The Australian Academy of Science maintains that addressing the decline in natural biodiversity is a pressing national and international imperative, requiring urgent action to reverse this trend. Australia should lead international efforts to give biodiversity a higher priority in global policy choices and actions, account for the real impact that biodiversity loss has on human systems, including the economy1 and reform biodiversity conservation domestically.
The Australian Academy of Science maintains that most pressing issues for humanity are inextricably linked to global biodiversity, including Australia’s megadiverse biome.
Understanding the richness of the living Earth, present and past, and ensuring its future is the task of a range of sciences. Maintaining and conserving global biodiversity requires a systems approach involving all sectors of society and scientific disciplines.
Australia is one of the only industrialised countries classified as biologically megadiverse. It has a globally unusually high number of species of animals, plants, and other organisms. Australia also has one of the highest documented rates of recent species extinction in the world and accounts for 35% of the world’s known and historically recorded mammal extinctions.2 Globally, the potentially irreversible change to ecosystem structure, composition and function imperil biodiversity, human health and well-being and the economy.3 Seventy per cent of Australia's species remain undiscovered, unidentified, unnamed, and unaccounted for.4 Australia’s natural environment is in an overall state of decline and is under increasing threat.
Biodiversity is crucial for human well-being and survival. Living organisms provide all foods, most medicines, many industrial products, and critical ecosystem services. Biodiversity is also integral to cultural, psychological, and artistic well-being. During the modern era, the world's biodiversity has diminished substantially, driven by the growth of the global human population, the increased exploitation of natural resources, and the wide dispersal of pests and diseases driven by globalisation.
Growth in global population, production, consumption, and trade has placed ongoing stresses on biodiversity and the ecosystems that sustain us. Pressure on environmental systems and landscapes through land clearing, wildlife trade and increased livestock production in almost every case leads to decreased environmental resilience, displacement of species and substantial modification of natural habitats. As well as having deleterious effects on biodiversity, these changes can lead to increased and deleterious impacts from biodiversity on humans, as when increased connectivity between pathogens and human populations causes zoonotic disease outbreaks (such as the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and the Zika and Ebola viruses).5
The current global rate of species extinction is estimated to be around 100-1000 times higher than background rates.6 Pressures on ecosystems are stronger than ever before, and even resilient ecosystems are experiencing widespread and rapid collapse. Climate change and increasing extreme weather are adding to longstanding pressures of environmental exploitation and habitat loss. Extinction of species reduces the total diversity of life on the planet and compromises ecosystems functioning at the very time when ecosystem function is under pressure from many directions.
The devastating 2019/2020 bushfires saw a significant loss of biodiversity and habitats across large parts of eastern Australia. When the re-assessment of affected species is complete, the total number of species listed as threatened in Australia is likely to increase.7 Marine heatwaves have had parallel impact on marine ecosystems including our iconic Great Barrier Reef. Preventing the decline of wild species requires complex solutions.
Transformational change to halt and reverse biodiversity loss will require cross-sectoral solutions built on integrated Earth system thinking, including consideration of the impact of human population trends, inequality, and socioeconomic inequity. Biodiversity and its destruction are inextricably linked to multiple Earth system interactions that couple human, economic and social activities to the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere. While this complexity makes tackling biodiversity loss challenging, it also provides opportunities for solutions.
Science-based opportunities include improving the documentation of Australia’s biodiversity, advancing sustainable agriculture, forestry and fishing; protecting and restoring natural habitats, addressing climate change; understanding the drivers and limits of consumption, including population size; and reinventing production systems.
Currently, Australia is failing to halt, slow or reverse biodiversity loss and species decline. Current legislative and regulatory instruments are not fit to deal with the conservation of known threatened species, let alone the many undiscovered species in Australia.8 To know whether attempts to halt and reverse biodiversity loss are effective, national and international monitoring networks need to be strengthened, the scientific infrastructure needed to monitor, understand and manage biodiversity need to be enhanced, and scientific evaluation of the drivers of biodiversity loss must continue.
There are clear opportunities for national and international cooperation to support a coherent national and global network for biodiversity documentation and observation, data management, forecasting and reporting. There are also opportunities for enhanced economic growth from, rather than at the cost of, biodiversity. The risks of inaction are very high – few risks are more important than a compromised and non-functional environment and planet.
This position paper was subject to expert review by the Australian Academy of Science and authorised by the Academy Council at its meeting of 7 October 2021.
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