Country Profiles

Australia - Country Profile

Biodiversity Facts

Status and trends of biodiversity, including benefits from biodiversity and ecosystem services

Australia’s biodiversity is both rich and unique; between 7 and 10 per cent of all species on Earth occur in Australia. A report prepared for the Australian Biological Resources Study in 2009 estimated that 566,398 species exist in the country. Australia’s biodiversity has developed largely in isolation over many millions of years, making it one of the world’s megadiverse countries with a high level of endemism across a broad range of taxa. Australian biodiversity has been influenced by the range and diversity of environmental conditions in Australia, which are different from most other countries due to characteristics such as nutrient-poor soils, natural climatic variability, high fire frequencies and a generally flat topography. Australia’s terrestrial and marine biodiversity is important both nationally and globally, establishing an obligation for its conservation and sustainable use.

Australia’s native vegetation is extraordinarily diverse, rich in species and complexity and has many unique physical features. Native vegetation is a vital component of the nation’s biodiversity with about 85% of Australia’s plant species endemic to the continent.

Although Australia retains much of the estimated original extent of native vegetation cover, its condition is variable and masks an underlying issue in the decline of many ecological communities. Vegetation clearance has not been evenly spread across Australia and, consequently, some individual vegetation communities now occupy less than 1% of their original estimated extent and many others are highly fragmented. In some cases, the threats to the condition and extent of these and other native vegetation communities are ongoing. Concerted action will be required to reduce this decline, especially as this is a challenge that is likely to be further complicated by climate change. The Australia State of the Environment Report 2011 provides details on the continental extent of Australian vegetation.

Of the original estimated extent of Australia’s native vegetation, 13% has been completely converted to other land uses, predominantly agriculture, and a further 62% has been subject to varying degrees of disturbance and modification. Only around 25% of the original estimated extent of native vegetation remains intact.

The loss and degradation of native vegetation is an ongoing threat to Australia’s biodiversity and to the productivity of industry. Agriculture, forestry, fisheries and tourism rely on productive and healthy native vegetation ecosystems and continue to provide great value to Australia’s economy and national development. Native vegetation not only underpins many social and economic aspects of Australian society but also plays a crucial role in sustaining ecosystem function and processes such as maintaining soils and purifying streams.

In the past decade, all Australian governments and the community have invested significantly in the sustainable use and conservation of native vegetation. For Indigenous Australians, who have managed and utilised native vegetation for tens of thousands of years, the land continues to play a profound spiritual, cultural and economic role. Many land users and managers across Australia value native vegetation and its role in maintaining the long-term productivity of their land. Industries have also undertaken activities to enhance and protect native vegetation. Nevertheless, further action is needed from all land users and managers — public and private — to build on previous achievements and ensure healthy and resilient native vegetation is retained over the Australian landscape in the long term.

Conservation efforts within Australia have increased since the last national report to the CBD. Despite this, the Australia State of the Environment 2011 report found that biodiversity is still in serious decline. The report found that, despite promising investment in addressing the main pressures on biodiversity, pressures are not being substantially reduced, nor is the decline in biodiversity being arrested or reversed. This decline is seen in all components of biodiversity – genes, species, communities and ecosystems – and the evidence from pressures suggests that many components of biodiversity continue to decline. The evidence from changes in extent, composition and quality of vegetation communities, and from case studies on selected species, points towards continuing decreases in population sizes, geographic ranges and genetic diversity, and increasing risks of population collapses in substantial proportions of most groups of plants, animals and other forms of life across much of Australia. The report concluded that the major future drivers of change – climate change, population growth, economic development and associated consumption of natural resources – must be carefully managed if a sustainable relationship between biodiversity and Australia’s human society is to be achieved.

Marine biodiversity and ecosystem health overall are in good condition, but nationally there are a number of areas on the coast, continental shelf and upper slope where the condition of some elements of biodiversity is very poor, as a result of the effects of specific human activities. Conditions remain poor to very poor for a number of iconic species that have failed to recover from earlier impacts of excessive hunting and fishing, and some species continue to decline. The Australia State of the Environment Report 2011 used five marine regions for assessment and reporting. These regions are based on Australia’s marine planning regions, but extend landward to the limit of the influence of marine waters. The status of marine biodiversity was assessed by examining marine habitat quality, species and populations, and the ecological processes that support species and populations. The overall assessment of biodiversity found that the north and north-west regions are in very good condition; the east and south-west regions are in good condition; and the south-east region is in poor condition (on a scale of very poor to very good).

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act) is the Australian Government’s central piece of environmental legislation. It provides a legal framework to protect and manage nationally and internationally important flora, fauna, ecological communities and heritage places – defined in the EPBC Act as matters of national environmental significance. Nationally threatened species and ecological communities are one of the 8 matters of national environmental significance (see information about species and ecological communities listed under the EPBC Act).

As a consequence of economic and social development, large areas of native vegetation in the eastern temperate zone have been cleared for urban development, industry and transport. Land use and population pressures have had substantial impacts on the biodiversity of coastal ecosystems. Freshwater habitats have also suffered in recent decades as a result of increasing salinity and nutrient levels, overextraction and alteration of natural flows.

Main pressures on and drivers of change to biodiversity (direct and indirect)

Major threats to biodiversity include climate change and enhanced climate variability; loss, fragmentation and degradation of habitats; introduction and spread of invasive alien species (Australia is host to 56 invasive vertebrate animal species and 32 invasive plants species defined as weeds of national significance); marine and coastal pollution; altered hydrology; inappropriate grazing and fire regimes; and population growth and the competing pressure of economic development.

Biodiversity has declined since European settlement, and information on environmental pressures suggest that many species continue to decrease in both population size and genetic diversity. Most pressures on biodiversity that arise directly or indirectly from human activities appear to still be strong and those that have declined in some areas, such as land clearing, have legacy effects that will continue for some years or decades. Despite promising investment by all jurisdictions in addressing the main pressures on biodiversity, pressures are not being reduced substantially, nor is the decline in biodiversity being arrested or reversed.

Measures to Enhance Implementation of the Convention

Implementation of the NBSAP

A revised strategy for the 2010-2030 period (Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010-2030) was agreed in October 2010. The vision of this Strategy is that Australia's biodiversity is healthy and resilient to threats, and valued both in its own right and for its essential contribution to human existence. The Strategy contains the following 10 interim national targets for implementation in the first five-year period (i.e. by 2015): (1) Achieve a 25% increase in the number of Australians and public and private organisations who participate in biodiversity conservation activities; (2) Achieve a 25% increase in employment and participation of Indigenous peoples in biodiversity conservation; (3) Achieve a doubling of the value of complementary markets for ecosystem services; (4) Achieve a national increase of 600,000 km2 of native habitat managed primarily for biodiversity conservation across terrestrial, aquatic and marine environments; (5) 1,000 km2 of fragmented landscapes and aquatic systems are being restored to improve ecological connectivity; (6) Four collaborative continental-scale linkages are established and managed to improve ecological connectivity; (7) Reduce by at least 10% the impacts of invasive species on threatened species and ecological communities in terrestrial, aquatic and marine environments; (8) Nationally agreed science and knowledge priorities for biodiversity conservation are guiding research activities; (9) All jurisdictions will review relevant legislation, policies and programs to maximise alignment with Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy; and (10) Establish a national long-term biodiversity monitoring and reporting system.

Three priorities for action have been identified in the revised strategy, namely, engaging all Australians in biodiversity conservation; building ecosystem resilience in a changing climate; and getting measurable results. Each of the priorities for action is supported by subpriorities, outcomes, measurable targets and actions.

Actions taken to achieve the 2020 Aichi Biodiversity Targets

Australia has a range of policies and programs in place to address ongoing decline in biodiversity and to meet targets for secure conservation of biodiversity. The Australia State of the Environment Report 2011 found that, as a result of this commitment, some improvements can be observed, for example in the area of adoption of sustainable agriculture practices.

Programs include Caring for our Country, a twenty-year initiative which supports a range of small to large-scale natural resource management activities. The goal of this initiative is to achieve ‘an environment that is healthier, better protected, well managed, resilient, and provides essential ecosystem services in a changing climate’. It is being ‘delivered in partnership with regional natural resources management groups; local, state and territory governments; Indigenous groups; industry bodies; land managers; farmers; landcare groups and communities. Caring for our Country has contributed significant levels of funding to enable Australia to meet conservation targets through the National Reserve System (including for terrestrial and marine reserves, and the Indigenous Protected Areas subprogram). Other funded activities include on-ground works that support conservation and restoration of biodiversity on public and private land, as well as community capacity-building and engagement, for example, through work with Indigenous communities as part of the Working on Country sub-program. The Australian Government supports a range of other major programs which either have biodiversity objectives, or are critical to addressing threats to biodiversity, for example, water conservation and management in urban and regional areas, biologically-diverse and farm-based carbon activities, and marine planning and conservation.

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) is the Australian Government's key piece of environmental legislation, which commenced 16 July 2000. The EPBC Act provides for the identification and listing of threatened species and ecological communities, the development of recovery plans for listed species and communities, the recognition of key threatening processes and, where appropriate, reducing the impact of these processes through the development and implementation of threat abatement plans. The international movement of wildlife and wildlife products for commercial purposes is also regulated under the EPBC Act and other legislation to meet CITES obligations.

The threat of pollution on the conservation of biodiversity is being addressed through the National Pollutant Inventory, whose goals include the maintenance and improvement of ambient air quality as well as marine, estuarine and fresh water quality.

A Marine Bioregional Planning Program has also been implemented under the EPBC Act. The two key outputs of the Program are the development of four marine bioregional plans (to guide decisions under the EPBC Act) and the identification and establishment of the Commonwealth marine resources network, which has seen more than 2.3 million square kilometers added to the Commonwealth’s marine protected areas. Marine bioregional plans were released in August 2012 for the South-west, North-west, North and Temperate East Marine Regions. These plans provide a comprehensive description of the conservation values, the pressures these values are under and priorities for further effort and investment. They include key conservation and heritage priorities, such as current and emerging pressures on the marine environment. The plans also provide advice to people wishing to undertake new activities within the marine regions about the relative risk of significant impact that certain activities may represent. The establishment of the Commonwealth marine reserves network in November 2012 also completes the Commonwealth waters component of the National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas (NRSMPA). The primary goal of the NRSMPA is to establish and effectively manage a comprehensive, adequate and representative system of marine reserves to contribute to the long-term conservation of marine ecosystems and to protect marine biodiversity. Following the establishment of the Commonwealth marine reserves network in November 2012, the number of marine reserves has expanded from 27 (including the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park) to 60, covering more than a third of Commonwealth waters.

Complementing the Marine Bioregional Planning Program, Australia is sustainably managing fisheries. Australia is implementing a coordinated ecosystem-based fisheries management (EBFM) approach across all its fisheries to ensure sustainable fisheries management. Implementation of EBFM has focused on a number of key initiatives, such as harvest strategies and ecological risk assessments. Commonwealth managed fisheries are subject to strategic environmental assessments, which assess the impacts of fishing on the marine environment against the EPBC Act through the Guidelines for the Ecologically Sustainable Management of Fisheries (2nd edition). The Commonwealth Policy on Fisheries Bycatch was released in 2000 to ensure that direct and indirect impacts of fisheries on marine systems are taken into account and managed accordingly. Additionally, the National Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks (Shark-plan 1) was released in 2004, and updated (Shark-plan 2) in 2012. It provides a framework for the long-term conservation of Australia’s shark populations and for guiding the industries and communities that impact upon them.

Support mechanisms for national implementation (legislation, funding, capacity-building, coordination, mainstreaming, etc.)

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) focuses national interests on the protection of matters of national environmental significance, with the states and territories having responsibility for matters of state and local significance. The EPBC Act is the primary mechanism at the national level for ensuring that environmental considerations, including biodiversity, are considered in planning and decision-making processes across all sectors. Under the EPBC Act, actions that have, or are likely to have, a significant impact (as defined by the legislation) on a matter of national environmental significance require approval from the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (the Minister). The Minister will decide whether assessment and approval is required under the EPBC Act.

Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010-2030, to which all Australian governments have agreed, provides a nationally-agreed approach to conserving Australia’s biodiversity in the face of climate change. The strategy emphasises that climate change is a major threat to Australia’s biodiversity, bringing with it a high risk of an accelerating wave of extinctions and disruptions to ecological processes throughout the 21st century and beyond. The strategy states that, in response, Australia needs to rapidly and effectively reduce human-induced elements of climate change; manage biodiversity to reduce existing threats and to maintain and restore the resilience of our terrestrial, aquatic and marine ecosystems; and protect natural ecosystems (and the carbon they contain) and recover carbon stores through revegetation.

Caring for Our Country is an ongoing Australian Government initiative that that brings together a raft of government programs into an integrated package with one clear goal, a business approach to investment, clearly articulated outcomes and priorities and improved accountability. The goal of this initiative is to achieve an environment that is healthier, better protected, well managed, resilient and provides essential ecosystem services in a changing climate. It is an ongoing Australian Government initiative that provided $2.2 billion in funding over its first five years (July 2008-June 2013). A review of the delivery of the first five years of Caring for Our Country found that the initiative had successfully brought together a range of government natural resource management and biodiversity programs into an integrated packed with one clear goal – a targeted approach to investment, clearly articulated national outcomes and priorities and improved accountability. The Australian Government has committed a further $2 billion to the next five years of Caring for our Country (July 2013-June 2018). Caring for Our Country will target investment under separate Sustainable Environment and Sustainable Agriculture streams. This change has been made in recognition of the ongoing need to improve coordination and integration across a broader range of sectors, for example, between biodiversity and carbon sectors.

All Australian governments have taken steps to limit further decline in the extent and condition of native vegetation. In addition to state and territory regulations restricting clearing of native vegetation, governments have invested in incentive and stewardship programs, extension support and research and development to help and reward farmers who invest in native vegetation management, and enhance the public good benefits of native vegetation on agricultural land. A range of private sector initiatives has emerged and farmers are taking private action to enhance the extent and condition of native vegetation and the ecosystem services it provides.

The Biodiversity Fund is a $946 million program being run over an initial six years and is part of the Australian Government’s Clean Energy Future Plan, announced by the Government in July 2011. The program seeks to protect biodiversity and reduce carbon pollution by funding projects that establish, restore, protect or manage biologically diverse carbon stores. It aims to build connectivity and landscape resilience to climate change. By improving connectivity between stands of native vegetation and improving the quality of existing remnant vegetation, the Biodiversity Fund will improve the ability of ecosystems to adapt to climate change. Improved landscape resilience to climate change will help maintain the productive capacity of the landscape and further enhance the ability of the land-based systems to store carbon. Funding will help land managers expand native habitat through planting mixed species vegetation appropriate to the region to build landscape connectivity and resilience. Funding will also support land managers to protect, manage and enhance existing native vegetation in high conservation areas for its carbon storage and biodiversity benefits. Funding is also directed towards the control of invasive pests and weeds in connected landscapes.

The National Wildlife Corridors Plan is an Australian Government initiative to support the reconnection of the Australian landscape. It lays the foundation for a new, collaborative, whole-of-landscape approach to the conservation of the nation's biodiversity by improving the resilience of the landscapes in a changing climate and repairing landscapes that have become fragmented. Creating a network of wildlife corridors will contribute to healthy and productive landscapes that support and sustain biodiversity, communities and wellbeing.

Australia’s Native Vegetation Framework, released in December 2012 and agreed by Australia’s national and state/territory governments, provides updated strategic guidance for the ecologically sustainable management of Australia’s native vegetation, recognising the essential role that native vegetation plays in conserving and promoting a biologically diverse and thriving natural landscape. The framework sets five goals and a series of measurable time-bound targets under each goal.

Mechanisms for monitoring and reviewing implementation

The Australian Government monitors progress in achieving biodiversity outcomes over time through regular reporting by the delivery agents. Various monitoring tools have also been elaborated in the framework of sectoral programs and action plans (e.g. Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010-2030 and Australia’s Native Vegetation Framework) and progress against targets will be publicly reported. Implementation of and reporting on progress will be coordinated under Australia’s Standing Council on Environment and Water, which reports to the Council of Australian Governments.

Australia has substantially moved towards specific, time-bound and measurable outcomes under the National Action Plan on Salinity and Water Quality (NAP), the Natural Heritage Trust (NHT) and, more recently, Caring for Our Country. To help guide and report on investment in natural resource management over time, the Australian Government, through Caring for Our Country, has developed the Natural Resource Management Monitoring, Evaluation, Reporting and Improvement Framework (MERI Framework). This broad, overarching document provides a generic framework for monitoring, evaluating, reporting on and improving Australia’s approach to managing key assets. It explains the overarching conceptual framework for evaluating natural resource management programs with an emphasis on learning, improvement and accountability and is intended to guide the development and implementation of program-level and investment-level evaluation plans. The MERI Framework also seeks to reinforce, review and refine natural resource management and investment strategies and practices to ensure that adaptive management occurs as part of continuous improvement.