The legacy of past land clearance will continue to see habitat decline through much of the sheep–wheat belt of Australia. Major increases in investment in offsetting this legacy and returning native vegetation to landscapes, such as those envisaged under climate change mitigation initiatives, might see the current decline in biodiversity and ecosystem function move significantly towards stabilisation. This could be achieved within two decades if lessons learnt by researchers and land managers in the past few decades are built on and the benefits of better biodiversity management for businesses and communities are fully recognised and built into taxation, market and other incentive mechanisms. Early progress towards these goals is apparent in a few areas and aspects of biodiversity conservation now, but progress will need to spread much more widely and it will require unprecedented support by governments, industries and communities. This will need to happen within the next few years to maximise our chances of preparing Australia’s biodiversity and biodiversity management systems for the challenges of climate change and other challenges of the coming few decades. These aspirations are articulated in Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010–2030.11
As these improvements are made, tipping points are likely to be reached beyond which returns on investment will increase much more rapidly, although this might require a decade or more of sustained investment and optimism—reversing the effects of past declines is likely to take longer than the original decline.
Improved understanding of how to restore and connect habitat could be built on to improve the ability of native species to adapt to climate change. Returning structural complexity to habitat could help native species cope with growing pressures from pests and diseases. Synergies between managing public and private land for conservation and other public benefits are a possible outcome of advances that nongovernment groups are currently making.
A key step in achieving an optimistic scenario would be effective management of global movements of potentially invasive species. This would require Australia to play a key role in negotiating new agreements and interpreting old ones, because this nation has more to lose than most.
Another potential driver of desirable change in biodiversity is the linking of biodiversity outcomes to market-driven programs. For example, placing a price on carbon can potentially lead to co-benefits for biodiversity, salinity mitigation, water quality, soil restoration and other effects. These approaches do have inherent risks that will need to be managed to achieve a desirable future for biodiversity. For example, unintended negative environmental impacts could be generated if extensive vegetation planting occurs on salinised areas where hydrological conditions are not well understood or are misunderstood. The risks of such unintended consequences are likely to be strongest in the early days of new market opportunities, when investors are rushing to gain advantage. Optimistically, landscape plans that seek to simultaneously achieve a spectrum of natural resource benefits could become standard practice, similar to programming for income generation on farms.
Over the past few decades, state and national governments in Australia have, in a sense, experimented with different approaches to polycentric governance (governance in which responsibility, authority and resourcing is shared across levels of government and society so that people who are best placed to detect and deal with issues in a timely and efficient fashion are empowered to do so). In the future, these experiments might give rise to successful approaches that allow governments, industries and communities to cooperate in anticipating, preparing for and responding to gradual change as well as environmental, social and economic shocks at a range of spatial scales. In another example of a beneficial tipping point, Australia’s ability to cope with uncertainty might allow it to take market advantages and provide assistance to other countries that are less able to manage aspects of their environment or food production.
Optimistically, as Australia’s population grows, serious thought will be given to the dependence of people on biodiversity and natural resources in general. Although there might be some tough decisions to make about adjusting lifestyles and consumption patterns, it might be possible for Australians to maintain a high quality of life while having minimal negative impacts on biodiversity and the environment. How this might be achieved is still unclear, but at least there is hope of desirable outcomes, whereas failure to take the relationship between population and environment seriously carries great risks.