The Australian government will develop regional plans to help protect, restore, and manage the environment, starting with four areas in New South Wales, however green groups have warned its plan could lead to unintended consequences and perverse outcomes.
Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek announced Thursday that Canberra would work alongside the New South Wales state government to create the regional plans.
“Nature is being destroyed. Businesses are waiting too long for decisions. That’s bad for everyone. Things have to change,” she said.
The government said the plans, which will provide developers and environmentalists with clear guidance on development no-go zones, due to their high environmental value, through to areas where certain developments can proceed.
The four areas include the Northern Rivers, the Central Coast, the Hunter-Central Coast Renewable Energy Zone (REZ), and the NSW section of the Loxton-Parilla Sands Basin.
Each of the four areas have their own unique circumstances, with the Northern Rivers being inundated with flooding for much of 2022, while Central Coast is an area experiencing urban development growth, creating pressure on biodiversity.
The government said it would work alongside local community, governments, business, natural resources management organisations, environmental groups, First Nations, and technical experts to develop the regional plans – starting early next year.
NSW Planning and Homes Minister Anthony Roberts said the regional plans would streamline the biodiversity approval process, while balancing the needs of natural areas in NSW with the delivery of new homes and essential infrastructure.
“Having the necessary approvals in place from the get-go will provide certainty to landholders on the biodiversity value of their land and result in more homes being built faster, in the right places, without sacrificing essential conservation considerations,” he said.
He added that the plans would help fast-track the recovery of flood-affected communities in the Northern Rives, and speeding up transmission and energy storage projects in the REZ.
The Queensland state government is also beginning to work with the federal government to develop plans in three areas of its own.
Canberra said it was keen to partner with other state and territory governments on regional planning, and was currently discussing potential opportunities with a range of jurisdictions.
The announcement follows the government releasing its Nature Positive Plan earlier this month, with Plibersek saying Thursday that the regional plans would be a critical tool to help realise the plan.
“By planning across a region, rather than approving individual projects, we can determine up front which sites must be protected from development because of their environmental significance,” she said.
“We will also be able to identify those areas where limited development can occur or areas where developers can proceed under national environment law.”
The Labor party’s Nature Positive Plan detailed a traffic light system, where red indicates investors can’t initiate new developments, orange meaning further investigation, while green means development is welcome.
However, Tim Beshara, policy and strategy manager of environmental group the Wilderness Society said the traffic light system could potentially be abused by business groups that could lobby the government for regions with development potential to be categorised as a green zone.
“The way this regional planning approach is designed means that stronger environment protections are only provided for some locations, if at the same time, the destruction of other areas is pre-approved,” he wrote in a LinkedIn post.
He wrote that the traffic light system could empower the federal environment minister of the day to essentially turn off the Environmental Protection, Biodiversity, and Conservation Act assessment requirements in area that has been greenlit for development.
“Is it really necessary to destroy (part of) the village to save (another part of) it?”
The government has vowed that its plan will halt new extinctions, and ramp up private sector investment with plans to create a Nature Repair Market.
However, some have argued that relying too heavily on the private sector to achieve conservation goals could lead to perverse outcomes, particularly in the context of nature markets.
Policy watchers have drawn comparisons to the establishment of a national nature market with the damning findings of a New South Wales parliamentary inquiry into the state’s water trading market, released this month, to highlight what can go wrong.
The inquiry found “the introduction of private and institutional investors … led to market destabilisation and manipulation at the expense of irrigation farmers, regional communities, and the natural environment”.
A statement from minister Plibersek sent to Carbon Pulse Tuesday said that the government alone cannot foot the bill for nature protection and repair.
“We must encourage private investment too. That’s why we’re establishing a Nature Repair Market. And it’s why I announced at COP15 that Australia will host a global Nature Positive Summit, to help supercharge private investment in protecting and repairing our environment,” she said.
YOU CAN’T BE SERIOUS
Meanwhile, the Greens and independent Senator David Pocock, whose support the government relies on to pass legislation in parliament, have argued the government’s environmental credentials cannot be taken seriously while they continue to approve the logging of native forests, and new fossil fuel developments.
“In Australia, halting extinction means governments must stop allowing the destruction of habitat and stop logging and mining in our native forests,” Green party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who attended COP15 in Montreal as part of the country’s delegation, said in a statement Tuesday.
“There is no serious commitment to saving our animals while their homes are being destroyed by government sanctioned mines, logging, and development.”
The Greens have been calling for a so-called climate trigger to be inserted into the EPBC laws, whereby a project could be rejected based on its climate impacts.
Pocock meanwhile told the Nine newspapers that environmental laws should be updated to remove any exemption to their application to Regional Forest Agreements, which act as long-term plans for the sustainable management and conservation of the country’s native forests.
By Mark Tilly – email@example.com