An independent Environmental Protection Agency with greater oversight over development proposals and emission standards, as well as greater protection for plants and animals, are among the sweeping changes to be implemented by the federal government.
The reforms came after a review of federal environmental protection laws in January last year found major reform was needed as Australia had failed to halt extinctions, leading to plummeting populations of native animals and landscape degradation.
Announcing the changes in Brisbane on Thursday, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said there would be zero new extinctions of animals.
She also announced that the new changes would include streamlining project assessment processes and increasing regional planning processes to indicate where development can occur with minimal environmental impact. They will also see the implementation of national environmental standards that will offer greater protection for threatened species and world heritage sites and ensure greater engagement with First Nations people.
“Nature is being destroyed. Businesses are waiting too long for decisions. That isn’t nice for everyone. Things have to change,” Plibersek said. “We will build our legislation on three basic principles: clear national environmental protection standards, improving and speeding up decisions, and building trust and integrity.”
The government’s review, a 60-page document titled “Nature Positive Plan: better for the environment, better for business”, notes Australia’s environment is not resilient enough to withstand current and emerging threats and that urgent reform is needed.
Thursday’s announcement is in response to former competition watchdog Graeme Samuel’s review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act published in 2020 paints a grim picture of Australia’s environmental protection.
“To shy away from the fundamental reforms recommended by this review is to accept the continued decline of our iconic places and the extinction of our most threatened plants, animals and ecosystems,” he said in the report’s introduction.
In his statutory review of the EPBC Act, required every 10 years, Mr Samuel said the laws needed fundamental reform and a “sensible and staged pathway” was needed to achieve the broad reform agenda. He said beefing up compliance and enforcement to stem wildlife losses was essential.
The key changes include the following:
- Stronger national environmental standards for First Nations engagement, environmental offsets and regional planning.
- Streamline conservation management for threatened species.
- Proponents must publish their expected scope 1 and 2 emissions and provide information about how the project will fit into Australia’s emission reduction obligations.
- Environmental offset reform.
- The Independent Environmental Protection Agency was responsible for compliance and enforcement.
- Increased data collection.
The government has also flagged zero new extinctions, an ambitious plan given Australia has lost the most mammals of any continent. The 39 mammal species that have disappeared since colonisation in 1788 represent 38 per cent of global mammal losses.
The new legislation will be prepared in the first six months of 2023.
Felicity Wade, national co-convener of the Labor Environment Action Network, said Thursday’s announcement was a step forward for Australia’s wildlife and environment. In particular, the national environmental standards were a “game-changer”.
“A number of its proposals have the power to begin tackling the catastrophic loss we are facing,” she said. “The announcement that native forests will be subject to these standards is also a breakthrough. Forests and logging have been exempted from national environmental laws, even as populations of animals like the koala crash. This has to end.”
“A number of its proposals have the power to turn around the catastrophic loss we are facing.”
Since colonisation, about 100 of Australia’s unique flora and fauna species have been wiped off the planet. The loss rate, as comprehensive as anywhere else on earth, has not slowed in the past 200 years.
WWF-Australia’s chief conservation officer Rachel Lowry said the response to the Samuel review was long overdue.
“The reform package has the potential to be a game-changer for the protection of wildlife and wild places if the government secures expert input from the environmental sector when landing the next phase of detail,” she said.
She said the development of the Environmental Protection Agency was a welcome step, with the lack of enforcement one of the greatest failings of the EPBC Act.
“It’s vital that this agency has the resources and independence to audit major projects and ensure every Australian business and industry is doing the right thing for nature,” she said.
But she added some limitations to the government’s response, including no consideration about how climate change impacted nature and the delayed timing of the new legislation.
“On the government’s timetable, the reform package will be introduced into the parliament before the end of 2023, which means it is unlikely to be implemented until 2024,” she said. “Our wildlife and wild places cannot afford to wait this long for action.
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