The federal government has committed to a landmark overhaul of Australia’s environment laws in a move Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek says will reverse the decline of Australia’s environment and “leave it in a better state than we found it”.
- The review of Australia’s environmental laws was originally handed to the Morrison government in October 2020
- The new changes, announced by the Albanese government on Thursday, will see the introduction of a federal environmental protection agency
- Environmental groups have welcomed the changes but called for more detail on accountability and funding
The sweeping changes were proposed as a formal response to a review of Australia’s 23-year-old federal environment laws, conducted by former ACCC boss Graeme Samuel and handed to the former Morrison government.
The reforms will include establishing a federal environmental protection agency (EPA) to act as a “tough cop on the beat”, and will impose legally binding standards across all environmental decisions.
The overhaul will also bolster protections for areas of national environmental significance, and tighten standards for the logging of native forests.
Labor’s commitment to law reform is a centrepiece of its environmental agenda, and will be key to implementing its goal of zero new extinctions.
It plans to have draft legislation complete by the middle of 2023, ready for introduction to parliament before the end of that year.
Environment groups have described the moves as “a strong start”, “a first step” and “promising”, but also have concerns about certain aspects.
Plibersek says EPA will ‘restore confidence’
Underpinning all decisions by the new EPA will be a set of “national standards” which will dictate the intended environmental outcomes of those decisions.
In addition, all conservation plans, policies and strategies developed under the environmental laws will need to be consistent with the national standards.
Shifting responsibility from politicians to a legislated body meant the public would be able to have more confidence in decisions about Australia’s environment, Ms Plibersek said.
The first standard developed will govern the protection of Australia’s most important places — known as “Matters of National Environmental Significance”.
The government says that standard will require all decisions to improve the environment, not merely limit damage.
A national standard on First Nations engagement will also be developed as a priority, ensuring Indigenous people are properly and fully involved in decisions relating to their country and custom.
Those standards will be legally binding and have a ratchet mechanism built in whereby reviews can only result in them being strengthened, not weakened.
‘Traffic light’ ratings introduced
While the Samuel Review recommended federal powers of approval be handed to the states in line with a policy long held by the Coalition, Ms Plibersek rejected that recommendation, and instead retained existing arrangements where states could be accredited to take on decision-making powers.
But any such devolution of powers will be required to comply with the new stronger national standards.
In addition, all decision-making processes by states must be transparent, and will be overseen by the new EPA.
Labor will also institute a system of “traffic light” ratings, incorporating very strong protections for “high conservation value” areas which will be marked “red” for protection.
Those areas will be determined through a new system of regional planning, which will ensure the cumulative impacts of multiple developments on one site are considered when assessing projects.
The government said the process of regional planning would also speed up development decisions by providing clear guidance on where different types of development would be appropriate.
Offset funds for restoration
In a move expected to please business and developers, the government has expanded the options for how developers can pay compensation for the environmental damage they cause.
Currently, when a project is approved conditional to compensation — or “offsets” — the compensation must be “like for like”. So if koala habitat is cleared, koala habitat somewhere nearby needs to be protected.
But Labor’s proposals would allow developers to simply pour money into an offset fund, which would be used for environmental restoration.
The government says that payment must be “sufficient to achieve a net positive environmental outcome”.
The government directly compared the scheme to one in New South Wales, which was blasted in September this year by the NSW auditor-general for failing to deliver outcomes.
The government will also establish what it has called a “nature repair market”, which it says will allow businesses to “invest” in environmental restoration.
When Ms Plibersek flagged such a move earlier in the year — something she said could be “a green Wall Street” — she said the move was “not designed to be an offset scheme”.
The market will be operated by the Clean Energy Regulator, which also regulates the troubled market for carbon offset credits in Australia.
Native logging loophole to be closed, eventually
The overhaul will eventually offer increased protections to Australia’s native forests, which are controversially exempt from protections currently offered by national environmental laws.
The existing exemption means high-conservation areas, including threatened species habitat, can be logged without assessment or “offset” conditions that would normally be required.
Under the changes, the government flagged loggers could be forced to comply with new national standards, which would likely make native forestry logging impossible in many parts of the country.
But exactly how and when that would happen remains unclear, with the government saying it will work with states and other stakeholders “towards” making those changes, and noting the “form” of the change is yet to be determined.
A step in the right direction — for now
The reforms have been welcomed by the Australian Conservation Foundation’s chief executive Kelly O’Shanassy, who says the measure of success will be whether or not they end Australia’s extinction crisis.
Tim Reed from the Business Council of Australia thanked the government for developing the changes through a consultative process and said they could work to the benefit of all Australians.
While welcoming the proposals though, environmental groups have called for a range of further details — including around accountability measures and funding.
Labor’s internal environment group Labor Environment Action Network (LEAN) has been lobbying for some of these changes, including a federal EPA, for years.
Felicity Wade, convenor of LEAN, said the changes announced today were just “the first step in a great leap forward for Australia’s wildlife and environment”.
She said some of the proposals had the power to “begin tackling the catastrophic loss we are facing” but she wanted to work with the minister to ensure the EPA was “truly independent”.
LEAN also wanted independent institutions to develop the national standards to ensure politics was taken out of the process.