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8.1 - The EPBC Act lacks comprehensive plans to manage cumulative impacts, key threats and to set priorities

8.1.1 - Current operation of the EPBC Act does not effectively address cumulative impacts

Cumulative impacts on and threats to the environment are often not well managed under the current settings of the EPBC Act. Administration of the EPBC Act has contracted to core statutory requirements, with a focus on project-by-project assessment and approvals. Individually, developments may have minimal impact on the national environment, but their combined impact can result in significant long-term damage. Where assessed, the impacts are most often considered in isolation of other current or anticipated projects. These project-level decisions fail to fully factor in other pressures on the environment, resulting in an underestimation of the broadscale cumulative impacts on a species, ecosystem or region.

Provisions for more strategic approaches that can consider cumulative impacts, such as bioregional plans and strategic assessments, have a history of limited use.

This focus on project-based assessment and approvals sets the EPBC Act up to deliver managed decline, not sustainable maintenance or recovery of the environment. The impacts of development are not counterbalanced with legislated recovery processes. This is exacerbated by an ineffective offsets policy (section 8.3).

8.1.2 - Planning is patchy and often poorly implemented

The current settings of the EPBC Act require plans for some matters of national environmental significance (MNES). Plans for World Heritage properties and National Heritage places on Commonwealth land are required to be reviewed every 5 years. Monitoring and review of plans for World Heritage properties is highly scrutinised, but the effectiveness of plans for National Heritage places has not been assessed and requires attention (DoEE 2019a). Commonwealth reserves jointly managed by the Director of National Parks (DNP) and the joint boards of management also require management plans, which must be updated every 10 years. An audit report by the ANAO identified shortcomings in the effectiveness and implementation of reserve management plans (ANAO 2019). The DNP is working to address these shortcomings.

The EPBC Act also contains provisions for the development of bioregional plans in Commonwealth areas or in collaboration with States and Territories where a plan is not wholly within a Commonwealth area. These plans are not statutory and are not required to be monitored and reviewed. Undertaking a whole-of-system approach has had many benefits in the Commonwealth marine environment. Bioregional plans have been developed for 4 of Australia’s marine regions. These plans provide clear direction on some priorities the Minister must have regard to when making decisions under the Act – for example, important habitat areas for migratory marine species and key ecological features of the marine environment. These plans are less clear on how to address other issues, such as marine pollution.

Marine bioregional plans have not been substantially evaluated or reviewed since they were first made and implemented. This means there is limited information available to determine if they are achieving the intended environmental outcomes. Under the EPBC Act, bioregional plans have not been developed for terrestrial environments that have complex cross-jurisdictional boundaries, competing land-use requirements and different requirements under State, Territory and Commonwealth legislation.

The approach to planning for the recovery of threatened species and ecological communities is poor. Once listed, each threatened species and ecological community MNES is separately described and managed through individual species or community conservation advices. Some also have recovery plans. Opportunities for more coordinated action that supports sustainable habitat use and restoration are missed. Listed threatened species and ecological communities influence funding programs that encourage restoration and threat abatement, such as the National Landcare Program or the Threatened Species Recovery Fund. However, the distribution of funding is often scattergun, unreliable and short-term. Funding cycles do not support an enduring, focused or prioritised approach. With limited exception, the planning that is done is piecemeal and poorly implemented. Even if these plans were implemented well, they still fail to deliver at a system scale because they are mostly focused on a threat-by-threat and species-by-species basis.

8.1.3 - Threats are not well managed

The EPBC Act is limited in its ability to manage key threats or quickly respond to acute threats such as bushfires, biosecurity incursions or other natural disasters. These can have a devastating impact on threatened species and can lead to more common species becoming rarer.

Australia’s history of extinctions shows that predation by feral cats and European red foxes is a primary driver of extinctions of small mammals in Australia. A recent assessment of historical extinctions during the mid-19th or early 20th century concluded that of 13 species assessed, 11 are believed to have gone extinct primarily due to the predation of feral cats and European red foxes (DAWE n.d.(a)).

Provision in the EPBC Act for managing threats – such as the listing of key threatening processes (KTPs) and the development and implementation of threat abatement plans – were designed to support a coordinated and strategic approach to dealing with threats that cause the majority of extinctions and declines in Australia. However, these mechanisms are not achieving their intent and many threats in Australia are worsening.

The current list of 21 KTPs is not comprehensive, because the process relies on the receipt of nominations from the public. The listing process is slow and subject to ministerial discretion. No new KTPs have been listed since 2014, and several major threats – such as inappropriate fire regimes –are not listed. Listed KTPs are dominated by immediate or existing threats where strong evidence is available, rather than emerging threats. This is despite evidence that early intervention on emerging threats is more cost-effective and achieves better outcomes than responding to entrenched threats (ISC & BHA 2020).

Once a KTP is listed, action to address the threat is not a requirement of the EPBC Act. The decision to make and implement a threat abatement plan is discretionary. The Threatened Species Scientific Committee noted in their submission to the Review:

A Key Threatening Process listing has no statutory obligations. Thus, a listing is ineffectual unless a Threat Abatement Plan is made or adopted. This constraint means that Key Threatening Processes are not prioritised in a resource-constrained environment. (TSSC 2020)

Only 6 KTPs have an up-to-date plan. For others, an alternative non-statutory approach is used, or the plans have exceeded or are about to exceed the statutory 5-year review deadline (TSSC 2020).

The EPBC Act does not refer to climate change or explicitly require consideration of future pressures. As a result of an inefficient, drawn out listing process, there is no avenue for quickly listing newly threatened species in response to natural disasters such as the 2019–20 Black Summer bushfires. In addition to listing efficiencies, better planning is the missing piece to consider the cumulative and long-term nature of these threats.