Australia's most powerful law protecting the environment hasn't done enough to stop the rapid decline of the nation's wildlife.
The regent honeyeater is a small bird, mostly black, with speckles of soft yellow dotted down its body. Its chirp is a scratchy warble that coos through pockets of Australia's eastern coast. A critically endangered species, there are believed to be fewer than 400 left in the wild. A high-priority threat to their survival is habitat loss from residential and commercial development.
Australia's main law protecting the environment has been in place since 2000. As of now, it doesn't mention climate change. Businessman Graeme Samuel said reform was "long overdue" in an independent October 2020 review. The law - the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 - is the cornerstone statute that is supposed to protect critically endangered species like the regent honeyeater.
The law governs, among other things, clearing land for developments. If a project is likely to have a "significant impact" on surrounding ecology (classified as "matters of national environmental significance"), the development must be referred to the Australian government with an outline of the intended action. The government can either stop the action, allow it to proceed as proposed, or decide further review is necessary.
In theory, this is a sound system. In practice, the laws aren't working. Between 2000 and 2015, 63 percent of weighted potential habitat loss in Queensland and New South Wales was cleared in determinations that received little, if any, pushback from the initial referral application.
The urban development sector cleared 2209 hectares of land providing potential habitat for the regent honeyeater between 2000 and 2015 in Queensland and New South Wales, 99 percent of which occurred under referrals that were waved through by the government. Predominantly, the projects put before authorities were small lots of land with a median area of three hectares.
The regent honeyeater population is among several threatened by this pace of development. The number of threatened species has increased by an average of eight percent over the past five years. Depleted population numbers among regent honeyeaters are beginning to interfere with fundamental behavioural characteristics. Urban sprawl isn't going anywhere and is expected to intensify over the next 20 years. The many threatened species inhabiting these urban areas, which rely on the remnant patches of vegetation for survival, will likely require stronger protections than is currently provided by law.
Issues with law partly come down to its construction, which is vaguely defined in parts and vulnerable to exploitation. The process relies on honesty from developers hoping to get their project approved. It's not unusual for applications to describe the to-be-impacted environment as already "degraded", suggesting its preservation is less of a priority. The Australian government appears to lack access to reliable data to critically examine claims like this, leaving them to trust the applicant (who has a financial motive to get the project approved) and external hired consultants.
But even honest information can be misapplied. The law defines "significant impact" vaguely, meaning advocates for a development have flexibility in mounting a case to get their project approved. And, because there are few objective standards for what "significant impact" is to an environment, decision-makers also have little guidance on how to rule. This leaves room for subjective factors to sway a verdict.
Where that happens, there's little transparency. Decision-makers don't have a set of measurable standards by which their ruling has to be justified, so there's little accountability for verdicts. This leaves open the perception - just or not - that social and economic factors are given undue weight over environmental considerations. If that's the case, more referrals could be waved through.
When lucrative developments, politics and the environment mix, it becomes a complicated cocktail. The lack of stringent, defined guidelines within the law makes it more difficult for all sides.
Poor administration of Australia's environmental law is affecting attempts to protect threatened biodiversity. Only seven percent of all potential habitat cleared in Australia is even referred to the government for consideration. Factoring in projects that get waved through, possibly as little as four percent of all land providing potential habitat in Queensland and New South Wales undergoes thorough assessment under Australian environmental law.
These thorough assessments are the main institutional pipeline in which mitigations and offsets can be applied, transforming environmentally destructive projects into developments with, what should be, a non-significant net impact on local biodiversity.
Change doesn't require tearing the entire system down. Investments in databases to give the government better data would better inform the decision-making process. If authorities had a clearer picture on habitat mapping, monitoring species populations and a spatial tracker on former approvals, they'd have the context and information to more confidently judge referrals that came before them.
Decision-makers would also benefit from stronger wording in the law, especially around defining "significant impact". Establishing a quantitative threshold for habitat destruction for each protected matter would be a tough task, but one that would provide much stronger protections. Much like the provisions already in place for koalas, these thresholds should promote compliance - making it harder to downplay the environmental significance if it falls short of an objective standard. To ensure rigid, fair standards, a scientific committee with up-to-date ecological knowledge can help craft the standards.
Australian wildlife is rapidly declining and Australia's keystone legislation will influence which direction it takes from here. Samuel's call for reform in 2020 has yet to be met but in the face of mounting evidence of the law's ineffectiveness, action might need to be taken sooner rather than later to prevent more ecological destruction.
Natalya Maitz is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland. Her research focuses on biodiversity conservation with a particular focus on threat management, strategic planning, and evaluating environmental policy.
Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info.
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