Submission to the Independent Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999

About Steady State ACT

Steady State ACT is a non-government organisation which is committed to:

– raising awareness of the material limits to economic growth;

– raising awareness of the need to move away from economic growth policies and

– promoting the critical need to move to a steady state economy.

Steady State ACT is the ACT chapter of the international Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy. Its website is at www.steadystateact.org

Jonathan Miller is the Director of Steady State ACT. He has a background in public policy, ecology and economics and has worked with the Commonwealth and ACT governments on the environment, the economy and foreign affairs. He spent eighteen years working in the Commonwealth environment portfolio, including managing at different times natural environment heritage assessment and the Commonwealth threatened species, invasive species, wetlands and migratory species programs.

 Key points raised in this submission

  • The review should consider the operation of the EPBC Act in a broad context, recognising
    – the dependence of the wellbeing of Australians on the maintenance of our natural environment and
    –  the magnitude of the threats posed to the wellbeing of Australians by the degradation of the natural environment in Australia and globally.
  • The EPBC Act is failing in its role of protecting the Australian environment.
  • While there may be opportunities to reduce the time taken for EPBC Act approvals processes, a far higher priority is enhancing environmental protection under the Act.
  • Commonwealth environmental legislation should be broadened to
  • take into account the likely direct and indirect greenhouse gas impacts of proposed developments
  • conserve soils and inland surface and underground waters
  • redress Australia’s completely unacceptable levels of vegetation clearing.
  • Wherever possible, proposals should be assessed collectively for their impacts on environmental factors (such as matters of natural significance) or regions, rather than in isolation.
  • Consideration should be given to establishment of a separate authority to make decisions under the Act, to remove them from the direct political sphere.
  • Further advice in relation to the recovery planning and threat abatement aspects of the EPBC Act are in Attachment 1.

 Australia’s natural environment is critical to our wellbeing, it is degraded and faces major threats

While the terms of reference for this review are limited to the operation of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, it is critical that the operation of the Act be placed in a much broader context. First, the review should consider the relationship of the legislation to broad societal views on the environment and the economy. Secondly, the review should consider in the broadest manner the significance of the natural environment to the wellbeing of Australian society.

Neoclassical economics informs the basis upon which Australian governments operate: that our natural environment is an ‘externality’ from which resources are to be extracted for human benefit. Consistent with this paradigm, Australian governments give paramount priority to increasing gross domestic product, for which environmental protection will routinely be compromised. The very use of the term ‘approvals process’ makes clear that it is expected that development proposals will be approved. This has indeed been the outcome; as of 2015, almost 98% of proposals submitted under the EPBC Act had been approved[1].

A healthy natural environment is generally portrayed in the media as providing aesthetic or recreational benefits, but it is critical to sustaining human life. Humans are an animal like any other and we require a healthy habitat to provide for our needs. Arguably, a more biocentric, rather than anthropocentric, values system would serve humans better, as well as the myriad species with which we share Planet Earth.

With every year, this need for humans to see ourselves as within and dependent upon, rather than separate from, the natural world becomes increasingly clear. Our extractive relationship with nature has brought us to a point where global environmental damage threatens to significantly disrupt human civilisation this century. In 2009, leading climate change scientist, Hans Schellnhuber, estimated that under feasible climate change scenarios, Earth’s carrying capacity could be reduced to one billion people, in contrast with our current 7 billion. On the release of a 2019 biodiversity report, the United Nations warned that

Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history – and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely.[2]

The report stated that one in four species globally were at risk of extinction.

World-leading energy expert, Vaclav Smil, has warned of the need for radical change to our economic models, and that the long-term survival of our civilisation will require placing limits on the scale of global economic activity.[3]

These trends and future threats are repeated in Australia. The Commonwealth’s 2016 State of the Environment Report found that[4]:

Based on the information available about vegetation extent and condition, and the small number of species for which there is some understanding of trends in distribution and abundance, the status of biodiversity in Australia is generally considered poor and deteriorating.

That report also determined that

In Australia, the key drivers of environmental change are population and economic activity.

Australia is the developed nation which is the most vulnerable to climate change[5]. The threats posed to Australia by climate change are well known and will not be canvassed comprehensively here, but they will potentially affect our natural environment, our economy, our national security, and our physical health and broader wellbeing.

Within this context, it is clear that the maintenance of our natural environment is of the highest importance. The most significant factor in conserving our natural environment is a broad understanding within the Australian society of this importance. This awareness appears to have increased dramatically over the last year, but is still not reflected in many decisions made by Commonwealth and state governments.

The EPBC Act is failing and needs to be improved

As this review’s discussion paper suggests, legislation is just one of several mechanisms the Commonwealth can use to conserve the natural environment, and the states and territories are major players in land and biodiversity management. So, the condition of our natural environment is not solely an indicator of the effectiveness of the EPBC Act, but the number of threatened species demonstrates that the Act is not working. As of 4 December 2019, 517 animal species were listed as threatened under the Act, including 54 which were extinct, with 1373 species of plants listed, of which 37 were extinct. These numbers reflect merely those species which have been through the administrative process and may well be significant underestimates of the true situation. Moreover, the fact that the Carmichael coalmine could be approved with its huge carbon footprint, significant use of Artesian water and its biodiversity impacts speaks volumes for the inadequacy of the Act.

This review was launched with an over-riding message that its priority was to find ways to ‘reduce green-tape’ and to speed up approval processes. It is the case that some approval processes take some time, and given that environmentally damaging proposals are nearly always approved, it could be argued that these long processes serve the interests of neither the environment nor the proponent. In many cases, the proposals should have been dismissed much earlier in the process. Given the parlous prospects for our natural environment, this is not the time to be further weakening environmental approval processes nor to be reducing community involvement, including powers to challenge approval decisions.

Commonwealth environment legislation should be strengthened to protect our natural environment, commensurate with its importance and the grave threats it faces this century. At the very least, the Act needs to be modernised to consider the direct and indirect greenhouse gas impacts of proposed developments. Currently, national environment legislation is mainly restricted to matters of national environment significance. The future of the Australian economy, human livelihoods, biodiversity and our broader national wellbeing are dependent on conserving our natural resources.  National environment legislation should encompass protection of all relevant natural elements, including soils and water. Australia has an appalling record in relation to land clearing, and Commonwealth legislation should also seek to prevent this. These changes would require further consideration of the settlement of such responsibilities between the Commonwealth and the states and territories.

The EPBC Act generally assesses each development application in isolation. This does not allow for assessment of the aggregation of impacts as they might apply to a region or to a species. The outcome is the ‘death by a thousand of cuts’, as developments incrementally impoverish the environment. Higher-level assessments are therefore supported wherever possible.

 

Other matters

  • Decisions about environmental approvals are often highly political. Consideration should be given to increasing the independence of decision-making, possibly by establishing an independent authority.
  • The discussion paper states that trends suggest that Australian GDP and Australia’s population will continue to grow. While the past trends are not disputed, future statements by the Review should make clear that future GDP to some degree, and population levels to a large degree, will be the outcomes of government policies. The future is not pre-determined and Australia can decide to reduce future impacts on the environment by its policies and actions.
  • The use of biodiversity offsets remains a highly questionable process. For example, improving the quality of remaining habitat for a species to make up for habitat destroyed still ends up with a net loss of habitat. A preferable outcome would be to retain and to improve the condition of both areas. The process has largely been used to legitimise loss of species habitat.
  • Further advice on matters related to threatened species and invasive species management are at Attachment 1.

 

(Attachment 1 is not provided in this post. It is posted separately as the ‘Submission to the Senate inquiry into the ‘faunal extinction crisis’.)

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/aug/12/australia-has-denied-environmental-approval-to-just-11-projects-since-2000

[2] https://ipbes.net/news/ipbes-global-assessment-preview

[3] Smil, V, 2019. Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities.

[4] Jackson WJ, Argent RM, Bax NJ, Bui E, Clark GF, Coleman S, Cresswell ID, Emmerson KM, Evans K, Hibberd MF, Johnston EL, Keywood MD, Klekociuk A, Mackay R, Metcalfe D, Murphy H, Rankin A, Smith DC, Wienecke B (2016). Overview of state and trends of biodiversity. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/overview/biodiversity/topic/overview-state-and-trends-biodiversity, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65510c633b

[5] See for example: https://www.sustainablefinance.hsbc.com/reports/fragile-planet

Photo credit: Palm Trees by Melanie Shires

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