Australia on Thursday announced it plans far-reaching reforms to its environmental and biodiversity protection laws in response to a recent independent review that concluded the nation’s nature is being destroyed.
The Labor government’s Nature Positive Plan will include introducing national environmental standards in project planning and decision-making, an improved regional planning system, reform of the nation’s environmental offsets market, and for the first time setting up an Environment Protection Agency, Tanya Plibersek, the federal environment and water minister, announced.
“Our environment is in a state of decline, and that decline is now accelerating,” she said in a speech delivered in Queensland.
The announcement came as the government published its response to a recent independent review of Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act led by Professor Graeme Samuel, which concluded that current regulations are entirely unfit and that natural deterioration and species extinction are happening at an unprecedented rate.
Samuel made 38 recommendations for how the legislation should be overhauled, most of which earned the government’s support in Thursday’s statement, though the details of its response will only become clear over the next year as the reformed legislation takes shape.
Australia is backing the 30×30 target that is being debated at COP15 in Montreal, referring to protecting 30% of land areas and sea by 2030.
The first change that will be implemented is putting in place National Environmental Standards, according to Plibersek.
“At the moment, there is no requirement that approval decisions must deliver a positive outcome for the environment,” she said.
“Our reforms will change that, by establishing National Environmental Standards that write nature positive outcomes into the law. These standards will be legally enforceable, creating positive requirements for decision-making,” she added.
To illustrate the need for the reform, she said there are currently 140 proposals on the table across New South Wales, Queensland, and ACT that migh impact koala habitats if they are approved.
“We’re at the point where, if we don’t make urgent to protect these places, koalas could become extinct in New South Wales before 2050,” she said.
Following on from that, Australia will also introduce a regional planning system to guide decision-making processes.
That will come in the form of a traffic light system, where red indicates investors can’t initiate new developments, green means there is little chance of harming diversity so investments are welcome, and tallow will require further investigation.
The Samuel report also found that Australia’s controversial environmental offset system is working poorly and is failing to deliver benefits to nature.
But rather than ditching it, the government said Thursday it will spend A$12 million on reforming it to make sure it delivers environmental gains and reduces project development delays.
The reformed scheme will include an action hierarchy putting avoiding doing harm to the environment first and reducing damage second, before identifying offsets within the region of the project that could deliver net gains for the imperilled plants or animals in question.
As a last resort, regulated companies could simply pay into a fund for conservation efforts, which the government said would provide a price signal for developers.
Australia earlier this year announced it plans to set up framework regulations for a national biodiversity credit market that is not intended to be used for offsetting purposes.
That scheme was described separately from the offset reforms in the government’s plan, referred to as a “nature repair” market, though how exactly that scheme will look remains to be seen, as the government is currently considering the feedback it got during the recent consultation process.
Meanwhile, the fourth and final reform the government announced Thursday involved setting up an Environment Protection Agency, another recommendation from the Samuel review.
“This is no surprise, because up until now we have just been managing decline. People don’t trust the system because it’s weak, but also because it’s opaque,” said Plibersek.
The EPA’s responsibility will be to help ensure that Australia becomes “nature positive” at the same time as the national population continues to grow and the country is addressing a national housing shortage of as many as 200,000 homes.
WAIT AND SEE
Plibersek’s announcement was welcomed by many observers, though independent Senator David Pocock – whose support the Labor government relies on to get bills through the senate – would not immediately commit to backing the reformed act when it arrives in parliament towards the end of 2023.
“This is a big piece of work … there isn’t the final details yet, that will happen over the next year. But we have to look back at 2023 as the year we did turn things around when it comes to the environment in Australia,” Pocock told ABC.
Meanwhile, the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) stressed that in order to be successful, the rewritten legislation must also cover oceans, coastal waters, and reefs.
“Australia’s nature laws have been failing our country, our seascapes and our wildlife for too long so it’s pleasing that the Albanese government has the ambition to try to change the way we protect our natural heritage,” said Darren Kindleysides, AMCS chief executive.
“These timely plans lay the foundations for significant nature law reform that gives Australia the opportunity to be a world leader in environmental protection. A good framework, including an independent national Environment Protection Agency, will only work with strong national environmental standards and good resourcing.”
By Stian Reklev – email@example.com