Australia faces environmental crisis

Australia faces environmental crisis

First published in March 11 2021

A decade ago, an Australian report outlined changes the country must make to halt the decline and loss of species1, but the reforms were never implemented. In the years since, most threatened species have continued to decline, and at least three have gone extinct2,3.

Since the year 2000, more than 7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat have been destroyed. 

In February 2021, the Australian government released a report that examined Australia’s ongoing failure to tackle the species extinction crisis and offered recommendations5.

Australia’s minister for the environment has committed to work through the full detail of the recommendations6, but there are already worrying signs that they will be ignored. The Federal Government of Australia must protect and preserve nature as required by international agreements7. Without fundamental policy reforms, Australia – a mega diverse country home to about 600,000 species8– risks mass species extinction.

The most urgent action Australia must take is to establish legally binding National Environmental Standards

They must be rigorously enforced and under- pinned by Indigenous engagement and participation. An Environment Assurance Commissioner should be appointed, one that is responsible for overseeing and auditing government decision-making in accordance with the Standards5.

This would improve accountability, transparency, and trust in government. In addition, an independent body should be created to be responsible for monitoring and enforcing compliance with the environmental legislation, a suggestion that has already been dismissed9.

Current levels of government funding for appropriate environmental management and restoration are insufficient to address Australia’s extinction crisis10.

Adequate resources must urgently target threatened species recovery.

Alongside more funding, existing environmental laws need to be reviewed to close loopholes, such as the one in the current law that effectively grants an exemption to all native forest logging5, threatening hundreds of species2,3.

Assessments of the state of Australia’s imperilled species show that the government is running out of time11.

The Australian scientific community has been increasingly vocal about the ineffectiveness of Australian environmental legislation for achieving its objectives4,10,12 and preventing the likelihood of an extinction crisis10, but these calls have been ignored.

It is time for Australia’s government to heed the calls of scientists and implement urgent, wide-ranging, and reformative policies before it is too late.

Michelle Ward1,2,3*, Shayan Barmand 4, James Watson 1,2, Brooke Williams1,2
1 Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland, St. Lucia, QLD 4072, Australia.
2 School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD 4072, Australia.
3 World Wildlife Fund–Australia, Brisbane,QLD4000,Australia.
4 African Climate and Development Initiative, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch, 7700, South Africa. *Corresponding author. Email:


  1. A.Hawke,“TheAustralianEnvironmentAct—Reportof the independent review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999” (Australian Government Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, Canberra, 2009).
  2. Commonwealth of Australia, EPBC Act List of Threatened Fauna (2019); au/cgibin/sprat/public/public threatened list. pl? wanted=fauna.
  3. Commonwealth of Australia, EPBC Act List of Threatened Flora (2019); bin/sprat/public/public threatened list. pl?wanted=flora.
  4. M.Ward et al.,Conserv. Sci. Pract. 1,e117(2019).
  5. G. Samuel, “Independent review of the EPBC Act – Final report” (Canberra, Australia, 2020).
  6. Commonwealth of Australia,“Review supports reform for environmental laws” (2021); https:// review-supports-reform-environmental-laws.
  7. Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, “Preparations for the Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework” (2020).
  8. A.D.Chapman,“Number of living species in Australia and the World” (Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage, the Arts, 2009).
  9. Commonwealth of Australia,“Reform for Australia’s environment laws” (2020); https:// reform-australias-environment-laws.
  10. B. Wintle et al., Conserv. Lett. 12, e12682 (2019).
  11. I.D. Cresswell, H.T.Murphy,“Australia state of the environment 2016: Biodiversity (Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for the Environment and Energy)” (Canberra, Australia, 2016).
  12. Australian Academy of Science, “Academy Fellows say it’s time to establish an independent biodiversity agency” (2020); news-and-events/news-and-media-releases/ academy-fellows-time-establish-independent-biodiversity-agency. 10.1126/science.abg9225