Unpacking Australia’s Extinction Crisis

International relations scholar Ana Maria Ulloa explores the history of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the role that NGOs can play in addressing the ‘implementation gap’ preventing Australia from protecting our wildlife.

Galah in the Australian Capital Territory by Jonathan Steinbeck, via Shutterstock, ID:1715394757 Galah at Callum Brae Nature Reserve, ACT, Australia on a summer morning in March 2020

The term biological diversity was coined in 1986 (and its neologism biodiversity institutionalised a couple of years later) to describe the variety of life on Earth.1 Nowadays biodiversity is also referred to as the web of life or the living fabric of our planet because our planet’s ability to sustain life depends on it. The greater the variety of genes, species, and ecosystems, the more resilient our planet is to recover from environmental disasters, to prevent the spread of zoonotic diseases (such as COVID -19), and to support a thriving nature and prosperous societies. As such, biodiversity has intrinsic value in its own right as the very foundation of life on Earth.

Biodiversity is also essential to ensure our wellbeing and the achievement of sustainable development. For instance, our economies, livelihoods, food security, medicines, and quality of life are all dependent on biodiversity. However, biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented and accelerating rate.2 Currently, one out of six species of plants and animals in the world is endangered, equating to one million species at risk of extinction. Habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation, dissemination of invasive species, pollution, and climate change are all results of our damaging footprint and constitute the main drivers of biodiversity loss.3 Whilst this means we are to blame for the alarming loss of biodiversity, it also means it is in our hands to reverse this crisis.

“Currently, one out of six species of plants and animals in the world is endangered, equating to one million species at risk of extinction.”

In in an attempt to raise understanding and awareness about biodiversity issues, in the year 2000 the UN declared May 22 as the International Day for Biological Diversity. Building on the momentum created by the UN Decade on Biodiversity 2011-2020, 2021’s International Day for Biological Diversity campaign “We are part of the solution” puts significant emphasis on our agency, at all levels of society, to take actions to improve biodiversity outcomes and safeguard a better future for people and nature alike. But if we all are part of the solution, what exactly is the global community doing to safeguard biodiversity? After all, protecting the environment, achieving sustainable development and promoting human wellbeing constitute political actions that require international cooperation.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), adopted in 1992, is the most comprehensive international legal agreement for the conservation, sustainable use, and equitable sharing of the benefits derived from the use of biodiversity. It has 196 signatory member states, with the sole exception of the United States. Almost three decades after its adoption, the CBD remains the main treaty for the governance of biodiversity. However, the CBD has failed to achieve its objectives so far. Not only does biodiversity keep declining, but also member states have failed twice to achieve the global objectives of the two Strategic Plans for Biodiversity.2-6 Progress towards the allied Aichi Biodiversity Targets adopted under the more recent 2011-2020 Strategic Plan was already considered insufficient in 2014 during a mid-term evaluation of progress7,8 and failure to deliver the agenda was officially recognised by the CBD in 2020.A Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework is due for adoption in October 2021. Nonetheless, given the prevalent lack of political will of governments to adopt and enforce national laws and legislations to implement the CBD, it is unclear what impact the Post-2020 Strategic Plan will have on halting biodiversity loss.

“Almost three decades after its adoption, the Convention on Biological Diversity remains the main treaty for the governance of biodiversity. However, the CBD has failed to achieve its objectives so far. “

To illustrate what this implementation gap between the requirements of global environmental agreements and obligations, their translation into environmental regulations at the national level, and their realisation and enforcement at local levels looks like, I will use Australia as an example. In 2019, the Australian Government launched its “Australia’s Strategy for Nature 2019-2030”.9 The strategy is aligned with the Aichi Biodiversity Targets of the CBD, which Australia ratified in 1993. This means that by achieving national goals, Australia would be also contributing to achieve the global Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Adopting and implementing a National Strategy and Action Plan is an obligation for all the member states of the CBD.10 Noteworthy, however, is the fact that the Aichi Targets were due in 2020, when the CBD was set to review its global Strategic Plan 2011-2020 and adopt a new one with renewed goals and objectives. Australia adopted its strategy in 2019, based on the goals that were due in 2020, rendering them out of date within a single year of adoption. This is of particular relevance considering that Australia is one of the few megadiverse countries in the world (i.e. supporting more than 70 percent of global biodiversity in less than 10 per cent of the worlds area)10 and has: the highest rate of mammal extinction in the world11 (including iconic koalas owing primarily to habitat loss); over 1900 species endangered or at risk of extinction, including several endemic species (i.e. species that cannot be found anywhere else in the world)12; a legislation gap to regulate land clearing (with habitat transformation for agriculture and urbanisation being the main causes of biodiversity loss in the country); and a reluctance to move away from fossil fuels (particularly coal mining), despite the fact that climate change creates a positive feedback loop on biodiversity loss.

Whilst this implementation gap is not an uncommon outcome in global environmental governance, it does represents a major challenge to improve environmental outcomes.13 States have proved effective at collectively setting global environmental agendas, such as the Strategic Plans of the CBD. They have not been so successful at translating agreed ambiguous and aspirational global goals and strategic frameworks into tangible policies, laws and legislations at the national level, and even less to enforce them locally to protect biodiversity. Furthermore, states have remained reluctant in the CBD to adopt systematic and open individual-country peer-reviews of progress towards national implementation, where peer states and civil society can hold them to account for their lack of actions to safeguard biodiversity.10 NGOs acting as watchdogs of states can help catalyse states’ actions to deliver international commitments.14 NGOs most renowned watchdog role is the mobilisation of  criticism on states (in)actions. This reputational sanction strategy  (i.e. name-and-shame) is aimed at using public condemnation to put pressure on states. However, I am more interested in exploring the role of NGOs as critical partners of states. Specifically, by providing constructive criticism on states (in)actions (i.e. questions, commentary, demands for change, and/or other forms of feedback, including condemnation but also praise), NGOs can facilitate informed decision-making by governments, better environmental management by non-state actors, and the formulation of more effective environmental law.13

“NGOs can facilitate informed decision-making by governments, better environmental management by non-state actors, and the formulation of more effective environmental law.”

A combination of both facilitating and confronting strategies is most likely to happen in practice, and also, more effective in promoting implementation and compliance with international environmental agreements.15 But if we all are part of the solution and the aim is to restore and preserve biodiversity, then cooperation and critical partnerships are essential across all sectors of society. If NGOs were to play this catalytic role, an unresearched avenue could be explored to challenge states inertia and facilitate implementation of the CBD through knowledge, expertise and learning.

1. Wilson, Edward O. 1988, Biodiversity. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US).
2. 2019. Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services of the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Edited by Brondizio, E. S., Settele, J., Díaz, S., Ngo, H.T. IPBES Secretariat, Bonn, Germany. 
3. UNEP, 2019. State of the Global Environment, in Global Environment Outlook – GEO-6: Healty Planet, Healthy People. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.
4. Butchart et al. 2010. Global biodiversity: indicators of recent declines. Science, 328(5982), 1164-1168.
5. GBO 2010. Global Biodiversity Outlook 3. CBD Secretariat, Montreal. 
6. GBO 2020. Global Biodiversity Outlook 5. CBD Secretariat, Montreal.
7. Tittensor et al. A mid-term analysis of progress toward international biodiversity targets. Science, 346(6206):241-244.
8. GBO 2014. Global Biodiversity Outlook 4. CBD Secretariat, Montreal.
9. Commonwealth of Australia 2019.
10. Ulloa, Ana Maria, Kurt Jax And Sylvia I. Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen. 2018. Enhancing implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity: a Novel Peer-Review Mechanism Aims to Promote Accountability and Mutual Learning. Biological Conservation, 217:371-376.
11. 2015. ABC – does Australia have one of the highest extinction rates?
12. Department of the Environment and Energy. (2018).www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened, Australian Government, Canberra.
13. UNEP, 2019a. Environmental Rule of Law First Global Report. United Nations Environemtal Programme, 1-34.
14. Steffek, Jens. 2010. Public Accountability and the Public Sphere of International Governance. Ethics & International Affairs, 24(1):45-68.
15. Raustiala, Kal. 2000. Compliance & Effectiveness in International Regulatory Cooperation. Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, 32(3):387-440.

Ana Maria Ulloa is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. Her work focuses on the role of NGOs in holding governments to account for the lack of actions to implement the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. She is interested in understanding how this dynamic between NGOs and states can enable learning and catalyse actions to improve biodiversity and climate outcomes.