Chapter 1 - National-level protection and conservation of the environment and iconic places
The environment and our iconic places are in decline and under increasing threat. The EPBC Act does not enable the Commonwealth to effectively protect and conserve nationally important environment and heritage matters. It is not fit for current or future environmental challenges.
The key reasons the operation of the EPBC Act does not effectively protect the environment are:
- The Act lacks clear national outcomes and effective mechanisms to address environmental decline. Ecologically sustainable development is a key principle of the Act, but it is not being applied. The environment is not being managed in a sustainable way.
- The Act does not facilitate a strategic or systematic approach to managing or restoring the environment. Cumulative impacts and emerging threats are not adequately managed. The current settings cannot halt the trajectory of environmental decline, let alone reverse it.
- Decision-making is process-driven and too focused on individual projects. Environmental offsets have become the default, rather than the exception after all practical options to avoid or mitigate impacts have been exhausted.
- Opportunities for coordinated national action to address key environmental challenges – such as feral animals, habitat restoration and adapting to climate change – are ad hoc, rather than a key national priority.
The key reforms recommended by the Review are:
- Matters of national environmental significance should focus on Commonwealth responsibilities resulting from international agreements, national-level priorities and cross-border matters, as was the original intent of the EPBC Act.
- New, legally enforceable National Environmental Standards should be made to ensure that decisions clearly support ecologically sustainable development, including the sustainable management of heritage.
- The full suite of National Environmental Standards, including those developed in detail by this Review should focus on outcomes for matters of national environmental significance and the important processes for sound and efficient decision-making. Standards will be most effective when planning, policies, decisions and funding align to support outcomes.
- National Environmental Standards should be made immediately, to maximise the environmental outcomes that can be achieved under the current legal settings of the EPBC Act. However, current settings are unlikely to significantly alter downward trends or deliver sustainable development outcomes.
- The EPBC Act, and the National Environmental Standards that underpin its implementation, should support a shift from transaction-based regulation to an integrated outcome-driven system that maintains and enhances the environment.
Standards alone will not halt the decline of the environment. To enable future development to be sustainable, cumulative impacts and threats to the environment need to be managed, and the impacts of necessary development balanced by restoring the environment.
The reforms recommended in this Review combine to provide a more effective and efficient regime to protect Australia’s unique environment and iconic places. They aim to foster greater cooperation and harmonisation between the Commonwealth, States and Territories.
This will require strong national leadership and intergovernmental cooperation to safeguard the future of Australia’s environment.
Protecting the environment and iconic places is important for all Australians. Australia is recognised as a global biodiversity hotspot, with unique plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. Indigenous Australians have a deep connection to and knowledge of Country. They are the custodians of the oldest continuous culture in the world. As the nation’s central piece of environmental law, the EPBC Act must ensure the environment, natural resources and Australia’s rich heritage is maintained for the benefit of future generations.
A healthy environment is important to the quality of life, health and wellbeing of all Australians. The recent bushfire season provided us with a stark reminder of this. For Indigenous Australians, connection to healthy Country is their expression of culture. Many industries are reliant on the sustainable use of Australia’s vast natural resource base. Their long-term productivity and profitability contribute to the continued vibrancy of regional areas and the nation. Many contributions to the Review have presented a strong view that nature has a right to exist for its intrinsic value, rather than just as a resource.
The overwhelming message received from contributions to the Review is that Australians care immensely about the state, and future of our unique and inspiring environment. They highlight a strong community expectation that the Commonwealth plays a key role in managing Australia’s environment and maintaining effective national environmental laws.