6.2 - The right information is not available to inform decisions made under the EPBC Act
6.2.1 - Western scientific environmental information is the focus
To deliver ecologically sustainable development (ESD), decision-makers must weigh up information on the long-term environmental, economic, cultural and social impacts and benefits of their decisions.
The current focus of the EPBC Act is on western environmental science. There are currently clear structures and avenues for western scientific advice on the environment to be provided and considered. For example, the Act establishes the Threatened Species Scientific Committee for threatened species and communities listing advice and the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development (IESC) for advice. There is no corresponding avenue or expectation for Indigenous environmental knowledge, or economic or social information, to be explicitly included or considered in statutory processes. Decision-makers must weigh competing factors, yet the information they rely on to do so is not comprehensive or transparent.
The information base for development assessment decisions is heavily skewed to environmental information collected by the proponent. There is no requirement for the proponent to give comprehensive information on social, economic or cultural impacts, or for the assessment process to examine the veracity of that information. The avenues to seek expert advice (beyond that provided by the IESC) in the development assessment process are limited, and rarely used in practice.
6.2.2 - Cumulative impacts and future threats are not well considered
Environmental science and management have traditionally aimed to understand past environmental conditions, how and why conditions have changed, and what needs to be done to ‘return’ the environment to its ‘past’ state.
As highlighted in Chapter 1, a key shortcoming of the EPBC Act is the focus on project-by-project decisions. These decisions are largely based on project-centric information, collected and collated for the purposes of conducting an environmental impact assessment. With limited exceptions (see, for example, Box 18), the cumulative impacts of decisions on the landscape are not well considered. This is a key shortcoming of the Act.
Box 18 - Assessment of cumulative impacts of proposed coal seam gas or large coal mining developments
The analysis and advice provided by the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development (IESC) is an example of a clear expectation and process for considering cumulative impacts in advice provided to the decision-maker.
The 'Information Guidelines for the Independent Expert Scientific Committee advice on coal seam gas and large coal mining development proposals' outline the definition and requirements for the consideration of cumulative impacts and provide advice on the scale and nature of assessment.
The consideration of cumulative impacts and risks needs to take into account ‘all relevant past, present and reasonably foreseeable actions, programmes and policies that are likely to impact on water resources'. Consideration of local-scale cumulative impacts is undertaken by the proponent, informed by groundwater and surface modelling, bioregional assessments and other relevant regional plans. Advice on broader cumulative impacts may be provided by government regulators.
This focus on considering and providing advice on cumulative impacts is facilitated by several factors, including:
- the broad definition of 'water resources' (defined according to the Water Act 2007) supports a holistic view of impacts on the underlying processes that support species and ecosystem services, leading to more comprehensive and integrated scientific advice
- significant focus on and investment in groundwater and surface water models over several decades
- the more recent investment in the Commonwealth Government’s bioregional assessment programs to deliver independent, scientific assessments of the potential cumulative impacts of coal and unconventional gas developments on the environment
- the IESC's legislative functions, and its focus on developing a suite of resources to assist industry and regulators with environmental assessments, providing clarity around expectations and information needs.
- The establishment of the IESC and the delivery of the Bioregional Assessments Program was part of a $150 million National Partnership Agreement announced by the Commonwealth Government in 2012113, with an additional $30.4. million in funding announced for the Geological and Bioregional Assessments Program in 2017. This highlights the significant amount of investment required in data aggregation, analysis and expert advice required to underpin the consideration of cumulative impacts.
Due to climate change, the past will no longer be a useful guide to the future. Key threats to the environment, including biosecurity incursions and altered fire regimes, will be compounded by climate change. While considering cumulative impacts is important now, this becomes increasingly so as the predicted widespread and substantial changes to the environment arising from climate change manifest.
There will always be inherent uncertainty about how future pressures will affect the environment, but it is possible to better understand different future scenarios to help inform decisions. There is a clear need to enhance capability to consider a dynamic environment and a changing future.
The proposed key reforms, including the setting of National Environmental Standards and the making of regional and strategic national plans, enable cumulative impacts to be considered over long time frames. This requires a substantially improved information base and a broader suite of information tools, including the capacity to model the outcomes of alternative scenarios.
New information tools are needed. While proven and long used in many areas of environmental management (such as climate modelling, fisheries, the management the Great Barrier Reef and for water resources), the modelling capability to predict the impacts of threats and management actions on land-based biodiversity is still relatively immature in Australia.
The technologies to analyse and gain insights from diverse and very large datasets are not broadly used, but these insights are essential to develop and refine predictive models. This contrasts to other areas of national policy such as the economy and health, where predictive modelling is a mainstream and widespread tool used to inform decision-making.