Matthew Richardson, Niche director and botanist, provides an update on the review…
The Commonwealth Minister for the Environment appointed Professor Graeme Samuel AC to conduct the Independent Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) in October 2019.
In June this year Professor Samuel delivered the interim report and its opening paragraph has set the scene for a raft of recommendations for significant change to our national environmental approach. It states:
The evidence received by the Review is compelling. Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat. The pressures on the environment are significant—including land-use change, habitat loss and degradation, and feral animal and invasive plant species. The impact of climate change on the environment is building, and will exacerbate pressures, contributing to further decline. Given its current state, the environment is not sufficiently resilient to withstand these threats. The current environmental trajectory is unsustainable.
Key failings with the EPBC Act
The interim report identifies the following key issues with the EPBC Act:
- The national focus of the EPBC Act is undermined by its approach to assessing impacts on Matters of National Environmental Significance (MNES) on a project by project basis and only for projects that have an impact that exceed a certain threshold. This approach does not allow for cumulative impacts to MNES to be addressed properly.
- A project by project approach to assessing the impacts of development on MNES has resulted in a state of ‘permitting gradual decline’. Active mechanisms are required to restore areas of degraded or lost habitat to achieve the net gain for the environment that is needed.
- The EPBC Act is not fulfilling its objectives as they relate to the role of Indigenous Australians in protecting and conserving biodiversity and heritage, and promoting the respectful use of their knowledge.
- The application of the Act is both time consuming and costly because the Act duplicates many State processes, is cumbersome and decision making is slow.
Interim report Recommendations
Among other things, the Interim Report recommends a range of changes to the operation of the Act including:
- Introducing legally enforceable National Environmental Standards that will improve outcomes for MNES and increase the efficiency (by allowing the Commonwealth to devolve responsibility for the application of the EPBC Act the States) and transparency of the assessment of Referrals to the Commonwealth Minister.
- Introduction of a National Standard of best practice for Indigenous engagement by regulatory decision makers to ensure the inclusion of Traditional Knowledge of Country in the decision making process.
- Offsets under the Act need to move away from simply protecting areas similar to that which a project may impact to including a greater focus on restoration to arrest net loss of MNES.
In relation to the third point above, the report recommends that existing market based activities be considered as vehicles that may be used to enhance environmental restoration. The carbon market is identified as a specific market that should be considered.
In Australia at the moment there is a significant impediment for this opportunity to be exploited. It is not possible for the same parcel of land to be used for both Carbon Offsets and Biodiversity Offsets.
Perversely this leads to outcomes that may maximise the sequestration of carbon to the detriment of biodiverse environments. Many carbon offsets are simply green deserts.
Niche has long held the view that given that carbon and biodiversity offsets serve different environmental and market purposes, the ‘stacking’ of carbon and biodiversity offsets on a single parcel of land would lead to superior, biodiverse carbon offset outcomes.
Permitting duel offset purposes on a single land parcel would remove the current pressure for these critical initiatives to compete for the land on which they must be established. It appears that Professor Samuel agrees and the Commonwealth Minister has committed to establishing and environmental markets expert advisory group. Watch this space.
Public submissions on the Review closed on Monday 17 August 2020. The Final Report is due to be delivered to the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment by the end of October 2020.
To date, the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment has stated that the Commonwealth will commit to the following priority areas on the basis of the interim report:
- Develop Commonwealth led national environmental standards which will underpin new bilateral agreements with State Governments.
- Commence discussions with willing states to enter agreements for single touch approvals (removing duplication by accrediting states to carry out environmental assessments and approvals on the Commonwealth’s behalf).
- Commence a national engagement process for modernising the protection of Indigenous cultural heritage, commencing with a round table meeting of state Indigenous and environment ministers. This will be jointly chaired by Minister Ley and the Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt.
- Explore market based solutions for better habitat restoration that will significantly improve environmental outcomes while providing greater certainty for business. The Minister will establish an environmental markets expert advisory group.
A recently as last week the Commonwealth Government passed the Streamlining Environmental Approvals Bill so changes are afoot.
 Either directly or indirectly through themes in public submissions
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