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Chapter 1 - National level protection and conservation of the environment and iconic places

Key points

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 environmental 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 or achieved.
  • Decision-making is focused on processes and individual projects and does not adequately address cumulative impacts or emerging threats. Environmental offsets have serious shortcomings. They have become the default, rather than the exception after all practical options to avoid or mitigate impacts have been exhausted.
  • The Act does not facilitate the restoration of the environment. The current settings cannot halt the trajectory of environmental decline, let alone reverse it. There is no comprehensive planning to manage key threats to the environment on a national or regional (landscape) scale.
  • 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 reform directions proposed by the Review are:

  • Legally enforceable National Environmental Standards should be the foundation for effective regulation. The Standards should focus on outcomes for matters of national environmental significance, and the fundamentally important processes for sound and efficient decision-making. Standards will provide certainty—in terms of the environmental outcomes the community can expect from the law, and the legal obligations of proponents.
  • The goal of the EPBC Act should be to deliver ecologically sustainable development. The Act should require that National Environmental Standards are set and decisions are made in a way that ensures it is achieved. The Act should support a focus on protecting (avoiding impact), conserving (minimising impact) and restoring the environment.
  •  A greater focus on adaptive planning is required to deliver environmental outcomes. Regional plans should be developed that support the management of cumulative threats and set clear rules to manage competing land uses at the right scale.
  • Strategic national plans should be developed for big-ticket, nationally pervasive issues such as the management of feral animals or adaptation of the environment to climate change. These plans should guide the national response and enable action and investment by all parties to be effectively targeted and efficient.

These proposed reforms, along with others presented in this Interim Report, 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.

Protecting the environment and iconic places in the national interest 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 and 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 simply being viewed 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 environment laws.

1.1 - The environment and iconic places are in decline and under increasing threat

Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat. The current environmental trajectory is unsustainable.

1.2 - The EPBC Act does not enable the Commonwealth to play its part in managing Australia’s environment

Management of Australia’s environment is a shared responsibility that must recognise the respective roles of the Commonwealth and states and territories. All jurisdictions need to work effectively together and in partnership with the community.

1.3 - The EPBC Act does not enable the Commonwealth to effectively protect and conserve nationally important matters

The EPBC Act lacks clear outcomes for matters of national environmental significance (MNES) and does not effectively apply or achieve ecologically sustainable development (ESD). Decision-making is transactional, cumulative impacts are not systematically considered, and strategic, national-level opportunities are either poorly implemented or missed. Addressing the challenge of adapting to climate change is an implied, rather than a central consideration.

1.4 - Proposed key reform directions

More needs to be done to protect and restore the environment and focus Commonwealth responsibilities on core matters of national environmental significance (MNES). New MNES are not proposed. Climate impacts to MNES should be considered, but the EPBC Act should not duplicate other climate frameworks. The reform directions proposed include a renewed focus on ecologically sustainable development (ESD), along with National Environmental Standards, and planning at the national and regional (landscape) scale to allow the Commonwealth to step-up its focus to achieve nationally important environmental outcomes.