Threatened species have declined 2% a year since 2000. Nature positive? Far from it.


Closeup of a colourful Gouldian finch (Chloebia gouldiae) standing on a narrow branch

An endangered Gouldian finch

Megan Evans
Brendan Wintle
Hugh Possingham
Megan Evans, Brendan Wintle, Hugh Possingham,

When Labor took office, it promised to reverse nature’s decline. But that looks more and more like greenwashing.

Threatened species have declined 2% a year since 2000. Nature positive? Far from it.

Our government has great aspirations. It has committed to and expand our protected areas to cover 30% of every Australian ecosystem by 2030. This is part of its , aligned with the 2022 Kunming-Montreal . The goal is not just to conserve nature but to restore what is being lost.

But how can these goals be reconciled with a budget that more public money to carbon capture and storage than biodiversity?

This week’s federal budget was a new low point for investment in nature. Environmental groups roundly criticised the “”, which delivered to protect and recover Australia’s unique and threatened biodiversity.

Australians want at least 2% of the federal budget spent on nature. Instead, of the budget spend will support biodiversity in some way. Over the past decade, biodiversity funding has gone down 25% relative to GDP.

Let’s say the government decided it was finally time to roll up the sleeves and do something. How would they go about it? What would it take to actually reverse the decline, as the government says it wants to in its Nature Positive approach?

Our threatened species populations have been declining by about over the past 20 years. The first step is to stop the fall. Then the challenge is to restore dwindling species and ecosystems.

The Dow Jones for threatened species goes down, down, down

Australia now has a . Think of it like the Dow Jones for wildlife. It uses trend data from bird, mammal and plant species collected from over 10,000 sites to measure progress for nature in Australia.

Last year, Treasurer Jim Chalmers talked up the index as part of the , which aimed to measure Australia’s progress across a range of social, health and sustainability indicators.

What does the index tell us? You can see for yourself. The health of our threatened species has fallen by since the turn of the century.

If, as is likely, the trend continues, it will lead to the extinction of many more of our unique native animals and plant species. It will signal the failure of the government’s Nature Positive policy and a global biodiversity tragedy.

Given we have had decades of successive decline, what would be needed to reach the goal of nature positive?

Nature positive actually has a . It would:

halt and reverse nature loss measured from a baseline of 2020, through increasing the health, abundance, diversity and resilience of species, populations and ecosystems so that by 2030 nature is visibly and measurably on the path of recovery.

This definition gives us a clear, measurable timeline for action, often described as .

To reach nature positive means halting biodiversity loss by 2030 so that in the future there is much more biodiversity, relative to a 2020 baseline.

What would that look like using the Threatened Species Index? To get on track with nature positive, we would have to stop the index declining, stabilise, and then increase from 2030 onwards.

Of course, are needed to effectively prevent further loss of habitat.

But we also need to invest in restoring what has been lost. Scientists think this is possible with to recover our most threatened native plants and animals, and another to drive ecosystem restoration across Australia.

The budget is not nature positive

In the , the government uses the Threatened Species Index as a performance measure for its nature positive goal. It expects the trajectory of the index to be “maintained or improved” out to 2027-28.

But given our species and ecosystems are steadily declining, year after year, to maintain a trajectory is simply to embrace the decline. ’s not nature positive at all. The government could make minor improvements, slowing the collapse, and claim it was improving the lot of nature.

Imagine if our GDP growth was negative and the government’s goal was merely to slow its decline over the next five years – there would be national uproar.

If the government is serious about nature positive – which is an excellent goal – it would be setting more ambitious targets. For instance, the goal could be for the index to climb back up to 2020 levels by the end of the decade.

Instead, Labor is planning for biodiversity decline to continue, while describing it as “nature positive”.

Watching over the steady decline of our species and calling it nature positive makes about as much sense as and calling it net zero.

Greenwashing Nature Positive

Unfortunately, this is not the first time the government has engaged in .

In coming weeks, the government will introduce bills to parliament to establish two new agencies, Environment Information Australia and Environmental Protection Australia. But there will be one bill missing – the , intended to give teeth to the nature positive push.

The laws were , to the shock of and environmental groups.

But let’s be generous and say these laws finally make it to parliament after the next election. Would they be enough to stop our species losses and put the Threatened Species Index onto a nature positive trajectory?

Australia’s reformed environmental laws are described as Nature Positive. Are they? Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water,

’s .

The show the government is aiming to deliver “net positive outcomes”, whereby development impacts to threatened species and ecosystems are more than compensated for.

But we don’t know the detail. How much improvement is the government aiming for? In the draft laws, this figure is listed simply as “at least X%”.

Time to aim higher

It is hard not to over the government’s backtracking on to:

not shy away from difficult problems or accept environmental decline and extinction as inevitable.

But we cannot give up. As the plight of nature worsens, even iconic species such as the koala and platypus are now at risk. As , our food security, health and wellbeing, communities and businesses will suffer.

Perhaps one day we will have a government able to grasp the nettle and – for the sake of all of us. The Conversation

, Senior Lecturer, Public Sector Management, School of Business, ; , Professor in Conservation Science, School of Ecosystem and Forest Science, , and , Professor of Conservation Biology,

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