Australia’s environmental law failing to protect biodiversity, study finds

Published 05:00 on January 24, 2023  /  Last updated at 05:48 on January 24, 2023  /  Biodiversity  /  No Comments

Australia’s environment protection and biodiversity conservation (EPBC) legislation failed to have any impact on halting species decline and habitat loss over a 15-year period, a University of Queensland study has found, urging the government to change its approach.

Australia’s environment protection and biodiversity conservation (EPBC) legislation failed to have any impact on halting species decline and habitat loss over a 15-year period, a University of Queensland study has found, urging the government to change its approach.

Current regulations in Australia let developers themselves conduct a self-assessment to decide whether or not planned projects need to be referred to environmental authorities for scrutiny.

Based on the referrals they receive, regulators then decide whether the plans will likely have significant impacts on nature or not, allowing some to move ahead as they want (non-controlled action – NCA) and others to be further assessed or moderated (controlled action – CA).

But studying data for the 2000-15 period and applying impact scores, the UQ study found that as much damage was done by clearing vegetation deemed insignificant as that deemed significant.

“Over half (63%) of all scored losses occurred under actions deemed non-significant, with certain species disproportionally impacted,” the study found, noting that the tiger quoll and the grey-headed flying fox lost 82% and 72%, respectively, of their preferred habitat through ‘non-significant’ actions.

“With Australian wildlife rapidly declining, it is clear that changes need to be made to the keystone piece of environmental legislation … The EPBC Act and its regulators must refine the criteria and decision-making processes surrounding referral determinations to properly protect threatened Australian species,” said the study, published in Conservation Science and Practice.

UNDERWAY

The study comes as Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek last month announced the EPBC legislation will be overhauled, after a scathing independent review was released earlier in the year.

The Labor government intends to introduce a traffic light system, marking areas green, yellow, or red depending on whether they are ready for development such as urban sprawl or more study is needed.

It began developing traffic light-based regional plans at selected locations in New South Wales also in December, working with the state government.

However, it remains unclear if Labor plans to address all the weaknesses identified by the UQ researchers, and if the traffic light system will represent a real improvement from the current significant/non-significant impact determination system.

The UQ study said three elements in particular had contributed to the legislation’s poor performance.

Current regulations use vague terminology to describe what constitutes significant impact, the researchers said, despite the government saying it would include actions likely to lead to a long-term decrease in the size of a population.

“However, without clear species-specific thresholds, determining which actions are likely to such a decrease remains abstract,” the researchers said.

In addition, there is also a risk that project proponents have intentionally played down the impacts of their actions so as to avoid government scrutiny.

An apparent lack of available data to properly make assessments has made the government overly reliable on developers’ honesty in its decision-making, the study said.

“Third, due to a lack of transparency in the decision-making process, there are increasing perceptions that social and economic factors may be given more weight than environmental factors when determining the overall impacts of an action,” said the study.

“If this were to be the case, more referrals could be ‘waved through’ as NCAs to conciliate industries.”

Australia is home to around 10% of the world’s species, but its wildlife decline is steeper than in any other developed nation.

Environment Minister Plibersek is planning to take a revised EPBC bill to parliament before the end of the year.

She is also developing a voluntary biodiversity credit market, called the nature repair market, though observers expect most or all of the credits created under that scheme to be purchased by the government rather than businesses.

By Stian Reklev – stian@carbon-pulse.com

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