Take action to protect our forests and biodiversity

The Commonwealth Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act came under its once-in-a-decade formal Review this year (2020). ARRCC and numerous ARRCC supporters made submissions to the Review, but the Coalition Government is rushing through questionable legislation to amend the EPBC Act ahead of the release of a EPBC Review final report due in late October.

The House of Representatives has passed the amendment legislation, but these have yet to be debated in the Senate. The inadequacies of the framing and implementation of the EPBC Act are in large part responsible for our declining natural environment and high extinction rates, so it is critical that legislation based on the Review reverses these trends. Instead, this legislation is very likely to make matters worse for our native forests and wildlife.

The legislation could be put to the Senate as early as the Budget sitting week (starting Oct 6) but this is more likely to happen in the week starting November 9. Please write to your Senators as soon as possible.

Talking points for letters

Please consider putting the following points in your letters or e-mails to the Senators who represent your State. Senators and their staff will consider your views more carefully, the extent to which you use your own words.

Please express concern about any weakening of environmental protections in Australia at a time when they need to be radically stronger.  

Australia has the fastest deforestation rates of any developed country. This needs to be urgently addressed because forests are key to both sequestering carbon and providing habitat for vulnerable native species.

There is far, far more to be lost than to be gained by pushing through this legislation quickly, before the final outcome of the Review is published. There are much better ways to create employment opportunities. At a minimum, legislation should reflect the key recommendations of the Interim Report, allow time to research the potential consequences of the proposed changes and be properly subject to both parliamentary and community scrutiny.

The proposed devolution of responsibility to state and territory governments:

  • Means more decision-making by state-level governments compromised by conflicts of interests - they are stakeholders in forestry and receive royalties from mining.
  • Is likely to result in further land-clearing, approvals of development and mining projects, and lead to a further acceleration of extinction rates. (These have been the outcomes of Regional Forest Agreements which have similarly abdicated environmental responsibilities to states.)
  • Will make it more difficult for Australia to meet its national obligations under international conventions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity.
  • Runs counter to the need for the harmonising between state and territory frameworks, national data collection and a coordinated response to nation-wide challenges such as feral species and water resources.

Instead, the Commonwealth Government should adopt the key recommendation of Graeme Samuel so far, the Interim Report which is to establish an independent regulator which is “responsible for monitoring compliance, enforcement, monitoring and assurance. It should be properly resourced and have available to it a full toolkit of powers.”

Please ask the Senator to block this legislation in its present form when it is presented to the Parliament. Ask them to insist on the careful framing of any EPBC amendment legislation, based on the full suite of recommendations from Graeme Samuel’s final report.

Note that cross-bench Senators’ details are:

Senator Stirling Griff (SA) [email protected] 

Senator Jacqui Lambie (Tas) [email protected]

Senator Malcolm Roberts (Qld) [email protected]

Senator Rex Patrick (SA) [email protected]

Senator Pauline Hanson (Qld) [email protected].au

Why we care as people of faith

The world’s great religions have long traditions of scripture and philosophy around the intrinsic value of the natural world. As well as being enriched by the beauty and wonder of nature, we hold that all things are interconnected and held in balance. These values form the roots of ARRCC’s commitment to care for the earth. We want all of life to flourish, now and into the future. As people of faith we believe that humanity has a special responsibility to protect nature’s balance.

For example, forests should be protected for the sake of biodiversity, the water cycle and weather systems. They help keep local environments cool and moist, which can reduce the severity of bushfires. Forests are important carbon sinks. Furthermore, the global loss of forests contributed 8 – 10% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2016 – 17. With the exceptional forest fires since that time, the figures are likely to be higher today.

We have already seen the extremes made worse because of a 1oC global temperature rise. Limiting warming to the guardrail of 1.5oC will require the very rapid decarbonisation of the global economy. For Australia, this means no new coal or gas mining, a shift to 100% renewable energy as soon as possible, and halt to the pace of deforestation. Every delay will cost lives and livelihoods, especially for those already in poverty.

Instead, deforestation and extractive industries have been allowed to unduly upset the balance in Australia. As well as being the largest exporter of coal and liquified natural gas (LNG) in the world, our country is a “deforestation hotspot” and ranks second (to Indonesia) for ongoing biodiversity loss.

In the name of protecting jobs, the Coalition Government is quite exclusively focused on clearing the way for developers and mining companies. Even though there are many more jobs in renewable energy, low-carbon industries, recycling and habitat restoration projects, it has progressively marginalised organisations and activists attempting to protect nature, and has been very slow to enforce environmental regulations.

As Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si’, “Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention.” (para. 190)

ARRCC is a member of the Australian Forests and Climate Alliance (ACFA). See http://forestsandclimate.org.au/

Outcomes of Environmental Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Review

The passion and sheer number of submissions led Graeme Samuels to write in his Interim Report Executive Summary, released in June, “The overwhelming message received by the Review is that Australians care deeply about our iconic places and unique environment. Protecting and conserving them for the benefit of current and future generations is important for the nation.”

At the same time, the Interim Report reflected a bleak view of the efficacy of the Act to date to protect Australia’s treasured natural places: “The environment and our iconic places are in decline and under increasing threat. The EPBC Act does not enable the Commonwealth to effectively protect and conserve nationally important environmental matters. It is not fit for current or future environmental challenges.”

Interim Report main recommendations

  • Establish a modern, independent regulator responsible for monitoring, compliance, enforcement and assurance to be a strong cop on the beat.
  • Provide the regulator with a full suite of modern regulatory monitoring, compliance, enforcement and assurance tools and adequate funding.
  • Legally enforceable National Environmental Standards should be the foundation for effective legislation.
  • Strategic national plans should be developed for big-ticket, nationally pervasive issues such as management of feral animals or adaptation to climate change.
  • Efforts should be made to harmonise and streamline with the states and territory regulatory frameworks.
  • Reforms to the EPBC Act should focus on improving transparency of decision-making, to reduce the need to resort to court processes to discover information. Legal challenges should be limited.
  • Reforms should be co-designed with Indigenous Australians.
  • More needs to be done to positively restore the environment.
  • Environmental offsets should be much better designed. They should be the exception (not the default) after all practical options to avoid or mitigate impacts have been exhausted.

Amendment Bill

The main points in the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill 2020 are summarised by the Government here. The objective is a “One Stop Shop” approach so States can allow project approvals to go through more quickly. The Federal Government will no longer require the conditions of a Commonwealth “water trigger” to be met, so projects will only need to meet State Government standards.

It responds primarily to industry frustration at the complexity of multiple regulatory regimes and the time it takes to get approvals. The Government states that “The main objective of the EPBC Amendment Bill is to enable devolution of approval powers to the States and Territories and to improve the bilateral agreement process. Notably, it clarifies that an action cannot be referred under Part 7 of the EPBC Act if it is covered by an approval bilateral agreement.”

The rationale for haste given by Minister Sussan Ley is that a post-COVID Recovery will need for projects to proceed more quickly and provide employment.

Background on problems with the Bill

See the assessment of the Environmental Defender’s Office here.

This article in The Guardian reports on the views of the Climate and Health Alliance, The Law Council of Australia and the World Wildlife Fund, among others.

World Wildlife Fund research into the results of unauthorised land-clearing because of poor implementation of the Commonwealth EPBC Act.