Doomed Planet

The Total Failure of Green Stewardship

green waste III have worked as a hydrologist and environmental scientist for 30 years.  Over that time hope for environmental conservation has given way to fatalism.  Governments of all ilk have failed to reverse environmental and biodiversity decline.  There has been some progress but it has been partial at best and misguided at worst.  Impacts from industry, residential development, farming and mining have declined.  Land clearing laws have seen savannah – maintained by indigenous peoples over millennia ­­– give way to woody weeds, feral species and declining biodiversity over vast swathes of the Australian landscape.

The 2007 Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment found that riparian zones are declining over 73% of Australia.  There has been a massive decline in the ranges of indigenous mammals over more than 100 years.  In the past 200 years, 22 Australian mammals have become extinct – a third of the world’s recent extinctions.  Further decline in ranges is still occurring and is likely to result in more extinctions.  Mammals are declining in 174 of 384 subregions in Australia and rapidly declining in 20.  The threats to vascular plants are increasing over much of Australia.  Threatened birds are declining across 45% of the country, with extinctions in arid parts of Western Australia.  Reptiles are declining across 30% of the country. Threatened amphibians are in decline in south-eastern Australia and are rapidly declining in the South East Queensland, Brigalow Belt South and Wet Tropics bioregions.

Our rivers are still carrying huge excesses of sand and mud.  The mud washes out onto coastlines destroying seagrass and corals.  The sand chokes up pools and riffles and fills billabongs putting intense pressure on inland, aquatic ecologies.  In 1992, the Mary River in south east Queensland flooded carrying millions of tonnes of mud into Hervey Bay.  A thousand square kilometres of seagrass died off decimating dugongs, turtles and fisheries. The seagrass has grown back but the problems of the Mary River have not been fixed.  The banks have not been stabilised and the seagrass could be lost again at any time.  A huge excess of sand working its way down the river is driving to extinction the Mary River cod and the Mary River turtle.  The situation in the Mary River is mirrored in catchments right across the country.  Nationally, 50% of our seagrasses have been lost and it has been this way for at least thirty years.

It is well known what the problems are.  The causes of the declines in biodiversity are land clearing, land salinisation, land degradation, habitat fragmentation, overgrazing, exotic weeds, feral animals, rivers that have been pushed past their points of equilibrium and changed fire regimes.  The individual solutions are often fairly simple and only in aggregate do they become daunting.   One of the problems is that the issues are reviewed at a distance.  Looking at issues from a National or State perspective is too complex.  Even if problems are identified broadly, it is difficult to establish local priorities.  Looking at issues from a distance means that a focus on the immediate and fundamental causes of problems is lost.  There are rafts of administrators, reports, computer models, guidelines and plans, but the only on-ground restoration and conservation is done by volunteers and farmers.  Volunteers are valiantly struggling but it is too little too late.  Farmers tend to look at their own properties, understandably, and not at integrated landscape function.  Governments apply greenwash with very little understanding of, and support for, the necessary regional approaches of farmers groups, volunteers or indeed their own staff.

I understood from my studies in hydrology that much of the variation in 20th century floods and drought was quite natural.  Indeed, data over millennia on the El Niñ0-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) show variability considerably in excess of that seen in the last century.  ENSO intensity twice that of the ‘extreme’ 1997/98 El Niño – hundred year droughts and mega-floods.  It shows also a 1000 year high last century in El Niño frequency.  These Pacific Ocean states are a large influence on global surface temperatures.  I suspect from this data that the impact of greenhouse gases has been overstated.

Ron Pike: No More Going with the Flow

Nonetheless, ecological and soils restoration has immense potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2013 estimated that cumulative carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and cement production – from 1750 to 2011 – was about 365 billion metric tonnes as carbon (GtC), with another 180 GtC from deforestation and agriculture.   Of this 545 GtC, about 240 GtC (44%) had accumulated in the atmosphere, 155 GtC (28%) had been taken up in the oceans with slight consequent acidification, and 150 GtC (28%) had accumulated in terrestrial ecosystems.

The French government launched it’s 4-parts-in-a-1000 initiative in Paris last year. They aim to restore soil organic content in grazing and cropping lands by 4 parts in a 1000 per year.  The global land area is 13 billion hectares.  Of that 5 billion hectares – 38% of the total – is agricultural.   Cropping is some 28% of agricultural land, orchards 3% and grazing 69%.  Cropping and orchards provides staples and nutrients – as well as culinary diversity.   Grazing animals convert otherwise unusable resources on marginal lands into important sources of protein.  Australia has about 400 million hectares of agricultural land.  Agricultural land has been degraded over centuries.  Forest and their biodiversity continue to decline through conversion and exploitation.  Globally, much of this poorly managed land has turned to desert.  Reversal of degradation has the potential to not only reverse the 25% of greenhouse gas emissions from this source – but to return another 25% of emissions to soil and vegetation over 40 years.

Increasing the soil organic content enhances water holding capacity and creates a more drought tolerant agriculture – with less downstream flooding.  There is a critical level of soil carbon that is essential to maximising the effectiveness of water and nutrient inputs.  Global food security, especially for countries with fragile soils and harsh climate such as in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, cannot be achieved without improving soil quality through an increase in soil organic content.   Wildlife flourishes on restored grazing land helping to halt biodiversity loss.   Increased agricultural productivity, increased downstream processing and access to markets build local economies and global wealth.  Economic growth provides resources for solving problems – conserving and restoring ecosystems, better sanitation and safer water, better health and education, developing better and cheaper energy sources.

This path contrasts starkly with the other outcome of last year’s Paris talks: Something estimated by the International Energy Agency as a 3.7 billion ton increase in greenhouse gas emissions to 2030 at a cost of $13.5 trillion dollars.

The money would be far better spent on restoring soils and ecosystems – while developing 21st century energy systems.  The National Farmers Federation and the World Wildlife Fund estimated some time ago that restoring landscapes across Australia would cost $6 billion a year – about half from private sources.  Much of that, I suspect, could be recycled from programs that have failed the objective test of biodiversity conservation over a very long time.

10 thoughts on “The Total Failure of Green Stewardship

  • Rob Brighton says:

    I am insufficiently armed to know if what you are saying in this article stands up to critical examination except to say when you invoke commentary from World Wildlife fund and the IPCC I instantly and completely stop listening.

    These organisations have such a history of mendacious reporting that I simply cannot put a single ounce of belief in what they say.

    • Rob Ellison says:

      The publication is still the only systematic assessment of costs of landscape restoration. Some $65 billion over 10 years. ‘Australian Conservation Foundation and National Farmers Federation (2000). Repairing the Country:
      A National Scenario for Strategic Investment.’ I note that it was the ACF and not the WWF – you should note the involvement of the NFF.

      I don’t mention the IPCC at all – there is quite a bit on climate inter alia at my WordPress site – -. While the impacts of greenhouse gases have been wildly overstated – farming is a key solution to that as well as economic growth, food security, biodiversity conservation, drought resilience and flood mitigation. It all comes from restoring organic material to soils.

  • Rob Brighton says:

    You mention the IPCC in relation to co2 emissions 6th paragraph and WWF in the last. ACF are tarred with the same brush.

    I did note the inclusion of the NFF and whilst they are a mitigating factor generally speaking, in this case they or their constituents would appear to be in line for any grants that would flow from any adjustments in expenditure. When a report is written by two groups who, on the surface, would not appear to be happy bed mates (ACF and NFF) I ask myself where the common interest lay, in this case it looks to be the direction of cash flow.

    Your proposals may well be entirely reasonable but the media has battered me for so long with lies and exaggerations the only defense is to take it all with a grain of salt and go fishing. We all would be better served had it been otherwise but there it is.

  • Rob Brighton says:

    It should be noted however that it seems more fruitful to spending our tax money improving land conditions IF it were in lieu of wind farms, but it wont be, it will be yet another burden on the ever suffering tax payer.

  • Rob Ellison says:

    You’re absolutely right. That paragraph established the sources and sinks. I see no reason to be suspicious of those numbers. Much of it came from soils and ecosystems. I did go on to say that the impacts were overstated. Wildly overstated is probably closer to the truth.

    I take the charitable view that there is no essential disagreement and that the common interest is restoration of Australian landscapes. I wasn’t trying to be political about it. All governments have failed. Farmers are succeeding and that’s where it counts. Just one example.

    The International Energy Agency estimated the impact of the COP21 commitments in Paris last year as a 3.7 billion ton increase in emissions by 2030 at a cost of $13.5 trillion. This was lauded as a resounding success.

  • Turtle of WA says:

    WWF? WTF?

    • Rob Ellison says:

      World Wildlife Fund. Raising money for progressive causes everywhere. They publish something called the Living Planet Index.

      Even at their exaggerated estimation climate change is 7.1% of the cause of a 50% decline in 10,000 odd animal populations worldwide since the 1970’s. The Passenger Pigeon wasn’t hunted out. The population was reduced to a level that was unsustainable – births were less than deaths – and it crashed out of existence

      Population decline is stable in the west – although species are still being lost in niche environments. Which suggests that the problem is poverty related to an extent.

  • ian.macdougall says:

    It is well known what the problems are. The causes of the declines in biodiversity are land clearing, land salinisation, land degradation, habitat fragmentation, overgrazing, exotic weeds, feral animals, rivers that have been pushed past their points of equilibrium and changed fire regimes.

    An excellent article.
    The national parks were established (following the American model) out of the bits and pieces that no settler wanted: the leftovers after European settlement. The first settlers’ top priority was getting the best block possible, then fire prevention; preservation of their huts and hurdles, and for subsequent generations, preservation of their houses, sheds, fences and livestock. And so on it went.

    The 2007 Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment found that riparian zones are declining over 73% of Australia.

    So it appears to require that they fence off river banks; restrict livestock to say 500m from a river bank; and pump river water to the stock.

    There has been a massive decline in the ranges of indigenous mammals over more than 100 years.

    So it appears we require more national parks, particularly involving good soils. Many farmers I know are concerned about biodiversity YET cannot avoid growing crops. Habitat loss (cleared for cropping) is the greatest factor in biodiversity decline.

    Wildlife flourishes on restored grazing land helping to halt biodiversity loss.

    We do not find weed infestation (lantana, Bathurst Burr, Gal Burr, Nagoora Burr, Prickly Pear etc) in association such as to be causal of soil erosion. Overcropping and poor tillage by farmers who have to keep one and a half eyes on the bottom line are the main culprits there.

    • Rob Ellison says:

      Clearing was responsible for 1 extinction – I was reliably informed on a government website. A Victorian swamp wallaby early in the piece. The other mammal extinctions were small to mid size wallabies. Victims of predation by foxes and cats. Feral species more generally are a big part of the problem and they tend to take refuge in national parks because of poor management.

      Eric Rolls long ago lamented the transformation of Australian landscapes from open woodland to dense woody weeds. A result of not clearing and not burning. With a loss of species adapted to open woodland. Fire when it does happen is hot and fierce.

      Farmers have made great progress with no till and precision agriculture. But the biggest gains to be made are with managed rotational grazing.

      Have a look here as just one example of many –

      Farming is very much part of the solution and not the problem. What I would like to see is these farming efforts integrated with landscape management across both public and private lands at local and regional scales. To finally reverse degradation of our much loved Australian environments and fauna.

  • ian.macdougall says:

    The late Rhys Jones (who I believe coined the phrase ‘firestick farming’) gave a very interesting series of radio talks some years back on Australian prehistrory. He cited the work of Dr Gudrip Singh of the ANU, who had studied fossil pollens in the sediments on the bottom of Lake George, NSW. Singh found evidence of a massive change in the flora of SE Australia dating from 110,000 years BP, which was from pyrophobic plants (the dominants being of the genus Casuarina) to the more familiar pyrophytes (eucalypts and acacias) we find today. Singh concluded that the change was due to increased frequency of burning, and said that this provided indirect evidence that the first Aborigines arrived in Australia at around that time. The commonly cited date of 46,000 BP is of the first direct and datable evidence (stone tools in association with fire remains).
    This thesis helps explain the huge number of eucalypt and acacia species around today: that baffled the first European botanists to study them. ‘Intermediate species’ abound.

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