Australia has led the way in developing the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems, a system that provides international benchmarks for assessing the health and decline of our most precious ecosystems. The team behind the Australian effort was awarded the '2015 NSW Office of Environmentand Heritage Eureka Prize for Environmental Research' this week.
The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are Australia's premier national science awards, honouring excellence in Research and Innovation and affectionately as the Oscars of the Australian science world.
Leader of the team Professor David Keith (pictured here) from the University of New South Wales accepted the award.
CEED has played a major supporting role to the Australian effort. Several members of David Keith's team are CEED associates including Tracey Regan, Emily Nicolson, Lucie Bland and Mick McCarthy (CEED's Deputy Director). CEED researchers have played active roles in many of the discussions and analyses that took place during the long gestation of the Red List of Ecosystems, and CEED sponsored an international workshop on developing the listing process at the University of Melbourne in 2012. That workshop focused on the application of the draft criteria to marine systems, definitions of 'collapse' (similar to extinction in species), and ways of assessing change in ecological function as they move towards collapse.
"The Red List of Ecosystems is a powerful tool for scientists and policy-makers around the globe," says Kim McKay, Executive Director and CEO of the Australian Museum.
"International bodies are already looking at incorporating this system into their risk assessments."
The significance of the achievement is that, working with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), David Keith and his team have established a single global standard for assessing environmentally threatened ecosystems.
The Red List of Ecosystems assesses ecosystems against five criteria. Two of the criteria relate to an ecosystem's distribution – how rapidly it is declining and its current extent. Another two of the criteria relate to functional characteristics of ecosystems. They measure how rapidly and how extensively the physical and biological components of an ecosystem are degrading, particularly the processes that sustain the ecosystem and its species. The fifth criterion allows multiple threats to an ecosystem to be assessed, as well as potential interactions between these threats.
David Keith believes that the methods underpinning the assessment of ecosystems for the Red List are a vital part of the scientific infrastructure needed to support evidence-based environmental management.
"For the first time, we have a scientifically robust risk assessment framework, which works across the full range of terrestrial, freshwater, marine and subterranean ecosystems," he explains. "As an early warning system, the Red List of Ecosystems will help governments, industries and communities avoid ecosystem collapse and the associated socio-economic impacts by informing better environmental decisions."
Red List assessments will better target the ecosystems most vulnerable to degradation and help determine which options for investment in environmental management will work best. Ultimately, better planning and management is needed to conserve our rich biodiversity and sustain ecosystem services that support our current standards of living.
The IUCN Red List of Ecosystems represents a quantum step forward in environmental decision making and risk management. CEED is proud to have been part of its development and congratulates David Keith and his team on winning a Eureka Prize.
Hear from David Keith