More than 1,500 of Australia’s unique ecosystems, both land and sea, are not represented in any of the nation’s protected areas, according to new research.
The study, by WWF-Australia, comes as countries are meeting this week for the first stage of the United Nations biodiversity conference, hosted by China in Kunming. The talks aim to set new targets for protecting and restoring nature.
Environment ministers, including Australia’s Sussan Ley, will meet virtually and are expected to sign a Kunming declaration, a formal statement setting out the ambitions of the conference – known as Cop15 – as countries work towards a new global framework to halt the loss of biodiversity.
Environment groups say Australia, as the only developed, megadiverse country that has ratified the UN convention on biological diversity (CBD), should be taking a leadership role in the development of targets to increase protection of nature, particularly on land.
The WWF-Australia report has found that many nationally significant species and ecosystems have no protections at all because they occur outside designated protected areas, such as national parks.
The research finds 1,542 out of 6,001 terrestrial ecosystems have no protection and only 2,218 are meeting what WWF considers to be minimum standards of protection, that is at least 15% of an ecosystem’s original extent has been protected.
For marine ecosystems, 499 out of 920 had reached the minimum standard while 115 had no protection.
The findings are reached through a spatial data analysis WWF conducts every few years using publicly available data on protected areas.
The research has been released to coincide with the global biodiversity conference, which is working towards a milestone to protect 30% of all land and sea areas by 2030.
Australia has said it supports this as a global target, but has not indicated if it would support such a commitment domestically.
Rachel Lowry, WWF-Australia’s chief conservation officer, said the gaps in protected areas were “a compelling reason” for Australia to support domestic targets.
“Australia is a prosperous nation with the means to meet the full target. Supporting an international target yet failing to commit to it domestically is a double standard.”
WWF’s report also examined 84 of Australia’s listed threatened ecological communities and found only 13 had minimum standards of protection and two had no protection of their known or likely habitat.
Out of 1,937 species of national significance – which includes threatened and migratory species – 129 had no protection of their known or likely habitat.
The biodiversity talks are working towards a new post-2020 global framework for nature that will replace targets set in Aichi, Japan, in 2010.
Those targets were largely unmet by countries.
Further meetings will be held in the new year before countries meet in April 2022 in Kunming where it is hoped the new deal will be agreed.
“As a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity, we are committed to finalising an ambitious Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) due to be adopted during the second half of this conference in April 2022,” a spokesperson for Ley said.
“This is the next key step in reaching the CBD’s 2050 vision of living in harmony with nature.”
He added: “Australia fully supports a High Ambition Coalition global target of protecting 30% of the world’s land and 30% of the world’s oceans to support biodiversity as part of that vision”.
Labor’s environment spokesperson, Terri Butler, said Australia had failed to meet past targets for nature – including the global Aichi targets – and environment spending had been slashed under Coalition governments.
“Despite this government’s failures they must now be part of a global call for increased biodiversity conservation, as the parties to the Convention develop the post-2020 global biodiversity framework,” Butler said.
“Australians expect their government to show leadership and call for an ambitious and strong set of global goals and targets for the next decade, to address the biodiversity crisis facing the world.”
Nathaniel Pelle, a nature campaigner at the Australian Conservation Foundation, said the conference was the most important meeting on biodiversity in a decade and Australia, known for its unique landscapes and wildlife, had much to lose.
“Setting a target to halt and reverse the destruction of nature is important because our animals, plants, landscapes and oceans are under threat like never before,” he said.
“ACF urges minister Ley to champion a new agreement with an unambiguous goal to halt and reverse biodiversity destruction by 2030 and match that with domestic commitments, including a target to protect 30% of our land, as other nations have done.”