Monthly Archives: June 2019

Vale Peter Hitchcock AM

PeterHitchcock_John Benson_croppedInternationally recognised conservationist, Peter Hitchcock AM, died on 20 May 2019.

In 1988, Peter Hitchcock was appointed Executive Director of the interim body that later became the Wet Tropics Management Authority (WTMA). Peter had a close association with ARCS through President Aila Keto who was a member of the interim body and later the WTMA Board.

World Heritage listing of the Wet Tropics of Queensland followed years of campaigning and negotiation and was strongly opposed by the Queensland Government led by Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Peter recorded being told by the then State Environment Minister that he had no chance of success and that no-one in North Queensland wanted the World Heritage Area. “It was like walking into an ants’ nest that had been stirred up.” But Peter started talking to local landholders and found the mood to be quite different.

Peter began his career as a forester in the NSW government in the 1960s. When he became more interested in conserving forests rather than logging them, he moved to the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service where he rose to the position of Deputy Director (Policy and Wildlife). Over his years in the NPWS, Peter was responsible for the establishment of numerous national parks many of which are now part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area. Peter worked closely with the Wran Government and would have had a significant influence on the 1982 decision by Neville Wran to protect rainforests in northeast NSW.

In 1987, Peter was seconded by the federal government led by Bob Hawke to serve on the Commonwealth Commission of Inquiry into the Lemonthyme and Southern Forests of Tasmania to inquire into the possible World Heritage values of the areas and how they could be protected. Peter produced a dissenting report recommending protection of the forests and World Heritage nomination. Most of Peter’s recommendations were accepted by the Commonwealth and in 1989 the areas were added to the Western Tasmanian Wilderness National Parks World Heritage Area created in 1982 to become the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA).

Peter was also instrumental in achieving additions to TWWHA in 2013.

In 2014, the Australian Government led by Tony Abbott put a proposal to the World Heritage Committee to de-list 74,000 hectares of the TWWHA in order to allow logging. The Committee took less than 10 minutes in making a decision to reject the proposal. ARCS was officially represented at the meeting by a delegation headed by Alec Marr, Director of ARCS International World Heritage Programme, and including Peter Hitchcock.

When Peter left WTMA, he established a consultancy practice in Cairns with a focus on natural heritage.

Peter’s contribution to World Heritage was recognised in a tribute by IUCN: “With decades of contributions, both internationally and in his native country of Australia, Peter Hitchcock served over many years as a senior advisor on World Heritage for IUCN. During this time, he undertook numerous missions throughout the globe to monitor the state of conservation of World Heritage sites and evaluate sites nominated for the World Heritage List. He continued to contribute to the reviews of potential new sites up to this very year.”

Peter received a range of awards including Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1990, the IBM Award for Environmental Excellence in 1993 and the IUCN Packard International Parks Merit Award in 1996.

Peter will be sorely missed around the world.

Doha_delegation

Australian delegation at the World Heritage Committee meeting in Doha, Qatar, June 2015.
Left to right: Peter Hitchcock, Lincoln Siliakus, Alec Marr, Jenny Weber.


Keith Scott

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Vale Margaret Thorsborne AO

margaret_1997Passionate and devoted conservationist, Margaret Thorsborne AO, died last October. Margaret joined ARCS in 1985 and remained a loyal supporter until her recent ill health.

Born in 1927, Margaret grew up in Brisbane and later, after training as a nurse, moved to Southport on the Gold Coast. Margaret has recorded her great admiration for, and inspiration from, her parents who both served in World War I, her mother as a nurse on the Western Front and her father at Gallipoli.

In 1963, Margaret married Arthur Thorsborne and together they became involved in the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland (WPSQ) which had been formed in 1962 by poet Judith Wright, wildflower artist Kathleen McArthur, naturalist David Fleay and founder of Jacaranda Press, Brian Clouston. They were instrumental in forming the Gold Coast branch of WPSQ.

In 1964, the Thorsbornes made their first visit to North Queensland, camping on Hinchinbrook Island. That sparked their devotion to protection of the island and the associated coastal environment. They moved to live permanently at Meunga Creek north of Cardwell and built a cottage in the rainforest called ‘Galmara’, Aboriginal for poet, singer of songs.

In 1965, Judith Wright, artist John Busst and rainforest ecologist Len Webb began a campaign to save the Great Barrier Reef, initially from fertiliser mining on Ellison Reef and later from oil drilling supported by Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Margaret became involved in the campaign as well as other campaigns to conserve wildlife habitat in the region.

MargaretatNinneyRise_reduced

Margaret holding a self-portait by John Busst beside a plaque placed in his memory by Judith Wright at Ninney Rise, the Busst’s home near Bingil Bay

The Thorsbornes became interested in the fate of the Pied Imperial-Pigeon. These birds nest on offshore islands and fly to the mainland to feed. In 1965, the Thorsbornes began counts of the Pied Imperial-Pigeon on North Brook Island, an exercise that became an annual event and which continues to this day.

pigeons_thorsbornes

Margaret and Arthur Thorsborne counting pigeons at North Brook Island

The count of the pigeons was 4692 in 1965-66 but declined to 1451 in 1968-69 largely as a result of shooting. It is recorded that up to 1100 birds were shot at a time but large-scale shooting stopped in 1968. Populations have since recovered with current counts greater than 40,000 but their presence at various sites is affected by cyclone damage. Dr John Winter is currently working to ensure that the counts are established on a permanent and sound scientific basis so that they will continue to provide invaluable data on these birds long into the future.

Margaret&John

Margaret and Dr John Winter counting pigeons at North Brook Island
Photo: Bryony Barnett

Margaret has been involved in a wide range of conservation activities including efforts to educate people in the significance of the local environment and the importance of protecting it. She was particularly involved in cassowary conservation, collecting seeds of their food plants to replant seedlings, one of her many habitat restoration activities. She was also involved in conservation efforts to protect the endangered Mahogany Glider.

The Thorsbornes were devoted to the protection of Hinchinbrook Island and documented the island’s values in their book, Hinchinbrook Island: The Land Time Forgot, which was published in 1988. Arthur died in 1991 and in recognition of his contribution to conservation, the Thorsborne Trust was established. The Trust provides support for a wide range of conservation activities.

The Thorsbornes are commemorated by the Thorsborne Trail, a 32-km walking track along the eastern side of Hinchinbrook Island. Sadly, the Thorsborne Trail is one of the sites chosen by the Queensland Government to establish privately owned commercial accommodation in national parks.

In the early 1990s, Margaret faced one of the most challenging times of her life when developer Keith Williams took over a failed resort development and marina, Port Hinchinbrook, at Oyster Point on the shores of Hinchinbrook Channel. The development involved destruction of mangroves and dredging of the channel with a likely impact on the dugong population within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Margaret ‘blockaded’ the mangrove site facing the bulldozers in a daily vigil.

In 2011, Margaret was awarded the honour of Officer in the Order of Australia “For distinguished service to conservation and the environment through advocacy roles for the protection and preservation of wildlife and significant natural heritage sites in Australia, as a supporter of scientific research, and to the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland”.

Margaret was well known for her hand-painted envelopes carrying a conservation message and we appreciated receiving her annual subscription in one of her envelopes, at times including a paper cut-out of a white pigeon.

Conservationist and close friend of Margaret, Liz Downes, concluded her obituary for Margaret with the following:

Margaret lived her life simply, with grace and humility, in absolute accord with her conservation principles – yet her influence was felt far beyond local boundaries and indeed, where her work advanced the cause of threatened species, migratory birds or World Heritage areas it was of national and international importance. Margaret represented the epitome of what it is to be passionate, inspiring and committed and her life will long remain as an outstanding example of service to country and community.

Keith Scott

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The Climate Crisis

Governments must acknowledge that ‘Business as Usual’ is unacceptable

The IPCC Special Report

In October 2018, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a Special Report (SR15) on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C. Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above preindustrial levels. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate.

In 2016, more than 160 parties to the Paris Agreement reaffirmed “the goal of limiting global temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius, while pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees”. The IPCC report provides assessments of the difference in impacts likely to occur between 1.5°C and 2°C temperature rise. For example,

  • global sea level rise by 2100 would be 10 cm lower at 1.5°C compared with 2°C,
  • the likelihood of the Arctic Ocean free of sea ice in summer would be once a century at 1.5°C compared with at least once per decade at 2°C,
  • coral reefs would decline by 70–90 per cent at 1.5°C compared with greater than 90 per cent at 2°C,
  • of 105,000 species studied, 6 per cent of insects, 8 per cent of plants and 4 per cent of vertebrates are projected to lose over half of their climatically determined geographic range for global warming of 1.5°C, compared with 18 per cent of insects, 16 per cent of plants and 8 per cent of vertebrates for global warming of 2°C.

The graph below illustrates the impacts on a range of natural, managed and human systems.

IPCC_impacts

In order to limit global warming to 1.5°C, CO2 emissions will need to be reduced by 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. The IPCC report emphasises the need for essentially drastic change: “Limiting global warming to 1.5ºC would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” and “rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport and cities”. It has been increasingly recognised over recent years that natural systems such as forests will play an essential role in achieving a reduction in Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

Native forests, especially primary (undisturbed) forests, need to be left alone to allow them to continue absorbing CO2. Trees remove CO2 from the atmosphere, accumulate carbon and store it for up to hundreds of years. In the light of the likely impacts of climate change, logging and clearing native forests is simply irresponsible.

ARCS is a partner in the Griffith University project, Information, Policy and Onground Action for Primary Forest Protection. The project is led by Professor Brendan Mackey who is Co-ordinating Lead Author for a chapter in the next IPCC report.

Planting trees, such as the Federal Government’s “20 Million Trees Program”, while helpful in the long-term, will not have an impact within the required timeframe. We have just 11 years to halve net CO2 emissions. It is essential that existing carbon stores in our native forests be protected and allowed to increase. It will not be possible to meet the 1.5°C target without the protection of existing primary forests. And that protection must start now.

 Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, 129 countries signed a UN agreement on Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) with 17 goals being defined. The SDG Index, which ranks countries on each goal and overall on all goals, is published annually.

In the 2018 SDG Index, Australia’s overall performance was ranked at 37 out of 156 countries ranked. On the goal of Climate Action, Australia ranks last when exports (coal and gas) are included.

 Australia’s response to IPCC

Clearly, we are facing an extremely serious situation. Unfortunately — distressingly — the Australian Government, along with many other governments, notably USA, has not acknowledged the unavoidable disaster that will result from ‘Business as Usual’. In fact, government ministers have essentially rejected the scientific findings in the IPCC report.

When in October 2018 then Federal Environment Minister, Melissa Price, was questioned about the IPCC report, she questioned the conclusions reached by the 91 scientists involved. In response to the IPCC finding that coal needs to be phased out by 2050, Minister Price said “To say that it’s got to be phased out by 2050 is drawing a very long bow” and “That would be irresponsible of us to be able to commit to that.” She expressed confidence in technology being developed to allow ‘clean coal’. In July 2017, Queensland Labor Government committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Federal Resources Minister, Matt Canavan, responded saying “Instead of trying to save the planet in 2050 the QLD labor should just concentrate on saving jobs today!”.

And Matt Canavan is leading the push for a new coal-burning power station in North Queensland.

Australia and Coal

Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal. That coal is burnt somewhere in the world, contributing to climate change. But our commitment to the Paris Agreement does not include our contribution through our coal exports.

It is commonly argued that Australia produces only 1.3 per cent of global emissions and reducing our emissions will not make much difference. But Australia produces around 7 per cent of the world’s coal, all of which is burnt somewhere in the world. Australia is actually a significant contributor to global warming through our exports of coal and LNG. And Australian governments including the Queensland Government are hell-bent on increasing our exports of both coal and LNG.

In the lead up to the Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris in 2015, Anote Tong, President of the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati, wrote to world leaders seeking support for a global moratorium on new coal mines.

Just prior to the Paris meeting, President Tong was in Australia to promote the moratorium. In response, the then FederalResources Minister, Josh Frydenberg, said “Well we’re opening new mines where there’s the necessary investment because there’s global demand for it.”

Apart from the recently approved Adani Carmichael coal mine, there are several new coal mines being considered in the Galilee Basin and the Queensland Government is supportive.

Australia’s Paris Agreement commitments

Federal Government Ministers repeatedly claim that Australia will meet the 2030 target of 26–28% reduction in emissions. But the data produced by the Federal Department of Environment and Energy (released late on 7 June) show we are not at all on target. The graph provided by the Department is reproduced below.

Emissions_projections_2018

When confronted with that fact, the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, asserted that the government had developed a plan since the Department provided its forecast. In an interview on ABC RN Breakfast, Angus Taylor claimed that since December the Coalition had laid out a plan “to the last tonne” which would have Australia meeting its target. He specified a saving of 328 million tonnes but the Department’s data show a requirement for 695–762 million tonnes.

Whatever the situation is, our target is not only grossly inadequate but fails to address the much greater contribution of coal exports.

Burning wood from native forests is a double disaster

Burning wood from native forests to generate electricity is a threat to both biodiversity and climate.

Forests in southeast USA are being destroyed to produce pellets exported to Europe as fuel. And there is mounting pressure from the Australian timber industry to follow suit.

The European Union counts burning wood for electricity generation as carbon-neutral and fuel wood as a renewable source. These are myths which are being perpetuated around the world. The fact is that burning wood causes immediate release of carbon to the atmosphere but replacing that carbon through growth of trees will take decades. We don’t have decades.

Further, burning wood to produce electricity releases 50 per cent more CO2 than burning coal.

 What can we expect from our political leaders?

What can we expect from our political leaders? Based on current indications, very little! Implementation of the Paris Agreement, through development of the Rule Book, has not gone well. The outcomes of the Conference of the Parties in Poland in November were disappointing. We may well have to depend on voluntary market decisions based on investment outlook.

The planet is in dire straits.

Keith Scott

 

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The Biodiversity Crisis

1 Million species threatened with extinction

Last month the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a landmark new report IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The report begins with these headlines:

  • Nature’s dangerous decline ‘Unprecedented’
  • Species extinction rates ‘Accelerating’
  • ‘Transformative changes’ needed to restore and protect nature
  • Opposition from vested interests can be overcome by public good
  • 1,000,000 species threatened with extinction

Following several years of preliminary meetings, IPBES was ‘established’ in 2012. The IPBES report was produced in response to an invitation from the Conference of the Parties, Convention on Biological Diversity to prepare a global assessment on biodiversity and ecosystem services, “focusing on status and trends, the impact of biodiversity and ecosystem services on human well-being, and the effectiveness of responses, including the Strategic Plan and its Aichi Biodiversity Targets”. The 20 targets can be found at https://www.cbd.int/sp/targets.

The report finds that nature is deteriorating worldwide and biodiversity is declining faster than at any other time in human history.

It would be of no surprise to most people that nature across the globe has been significantly altered by human activities. Seventy- five per cent of the land surface is significantly altered, 66 per cent of the ocean area is experiencing increasing cumulative impacts, and over 85 per cent of the area of wetlands has been lost. Across much of the highly biodiverse tropics, 32 million hectares of primary or recovering forest were lost between 2010 and 2015.

The authors find that human actions threaten more species with global extinction now than ever before. They estimate that around 25 per cent of animal and plant species are threatened, indicating that around one million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken to reduce impacts. The authors conclude that without such action there will be a further acceleration in the global rate of species extinction, which is already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years.

The report provides statistics to support their conclusion. More than 40 per cent of amphibian species, almost a third of reef-forming corals, sharks and shark relatives and over a third of marine mammals are currently threatened. The proportion of insect species threatened with extinction is a key uncertainty, but available evidence supports a tentative estimate of 10 per cent. Those proportions suggest that, of an estimated 8 million animal and plant species (75% of which are insects), around 1 million are threatened with extinction. A similar picture also emerges from an entirely separate line of evidence. Habitat loss and deterioration, largely caused by human actions, have reduced global terrestrial habitat integrity by 30 per cent relative to an unimpacted baseline; combining that with the longstanding relationship between habitat area and species numbers suggests that around 9 per cent of the world’s estimated 5.9 million terrestrial species – more than 500,000 species – have insufficient habitat for long-term survival, are committed to extinction, many within decades, unless their habitats are restored.

Ecosystem structure

A critical conclusion from the IPBES report is that goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories, and goals for 2030 and beyond may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.

Climate change is, and will continue to be, a significant contributor to biodiversity loss. As noted in the article on The Climate Crisis on page 2 of this newsletter, nature conservation and climate change are intrinsically linked. Mitigating climate change will help nature while nature-based measures are essential for mitigation of climate change. The IPBES report concludes that “nature-based solutions with safeguards are estimated to provide 37 per cent of climate change mitigation until 2030 needed to meet 2°C goals with likely co-benefits for biodiversity” and “land-use actions are indispensable, in addition to strong actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use and other industrial and agricultural activities.”

However, the report includes a caution that “large-scale deployment of intensive bioenergy plantations, including monocultures, replacing natural forests and subsistence farmlands, will likely have negative impacts on biodiversity and can threaten food and water security as well as local livelihoods, including by intensifying social conflict”. The report emphasises the importance of strong legislation for the protection of threatened species. In this context, the Australian Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) is given as an example of “weaker laws” and “less rigorously implemented and enforced”, and therefore less likely to achieve recovery goals.

Australia’s own extinction crisis

Since European settlement, 28 mammals have been declared extinct in Australia, more than in any other country. In recent years, three mammal species — Christmas Island Forest Skink, Christmas Island Pipistrelle and Bramble Cay Melomys, a Great Barrier Reef endemic. The melomys is the first mammal extinction caused by climate change. Sea level rise destroyed the melomys and its habitat.

The EPBC Act is failing. University of Queensland researchers have concluded that up to 7.47 million hectares of threatened species habitat – an area larger than the state of Tasmania or 3.7 million Melbourne Cricket Grounds – has been destroyed since the operation of the EPBC Act (from 2000-2017).

The Senate Environment and Communications References Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into Australia’s faunal extinction crisis. The scope of the inquiry includes the adequacy of environment laws.

Keith Scott

 

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