Skip to content

Climate Change

Plants play a critical role supporting all life on Earth. There is clear evidence that anthropogenic climate change is occurring now and at a faster rate than has previously been predicted. The implications of this are that temperatures will rise, rainfall patterns will be altered and there will be an increased incidence of extreme weather events.

Climate change is a significant threat to many, if not all, plant species, affecting their distribution and abundance. Climate change will impact native biodiversity, food security and biosecurity (via impacts on weeds, pests and diseases), and all these will impact human health and well-being.

Plants play a critical role in mitigating climate change through carbon sequestration and storage, and reducing its impact through reduction in surface temperatures via evapotranspiration and shade.
Climate change is one of the most significant threats to plant biodiversity, from local to regional and global scales. As such we are taking action to document and preserve biodiversity, assess the ability of plants to adapt to a changing climate, minimize the risk of extinction, reduce the impact of the likely changes on the survival of plants for future generations, and build more resilient ecosystems for future generations.

What is climate change?

Climate change is predominantly due to the buildup of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. Human activities, especially the burning of coal, oil and gas, are increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In turn, these gases are trapping more of the sun’s energy in the atmosphere and changing the climate.

Climate change is resulting in the increased intensity and frequency of many extreme events, such as heatwaves, storms, bushfires and droughts. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), states that nature is being eroded at rates unprecedented in human history. It is estimated that over one million species (plants, animals and micro-organisms) are currently threatened with extinction and this will erode the entire natural infrastructure on which our world depends.

The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2019) (Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems) highlights that are already experiencing more frequent extreme temperatures, more intense storms, and adverse impacts on food production and terrestrial ecosystems – and that these will accelerate and exacerbate the survival of plant species and all organisms that depend on them, including humans.

Reducing the impacts of climate change

Scientists and land managers concerned with plant conservation view climate change as one of the top threats to plant biodiversity and it is listed as a key threatening process in both Federal and New South Wales biodiversity conservation legislation.
The Australian Institute of Botanical Science is using both adaptation and mitigation strategies to help protect Australia’s flora against the impacts of climate change. Plants play a vital role in mitigating climate change by sequestering and storing carbon and reducing the impacts of climate change through reduction of global temperatures.

The Australian Institute of Botanical Science also plays a critical role in educating and informing the community about the importance of plants to life on the planet (including food security), how climate change will affect plants and biodiversity, and what we all can do to reduce climate change.

Plants are essential for life

Climate change presents enormous challenges to the continued existence of plant species and ecosystem function, and therefore, to the health and wellbeing of humans. At the same time, plants also play a central role in stabilizing the climate through carbon sequestration and storage, and temperature mitigation.

It is imperative that we work to ensure that the incredible plant diversity of our planet, that supports all life, is nurtured and maintained for current and future generations.  

Prepared by Dr Brett Summerell, Chief Botanist

Climate change adaptation research
The first step in preserving and protecting plant species is to discover and document their diversity and distribution. Our scientists regularly describe new species of plants, document where they occur and assess the current state of their populations.

This includes assessing threats, such as susceptibility to diseases like Phytophthora root rot and myrtle rust, taxonomic relationships, and understanding genetic variability within endangered species. This research provides critical information for evidence-based decisions to be made to protect rare species and those most at risk from climate change.
Banking seed in long-term storage is a very cost effective and efficient means to preserve plant species.  The seed bank at the Australian PlantBank houses 6500 Australian plant species, including over 62% of New South Wales threatened species, as an insurance policy to minimize their risk of extinction.
The National Herbarium of New South Wales is digitizing (photographing at very high resolution) its herbarium collection to make it accessible to the whole community. This information will allow scientists to more effectively understand changes in critical processes such as flowering and plant size to better predict species’ ability to adapt (or not) to a changing climate.

Our scientists are developing a plant traits database to understand changes over evolutionary time and how a changing climate is affecting species and their traits.
The ambitious Restore and Renew program uses the latest DNA technology to help select climatically suitable and genetically diverse plant populations to create more resilient habitats in the face of climate change.

So far, more than 30,000 plant specimens have been collected from across NSW for genetic analysis to create a publicly available online resource where genetically-appropriate plants can be selected to suit specific sites.

The online tool also allows practitioners to use climate modelling to select plant species on the basis of climate suitability, increasing the likelihood that the species planted will cope with a changing climate.
This includes supplementing declining populations of plants, creating new populations through translocation projects and mitigating the impact of exotic diseases.  We are actively involved in translocating (human assisted movement) species of plants at risk from a range of threats such as urbanization, rising temperatures and invasive diseases.

In these projects we collect germplasm material (seeds, cuttings and in rare circumstances whole plants), develop technology for ex situ conservation (in seed banks, nurseries, cryopreservation or in the gardens) and for propagation to generate populations to return to nature. This technology will assist plants under threat from climate change by supplementing threatened populations and developing new populations in locations with more suitable climate to help ensure their long-term persistence.
Climate change mitigation strategies at the Australian Institute of Botanical Science
The Australian Institute of Botanical Science will continue to advocate that the best way to protect a plant species is to conserve the environment in which it lives. The Australian Institute of Botanical Science is the custodian of significant datasets on species and their distribution which ground truths decisions for the management and in-situ conservation of these species.

The Australian Institute of Botanical Science recognizes it is a custodian significant natural vegetation including the critically endangered Cumberland Plain Woodland at the Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan and 200 hectares of Blue Mountains ecosystems at the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden Mount Tomah.

We are committed to preserving these ecosystems for future generations and to use them as exemplars for the sustainable management and restoration of threatened communities.
The Australian Institute of Botanical Science will continue to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by incorporating green building standards into construction projects, phasing in more fuel-efficient vehicles to our fleet, reducing resource consumption, promoting recycling and re-use of materials, and using low carbon energy sources where possible.

We are also focused on minimizing water use on our estates, exploring opportunities for recycling of water for irrigation and utilizing technologies for sustainable horticulture practices.
The Australian Institute of Botanical Science will continue to play a prominent role in educating this and future generations of the impacts of climate change on plants and the environment (including humans) through school and community education programs, our website and social media channels.