Australia is the only nation in the developed world to make the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) global list of deforestation hotspots.
The biennial Living Planet Report, published this week, puts Australia alongside New Guinea, Indonesia, Congo and Brazil for deforestation.
The main cause of this is land clearing for livestock, according to WWF conservation scientist Dr Martin Taylor.
“Most deforestation in Australia is just for livestock pasture,” he told Hack.
Urban sprawl is a problem in the areas where it occurs but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the amount of forest destruction just to produce livestock for pasture.
And the state with the highest rate of land clearing is Queensland.
In that state, in 2015-16, about 395,000 hectares of native vegetation were cleared.
That can be hard to visualise, but it’s an area roughly the size of Sydney or Melbourne. It’s the equivalent of 1,500 football fields cleared per day.
“In Queensland alone it’s estimated 45 million animals were killed in 2015-16 because of bulldozing of forests – everything from geckos to cockatoos,” Dr Taylor said.
‘When animals lose their habitat they die, they don’t just run away and live happily ever after somewhere else’
Where it gets really scary, though, is looking at the amount of land that will be cleared in the next 15 years if we keep clearing at the same rate.
The WWF’s figure is 3 million hectares – or 30 billion square metres. That’s an area a bit under half the size of Tasmania.
How many trees are on 395,000ha?
Another way of understanding the scale of land clearing is to look at how this figure has increased in the last few years.
In the six years to 2016, the annual rate of land clearing in Queensland increased by 330 per cent – from 92,000 to 395,000 hectares.
That’s not the total land cleared – that’s the annual rate of land clearing. The cumulative figure would be far higher.
Another way of visualising the amount of land cleared is to calculate the number of trees that have been cut down. With a conservative estimate of 1,000 trees per hectare (a hectare is about the size of a football oval) we can estimate 395,000 hectares equals about 400 million trees.
Compare this with government programs to plant trees in response to land clearing.
The Australian Government is currently working with communities to plant 20 million trees by 2020 at a cost of $50 million.
The benefits of the 20 Million Trees Program have been more than neutralised by a single year of land clearing in Queensland.
And that’s just in Queensland
New South Wales gave permission to clear over 7,000 hectares of native vegetation in 2015-16 – an increase of 800 per cent in three years.
During that time, the NSW Government relaxed the laws around land clearing. Environmental groups have warned the new regime will lead to a major increase in loss of habitat for animals including koalas.
The WWF estimates the koala will be extinct as early as 2050. “It’s not just about koalas – there are literally millions of animals being killed,” Dr Taylor said.
The Living Planet report estimates the number of vertebrate animals in the world (everything from mammals to birds to fish) has halved since 1970.
It lists four main causes:
- Habitat destruction (logging and land clearing)
- Overexploitation of natural populations (hunting and fishing)
- Invasive species (e.g. cats and foxes in Australia)
- Climate change
“These are the four horsemen of the apocalypse,” Dr Taylor said. “We’ve had governments scoff at the koala going extinct.”
“I’d remind people of the passenger pigeon in the United States, which was a bird numbering in the billions and billions.
The flocks were so huge they darkened the sky during the day and they lived on fruits and seeds of the deciduous forest which used to be vast in North America.
“In the space of 30-40 years in in the US they went from being billions of birds to the last one in the wild was shot in 1901.”
“Don’t tell me it can’t happen here, that it can’t happen with the koala.”
Why has the rate in Queensland gone up?
The immediate cause is changes to land-clearing regulation.
Queensland had pretty tight land clearing rules under Labor premier Peter Beattie, but the Liberal National party’s Campbell Newman gutted them in 2013.
“The Newman Government in their own words took the axe to tree clearing laws in Queensland and we saw a huge upsurge in habitat destruction,” Dr Taylor said.
Environmental groups led a campaign to bring back the laws.
In May, the Queensland Labor government delivered on an election promise and passed new laws to restrict land-clearing, despite fierce protests from farmers.
‘That pressure to do something about this runaway destruction of habitat has had a result in Queensland,” Dr Taylor said.
Don’t imagine you’re powerless
“We know livestock can be grown without cutting down trees. They do well in woodland areas and savannahs – you don’t have to cut down trees to run livestock.
“Lot of impacts are avoidable and you can have a prosperous way of life without having a huge impact on nature.”