Chapter 8 - Restoration
To deliver ecologically sustainable development, the EPBC Act must encourage restoration. Given the state of decline of Australia's environment, restoration is required to enable future development to be sustainable. Available habitat needs to grow to be able to support both development and a healthy environment. The current settings of the Act do not support effective or efficient restoration.
Environmental offsets are poorly designed and implemented, delivering an overall net loss for the environment.
The stated intent of the offsets policy, to only be used once proponents have exhausted all reasonable options to avoid or mitigate impacts on Matters of National Environmental Significance, is not occurring. In practice, offsets have become the default negotiating position, and a normal condition of approval, rather than the exception.
Offsets do not currently offset the impact of development. Proponents are allowed to clear or otherwise impact habitat by purchasing and improving other land with the same habitat and protecting it from future development. It’s generally not clearly established that the area set aside for the offset is at risk from future development, and overall there is a net loss of habitat.
Offsets need to include a focus on restoration and should be enshrined in the law, rather than Departmental policy. The proposed key reforms to the EPBC Act include:
- requiring offsets to be considered only when options to avoid and then mitigate impacts have been actively considered, and demonstrably exhausted
- requiring offsets, where they are applied, to deliver protection and restoration that genuinely offsets the impacts of the development, avoiding a net loss of habitat
- incentivising investment in restoration, by requiring decision-makers to accept robust restoration offsets, and create the market mechanisms to underpin the supply of restoration offsets.
There are opportunities for government to explore policy mechanisms to accelerate environmental restoration including those to:
- leverage the carbon market, which already delivers restoration, to deliver improved biodiversity in suitable habitat types
- co-invest with the philanthropic and private sectors, including funding innovation to bring down the cost of environmental restoration, growing the habitat available to support healthy systems.
The reforms proposed by this Review recommend that the EPBC Act focus on protecting, conserving and restoring the environment, so that development can proceed in a sustainable way (Chapter 1). To deliver the net gain for the environment that is needed, the national focus on restoration must be enhanced (see Box 21).
Box 21 - Meaning of restoration
Restoration in this chapter refers to improvement in the condition of the environment to a state that is required to be sustainable in the long-term, or a state that is desirable. It should not be inferred as a blanket ambition for a return to a particular historic environmental condition (although this may be a reasonable goal for some areas), because this may not be possible, particularly considering ongoing impacts such as climate change.
Central to the proposed reform agenda is a commitment to monitoring and evaluating progress made. Settings should be reviewed and amended to ensure that interventions made are on track to deliver intended environmental outcomes. The proposed National Environmental Standards and regional plans (see Chapter 1) are key mechanisms that specify the outcomes sought from development decisions and the priorities for restoration. Reviewing and, where needed, amending these instruments is critical to delivering ecological sustainable development (ESD) in the long-term. A recurring cycle of review provides the opportunity to adjust the rules when circumstances change or where outcomes are not being achieved.
In addition to this commitment to adaptive management, specific action is required to support restoration. Fundamental change to the way developments are permitted to ‘offset’ the impacts of their development are needed.
The Review has identified opportunities for national leadership outside the EPBC Act, which should be considered. Existing markets, including the carbon market, can be leveraged to deliver restoration in appropriate areas, and greater effort can be made to coordinate the investments in restoration made by governments and the private sector. There is an opportunity for these investments to improve the techniques used for restoration, so that it can be delivered at least cost. These opportunities are explored in this chapter, although no firm reform directions are proposed at this stage. The Review will continue to consider the merits of these concepts.