AUSTRALIA must create a new, expanded network of protected wetlands around its coastline or see many bird, animal and plant species become extinct as sea levels rise, the House of Representatives report says.
It recommended that the Government should urgently assess the vulnerability of Kakadu National Park to the intrusion of salt water into its fresh water wetlands. Up to 80 per cent of the freshwater wetlands in the park could be lost, and replaced with salty mud flats, as global average temperatures rise between two and three degrees this century.
Many existing wetlands should also have their conservation status upgraded. The report said this had implications for many activities like land clearing, building canal-style housing developments and driving vehicles along beaches.
The unavoidable sea level rises, which are already thought to be locked in by current greenhouse gas emission levels, are expected to devastate water bird populations, according to advice from Birds Australia.
Migratory birds like the black-tailed godwit, the grey plover and Latham's snipe can be regarded as the ''canaries in the coalmine'' for climate change, said Dr Eric Woehler of Birds Australia, who gave evidence to the parliamentary committee.
''Many of these birds breed only a few centimetres above the high-water mark,'' Dr Woehler said. ''They cannot just go somewhere else to breed … the development and construction of coastal infrastructure such as roads and houses will stop that inward migration of the coastline.
''So, as the sea level rises, essentially what you are going to end up with is a sea wall rather than the capacity for the coastline to find its new line inland of where it is now.''
The majority of water birds migrate to Australia each year from places as far afield as Siberia and Alaska, so the demise of local breeding habitats would have global consequences, the report noted.
The definitions for endangered wetlands should be simplified, and many major wetlands upgraded to ''wetlands of international significance'' under the Ramsar Convention, the report said. Ramsar status means a wetland cannot be used for housing.
''The committee was concerned about the continuing construction of canal estates more generally in some states, given the increased vulnerability of such developments to projected sea level rise and their environmental impact,'' the report said.
The Government is reviewing the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which many experts said should be strengthened to take sea level rise into account.