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The Hon Peter Garrett AM MP
Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts

Speech to the 2010 Commonwealth Environment Research Facilities Conference

Museum of Australian Democracy, Old Parliament House
Canberra
24 May 2010

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I'd like to begin by paying my respects to the Ngunnawal: traditional owners of the land on which we meet.

It is a great pleasure to be here today to celebrate the achievements of this four-year research program and acknowledge the many researchers, administrators and policymakers who have made substantial contributions to CERF over the last four years.

Biodiversity

This conference is well timed, coming so soon after the International Day of Biological Diversity (on Saturday) in this, the International Year of Biodiversity.

The third edition of the Global Biodiversity Outlook released last week by the United Nations has underscored the unprecedented rate of extinctions across the globe. About 130 species become extinct each day. We are in the midst of what is quite simply a biodiversity crisis. The challenge to contain that crisis is huge.

Yet again we are reminded that, as the world's most mega-diverse developed country, supporting almost 10 per cent of the biological diversity on earth, Australia has suffered the largest documented decline in biodiversity of any continent. Our precious natural infrastructure continues to be threatened by:

Delegates here today are all too familiar with this litany of loss and failure.

The next couple of days are a great opportunity to take stock of what we know about our natural infrastructure, where the gaps in our knowledge are, and how we will use that knowledge in a new era of environmental governance, management and conservation.

Environmental reform

I recognise today many of the faces at the International Ecology conference in Brisbane last August, where I signalled a major shift in biodiversity policy.

A shift from expensive, well motivated, but all too often futile emergency responses to individual species loss - to a new, preventive approach of managing ecosystems as a whole. Getting ahead of the decline and taking action before it occurs.

As I said in Brisbane, we will need to take a more holistic and strategic approach, building the fence at the top of the hill rather than staffing the ambulance at the bottom.

Today I want to outline what progress we have made since then—both in terms of filling our knowledge gaps and developing policy responses. And I hope to leave you with a vision of what that will mean for the future.

CERF informing policy

Firstly, a few words about some of the great work funded under CERF that has helped to shape the new policy direction. I can't do justice to the full breadth and depth of the work, but it is worth citing a few examples.

Professor Ary Hoffman and his colleagues at the University of Melbourne have done some important work on the genetic make up of species, such as the dengue mosquito. They have shown not only how genetic diversity is central to the long-term resilience of a species, but also how genetic diversity collapses when populations become small and isolated. So species that are threatened by factors such as loss of habitat become increasingly vulnerable due to lowered genetic diversity.

The CERF program has also increased our knowledge of which species may survive and which will fare worse from climate change. In northern Australia's rainforests, the small population of Lemuroid Ringtail Possum, recently rediscovered by Professor Steve Williams and his team at MTSRF, continues to be highly vulnerable to climate change due to its shrinking high altitude habitat.

On the other hand, his work suggests that a highly specialised species thought to be under threat, the Thornton Peak Nursery Frog, is to likely to persist in its unique and robust habitat – living as it does within piles of boulders on top of a mountain.

This information really lends weight to the case for a well informed and preventative approach to conservation, rather than band-aid solutions. It also helps us look for ways to tackle threats that have already started. We can identify species that are most at risk of extinction and set aside appropriate refugia that will allow populations and genetic diversity to recover.

And it helps us direct our resources accordingly.

Internationally, the work of PhD student Oscar Venter and Dr Kerrie Wilson from CERF's AEDA [A - eda] hub has been very useful in informing climate change policy, showing that assisting developing nations to preserve their forests is an effective way to combat increased emissions.

It's work like this that backs major investment—like the additional $56 million dollars the Rudd Government is investing over the next two years to the International Forest Carbon Initiative, helping to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

In the 2010 budget we also announced an additional $8.1 million for the development of marine bioregional plans around the continent, to ensure the protection, conservation and sustainable use of our oceans. The research from Professor Nic Bax and his team from the Marine Biodiversity hub has been invaluable for marine bio-regional planning: providing distribution data for target species, and developing modelling tools that compare economic and conservation values.

While in the marine environment, I also note the outstanding non-lethal research by Dr Nick Gales and CERF's Australian Marine Mammal Centre into the migration and habitats of the Humpback, blue and Antarctic minke whales. This is, of course, in stark contrast to the Japanese slaughter of more than 1,000 whales in 2008/09 in the name of science.

NERP

As you are aware, as part of the International Year of Biodiversity, I announced that the National Environmental Research Program, or NERP would succeed CERF as our major research investment, and invest around $20 million per year in improving our capacity to understand, manage and conserve Australia's unique biodiversity and ecosystems.

This includes understanding how ecosystems function, monitoring their health, maintaining and building their resilience, using them sustainably and exploring how to better use markets to protect biodiversity.

I'm particularly keen that work under the NERP directly informs the policies and decisionmaking of the Commonwealth Government and the governments, industries and organisations we work with, and helps to set the targets we all need to reach.

Critical to delivering research which is of lasting use to policy makers is taking account of the bigger picture: namely the multiple interactions within and across ecosystems so as to inform decision making that contributes to the health of the whole.

Thanks to all who have submitted expressions of interest in establishing hubs under NERP that are large-scale, multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional research collaborations. We envisage that there will be one Northern Australia hub, one or two terrestrial and marine ecosystem hubs and a Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait hub administered out of northern Queensland to better coordinate research efforts.

A transition phase for CERF, to ensure continuity between the two programs, will run from July to December, providing $5.75 million to build on the research capacity developed over the last four years. Some great transition projects have been submitted and there'll be news on those shortly.

Environmental information

Environmental research is a critical piece of a larger puzzle.

But of itself it is not enough.

We need to understand the many and complex values of our environment, and make our community aware of their importance to our future.

This understanding needs to be built on the full range of environmental information—from research outputs to routine monitoring; from pure data to evaluation and reporting products.

We do many of these things already, but we need to do them better. And to do that, we need to look at the overall system of environmental information collection and management in this country.

To effect real reform, we must have reliable, accurate and accessible environmental data that is collected in a consistent way over the wide range of different regions, catchments, ecosystems and landscapes across Australia, as well as over time.

In response to this clear need I have announced, as part of the 2010-11 Budget, $18 million over four years for a new National Plan for Environmental Information.

This is a ground breaking and significant reform, not just for the environment, but more broadly in terms of building a stronger base for decision making across all areas of government and beyond.

Unlike many previous activities in environmental and natural resources information, our commitment to this will be enduring. The Bureau of Meteorology will be established as the permanent Australian Government authority for environmental information, building on their existing capacity for weather, climate and water information.

This means that, at last, we will able to maintain the critical infrastructure and capacity needed to support a comprehensive information base, including time-series data to provide insight on trends in different aspects of the environment across the nation.

Funding for the plan is an important first step in establishment of an organised, accessible and ongoing environmental information capacity for Australia.

Our long-term ambition is to prepare national environmental accounts for the nation, complementing our national economic accounts. The plan will lay the foundations that will underpin our development of national environmental accounts.

Building on previous environmental data gathering exercises, I anticipate that in time, a wide range of decision making and reporting activities will be supported through the plan. A key benefit will be a substantial improvement in our capacity to generate comprehensive and trend-based State of the Environment reports.

The need to develop national environmental accounts and bolster national State of the Environment reporting was one of the recommendations of Dr Allan Hawke's independent review of the EPBC Act.

Dr Hawke's recommendations cover a range of other environment and heritage issues, including making better use of strategic assessments and bioregional planning processes, such as the marine planning initiatives I have spoken about, and taking an integrated, landscape scale or whole of ecosystem approach to environmental regulation.

The review also touches on the use of market-based instruments to achieve conservation outcomes—tools that evaluate the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action.

I have high hopes for NERP in this area, building on the conversation CERF has started about which approach will best meet our needs. We should not fear this kind of robust debate as it leads to the best innovation.

My role in implementing landscape-scale strategic assessments has revealed how more work is needed on how we can achieve effective development offsets.

Dr Sarah Bekersley and Dr Brendan Wintle have suggested for example that bio-banking schemes like that recommended by Dr Hawke could operate like a traditional savings bank. And Professor Jeff Bennett from the Environmental Economics Hub has highlighted the need to critically evaluate the way we use decision-making tools such as multi-criteria and cost benefit analysis.

I have no doubt NERP will take this conversation a lot further.

Whilst we have a long way to go in making full use of markets in protecting the environment, the Environmental Stewardship program, which is part of Caring for our Country, has taken some strides, providing market-based incentives for private land managers who want to get involved in long-term protection and rehabilitation of areas of National Environmental Significance. It's a great example of credible science, economics, and robust policy coming together to achieve real results on the ground.

In less than two years this program has designed and implemented a fully operational tender system for conserving remnants of nationally endangered ecological communities on private land

So far, 150 land managers have been contracted to conserve over 15,950 hectares of the critically endangered box gum grassy woodland ecological community, with another 49 to come on board in the coming weeks.

In 2010-11 two new projects in South Australia and northern New South Wales. CERF researchers, led by Professor David Lindenmayer are helping evaluate the effectiveness of this program through a comprehensive ecological monitoring program.

Effective prevention of ecosystem damage and biodiversity loss depends on the availability of accurate, relevant scientific knowledge to inform our efforts. I thank CERF researchers for providing us with that knowledge over the last four years and I look forward to working with all of those involved in NERP into the future.

Conclusion

At the beginning of this millennium, the challenges of climate change and the inextricable links between the environment and the scarcity of food, energy, biodiversity resources, are elevating the importance of environmental information in decision making to new levels.

Australian governments, businesses and communities must be able to anticipate the many demands on our natural capital and must better conserve, protect, rehabilitate and manage our land, water, biodiversity, atmosphere and oceans.

We need to understand the natural resources we have, how they are being changed through natural means and human actions, what the outlooks for those resources are, and identify options for future management.

Over the next decade I believe we must lay the foundations for a new era of environmental literacy, built on sound national environmental accounts.

Policy makers, developers, planners, communities and mum and dad investors of the future must have the capacity to understand and apply those environmental accounts, and to factor them into their day to day and long term decisions.

And above all I want to see the natural environment properly valued, sustainably managed and where necessary rigorously protected to secure human well-being in the years ahead.

[ENDS]

Commonwealth of Australia