Outlook and impacts


In 2019, the Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystems (IPBES 2019) assessed the status and trends of the natural world, the social implications of these trends, and their direct and indirect causes. It is the first global assessment of biodiversity and ecosystems to integrate a range of knowledge sources, and to systematically consider the contributions of Indigenous and local knowledge and practices. The key findings of the assessment were that:

  • nature and its vital contributions to people, which together embody biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services, are deteriorating worldwide
  • direct and indirect drivers of change have accelerated during the past 50 years
  • international societal and environmental goals for conserving and sustainably using nature, such as those embedded in the Aichi Biodiversity Targets and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, cannot be met by current trajectories, and goals for 2030 and beyond may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological domains
  • nature can be conserved, restored and used sustainably while other global societal goals are simultaneously met through urgent and concerted efforts fostering transformative change.

The report states that, except in scenarios that include transformative change, negative trends in nature, in ecosystem functions and in many of nature’s contributions to people are projected to continue to 2050 and beyond.

For the last few centuries, the intensive use and extraction of resources from land, fresh water and oceans has dominated the loss of biodiversity and the deterioration of ecosystems globally (IPBES 2019). Now, climate change is increasing in importance as a direct and indirect driver of biodiversity loss (Arneth et al. 2020).

Pressures on Australian biodiversity have not improved since the 2016 state of the environment report, and outcomes for species and ecosystems are generally poor. Our inability to adequately manage pressures will continue to result in species extinctions and deteriorating ecosystem conditions unless current management approaches and investments are substantially improved.

Multiple pressures are interacting to amplify threats to biodiversity, and abrupt changes in ecological systems are occurring. In particular, climate change and associated extreme events, compounded by other pressures, have had a major impact on biodiversity over the past 5 years, with consequences likely to be evident for many years to come. Many species and ecosystems will require their status to be assessed or reassessed in the coming years, and urgent recovery actions will be needed to avert extinction.

We are increasingly relying on measures of last resort for preventing species extinction and conserving ecosystems, including ex situ conservation, translocations, and the creation of safe havens on islands and in fenced areas. Their importance in averting extinctions in the future will only increase in the face of increasing pressures, particularly from introduced predators. Although the methodologies and technologies for these measures are improving, they are still largely experimental and carry a high degree of risk. The growing dependency on biodiversity offsets to protect matters of national environmental significance from the impacts of development is also concerning, given the lack of demonstrated successful outcomes and inadequate oversight.

COVID-19 and biodiversity

We write this report in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Already some scientists are considering the impacts of the pandemic on biodiversity conservation. For many months, although Australia has been affected relatively lightly compared with many other countries, conservation activities and management actions have been halted or greatly scaled down, biodiversity research projects and data collection have been stalled, and teaching and communication have moved online (Corlett et al. 2020). The longer-term implications of these reduced activities will take some time to manifest and are hard to calculate. Some scientists and practitioners are already expressing concern about austerity measures that are likely to be introduced once COVID-19 is under control, which may further reduce investment in conservation agencies and conservation research (Evans et al. 2020). On the other hand, some evidence suggests a lessening of human pressures on biodiversity and ecosystems as travel and tourism continue to be restricted.

Beyond these direct and immediate consequences, scientists have also begun to consider the future for emerging infectious diseases and their links with biodiversity loss, human activities and issues of sustainability. The Intergovernmental Science–Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Workshop on Biodiversity and Pandemics (Daszak et al. 2020) describes how pandemics have their origins in diverse microbes carried by animals, but that their emergence is entirely driven by human activities, which disrupt natural interactions between species and their microbes, and increased contact among native animals, livestock, people and their pathogens. The report from the workshop embraces the need for transformative change to reduce the frequency and impact of future pandemics, including by reducing land-use change and restoring ecosystems, preventing unsustainable consumption and overuse of biodiversity, and bridging fundamental knowledge gaps on the linkages between biodiversity, anthropogenic environmental changes and pandemic risk.

Framing the value of biodiversity

Nature underpins quality of life by providing basic life support for humanity, as well as material goods and spiritual inspiration (IPBES 2019). Globally, nearly half of the human population is directly dependent on natural resources for its livelihood, and many of the most vulnerable people depend directly on biodiversity to fulfil their daily subsistence needs (SCBD n.d.).

A major challenge today and into the future is to maintain or enhance beneficial contributions of nature to quality of life and wellbeing for all people. This is among the key motivations of the IPBES, a joint global effort by governments, academia and communities to assess and promote knowledge of Earth's biodiversity and ecosystems, and their contribution to human societies, to inform policy (Díaz et al. 2018) (see case study: Ecosystem accounting in a protected area, in the Environmental–economic accounting section in the Land chapter).

The ecosystem services framework, which recognises the social, ecological and economic benefits that people derive from nature, has become a cornerstone of conservation. In 2017, the IPBES introduced the term ‘nature’s contributions to people’ (NCP), which builds on the ecosystem services framework and embraces multiple knowledge systems. In the NCP conceptual framework, culture permeates through and across all types of ecosystem services.

The NCP framework has been useful in communicating the cultural, economic and ecological value of Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) to Indigenous and non-Indigenous stakeholders in Western Australia. For example, the 2,005 square kilometre Yawuru Indigenous Protected Area covers terrestrial and marine environments around Broome. The IPA encompasses Ramsar wetlands, is home to migrating shorebirds, and harbours threatened and migratory species (e.g. bilbies, dugongs) and fish nurseries, as well as covering important Indigenous heritage sites. NCP were found to be prevalent across all targets in the IPA – Healthy Country Plan: 68 of the 144 IPA management objectives related directly to ecosystem goods and services (Newman et al. 2019). A process of identifying, measuring and assigning values to NCP was demonstrated, which could be applied to other protected areas.


Impacts on the environment

The 2021 edition of the World Economic Forum’s Global risks report (World Economic Forum 2021) identifies critical global risks. Four of the top 5 global risks are related to the environment: extreme weather, climate action failure, human environmental damage, and biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse. Global risks are defined as uncertain events or conditions that, if they occur, can cause significant negative impact for several countries or industries within the next 10 years.

The global risk of biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse is described as ‘irreversible consequences for the environment, humankind, and economic activity, and a permanent destruction of natural capital, as a result of species extinction and/or reduction’ (World Economic Forum 2021).

The report describes environmental degradation as an existential threat to humanity, with risks intersecting with societal fractures to bring about severe consequences. In addition, the Intergovernmental Science–Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services considers that current negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems will undermine progress towards achieving 80% (35 out of 44) of the assessed targets of the Sustainable Development Goals related to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans and land (IPBES 2019).

Many of the trends we see in Australia for biodiversity are consistent with those highlighted globally. In June 2021, more than 1,900 Australian species and ecological communities were known to be threatened and at risk of extinction. Over the past 2 centuries, Australia has lost more mammal species than any other continent, and continues to have one of the highest rates of species decline among countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. So far, 100 Australian species are listed as Extinct or Extinct in the Wild under Australian national, state or territory legislation, and under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature: 38 vascular plants, 34 mammals, 10 invertebrates, 9 birds, 4 frogs, 3 reptiles, 1 fish and 1 protist (a single-celled organism) (Woinarski et al. 2019). The true number of extinctions is likely to be significantly higher, since many species are poorly surveyed or poorly described, or both.

Impacts on human health and wellbeing

The links between biodiversity and human health and wellbeing are becoming increasingly obvious. For example, contact with nature is associated with positive mental health benefits, and can promote physical activity and contribute to overall wellbeing. Biodiversity and green spaces in urban settings are linked to stress reduction and mood improvement (Cox et al. 2017, Schebella et al. 2019), increasing respiratory health (Liddicoat et al. 2018), lower rates of depression and high blood pressure (Shanahan et al. 2016), and overall improvements in human wellbeing (Taylor et al. 2018b). There is strong evidence that participation in Caring for Country activities by Indigenous people in Australia, as well as greater participation in cultural activities, language knowledge and belief that the land was looked after, are associated with improved health and wellbeing outcomes (Schultz et al. 2019, Larson et al. 2020) (see the Indigenous chapter).

We have looked to biodiversity for medicines for tens of thousands of years. Drug discovery from wild species will continue to be critical for most aspects of health care, wellness and disease prevention (Neergheen-Bhujun et al. 2017). Loss of biodiversity and changes in land use and food production practices are considered leading drivers of disease emergence and transmission in humans (WHO & SCBD 2015). Common land-use changes related to disease transmission include agricultural development, urbanisation, deforestation, and forest and habitat fragmentation.