Associate Professor Martine Maron is a leading ecologist and member of ALERT, based at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. Here she shares her concerns about Queensland's recent escalation of forest and woodland destruction:
Since 2013, I and other Australian scientists have been warning (see here, here, and here) of the potentially catastrophic consequences that could occur because the previous government in Queensland watered down the state's land-clearing laws, which had until then been largely effective.
And in late 2015, the Queensland government’s own data confirmed our worst fears.
Nearly 300,000 hectares of bushland in Queensland was lost in just one year, mostly for cattle pastures. That’s a three-fold increase in rates of land clearing.
Alarmingly, even endangered old-growth ecosystems are being lost at much higher rates than before.
And now it is crunch time for Queensland’s rich environments.
Legislation to reinstate crucial protections for Queensland’s most vital habitats is about to be introduced into Parliament by the state’s Labor government.
But with Labor having only a minority government -- which needs cooperation from others to get things done -- there is no guarantee that the new protections will pass.
Local challenge with global impacts
What happens in Queensland affects everyone on Earth.
Queensland is home to around half of all of Australia’s largely endemic biodiversity, as well as the iconic Great Barrier Reef, a World Heritage site. Australians are also among the world’s highest per-capita emitters of carbon dioxide, the most important of all greenhouse gases.
Surely a wealthy nation such as Australia should be an environmental leader, not an environmental rogue.
And indeed, Australia invests hundreds of millions of dollars each year trying to reduce environmental damage or help ecosystems recover from past damage.
But the benefits of these investments are being dwarfed by rampant loss of habitats happening now in Queensland.
Neutralizing environmental investment
Take, for example, the federal government’s 20 Million Trees Program. It aims to plant 20 million trees by 2020.
Yet just one year of accelerating land clearing in Queensland has already removed many more trees than will be painstakingly planted during this entire program.
The Australian government’s Emissions Reduction Fund is paying billions of dollars to reduce carbon emissions from industry.
But the carbon released from Queensland’s latest land clearing is estimated to be 63 million metric tons. This is far more than was purchased under the first round of the Emissions Reduction Fund -- at a cost to taxpayers of 660 million Australian dollars.
Rare and endangered species cannot recover if their habitats are being destroyed faster than they are being restored. But since 2013, the extent of tree planting to restore habitats across Australia is just a tenth of what was cleared in Queensland over the same period.
And to make matters worse, over a third of the land clearing in Queensland is happening in watersheds that drain directly onto the Great Barrier Reef. That means more pollution, sediments, and environmental problems for the Reef and its stunning biodiversity.
And ironically, while threats are growing for Australia's coastal sea-grass and coral-reef ecosystems, the government is spending hundreds of millions trying to reverse the same process. Where is the logic in that?
Prevention is better than cure
It's a no-brainer: It is far more efficient to prevent environmental damage than to try to reverse it later.
And some damage, like the loss of a species, is irreversible. For instance, Queensland's populations of the Koala are falling rapidly, largely because of accelerating woodland clearing.
The last three years have seen environmental protection leap backwards in Queensland -- in a way that has greatly alarmed scientific communities both in Queensland and internationally.
We can only hope that the new Queensland government will fulfill its election promise, and bring back direly needed protections for our natural environments.