Five Takeaways from the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26)

The Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has launched the 2021 State of the Environment Report (Report), and the assessment is grim.

The Report finds the health of Australia’s environment is poor and deteriorating as a result of increasing pressures from climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, and resource extraction. In this e-alert, we first focus on the key findings of the Report, specific findings relating to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), and the flagged changes to the EPBC Act coming in the next 12 months.

Introduction

The 2021 State of the Environment Report (Report) is the latest five-yearly assessment under the EPBC Act. It assesses the changing condition of Australia’s natural environment across 12 key themes: air quality, Antarctica, biodiversity, climate, coasts, extreme events, heritage, Indigenous, inland water, land, marine and urban.

Overall, the findings of the Report are dire. The health of Australia’s environment is poor and has deteriorated over the past five years as a result of increasing pressures from climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and resource extraction.

Unless these pressures are adequately managed, the trend is set to continue, resulting in further species extinctions and collapsing ecosystems. While national and state governments have tried to address the decline, the Report noted not enough funding was dedicated to the environment as well as a lack of coordination across jurisdictions to properly address the cumulative impact of these pressures.

In response to the Report, we expect to see:

  • sweeping reforms to federal environmental laws, including the replacement or overhaul of the EPBC Act;
  • the creation of an independent environmental protection agency to monitor and enforce conservation laws; and,
  • the expansion of terrestrial protected areas to encompass 30% of all land.

Key findings

Broadly, the key findings of the Report are:

  1. Australia’s environment is deteriorating;
  2. Climate change is threatening every ecosystem;
  3. Indigenous knowledge and management are helping deliver observable change;
  4. Environmental management is not well coordinated; and,
  5. Environmental decline and destruction are harming our well-being.

Whilst not an exhaustive list, some alarming findings of the Report include that Australia has:

  • more frequent and devasting extreme weather events;
  • at least 19 ecosystems showing signs of collapse or near collapse;
  • most major cities growing at a faster rate than other developed cities across the planet. The pace of growth has increased urban heat, congestion, pollution and waste and put rising pressure on water and energy resources;
  • the third largest cumulative loss of soil organic carbon in the world behind China and the US, a change that has implications for the climate crisis;
  • increased land clearing with almost half of the country now committed to agriculture or forestry, including 6.1m ha of primary native forest clearing since 1990;
  • destroyed and is continuing to destroy Indigenous heritage at an unacceptable rate against the wishes of Traditional Owners;
  • lost more mammal species than any other continent as well as seeing an increased number of species listed as threatened matters of national environmental significance;
  • one of the highest rates of species decline in the developed world;
  • lost 90 percent of native fish populations in the past 150 years;
  • more foreign plant species than natives despite hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent over the past 50 years attempting to manage introduced species, diseases and invasive pests;
  • suffered consecutive mass coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016, 2017 and 2020 due to mass heatwaves; and,
  • ocean acidification levels nearing a tipping point that will cause the decline of juvenile coral.

Businesses, state and local governments, or anyone else with an interest in these environments will be adversely affected by these changes. Stakeholders will also be interested to ensure that the resulting legislative and regulatory responses effectively halt or reverse this environmental decline.

Key findings regarding the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act)

The EPBC Act is Australia’s primary national environmental legislation. It provides protection of Australia’s environment, especially aspects of the environment which are matters of national environmental significance. The Report found:

  • about 93 percent of the terrestrial habitat used by threatened species which was cleared between 2000 and 2017 was not being referred to the federal government for assessment under the EPBC Act;
  • the number of threatened ecological communities listed under the EPBC Act continues to rise; and,
  • the EPBC Act does not facilitate effective management of pressures or restoration of the environment.

These findings come as no surprise, particularly following the considerable scrutiny the EPBC Act has been subject to in the past five years. Most recently in the Final Report of the Independent Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Samuel Review), outlined 38 recommendations aimed at establishing legally enforceable national environmental standards which would set clear requirements for those that interact with the EPBC Act and clear bounds for decisions-makers.

The Samuel Review developed detailed recommended standards for:

  1. matters of national environmental significance;
  2. Indigenous engagement and participation in decision-making;
  3. compliance and enforcement; and,
  4. data and information.

Future legislative changes

In her State of the Environment address, the Federal Environment Minister stated she expected to provide a substantial response to the Samuel Review by the end of 2022 and to introduce changes to national environmental laws by 2023.

The Report will also give impetus to some of the Federal Government’s pre-election promises, including to create an independent national Environmental Protection Agency, and to protect 30 per cent of Australia’s land by 2030. The Samuel Review recommendations are likely to form the backbone of any legislative changes.

Fundamental changes to Australia’s environmental management regimes will occur over the next few years with thorough consultation with all interested stakeholders including both state and local governments.

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