As planners, engineers, developers and consultants we are all involved in the constant balancing act of supporting human progress and development whilst still sustaining a healthy natural environment. Add to this the challenges of regular political upheavals and policy changes and you find you have quite a task on your hands!
From a legislative point of view there are many ways that this can be tackled, and there is no doubt that the laws, regulations and procedures around development applications can quickly become complex and sometimes confusing. Many will become frustrated at what they see as the ‘green tape’ that tangles around many environmental planning laws, and the elected government of the time will be put under pressure to reduce this complexity.
But why are these laws so complex? Well, in reality we are looking to regulate a process that impacts on natural systems that are themselves riddled with complexity. A natural area or ecosystem is not simply the sum of its parts. It is not just a grouping of different species all living in the one place but rather a complex ‘Rubik’s cube’ of interacting life forms and life cycles, often influencing one another’s survival in ways that we do not yet fully understand. What adds even greater significance to these complex interactions is that many of them also affect us too. One often-quoted example is that of the air pollution removal service that evergreen trees provide. In the urban forests of the USA alone, this ecosystem service is estimated to be worth $4,000,000,000 annually and involves hundreds of species trees and soil microbes that keep the air we breathe, breathable (Nowak et al., 2007).
What exactly is an ecosystem? Well, it’s technically any identifiable natural system with its own suite of interacting living creatures and environmental processes (Fauth, 1997). There are thought to be many tens of thousands of distinct ecosystems around the world: from tubiform grasslands in Venezuela to the succulent Karoo of South Africa and from temperate Gondwanic rainforests of Australia to arctic tussock prairies in Canada, the world’s ecosystems are astoundingly diverse. While some ecosystems such as the Australian Alps’ Windswept Feldmark contain only a handful of tiny hardy plants and insects, others such as the Western Australian Kwongkan shrublands are considered global biodiversity hotspots and are home to thousands of endemic species (found nowhere else on earth) (Myers et al., 2000). But it is not only the diversity of species found in these areas, but the processes which they enact, and are part of, that makes ecosystems such an incredibly valuable asset to the world.
Sometimes attempts to simplify environmental planning laws and lighten the burden for an application process can often mean that assessment of environmental risk can shift purely to specific endangered, vulnerable and near threatened (EVNT) species. In contrast, an alternative is ecosystem-based assessment which is considered by many to more effectively manage for the conservation of important processes that occur between individual species by conserving whole areas as complete ecosystems.
So which approach is better? Well there are certainly pros and cons for both, however from an ecological integrity perspective many arguments are being made towards favouring the ecosystem approach, and this is striking up international conversation. Around the globe, as well as here in Queensland, there is a huge wave of change occurring in the way we look at, and conserve, the natural world. In Europe, North America and even New South Wales, scientists and governments alike are adopting ecosystem-based approaches to conserving species. Read on to find out the reasons why.
In order to conserve the myriad of interacting ecosystems and the benefits they have for other species and our human society we need to start thinking of how to continue development in a way that minimises the loss and degradation of complete ‘systems’. A starting point for this is to generate a universal standard of measurement as to which ecosystems need the most ‘help’. This is where some of the global leaders in conservation, such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have come onboard, currently devising an international Red List of Threatened Ecosystems (see link). This system applies a similar indexing as that used in the Red List of Threatened Species which has been running for 50 years. The Red List of Threatened Ecosystems similarly dictates, through rigorous scientific methodology, which ecosystems are deemed to be tolerant to human development or are relatively large and intact (‘least concern’ or ‘near threatened’) right through to those that are on the fringe of collapse throughout their extent of occurrence (‘critically endangered’ or ‘collapsed’).
Lists such as these are then passed on to respective authorities to assist in modifying their own legislation. The success of the uptake of this sort of approach lies in the knowledge and ability of governments to determine if systems like these are useful tools for them, and also in their willingness to plan future development and change according to ecosystem-based conservation. Some governments are already doing this and have worked with development authorities to either avoid sensitive ecosystems or develop within them using responsible and sustainable planning procedures, for example in Costa Rica and in the UK.
Moving back closer to home and the Queensland perspective, we have a comprehensive Regional Ecosystem mapping resource (see link) already at our fingertips. This lists all 1,383 of the ecosystems within our state from Cape York to the Great South-East. A number of these are listed as having a biodiversity status of ‘of concern’ or ‘endangered’ which is somewhat aligned to the IUCN Red Lists ‘vulnerable’ and ‘endangered’. Add to this the fact that we already know that many ecosystems are vital to the continued connectivity and health of ecosystem services in our state, for example the Great Barrier Reef coral atolls for fishing and storm protection, and the Mitchell grass tussock grasslands for erosion control and carbon sequestration.
As Queensland begins to realise both the financial value of ecosystem services and the other values biological systems provide us, we need to become more strategic in how we measure what gets ‘the chop’ and what stays. By doing this we will be able to better manage how we use our natural environment and development will continue with increased foresight into sustainability and the impacts on biodiversity, ecosystem services, and ultimately, us. This takes understanding and effort from all stakeholders but these are manageable and achievable steps if we are to seriously build a sustainable future in this remarkable state.
The author of this article, Mark Runkowski, is a valued member of the Natura Pacific team. Mark works primarily as one of Natura’s Environmental Consultants, but also makes ongoing and valuable contributions to both Research and Education in the organisation.
Fauth, J.E., (1997) Working toward operational definitions in ecology: putting the system back into ecosystem. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of Amierca 78, 295-297.
Myers, N., Mittermeier, R.A., Mittermeier, C.G., da Fonseca, G.A.B. and Kent, J., (2000) Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature 403, 853-858.
Nowak, D.J., Hoehn, R. And Crane, D.E., (2007) Oxygen production by urban trees in the United States. Arboriculture and Urban Forestry 33, 220-226.
Taylor, M., (2016) Bushland destruction rapidly increasing in Queensland. WWF Australia. Available online at: http://awsassets.wwf.org.au/downloads/fl024_bushland_destruction_rapidly_increasing_in_queensland_16sep15.pdf.