2020 and the year ahead: Reflections on nature

23 December 2020

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Here we reflect on some of the major Australian environmental news from the year – both good and bad. 

The year began with the worst bushfire season in our history: One of the most destructive periods for Australian nature with an estimated three billion animals, 20 per cent of the east coast’s native forests and large swathes of bush in Western Australia and South Australia burned. Then COVID-19 hit and the majority of us turned to nature for solace and inspiration. We reconnected to the natural world in unexpected ways and we suspect the sales in bird watching binoculars have gone through the roof!

AEGN members across the country have given funds as well as their extraordinary skills and talent to protecting our natural world throughout the year. While there remains so much more to be done, we hope AEGN members are proud of the role philanthropy has played in protecting our natural heritage for future generations. 

Nature is suffering the consequences of climate change

The year began with Australia’s worst bushfire season on record. An estimated three billion animals were killed in the fires that raged across the country. By the time the bushfires were largely extinguished, up to 17 million hectares were burnt. Meanwhile a comprehensive survey of the Great Barrier Reef revealed that half of the corals in the Reef have vanished in the past 25 years. The steepest losses in coral cover have been as a result of climate change induced coral bleaching in the past five years. 

Australia’s environmental laws are not protecting our environment

Graeme Samuel’s interim report on the independent review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) was released and his findings concur with what AEGN members know – that environmental laws are not protecting the environment now and cannot respond to future challenges. The report proposes a package of reforms designed to achieve better outcomes including stronger standards, better data and higher penalties for non-compliance, administered by an independent ‘cop on the beat’. 

However, throughout 2020 the Federal Government has threatened to water down protections for our environment by handing their decision-making powers to state and territory governments. Parliament has now finished for the year and new legislation was not introduced to the senate, which means the EPBC Act in its current form remains as is until next year!  

It is testament to the hard work of the Places You Love Alliance and all our members who have supported their work for years, that the Government did not have the support of enough members of the Senate to pass the legislation this year. Congratulations and thank you to all members who funded the Alliance and used your influence to secure this outcome. 

Mimal Land Management — Indigenous ranger group.

More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rangers and more job security 

In March, the Federal Government announced that Indigenous ranger contracts would be extended to March 2028. Given the recent history of short-term contract extensions for ranger positions, a guaranteed seven years of funding for existing ranger roles is significant. And it could not have come at a better time with communities, especially those in remote areas, greatly impacted by the economic uncertainty generated by the pandemic. While there is more to be done this was a positive move. Thanks to many members who have supported this call for more funding to support this work. 

This good news was followed by an election commitment by the Queensland Government to double funding for Queensland’s Indigenous Land and Sea Ranger program over four years. This will generate 100 new ranger positions, delivering better management of fire, feral animals, invasive weeds, threatened species and cultural sites.

Two massive new Indigenous Protected Areas declared

In October 2020, 7.3 million hectares of country was declared as Indigenous Protected Areas by Traditional Owners over Ngadju country in South West Western Australia and Ngururrpa in the West Australian Great Sandy Desert. 

Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) recognise the unbroken connection between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their country and create a framework for leadership that allows traditional owners to play a central role in managing their own country. There are now 78 IPAs covering 74.7 million hectares of country — just under half of all of Australia’s protected areas on land. 

Ngadju country contains large areas of the Great Western Woodlands, a biodiversity hot spot with a huge range of flora and fauna found nowhere else on earth. The area hosts around one fifth of Australia’s known plant species and around 75 per cent of our nation’s remaining woodlands.

Ngururrpa country varies from the wetter north to the drier south, it contains spinifex and sandplain, ground and surface water, and bush tucker like karnti (bush potato). 

An upside to the catastrophic black summer bushfires has been growing recognition of the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in fire management. Since the fires, new partnerships are being built between rural fire services and Indigenous rangers and knowledge and expertise around fire is being shared, laying the groundwork for stronger, ongoing relationships that further support traditional fire and other First Nations land management practices. 

Catalysing Change – A national independent water and catchment policy centre.

The driest continent on Earth now has a national independent water and catchment policy centre 

In one of the most exciting and forward-thinking initiatives we have seen in environmental philanthropy, The Ian Potter Foundation and The Myer Foundation shared a vision for a new, independent, authoritative and trusted centre that can rebuild trust and work collaboratively with all stakeholders to find common ground on water and catchment policy reforms. In 2020, a coalition of 15 philanthropic funders committed to investing in the future by establishing a national and fully independent policy centre focused on helping improve the way decisions are made about water and catchments across Australia.

Nature is undervalued 

Federal and state budgets continue to undervalue our natural assets. For example, in this year’s budget, Australia’s 16 natural World Heritage sites will receive just $33.5 million — less than the $40.6 million promised to maintain and restore historical sites across Sydney Harbour. In addition to this, the federal government cut 29 per cent of funding to environmental studies courses — one of the largest funding cuts to any university course. And to make matters worse, recent university research shows that ecologists and conservation experts in government, industry and universities are routinely constrained in communicating scientific evidence on threatened species, mining, logging and other threats to the environment. 

Our World Heritage Sites are in danger 

The Great Barrier Reef is now in “critical” condition and the health of four other Australian World Heritage properties has worsened, according to a sobering report released in December 2020 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 

The IUCN is the global authority on nature. Its third outlook report marks the first time the IUCN has declared an Australian property as critical, which means its values are severely threatened and deteriorating. The health of the Blue Mountains, Gondwana Rainforests, Shark Bay and the Ningaloo Coast has also been downgraded. 

A growing army of conservationists are quietly protecting our natural world.

Numbats are back

Members are familiar with the work of our private land conservation managers – see Australian Land Conservation Alliance for the national and state – based organisations. Did you know that between them they manage at least three million hectares of high conservation value land, employ over 700 staff and countless volunteers, have at least 50,000 supporters and manage at least 3000 parcels of land? While the urgent need for action to protect our unique and cherished Australian plants and animals grows, we have these wonderful organisations and people, many backed by philanthropy to get the job done on private land.

Here is just one small example…. 

In a pocket-sized dose of good news – numbats are being introduced back into a remote national park in New South Wales after vanishing from the state over 100 years ago. Just five of the marsupials were reintroduced to the Mallee Cliffs National Park within a fully fenced area protected from predators like cats and foxes. The numbats are being bred as part of a plan by the NSW Government to boost the populations of ten threatened species in partnership with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy which many members support. 

Oil giant Equinor abandoned drilling in the Great Australian Bight 

Equinor kicked off 2020 by announcing they were abandoning plans to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight Marine Park. The Bight is a sanctuary for whales and Equinor became the third major oil company to abandon oil drilling in the area following BP and Chevron’s earlier decisions. This was the result of years of campaigning by a major alliance of Traditional Owners, environmental and community groups.  

Patagonia Australia, AEGN member, and several other members, have been a long term supporter and funder of the work to protect the Great Australian Bight from oil drilling.  

Victory for leadbeaters possum

The small-but-mighty critically endangered leadbeaters possum has been given a small reprieve following the suspension of logging parts of its remaining habitat in the central highlands of Victoria. Legal action earlier this year was successful in arguing that logging the animal’s habitat was in breach of Federal environmental law. The Federal court found VicForests’ operations at 26 logging coupes were in breach of the code of practice. Other states are now considering similar legal action, see Tasmania below. 

Plastic bans are gathering momentum

The Western Australian Government announced Australia’s most ambitious plan to phase out single use plastics. The first stage, to be complete by 2023 includes a ban on plastic plates, cutlery, stirrers, straws, thick plastic bags, polystyrene food containers, and helium balloon releases. In the second stage (2024-2026), the state will ban single-use plastic barrier and produce bags, microbeads, polystyrene packaging, cotton buds with plastic shafts and oxo-degradable plastics. Other states are implementing bans on certain types of plastics in recognition of the environmental and wildlife impacts of plastics. 

Tasmania’s Regional Forest Agreements put to the test

A legal case in Tasmania is seeking to end all native forest logging in the state by arguing that logging is not being conducted in accordance with Federal environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. If successful, the case could lead to similar legal action in other states. The case will now be heard until 2021 so we will have to wait and see the ruling. 

Many members have contributed to this legal case through the Project Clearinghouse – thank you.

Deforestation laws stay in place and land restoration kicks off 

The re-election of the Queensland Labor Government means that deforestation laws which have saved tens of millions of hectares of forest and bushland each year are safe. The Queensland Government also announced the first tranche of funding under its $500 million Land Restoration Fund. $93 million was awarded to 21 projects that store land carbon, protect wildlife habitat, and provide other co-benefits. This work would not have happened without the support and funding of the Tree-Clearing Challenge organised by the Purves Environment Fund and supported by 28 members.  

Kingvale forests were saved 

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley rejected a proposal to bulldoze nearly 2000 hectares of old growth forest at Kingvale Station in North Queensland in a Great Barrier Reef catchment, which is home to multiple threatened species. Olkola Traditional Owners and a constellation of environment groups have campaigned to protect the area, including the Deforestation Alliance Groups which many members have proudly supported through the Purves challenge grant. This is an important decision for the natural values of the area and an example of why federal oversight of environmental decisions is so essential.  

46,000 years of Indigenous history was destroyed 

Mining giant Rio Tinto destroyed Juuken Gorge in the Pilbara despite the site being home to 46,000 years of heritage for the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples. The tragic issue has exposed the poor protection for Indigenous Heritage sites across Australia and in Western Australia in particular, and has increased international pressure for stronger heritage protections.  

The opportunities for 2021 and beyond  

While our natural world faces a dire trajectory, we have a window of opportunity to make a difference: 

Climate change 

Climate change is like a bulldozer and it will wipe out much of our fauna and flora. As a funder, set aside some of your funding each year to address climate change. We will produce a climate change funding framework in early 2021 to help you find your point of intervention.

UN Biodiversity Conference 

The UN Biodiversity Conference (CBD COP 15) will be held in May 2021 and will review the achievement and delivery of the CBD’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and will offer a major opportunity to raise the stakes in action on protecting our natural world. For example, a new campaign has recently emerged called Nature Needs Half, inspired by several friends of the AEGN Harvey Locke and Gary Tabor. What can do as a funder? You can ask your favourite nature conservation group if they need funds to participate in CBD COP 15. We hope to provide members with an opportunity to participate too so stay tuned! 

New alliances 

Several important alliances are emerging in the nature conservation sector including the Australian Land Conservation Alliance (ACLA). Working together to provide backbone support is increasingly important in this complex world especially where urgent action is required. Want to support them? Several members can chat to you about how they have supported ALCA and other alliances including the Purves Tree Clearing Alliance and the Water and Catchment Policy Centre. 

First Nations People 

We have a major opportunity to learn from our First Nations friends on how to live side-by-side with nature, as they have done for at least 60,000 years. Now is the time to ramp up our connections with, respect for and support of our First Nations community. Many members have funded in this are.

Birds, bats, marsupials, plants and insects and all our fellow travellers on Earth 

Australia is blessed as one of the most biodiverse continents in the world. And we have thousands of experts, groups, associations and alliances that know how to protect and care for our natural world. As a funder you can join one of these groups, immerse yourself in nature and provide funding to one of these many organisations. Many members fund in this area – groups such as Birdlife Australia, National Parks Associations, Landcare and advocates for the marine environment.

Laws, litigation and our parliamentary system 

The legal framework that protects our environment is critical. As a funder you can support advocacy to improve these legal frameworks, litigation to make sure the law is used, as well as organisations that work in this area such as the Environment Defenders Office.

Contact Jess for more information: 

Sustainable food systems 

The past year has seen a marked increase in interest, activity and opportunities around building a sustainable agriculture and food systems approach for Australia. The Morris Family Foundation and several other members are at the forefront of this positive change and have developed a ground – breaking strategy looking at how to achieve a better approach to agriculture in Queensland. Want to know more?

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