Minister Tanya Plibersek recently announced major reforms to the federal environmental laws in an overhaul of the existing Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, stating these would enable Australia to “turn the tide in this country – from nature destruction to nature repair”.
The major overhaul was designed in response to the review of the 23-year-old national environmental laws by Graeme Samuel in 2020. The new legislation will be developed by mid-2023, ready for introduction at the end of next year. Minister Plibersek concluded from Samuel’s review that Australia'scurrent environmental laws are “incapable of protecting the environment”.
“Nature is being destroyed. Businesses are waiting too long for decisions. That’s bad for everyone. Things have to change,” she said.
These reforms will be broadly guided by three principles: delivering better environment and heritage outcomes, faster and clearer decision-making for companies to do the right thing, and increased accountability and trust in the system. Plibersek also added that “this is a win-win: a win for the environment and a win for business.”
The four major changes as outlined by Minister Plibersek are:
1. Establishing new National Environmental Standards
These standards will underpin the environmental laws that all companies must abide by, ensuring a nature-positive outcome. The standards will be legally enforceable and included in the decision-making process for businesses. Matters of National Environmental Significance, such as threatened species and world heritage areas are planned as the first standard and will be key in reaching the government’s goal of zero new extinctions.
These standards will be developed in tandem with First Nations engagement and participation to secure the interests and cultural heritage as early as possible in project planning.
2. Regional Planning
A new regional planning system will provide businesses with clear guidance on what classifies as suitable for development, streamlining the decision-making process and reducing loss in costs and time – using a ‘traffic light’ approach.
Under this approach, areas that are “precious and irreplaceable” with high conservation value will be declared “red” and deemed off-limits for any development. “Orange” areas will be those that require moderate environmental consideration to avoid as many impacts as possible. Lastly, “green” zones will be the priority areas for development due to the minimal threat or consequences of development on such land.
3. Forming an independent national Environment Protection Agency
The federal EPA will be responsible for compliance and enforcement of laws that protect and regenerate nature. A significant aim of the regulator will be to “restore the trust of the public in the system” as Minister Plibersek says.
Until now, there has been low clarity on whether environmental standards are being enforced on the ground. The EPA will also have the power to decide and issue permits for development proposals, ensuring that they comply with the national environmental standards and providing full transparency in decision-making processes.
4. Introducing a new offsets standard
This new system will present businesses with the option of making conservation payments to enable better environmental outcomes if they must go ahead with a project that will have an impact on the environment. This could present some concerns as it gives businesses a means of continuing development in areas of high conservation value, but will only be used as a last resort according to the government.
These offsets are intended to act as compensation that is ‘like for like’, meaning that the same habitat impacted due to a project must be restored elsewhere. However, the new compensation will just go into funding “nature repair” and environmental restoration.
Other points to consider
Currently, development projects that were to trigger a certain aspect like important water resources or threatened species would require approvals under federal law. However, the new plan will not account for any ‘climate triggers’ for environmental approvals. Companies will still need to disclose their domestic emissions such as Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions and provide clarity on how their project aligns with Australia’s emissions targets. However, they will not need to report on any Scope 3 emissions created.
The reform has been well received by environmental groups around the country, including WWF-Australia. The organisation’s chief conservation officer Rachel Lowry said these were “long overdue reforms to tackle Australia’s extinction crisis”, especially the enforcement through the EPA which was what the EPBC Act lacked. Conversely, others have expressed their concern about the lack of a ‘climate trigger’.
“The test of success for these reforms will be whether they end Australia’s extinction crisis by protecting our unique wildlife, plants and ecosystems from destruction through land clearing, logging and climate change, and result in a net gain in natural habitat this decade,” Australian Conservation Foundation’s chief executive Kelly O’Shannasy said.
To learn more about the Australian Government’s environmental reforms, read the Nature Positive Plan: better for the environment, better for business.