Labor’s proposal to fix a broken environmental protection system comes with big question marks | Adam Morton

It doesn’t draw the attention of other issues, but fixing Australia’s broken environmental protection system deserves a place at the top of the list of the biggest challenges facing the Albanian government.

Last week we received the substantial first look where the government can go. It is perhaps unsurprising that he raised more questions than he answered.

Some of what’s proposed — in particular the creation of a federal environmental protection agency to decide whether developments can go ahead and maintain a new set of national environmental standards — could revolutionize the management of the conservation across the country. But there are also elements of what the government is proposing that could exacerbate existing problems if not implemented well. Most of the big design decisions are still to come as the legislation is drafted in 2023.

A quick reminder of the scale of the problem: a five-year state of the environment report found that nature in Australia is in a bad state of degradation due to a long list of pressures including the climate crisis, habitat destruction, the spread of invasive species, pollution and mining. The country is a world leader in extinction, having lost more mammal species than any other continent. Nearly 20 ecosystems show signs of collapse or near collapse.

By all accounts, the country’s key environmental laws, under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC), are flawed. Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek correctly called the report a “shocking document” and promised that “under Labor the environment is back on the priority list”. She later announced objectives, including a “zero extinction” objective and protect 30% of Australian land by 2030.

The State of the Environment Report shows us how bold the zero extinction goal is. Between 2011 and 2021, 377 animal and plant species were newly added to the list of threatened species of national environmental significance. Frankly speaking, they are on the way to extinction. Virtually none have conservation plans or the funding to end their fate. Many more are likely to be added to the list in the years to come as the catastrophic toll of the black summer bushfires three years ago becomes clearer.

One could spend an eternity listing the failures of the EPBC Act, but three major problems stand out. Too much environmental damage in Australia is not subject to assessment under national law before it occurs. To give a maddening example: Hundreds of thousands of hectares of primary and native forest that regrow are bulldozed each year, but 93% of the area cleared between 2000 and 2017 has not even been accounted for in the laws. national because it happened without being mentioned. the Commonwealth Government for evaluation.

This means no one is responsible for supervising most of the damage. Instead, we have a mix of mostly inadequate state and territory laws, some industry exemptions, failing environmental offset programs, little to no data collection, and many authorities turning a blind eye.

Second, with a few exceptions (a ban on nuclear power, for example), the then Minister of the Environment had almost total discretion in deciding how to apply the law. Most of those who have held the position have prioritized the minimum necessary to allow developments to move forward. These developments are almost always considered in isolation. Their cumulative impact is systematically ignored.

Third, the laws are silent on the climate crisis. A climate trigger, which would block or reduce fossil fuel developments based on their greenhouse gas emissions, has long been discussed but never introduced.

Plibersek’s announcement last week of the government’s response to a two-year-old review of the EPBC Act by former competition watchdog Professor Graeme Samuel directly addresses only some of these issues.

The creation of a national EPA – a step that goes further than what Samuel recommended – and the introduction of environmental standards against which conservation protection decisions and major development demands must be measured are potentially transformational. To succeed, the EPA will need to be truly independent, have conservation as its primary goal, and be given the funding and powers to enforce the law nationwide. The standards should be specific and detailed enough to serve as measurable benchmarks.

When it comes to climate change, there is no trigger, but Plibersek says companies will be required to disclose their emissions in Australia and how they plan to reduce them – which looks like it could be used as a trigger except in name , depending on the design.

One of the biggest question marks concerns a proposal to use regional planning, which has been promised to accelerate development. It would introduce a traffic light system in which areas deemed to be of high environmental value would be protected (a red area), those of moderate environmental value would be opened for development subject to approval processes (orange) and those deemed to be of low value environmental. the value would be open to rapid development without Commonwealth oversight (green).

If done well, this could expand the parts of the country that are subject to national environmental legislation and begin to consider cumulative impacts – two necessary steps. But if implemented poorly, it could become an arbitrary compromise, with some natural areas and wildlife being sacrificed in exchange for the protection of others.

Perhaps the most controversial element is how the government plans to use environmental offsets. The current use of offsets, under which developments are permitted if the developer agrees to protect another existing area, has been an environmental and administrative disaster that has mostly enabled the destruction of nature.

Plibersek says the government will fix this problem by no longer allowing offsets that only protect an existing area while another area is bulldozed. Instead, it would reinforce the mostly overlooked “mitigation hierarchy”, which places greater responsibility on developers to avoid environmental damage and requires much more substantial investment in environmental restoration elsewhere if offsets are used.

But conservationists have expressed concern that the minister plans to put in place a system that would allow developers who have been unable to find ‘equal value’ compensation to simply make a conservation payment to the government. The government suggests the payment should be substantial – enough to lead to a “positive net environmental outcome” and make developers think twice about whether to go ahead as planned.

It is unclear how this would work in practice. Would a company be allowed to clear a forest that was home to endangered koalas and large gliders if it was willing to pay enough to, say, clean up a few polluted rivers?

It seems unlikely, but the horrifying history of compensation systems (explored in depth by Lisa Cox of Guardian Australia) tells us that skepticism is a justified starting point. It is tempting to say that conservation would be best served by a simple combination of substantial funding and strict regulation.

Failing that, provide details.

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