Some have argued that past changes to the EPBC Act to add new matters of national environmental significance did not go far enough. Others have argued it has extended the regulatory reach of the Commonwealth too far. What do you think?
1 In promoting and recovering biodiversity, the EPBC Act should define and defend matters of national environmental significance. Importantly, the term “environment” is widely misunderstood in the community to be an entity that is separate from the economy (which in fact depends entirely on the environment and the ecosystem services it provides). Today John Barilaro exemplified this misunderstanding when he said that we have put the environment before farmers: as if farmers are outside the environment. If so, where are they? The environment is even regarded as an optional and expendable aspect of our lifestyle, perhaps because conventional market economics infers that if and when any natural resource is exhausted, another resource will simply be substituted for it. But obviously this does not apply to clean water, clean air or extinction of a living species.
How could the principle of Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) be better reflected in the EPBC Act? For example, could the consideration of environmental, social and economic factors, which are core components of ESD, be achieved through greater inclusion of cost benefit analysis in decision making?
Yes, independent cost benefit analysis in decision making is vital and should start with Snowy 2.0, which is considered by many experts be overpriced, with the original estimate already increased many times over. This project would permit activities that no other developer would be permitted within any national park in the nation, and it is like a test case for the EPBC which should ensure Snowy2.0 does not proceed. The project would divert resources from more efficient alternatives, damage Kosciuszko NP and its biodiversity, and increase fossil fuel emissions initially and perhaps indefinitely. This is not ESD. It appears to promote renewable energy sources but is not the best site for this technology. There is a public perception that it was designed to divert resources from proven renewable technologies and from research into new battery technology.
Should the objects of the EPBC Act be more specific?
YES. Australia’s biodiversity is unique and therefore MUST be conserved for its intrinsic value as well as its role in productivity of the landscape (which is rarely recognised: e.g. pest control and pollination by bats cannot be replicated by human engineering). The EPBC Act should nominate such keystone species and regulate agricultural activities, land clearing and “development” which harm them. The advent of COVID19 may even instigate further persecution of bats despite the fact that human incursion into their habitats and exploitation of bat species are major factors in transfer of zoonotic diseases from wild animals such as bats. Australia has the worst mammal extinction rates in the world; one consequence that the EPBC must address is loss of small herbivorous mammals whose this absence is an important factor in fuel buildup and bushfire risk. Returning the will require intelligent investment in fox and cat control. This does not mean cattle should be grazed in national parks; on the contrary opportunistic vested interests should not and cannot resolve this issue, which requires national co-ordination, science and data-gathering. “Heritage” is a term that has become tainted by feral horses being labelled as “heritage” so they can be tolerated in NSW national parks, even while they breed without controls and damage some of the most fragile ecosystems in Australia. This threatens survival of native species and endangered ecosystems yet the EPBC Act has failed to stop this (in spite of Objects a,c,d,e), even in the wake of the 2019-20 bushfires.
Should the matters of national environmental significance within the EPBC Act be changed? How?
The matters of national environmental significance within the EPBC Act should be retained but require implementation with uncompromising laws. I'm a Landcare volunteer (for 22 years), I have a degree in environmental science and managed environmental projects in a catchment management authority. I studied rural production as well as sciences including geology, biology and botany. My main motivation is to protect threatened species and communities, particularly koalas as I live in Port Macquarie. Koalas contribute $60m annually to the town’s economy yet they are dying because of habitat clearing here, which is not prevented by this Act or by the NSW government. As Koala food trees are removed, our Council lost its appeal to the Land and Environment Court because old approvals were upheld without consideration of the subsequent crash in koala populations across NSW. Trees are cleared for urban sprawl, roads and infrastructure; koala habitat is destroyed by forest harvesting in coups up to 40ha; recently even burnt forests were logged when koalas that had survived bushfires here were without food or shelter. The NSW government has failed to protect koalas and experts predict they will be extinct here within decades. Without natioanal protection of biodiversity, such land management continues in the states, apparently justified by an ideology that landowners are not answerable to the community and can appropriate our natural resources for personal profit. Methods show a disregard for ecosystems, catchments and biodiversity; native species are considered inferior (without justification) and often classed as pests. The EPBC should clearly articulate the value of our biodiversity, and ensure that regulations to protect it are enforced, especially now that climate change is increasing droughts and fires.
Which elements of the EPBC Act should be priorities for reform? For example, should future reforms focus on assessment and approval processes or on biodiversity conservation? Should the Act have proactive mechanisms to enable landholders to protect matters of national environmental significance and biodiversity, removing the need for regulation in the right circumstances?
Please ensure environmental assessment and approval decisions are transparent, also that governments and vested interests are held to account when they fail to meet their obligations. Biodiversity conservation is necessary to preserve options and alternatives for sustainable land management, given that Australian native species are adapted to our soils, variable climates and associated natural processes like continental drift. Because of the future effects of climate change we will almost certainly have to rely on native ecosystems to reform current inefficient farming practices. These practices are justified by market economics that result in the export of Australia’s scarce water (e.g. at least 5,000 litres to produce a kg of beef), while damaging soil by overgrazing and removing ground covers. This was illustrated during the recent drought. However land managers responsible for mismanaging the nation’s soils and causing erosion were not prosecuted, instead they continue to practice overstocking.
There should be in the EPBC Act, clear environmental standards to which state governments must conform to conserve biodiversity and cease land clearing which continues to increase in NSW and Queensland. Yet it is unsustainable and threatens the survival of koalas: recently (documented by WWF’s monitoring of satellite imagery). Australia’s worst fire season ever has not persuaded these state governments to stop logging their dwindling native forests; in NSW trees will end up fuelling power stations here and overseas. An ideology that promotes unlimited economic growth is not compatible with ecologically sustainable development because natural resources are finite and not exclusively for the benefit of humans. This conflict is an obstacle to the Act achieving biodiversity conservation; however this failure of government has necessitated the rise of a very successful land management model that is Australian Wildlife Conservancy
What high level concerns should the review focus on? For example, should there be greater focus on better guidance on the EPBC Act, including clear environmental standards? How effective has the EPBC Act been in achieving its statutory objectives to protect the environment and promote ecologically sustainable development and biodiversity conservation? What have been the economic costs associated with the operation and administration of the EPBC Act?
There is evidence that the Act has not been effective. Australia has the highest rate of land clearing among developed nations and the worst record on mammal extinctions. RAMSAR wetlands are threatened by development in southern Queensland while the Murray-Darling Basin has seen major loss of biodiversity including the keystone species River redgums E. camaldulensis, also many birds and fish reliant on sufficient water in the system . The World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef is in crisis with bleaching events so close together that ecosystems cannot recover: there has been another bleaching event this year, more extensive than ever before. Reports about loss of biodiversity sometimes blame drought but the long term trends indicate that human activities are a major cause, particularly activities that contribute to loss of vegetation, and climate change .
What additional future trends or supporting evidence should be drawn on to inform the review?
As the Aaustralian Conservation Foundation has pointed out, under the EPBC laws “Australia has become a global deforestation hotspot, with one of the worst rates of mammal extinction in the world. Climate damage is bleaching our reefs.” First and foremost, decision makers must adhere to the precautionary principle and show that they are doing this. In the current extinction crisis not the government, but the Australian people are turning this around, by supporting organisations such as AWC. It is protecting biodiversity by raising funds through donations for purchasing land, fencing and management of feral animals, relevant research, maintaining insurance population of species like numbats, fire science such as mosaic burning, and sometimes partnerships with government departments that recognise science is a sound investment.
Should the EPBC Act position the Commonwealth to take a stronger role in delivering environmental and heritage outcomes in our federated system? Who should articulate outcomes? Who should provide oversight of the outcomes? How do we know if outcomes are being achieved?
The Commonwealth should to take a stronger role in delivering environmental (and heritage) outcomes in our federated system. There is a need to avoid the “death of a thousand cuts” that results from piecemeal development and land management. Consistency across state and regional boundaries is necessary to maintain integrity of catchments, for example. While the Murray-Darling basin plan has caused controversy , it demonstrates the need for Commonwealth management. The states have not succeeded in resolving their differences in respect of this resource-management issue and as a result we have seen unacceptable outcomes. We have not seen sustainable development or satisfied communities, and we have not seen biodiversity conservation. Millions of fish, birds, trees and other species have perished amid water theft and degradation of vast areas.
Should there be a greater role for national environmental standards in achieving the outcomes the EPBC Act seeks to achieve? In our federated system should they be prescribed through:
- Non-binding policy and strategies?
- Expansion of targeted standards, similar to the approach to site contamination under the National Environment Protection Council, or water quality in the Great Barrier Reef catchments?
- The development of broad environmental standards with the Commonwealth taking a monitoring and assurance role? Does the information exist to do this?
The inconsistencies mentioned above show the need for broad environmental standards (high standards based on the best research) with the Commonwealth taking a monitoring role and intervening where necessary. We are reminded of the intervention that saved the Franklin River from being dammed (after the loss of Lake Pedder). Following that, many Australians saw our natural resources, ecosystems and species as being essential national resources that should be conserved and managed in perpetuity for the public good, not sold or exploited for short-term gain. This is why thousands of individual Australians now invest in organisations like AWC which makes evidence-based decisions and is outside "political processes".
How can environmental protection and environmental restoration be best achieved together?
EPBC Act should have an equal focus on prevention and cure. This includes acknowledging climate change and prioritising ways to stop its current trajectory. It will take time to reduce excessive greenhouse gas emissions and their consequences for biodiversity. Meanwhile a good model is the strategy of AWC which aims to ensure large areas of habitat are represented in its reserves in order to protect species that depend on that habitat. AWC is focused on both protection and restoration of species and ecosystems. It manages threats such as feral species by fencing but also by researching their biology to explore other possible strategies e.g. dingoes and fire management to help control feral cats. Many landholders have contracted AWC to do their fire management to deal with difficult fuel loads e.g. resulting gamba grass, a tall-growing species that was introduced for pasture but has displaced native species and greatly increased fire risk.
Returning species to their previous ranges should be the ultimate aim of restoration but it may involve mandating the reduction of certain landuses by private landowners. AWC has demonstrated too that indigenous land management practices can be incorporated cost-effectively, with many social as well as environmental benefits.
Are heritage management plans and associated incentives sensible mechanisms to improve? How can the EPBC Act adequately represent Indigenous culturally important places? Should protection and management be place-based instead of values based?
I would like to see more consultation with indigenous people but the EPBC should protect their culturally important places just as it does for other Australians.
Should the EPBC Act require the use of strategic assessments to replace case-by-case assessments? Who should lead or participate in strategic assessments?
There should be case-by-case assessments to ensure each assessment is impartial and based on the best science available. Here is an example of the need for individual scrutiny to protect biodiversity and communities from the influence of large companies that may manipulate (or take advantage of) state regulations. Locally there is an application to the NSW government to approve clearing of >40ha koala habitat with critical wildlife corridors, to enable expansion of a quarry owned by a large multinational corporation (but now at the end of its approved life). The proponent has made what looks like an ambit claim in order to qualify as a state significant development, with the result that local government - along with its strategies for biodiversity conservation and koala recovery - is excluded from the process. The application was timed to come under the (old) NSW SEPP44 and to avoid the new koala SEPP. This meant the public exhibition and comment time was too brief and coincided with the worst period of bushfires in living memory. If not for the vigilance and actions of a few local people, residents whose lives will be changed by this development would not have known about it. We have made good submissions to the NSW government. But should it be approved, there needs to be a mechanism for us to appeal to the Commonwealth government to protect biodiversity which in this case, equates to protecting the safety, quality of life and property values of hundreds of people.
Should the matters of national significance be refined to remove duplication of responsibilities between different levels of government? Should states be delegated to deliver EPBC Act outcomes subject to national standards?
States should be delegated to deliver EPBC Act outcomes subject to national standards. This could ensure the highest standards apply, there would be consist regulations and non-government bodies would be induced to adopt the same standards. This would help to resolve conflict between states, remove duplication and prevent the exploitation of differences between states.
Should low-risk projects receive automatic approval or be exempt in some way?
- How could data help support this approach?
- Should a national environmental database be developed?
- Should all data from environmental impact assessments be made publicly available?
Exemption or automatic approval for some projects cannot be justified. It would be difficult to define the varying “low-risk” projects unless some research and assessment was done. More staff and resources are needed rather than efforts to "cut green tape". We must observe the precautionary principle as any project could cause irreversible harm that was unanticipated. Automatic approval or exemption based on ‘low risk” could even invite unethical or corrupt behaviour.
A national database should be developed and be accessible. Data from environmental impact assessments should be publicly available so that scrutiny is possible and so that valuable information can be used for research, etc.
Should the Commonwealth’s regulatory role under the EPBC Act focus on habitat management at a landscape-scale rather than species-specific protections?
Regulation of both landscape-scale habitat management and species-specific protections are needed. Both are essential strategies as the work of AWC illustrates.
Are there adequate incentives to give the community confidence in self regulation?
There is evidence that self-regulation is not effective. Land clearing in NSW involving self assessment has been a disaster for koalas and lacks a mechanism to allow for climate change and consequences such as fire. 1.www.edonsw.org.au/forestry_clearing_vegetation_trees_cases "The Local Land Services Amendment Act amended the Local Land Services Act 2013 and inserted a provision which allowed the Minister for Primary Industries to make the Code. The Code purportedly came into force on 25 August 2017, and allows landholders to carry out significant amounts of self-assessed clearing of native vegetation without further approval or environmental assessment. The Code was intended to be released with native vegetation regulatory maps to assist landholders to identify where clearing of native vegetation on rural land can and cannot occur, however the release of these maps is significantly delayed and landholders are required to self-assess whether the Code applies to their land."
2. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/jun/03/land-clearing-up… "Documents obtained by the Sydney Morning Herald under freedom of information laws show that 20,200 hectares of land was cleared for crops, pasture or thinning in 2016-17, up from 13,100 hectares the previous year and at least double the amount for any year between 2009-10 and 2014-15. Clearing from forestry increased from 21,800 hectares in 2015-16 to 33,500 hectares in 2016-17. "
How should the EPBC Act support the engagement of Indigenous Australians in environment and heritage management?
- How can we best engage with Indigenous Australians to best understand their needs and potential contributions?
- What mechanisms should be added to the Act to support the role of Indigenous Australians?
The Federal government should embrace the Uluru Statement From The Heart to give Indigenous Australians influence over all decision-making. In the meantime, there are Indigenous academics who may be the best people to nominate representatives who want to engage in environment and heritage management.
How should community involvement in decision making under the EPBC Act be improved? For example, should community representation in environmental advisory and decision-making bodies be increased?
Community representation is necessary to confirm that our interests are considered and weighed against the interests of land managers. It is also vital to have representation from community-based organisations like EDO, ACF, Bush Heritage Australia and AWC that bring on-ground experience, the best conservation science and legal expertise to decision-making.
What is the priority for reform to governance arrangements? The decision-making structures or the transparency of decisions? Should the decision makers under the EPBC Act be supported by different governance arrangements?
Transparency and inclusiveness are the way to ensure community trust in regulators and outcomes. It is also important to demonstrate that scientists and qualified, impartial public servants in adequate numbers and with adequate resources are advising governments. Unfortunately few politicians come from these backgrounds and are not equipped to make evidence-based decisions, resulting in poor policy outcomes and a perception that ideology is more important than facts.
Should the Commonwealth establish new environmental markets? Should the Commonwealth implement a trust fund for environmental outcomes?
NSW Environmental Trust is a model that has worked and could be expanded. Contestable grants come from money collected as environmental fines. Community groups can use this to do environmental restoration. Our Landcare group competed for and secured an ET grant of $250,000 over six years to regenerate 56ha of urban creeklines to support biodiversity. This is taking 10 years and has involved thousands of hours of volunteer work, community groups, volunteer work in our Community Nursery growing local provenance plants, securing supplementary grants mainly to pay for the native plants for supplementary planting, and support from our Council. Much more is needed for such projects across Australia yet what has happened is that funding for native ecosystem restoration has declined drastically. At the expense of NRM, prominence and funding went to the demands of "productive land use" with no consideration of ecosystem services delivered by biodiversity. As described above, there has also been unsustainable clearing on private land, based on uninformed "self assessment" and forest harvesting that included habitat of threatened species. These activities contribute to droughts and climate change by removing shade, exposing soil, releasing sequestered carbon, disrupting the water cycle and killing pest-controlling native species. A balance needs to be restored
What do you see are the key opportunities to improve the current system of environmental offsetting under the EPBC Act?
I agree that "There may also be opportunity to improve the environmental outcomes that the current biodiversity offsets system delivers and the systems that maintain the integrity of offsets." The NSW offsetting provisions demonstrate the shortcomings of the concept and are of great concern to conservationists. When koala habitat is cleared an offset may be anywhere in NSW (which is absurd as koalas' requirements are very specific and that is why they thrive in so few places). The provision that allows an offset requirement to be converted to cash is viewed by conservationists as a betrayal of koalas, of all biodiversity and of the community because it appears to give permission for clearing without penalty (i.e. it is "the cost of doing business"). Offsetting is one reason why koala food trees and wildlife corridors in Port Macquarie are being cleared and replaced with urban sprawl that seems to be unstoppable. As described above the NSW government does not act to protect native vegetation; Commonwealth intervention may be the only way to stop it.
How could private sector and philanthropic investment in the environment be best supported by the EPBC Act?
- Could public sector financing be used to increase these investments?
- What are the benefits, costs or risks with the Commonwealth developing a public investment vehicle to coordinate EPBC Act offset funds?
John Walmsley began decades ago with Earth Sanctuaries to rescue the last natural landscapes from degradation; these were mainly in arid areas. He invented cost-effective feral-prool fences that are copied across the nation and have helped to save numbats, bilbies, boodies and many other species from extinction. This was funded by members of the public buying shares but without support from governments, this business model did not survive. However the properties were bought by AWC and his work continued, and the protected areas expanded, succeeding in biodiversity conservation where governments have failed. In NSW this failure is partly due to dismantling NPWS and reducing its expert staff so that Parks can no longer be managed sustainably. However NPWS met and exceeded its hazard reduction burning targets leading up to the fires in 2019-20 and did more of this than any other organisation. It was still accused of being responsible for the gravity of the fire season, although here is no evidence of this. The NSW should restore and expand NPWS and not privatise national parks. Governments should look at places like Walmsley's Yookamurra in NSW and Mornington in WA, and help to expand the AWC model under which threatened species are thriving.
Do you have suggested improvements to the above principles? How should they be applied during the Review and in future reform?
Please apply the principles consistently and ensure there are no loopholes to undermine them (such as with offsetting). The states have to be persuaded to give biodiversity conservation the highest priority as it is our greatest asset. There will need to be enforceable regulations and penalties for noncompliance that will be effective deterrents.
Is the EPBC Act delivering what was intended in an efficient and effective manner? - Is the EPBC Act delivering what was intended in an efficient and effective manner?
The Act needs revision as it is falling short of what Australians expect. Australia’s State of the Environment Report 2016 reflects this, noting that the outlook for Australia’s biodiversity is “poor and worsening.” A prominent example is the rapid and tragic decline of the Great Barrier Reef, which plays an important role in producing seafood. Yet our governments have stood by while it declines, failing to take seriously the role of climate change and failing to act immediately to reduce Australia's carbon emissions. We expect to see recognition that there is an extinction crisis now, and we want to see the GBR protected for our children.
How well is the EPBC Act being administered? - How well is the EPBC Act being administered?
There is evidence that it is not well administered: Australia still leads the world on mammal extinction. We have experienced three animal extinctions since 2009, including the first made extinct by climate change – the Bramble Cay Melomys. (Source: Australia’s Faunal Extinction Crisis Inquiry Interim Report)
Is the EPBC Act sufficient to address future challenges? Why? - Is the EPBC Act sufficient to address future challenges? Why?
It needs reform as discussed below. It has not prevented the landclearing that destroys both biodiversity and productivity, and may not be reversible because of climate change.
Ironically, 200 years of clearing did not prevent the damaging wildfires of 2019-20. Still we hear claims that the answer to fire is to remove more trees, especially from national parks. That ignores the climate-stabilising benefits forests give us for free. Australia needs forests, because it is the most fire-prone and driest continent. Re-growing forests is the quickest and cheapest way to sequester carbon.
Dr David Bowman, pyrogeographer, says in the future we must stabilise the climate and aim for “self-correcting landscapes”, as well as managing fuel loads. Hazard reduction by professional fire managers has been limited by lack of opportunities due to higher temperatures, lack of rain and lack of resources e.g. in NPWS and RFS.
What are the priority areas for reform? - What are the priority areas for reform?
1. Stop clearing and native forest harvesting across the continent, conserve native vegetation and restore forests lost to bushfires. This is the only way to ACF reports that since the EPBC Act came into operation, 7.7 million hectares of threatened species’ habitat has been destroyed. Australia is the only developed nation identified as a global deforestation hotspot. “Since European settlement Australians probably have removed more than 20 billion native trees, about one third of the original standing stock” says Professor Michael Archer, UNSW. “That’s an average of about 100 million trees a year. Two-thirds of the rainforests, half of the other forests and more than a third of the woodlands and shrublands have gone.”
2. Protect Biodiversity and make sustainable development possible by ensuring that Australia's human population does not increase beyond the present level. Ours is the driest continent and climate change is predicted to worsen this through less predictable rainfall, higher temperatures with more evaporation and extreme weather events. Ecosystem services are essential to our survival but they cannot be provided when the environment is damaged by a human population that is too large.
What changes are needed to the EPBC Act? Why? - What changes are needed to the EPBC Act? Why?
The Act needs to recognise there is a climate emergency and an extinction crisis. In this context it will take a concerted national effort to conserve Biodiversity.