List of endangered species grows despite improving state of environment, says annual report

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Is Australia’s environment really in better shape today than it was after the last devastating bushfires and drought?

According to Australia’s Environment Report 2021, compared to 2020 – a time when parts of the country were a combination of charcoal and dust – things are looking good.

From a score out of 10, the environmental condition jumped four points compared to the previous year, receiving a 6.9 in 2021.

Conservationists warn against complacency, as the recovery of Australia’s landscape has been mainly attributed to high and widespread rainfall and cooler temperatures.

These conditions are likely to be short-lived, the Bureau of Meteorology expects precipitation conditions to normalize with the reaching of La Nina peak.

Soil moisture and vegetation protection improved or remained stable almost everywhere in Australia. (Provided: John Spencer)

The Australian National University study highlighted some deeply troubling trends.

Animals are the telling factor

Ecologist Shoshana Rapley helped lead the annual scan using vast amounts of satellites and ground stations to gauge the state of the environment.

ANU researcher Shoshana Rapley holds a bird with a hat in an animal enclosure
ANU researcher Shoshana Rapley said the snapshot highlights the decline in many aspects of Australia’s ecology. (Provided: Shoshana Rapley)

It revealed that in 2021 the oceans were storing 6.5% more heat year over year, and we had the sixth warmest year on record.

Ms Rapley said one of the main concerns highlighted was the continued and rapid decline in animal and plant species, a major indicator of the current situation.

Over the past five years, 34 new species have become threatened, including eight species of birds, four of frogs and two of fish.

No animal has been removed from the endangered species list.

A koala in a gum tree
Koala populations in three states are considered threatened following extreme habitat loss during the Black Summer bushfires. (ABC Riverina: Shannon Corvo)

Koalas are now considered endangered, along with the gang-gang cockatoo.

The Nature Conservation Council said there remained a lack of political will to deal with the dire reality.

“The government is spending $50 million on improving koala habitat and $2 billion on diesel fuel subsidies,” Tremain said.

Overview of the ANU Environmental Indicators Chart
The Australian Environment Report is based on indicators showing a relative change in average conditions from 2000 to 2020. (Provided: Australian Environment Report 2021)

Despite above average rainfall and runoff in eastern Australia, waterbirds also continued to decline in numbers.

Ms Rapley warned that the reprieve from dry conditions may not actually benefit species.

Aerial shot of water coming into the floodplains, the pattern of the water is like a green tree stretching across the gray land
National riverine flows have increased by 75% compared to 2020 levels. (Provided: Evil Carnegie )

She said conditions would need to last much longer for Australia’s biodiversity as a whole to recover from an increasingly harsh climate.

Not all bad news

Vegetation growth was well above average, with improved conditions in all major growing regions except South Australia.

Photo of a wheat farm
The agricultural industry has had a good year with growth rates averaging around 20%, but carbon emissions from the industry have increased. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

National river inflows were nearly 30% higher than in the past two decades, but wetland flooding was still well below average.

Tree cover has recovered after bushfire losses in south-eastern Australia and along the south-west coast of Western Australia.

But Ms Rapley said it would just provide more fuel for the fires in future seasons as drier conditions return.

The snapshot, she hoped, would serve as a catalyst for policymakers and the public to make meaningful change.

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