Conference Report: Ecological Society of Australia

September 25th, 2023

Team members from CSIRO’s Valuing Sustainability FSP (VS FSP) recently had the chance to share their research at the Ecological Society of Australia annual conference.

The conference was held in Darwin from 3-7 July, 2023 and, in addition to a range of keynotes, the program included poster presentations, 5-minute speed talks, 15-minute oral presentations, workshops and field trips.  

Key themes covered by the conference included: Indigenous Ecological Knowledge and cross-cultural work; fire management and ecology; climate change and extreme events; ecological restoration; ecosystem services; and business and biodiversity. 

CSIRO was well represented among the speakers, with Darwin-based Senior Research Scientist and ecosystem management specialist Dr Anna Richards taking one of the keynote presenter spots, and almost 20 other CSIRO researchers conducting shorter presentations – including six from the VS FSP.  

These were: 

  • Dr Greg Smith: Natural capital risks and opportunities for business 
  • Dr Annie Bond: Needs and opportunities for biodiversity markets: perspectives on the way forward  
  • Dr Erinne Stirling: Microbial indicators of soil health: temperate to arid Australia 
  • Dr Simon Ferrier: A nature-positive world is more than the sum of its parts 
  • Dr Kim Zoeller: Social-ecological systems approach to assessing nature positive outcomes 
  • Dr Sarah Luxton: Setting the scene – what is the nature-positive economy? 

These presentations covered a variety of topics being studied within the VS FSP, including research in soil science indicators, paths towards a nature-positive future, biodiversity measures, and financial disclosures in business.  All presenters have strong links to the VS FSP’s Functional Ecosystems project, and work across CSIRO. 

Dr Greg Smith’s talk addressed the recent exponential increase in interest from business and investors in natural capital accounting and assessment, including nature-related financial disclosures, such as the Taskforce for Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD). Dr Smith discussed the potential for adapting and transferring indicators already used in corporate financial reporting to help streamline reporting and encourage uptake. Dr Smith looks to continue this work in CSIRO, including as part of the Functional Ecosystems project in the VS FSP, to further investigate financial consequences for businesses from nature-related risks, and how to evaluate performance across industries/location. 

Dr Sarah Luxton is one of the talented post-doctoral researchers in the VS FSP and she presented research on the nature-positive economy, including associated opportunities and risks.  The presentation further discussed several financial instruments that may help drive a nature-positive economy and outlined the scientific meaning of four ecological concepts that underpin nature positive (health, abundance, diversity and resilience) for non-scientists. The aims to provide a bridge for common understanding between business-people and ecologists regrading what nature positive means and how to achieve ecological meaningful outcomes. Dr Luxton is looking to publish this work soon. 

Dr Luxton also convened the Business and Biodiversity Symposium at the conference, which explored opportunities and challenges for biodiversity conservation from emerging targets, policies and instruments. Business and Biodiversity was a multidisciplinary symposium which brought together researchers and practitioners working in the fields of green-finance, ecological economics, natural capital accounting, biodiversity markets and offsets, vegetation assessment, and restoration and landscape ecology. 

“The symposium at ESA included a range of speakers covering different aspects of the nature-positive economy, nature markets and considerations on biodiversity conservation and restoration through private finance pathways,” says Dr Luxton.  

“From nature-positive and the mitigation hierarchy, scaling biodiversity variables and indicators to measure nature-positive outcomes, economic aspects of natural capital risks and opportunities to business, to lessons that can be learnt from carbon markets, and perceptions and progress in the restoration economy in Western Australia. The session was also preceded by an excellent plenary by Rachael Marshall, from Accounting for Nature, on the ECOND and their approach to developing a standardised methodology for vegetation condition – and the day finished with a panel discussion that included key speakers from the session, where questions from the audience where discussed.”  

“I was glad to see that a Business and Biodiversity symposium audience member posed a question about how biodiversity conservation policy can be designed to ensure we are living within planetary boundaries,” adds Dr Annie Bond. “It was a timely reminder and reality check about the significant gap between current conservation investment and what is actually needed.”        

Dr Kim Zoeller is a CERC Postdoctoral Fellow with expertise in assessing interactions at different levels of ecological and social organisation, and how these contribute to human wellbeing and nature stewardship. Working in the VS FSP’s Functional Ecosystems project, Dr Zoeller is investigating the social-ecological context for ecosystem function indicators. Dr Zoeller’s key takeaway from the conference is that there is more work to be done in biodiversity conservation but there are reasons to be optimistic. “Despite the diversity of scale that was used to test ecological concepts, findings were similar across species, communities and landscapes– that is, nature is in danger, says Dr Zoeller. “I noticed the pressing need to incorporate social-ecological framing to address gaps that were identified during the presentations.” 

“Despite lots of reasons to be pessimistic about the future of the planet, it is important to celebrate little wins,” she adds. “I was left feeling very inspired by the really great science being done by students. It gives me hope for the future.”   

Author – Ruth Dawkins