A five-year environmental report shows that Australia’s animals have the worst rates of decline compared to animals in the world’s richest countries, with the largest loss of mammal species of any continent.
Some animals, such as the blue-tailed lizard, are now only known to exist in captivity, while the rock rat and Christmas Island ‘flying fox’ bat are among the mammals most at risk of extinction in the next 20 years, largely due to introduced predator species.
The sandalwood tree is also in decline.
Australia’s plants and animals are increasingly affected by climate change
The report, which comes after drought, bushfires and floods have ravaged Australia over the past five years, said rising temperatures, changing fire and rainfall trends, rising sea levels and ocean acidification all have significant effects that will persist, informs Reuters.
“The State of the Environment Report is a shocking document, it tells a story of crisis and decline in Australia’s environment,” Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said, adding that the new Labor government would make the environment a priority.
New national parks and marine protected areas would be created, she said, to meet the goal of protecting 30 percent of Australia’s land and ocean waters by 2030.
Australia’s animals listed as threatened or at higher risk increased by an average of 8% from the previous report in 2016, with 533 animals and 1,385 plant species now listed. More than half of these are assessed as endangered or critically endangered.
The numbers will rise sharply as a result of the wildfires that hit in 2019-2020.
The “Black Summer” wildfires killed or displaced an estimated 1 billion to 3 billion animals and destroyed 9% of koala habitat.
“Those fires were an environmental time bomb that ripped through southeast Australia,” Plibersek said in a speech at the National Press Club in Canberra.
About $1.7 billion (Australian; about $1.2 billion US) a year is needed to revive threatened species, the report said. The new government has pledged to spend $250 million on endangered species, Plibersek said.
A not-so-pleasant picture of the Australian natural environment
The environmental report showed a dire picture of “poor” and “deteriorating” conditions for Australia’s plants and animals.
Average soil temperatures have risen by 1.4 degrees Celsius since the beginning of the 20th century.
“Sea levels continue to rise faster than the global average and threaten coastal communities,” the report said.
Many of the country’s most prized ecosystems, such as the Great Barrier Reef, which has been hit by mass coral bleaching, are threatened by climate change and environmental extremes, the statement said.
While coral reef health is declining due to marine heat waves, the report also highlighted the threat posed by ocean acidification caused by the absorption of carbon dioxide from the air, which it says is approaching a tipping point which would cause the decline of young corals, which are extremely important for reef recovery.
Warming oceans have hit kelp beds off the Southeast coast, hurting the lobster and “Ear of the Sea” industries, Plibersek said.
A wake-up call to save Australia’s animals
Scientists and environmental groups said the report was a wake-up call for the government to step up carbon cuts to curb climate change, overhaul laws to protect habitat and invest more money to protect species.
Plibersek said the government would develop new environmental legislation for 2023 after studying recommendations made by an independent review of existing law completed in January.
There have been calls from Green politicians to include a climate trigger in environmental legislation, which could apply when new coal mines or gas projects are approved, but Plibersek said the independent review said there were other laws to deal with climate change.
She said “no” when asked if the fastest way to reduce carbon emissions is to block new coal mines.