15 December 2022
On 8 December, the Federal Minister for the Environment and Water, the Hon Tanya Plibersek MP, spoke at the Queensland Conservation Council Symposium about planned reforms to the Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. The reforms, initiated by a review of environmental legislation by Professor Graeme Samuel AC, will overhaul Australia’s environmental laws with the aim of preventing any new extinctions while still, somehow, streamlining developments — especially sustainable ones.
Plibersek’s speech comes just months after the release of the State of the Environment Report, which suggested Australia’s beleaguered ecosystems are in worse shape than ever. But it also comes with a plan to foster a ‘nature positive’ approach to solving the problem and the proposed establishment of National Environmental Standards overseen by an independent Environmental Protection Agency (albeit one with the power to ‘accredit’ state bodies for a one-step approval process, which is of some concern).
The ‘Nature Positive Plan: better for the environment, better for business’ immediately broaches topics that have long concerned Wildlife Queensland and other conservation groups. However paradoxical the subtitle might seem, we cannot argue with the plan’s opening premise: ‘If our laws don’t change, our trajectory of environmental decline will not change either’. We would add to that the maxim that ‘If the funds don’t flow, the promised, positive future won’t follow.’
Page one of the report sets out three core responsibilities of the change:
- The need to better protect Australia’s environment to prevent new extinctions of native plants and animals (including adopting outcome-focused regulations, making nature-positive decisions, improving consultation and partnerships with First Nations people, and planning conservation actions that will have multiple benefits).
- Faster decision-making and clearer priorities to provide certainty to project proponents, de-risk investments and promote sustainable economic development.
- Establishment of an independent Environmental Protection Agency with a commitment to restoring public accountability and trust in environmental decision-making, regularly reporting progress towards environmental goals, and making environmental data publicly accessible.
Of the three, the first and the last can pass with limited critique; however, Wildlife Queensland would caution that faster decision-making, as it relates to commercial activities, must not contradict the other stated aims. Too often, more haste equals more waste. All developments must be assessed, not only on their economic merits but on their environmental impacts. Making ‘life of project’ emissions reporting a required part of development proposals will help, but it must be applied across the board.
Of the report’s other offerings, a commitment to assessing biodiversity and threatened species at a regional, not merely local level, and to nudging developments into areas of least environmental significance is sensible, as is improved record-keeping, sharing and transparency of collected conservation data.
When it comes to offsets, there’s still room for improvement. The report notes that $12 million has been set aside to fix the offset system and offers a proposed ‘traffic light’ system for approving developments. When the light is red, the traffic must stop. However, we can’t help but notice that offsets and even hefty ‘conservation payments’ are still included in the plan, perhaps even when an amber light appears to be turning red. Interestingly, by the report’s own standards, controversial developments such as Walker Group’s Toondah Harbour proposal would appear to be disallowed. On p. 19, three categories of environmental assessment are detailed:
- Areas of High Environmental Sensitivity, including with World Heritage or National Heritage values, Ramsar wetlands, critical habitat for threatened species and, by agreement, other areas of high conservation significance.
- Areas of Moderate Environmental Value, where development will be allowed subject to an approval process and any agreed rules. These may contain matters of national environmental significance and impacts should be avoided, mitigated, or offset (either by securing environmental offsets or making conservation payments).
- Development Priority Areas, where development can proceed without Commonwealth environmental approval. (State and territory planning and environmental approvals will still be required for certain types of land use and development in the Development Priority Areas.)
The report suggests on p.4 under the heading ‘Accountability and trust’ that an independent EPA would be the ‘tough cop on the beat’ for the environment, but if that policeman waves amber developments through, biodiversity will still be the only thing grinding to a halt. We cannot allow ongoing degradation of environments, no matter how significant a conservation payment is made, because we know deep pockets and deep mines go together and that entire ecosystems cannot simply be translocated or traded.
To its credit, the Albanese government has committed $29.3 million to making an immediate start on regional planning and guiding sustainable development. It had earlier earmarked valuable funds for priority threatened species, and it has signed on to protect 30% of Australia by 2030 and to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Ministers have also begun consulting with stakeholders and First Nations peoples to finish drafting this ambitious new legislation by the end of 2023. Wildlife Queensland hopes invitations to review and consult are appropriately extended to NGO stakeholders in the conservation space.
So far, Federal Labor’s stated intention to improve the state of the environment has momentum. Wildlife Queensland sincerely hopes policymakers listen to conservation managers on the ground and that appropriate actions are funded and followed-through to generate a much-needed, nature-positive future for all Australians.