase protections on land, as Australia already protects 36.7 per cent of sea areas, but less than 20 per cent of its land.
Other countries, such as the UK, US and Canada, are calling for more ambitious commitments, including a disaggregated target that would ensure every nation protects 30 per cent of land and 30 per cent of sea areas.
Australia, a wealthy nation, has also been reluctant to commit to specific targets around halting extinctions. We are even attempting to water down our financial commitments.
After 250 years of environmental destruction and degradation, Australians deserve better. We have so much to protect and must lift our ambition.
Australia should commit to stopping extinctions now, as the leaders of New Zealand and the European Union have committed to. Our target should be zero extinctions from this moment forward. It is achievable.
We also need to protect and manage at least 30 per cent of every Australian ecosystem on the land and sea by 2030. This is achievable if we expand our protected area footprint, including Indigenous Protected Areas.
Australia has a seat at the table to establish a Paris-style agreement for nature. We can and should play a leadership role in the global bid to reverse wildlife declines. And in doing so, we can Regenerate Australia, and secure a future that benefits both people and nature.
Goodness knows we need it.
- Rachel Lowry is chief conservation officer at WWF-Australia.