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The ABS's environmental statistics reporting fails the basic test of rigour

By Jennifer Marohasy - posted Monday, 29 March 2004


The listing of species under the EPBC Act may be driven by new knowledge and the number of successful environmental campaigns, rather than any recent change in the abundance or distribution of species.

New knowledge and successful environmental campaigns are generally considered good for biodiversity protection.

On this basis, it could be concluded that an increase in the number of species listed is a positive rather than a negative for Australia’s biodiversity. That no new species have been recorded as extinct over the last decade needs to be acknowledged.

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Choice of "land clearance" as a headline indicator, rather than, for example, "total native vegetation cover" or "total forest cover", potentially has the effect of reinforcing the perception of declining biodiversity and is misleading. Given that large areas of forest have been replanted and given the phenomenon of vegetation thickening, it is likely that there are now more trees across Australia than there were a decade ago.

However, biodiversity is a measure of species diversity rather than numbers of trees. Given that grasslands represent diverse ecological communities that are being lost in the arid and semi-arid rangelands as a consequence of vegetation thickening, and in wetter areas to rainforest, Australia’s biodiversity may be in decline in these regions.

In order to understand these issues and implement appropriate management strategies, we need useful environmental statistics. Rather than providing objective and quality information to facilitate informed decision-making — with respect to at least two of the six indicators in the often-quoted ABS report — the ABS has provided only a superficial and popular presentation that includes conclusions based more on opinion than rigorous analysis. This information has then been used by environmental advocates to reinforce perceptions that may have no basis in fact. At risk is Australia’s potential to make rational decisions on important environmental issues.

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This article was first published in The IPA Review on 15 December 2003.



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About the Author

Jennifer Marohasy is a senior fellow with the Institute for Public Affairs.

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