Earth Learning: At present the EPBC Act is failing to protect the environment – especially in matters of environmental significance.

Dear Independent Review of the EPBC Act.

We have seen catastropic fires tear through our region causing severe damage to the ecology.  In particular, large tracts of rare, remnant rain-forest was encroached by fire losing its vegetation buffers or actually burning in parts. 

These communities are normally fire-resistant but are NOT fire tolerant. 

The damage from these fires is likely to be permanent without some intervention. 

This loss of ecology and the specialised wildlife that depends on it has been repeated across huge areas of Eastern Australia this summer. 

With ever hotter and drier conditions in coming years this loss is to be repeated.

It is imperative that this review looks to strengthen the regulations that will protect our natural environment and its increasing fragility.

Australia’s environment needs Federal leadership and a national approach.  The range of “matters of national significance” needs to be expanded beyond the present narrow list.  

These “matters” should include:

  1. Ecosystems of National Importance ie key biodiversity areas, high conservation areas and nationally important wetland areas.
  2. National Reserves (NRS)
  3. Vulnerable ecological communitites
  4. Significant land clearing activities
  5. Significant greenhouse gas emissions
  6. Significant water resources

1.& 3. At present vulnerable ecological communities and ecosystems of National Importance are not protected unless they become ‘threatened’.  By this time it is often too late to restore them.  The problem of Myrtle Rust is an issue which threatens large swathes of Australia’s native species with extinction (some may already be so).  It has been acknowledged since being introduced in 2010 but has been allowed to spread across the entire area of eastern Australia.  It is clear that it requires a national approach but so far the approaches to dealing with it have been piecemeal and intra-state.  

A Myrtle Rust Draft Action Plan** does exist but the Federal Government has not yet taken it up!  This is exactly the sort of issue that needs to trigger EPBC protections as a “matter of national environmental significance” and and would be addresed by widening the triggers for EPBC Act.  Earth Learning is currently conducting a small community-funded program to deal with Myrtle Rust and its significant damage on Myrtle species in our region.  However, as is clear in the expert report mentioned, Myrtle Rust recovery measures should be happening on a national scale and funded appropriately.  We should be a small support arm of a wider program.

4. Significant clearing of native vegetation needs to be regulated at a Federal level.  At present a changing patchwork of state land-clearing laws prevents such an approach. The disastrous results for biodiversity in NSW after recent changes to land-clearing laws are a shocking example of environmental priorities being lost altogether. A “Significant Land-clearing Trigger” needs to be based on impact caused by the scale of clearing to the sensitivity and high conservation value of the land in question. Impact in any of these ways would trigger Commonwealth assessment or outright prohibition.

5. A “Significant Greenhouse Gas Emissions Trigger” under the Act is needed to allow the Commonwealth to link climate change targets with the bioregional planning process and assess projects for unacceptable climate impacts.

6. A “Significant Water Resource Tigger” is needed to allow the Commonwealth to assess impacts of projects on key surface and groundwater resources – beyond only coal or CSG projects as they do at present.

Besides triggers to action the EPBC Act has also been ineffective in pursuing Ecological Sustainable Development.  Its principles need to be strengthened by laws, standards and policies towards the highest environmental protections.  These development principles should improve resilience to climate change and human impacts.

This review asks “What high level concerns should the Act focus on?” We strongly support the measures the EDO (Environmental Defenders Office) has outlined to address serious gaps in the Act from a national leadership perspective including reforms of the following:

  • Scope of national leadership
  • Governance and accountability
  • Outcomes and efficiency

The aims of the Act need to be defined more clearly and consistent with International obligations.  Decision makers need much clearer duties and there needs to be far greater transparency and accountability in their actions.  The EDO suggests the following improvements*:

  • A process of accreditation which meets strict national guidelines especially re biodiversity offsets
  • Upfront guidance on assessment requirements
  • Strengthened strategic and bio-regional planning provisions
  • Independently appointed consultants providing environmental assessments and information

The effectiveness of the EPBC is clearly below par.  A “State of the Environment” report from 2016 found that many elements of Australia’s environment are in decline and identified several barriers to effective national management:

  • Lack of overarching national policy with a vision for Australia’s environment by 2050

Poor collaboration across sectors and between managers – public & private

Lack of follow through policy – action

Poor data and long-term monitoring

Insufficient resources for environmental management and restoration

Inadequate understanding and measurement of cumulative impacts 

We agree with the following reforms to the Act and its statutory bodies as laid out by the EDO*: 

Independent Reporting by the State of Environment SOE and National Sustainability Outcomes NSO.

Establishment of National Environmental Accounts NEA to track condition and extent of natural assets

An Online Reporting Hub for easy access to public registers compliance and enforcement data.  This hub could also post the Bioregional Plans and the reports of the SOE and NSO

Mandatory public enquiries into species extinction

These new bodies would provide comprehensive tracking of environmental aspects over time and integrate ecological sustainability outcomes with human demands.  We are particularly supportive of the idea of a “National Environmental Accounts” register to survey, track and account for Australia’s environmental assets across states and territories. Assets such as:

Landscape health

Threatened biodiversity

Native vegetation cover and condition

Carbon footprints / Carbon storage and loss

Salinity and soil health

Water quality

A properly funded online register like this would be extremely helpful for our group and many other environmental groups across Australia.  It would provide environmental data and mapping of nationally threatened species and ecological communities and give us an overview of how our work will contribute to the big picture.  It would take a lot of guesswork out of it.  Similarly, an ‘online hub’ with public access would give volunteer groups up-to-date reports on the environmental ‘state of the nation’ and would provide invaluable data – saving scarce volunteer time.

Further recommended reforms to address the shortfalls detailed in the aforementioned report are as follows: 

  • Establishing National Plans with clear goals for biodiversity, air, water, land and water management.  These goals should ensure no detriment or regression to the ecosystems in consideration.  This would enable genuine long-term environmental plans and prevent short term thinking which at present creates death by a thousand cuts for so many of our most valuable environmental assets.

“Offsetting” instead of restoring environmental damage or avoiding it altogether.  Financial or other offsets should not even be considered in cases of critical or threatened species or habitat.  They must be a last resort and must take a precautionary approach

A capital financed incentive program for private land of high environmental value to discourage indiscriminate land-clearing by giving value to its natural vegetation.

Landscape scale habitat management and species protection. This will identify nationally important ecosystems such as climate refugia, areas of high biodiversity or high conservation vegetation.

Reverse the government’s current direction of devolving environmental responsibilities to the states.  This brings too many private interests to the decision making, it allows short term thinking without consideration of impacts on the “whole”.  It invites corruption and very rarely meets national environmental standards.  The recent ‘reform’ of native vegetation laws in NSW have led to an unprecedented spike in unregulated land clearing with untold damage to native ecosystems.  This damage is yet to be assessed and is tragic when coupled with the horrific summer bushfires and the devastation inflicted on native habitat in NSW.

Discard the notion of “Self-Regulation” as a valid practice for environmental protection.  It has failed and will always fail – leading to unmonitored and often irreversible environmental damage.  It is absurd that people without qualifications, expertise or guidance can be left to make decisions impacting on sensitive environments that should be the stewardship of us all.

Remove political cycles from environmental decision making.  Australia needs a National Environmental Protection Agency.  This body must be independent of departmental direction.  The EDO also suggests a National Sustainability Commission, an Independent Scientific and Heritage Committee and Advisory Councils – ALL informed by experts.  These bodies need to exemplify in their reporting and transparency.  We must all invest in and fund these bodies adequately.  Australians need a much greater appreciation of the services provided by healthy biological systems and how these systems support food production and regulate water, soil and our atmosphere*.  

Earth Learning has worked tirelessly for many years to conserve our Northern Rivers region’s renowned biodiversity and high conservation landscapes.  We thank the panel for considering our comments and we wish to recommend the report on the EPBC submitted by the Environmental Defenders Office to this panel.

Earth Learning

*The Independent Review of the EPBC Act Response to Discussion Paper: A summary for the community February 2020 Environmental Defenders Office.

**Myrtle Rust in Australia – A Draft action Plan Makinson RO (2018)