The federal government has committed to a historic overhaul of Australia’s environmental laws in a move that Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek says will reverse the decline of Australia’s environment and “leave it in a better state. than the one in which we found it”.
- The review of Australia’s environmental laws was initially given to the Morrison government in October 2020
- The new changes, announced by the Albanian government on Thursday, will see the introduction of a federal environmental protection agency
- Environmental groups welcomed the changes but demanded more details on liability and funding
The sweeping changes were proposed as an official response to a review of Australia’s 23-year-old federal environmental laws, led by former ACCC boss Graeme Samuel and handed over to the former Morrison government.
The reforms will include the creation of a federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to act as a “hard cop on the beat”, and impose legally binding standards for all environmental decisions.
The overhaul will also strengthen the protection of areas of national environmental significance and strengthen standards for harvesting native forests.
Labour’s commitment to law reform is a centerpiece of its environmental agenda and will be key to delivering its goal of zero further extinction.
He expects to have a full bill by the middle of 2023, ready to be presented to parliament before the end of this year.
Environmental groups have described the moves as “a good start”, “a first step” and “promising”, but also have concerns about some aspects.
The opposition called the move an “assault on our country’s job creators”, while MPs, likely bound to push the policy through parliament, called for some aspects of the changes to be strengthened.
Plibersek says EPA will ‘restore confidence’
All decisions of the new EPA will be underpinned by a set of “National Standards” that will dictate the expected environmental outcomes of those decisions.
In addition, all conservation plans, policies and strategies developed under environmental laws will need to conform to national standards.
Shifting responsibility from politicians to a legislated body meant the public would be able to have more confidence in decisions about Australia’s environment, Ms Plibersek said.
The first standard developed will govern the protection of Australia’s most significant places – known as ‘Matters of National Environmental Significance’.
The government says this standard will require all decisions to be made to improve the environment, not just limit damage.
A national standard on First Nations engagement will also be developed as a priority, ensuring that Indigenous peoples are properly and fully involved in decisions relating to their country and their ways.
These standards will be legally binding and will have a built-in ratchet mechanism in which revisions can only strengthen them, not weaken them.
Introduction of “traffic light” ratings
While the Samuel review recommended that federal powers of approval be returned to states in accordance with a longstanding Coalition policy, Ms. Plibersek rejected that recommendation and instead retained existing arrangements under which states could be accredited to assume decision-making powers.
But such delegation of powers will have to comply with the new stricter national standards.
In addition, all state decision-making processes must be transparent and will be overseen by the new EPA.
Labor will also institute a ‘traffic light’ grading system, incorporating very strong protections for areas of ‘high conservation value’ which will be marked ‘red’ for protection.
These areas will be determined by a new regional planning system, which will ensure that the cumulative impacts of multiple developments on a site are considered when projects are assessed.
The government said the regional planning process would also speed up development decisions by providing clear guidance on where different types of development would be appropriate.
Compensation fund for restoration
In a move that should please businesses and developers, the government has expanded options for how developers can pay compensation for the environmental damage they cause.
Currently, when a project is approved subject to compensation — or “offsets” — the compensation must be “of equal value”. So if koala habitat is cleared, koala habitat somewhere nearby must be protected.
But the Labor Party’s proposals would allow developers to simply pay money into a compensation fund, which would be used for environmental restoration.
The government says the payment must be ‘sufficient to achieve a net positive environmental outcome’.
The government has compared the scheme directly to that of New South Wales, which was criticized in September this year by NSW’s Auditor General for failing to deliver results.
The government will also establish what it has called a “nature repair market”, which it says will allow companies to “invest” in restoring the environment.
When Ms Plibersek flagged such a move earlier in the year – which she said could be “green Wall Street” – she said the move was “not designed to be an offset program”.
The market will be run by the Clean Energy Regulator, which also regulates Australia’s troubled carbon offset credit market.
Native logging loophole to close, eventually
The overhaul will eventually offer increased protections to Australia’s native forests, which are controversially exempt from the protections currently offered by national environmental laws.
The current exemption means that high conservation areas, including the habitat of endangered species, can be exploited without assessment or “compensation” conditions that would normally be required.
Under these changes, loggers flagged by the government could be forced to comply with new national standards, which would likely make indigenous logging impossible in many parts of the country.
But exactly how and when that would happen remains unclear, with the government saying it will work with states and other stakeholders “to” bring about these changes, and noting that the “form” of the change remains to be determined.
A step in the right direction — for now
The reforms were welcomed by Australian Conservation Foundation chief executive Kelly O’Shanassy, who said the measure of success will depend on whether or not Australia’s extinction crisis ends.
Tim Reed of the Business Council of Australia thanked the government for crafting the changes through a consultative process and said they could benefit all Australians.
While welcoming the proposals, environmental groups asked for a range of additional details, including on accountability measures and funding.
The internal environmental group of the Labor Environment Action Network (LEAN) has been pushing for some of these changes, including a federal EPA, for years.
Felicity Wade, host of LEAN, said the changes announced today were “just the first step in a big leap forward for Australia’s wildlife and environment”.
She said some of the proposals had the power to “start to address the catastrophic loss we face”, but she wanted to work with the minister to ensure the EPA was “truly independent”.
LEAN also wanted independent institutions to develop national standards to ensure that politics was removed from the process.
Professor Brendan Wintle from the University of Melbourne said the new EPA was a very promising development.
“It will be the detail that gives us an idea of whether it will be a disaster like the NSW system or a better system that delivers results,” said Prof Wintle, who launched the new Biodiversity Council this week, which aims to be a “strong and trustworthy voice” on nature.
The Invasive Species Council said there were ‘lots of positives’ in the proposals, but warned it was not enough to meet the government’s goal of zero extinction, criticizing the offsets approach and calling for more funding to facilitate the changes.
“The environment portfolio is significantly underfunded when it comes to addressing threats to nature and implementing recovery actions,” said James Trezise, director of conservation at Invasive. Species Council.
“We need to make sure the government invests more in conservation efforts on the ground if we are to recover endangered species in Australia,” he said.
#Ranking #traffic #lights #hard #cop #Australias #environmental #policy