Environment Minister Sussan Ley yesterday announced a ten-yearly review of Australia’s national environmental laws. It could not come at a more critical time, as the environment struggles under unprecedented development pressures, climate change impacts and a crippling drought.
The laws, formally known as the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, have been in place for 20 years.
Announcing the review, Ley said it would “tackle green tape” and reduce delays in project approvals. She said the laws must remain “fit for purpose” as our environment changes.
Serious declines in most biodiversity indicators strongly suggest the laws are not fit for purpose. Some 7.7 million hectares of endangered species habitat has been destroyed since the Act was established and the lists of threatened and endangered species continue to grow.
The review should ensure Australia’s environmental law achieves what it was designed to do – protect our precious natural places.
The list below reflects the EPBC Act priorities of 70 environmental lawyers and practitioners who were polled by the National Environmental Law Association. Collectively, they have more than 500 years experience of the Act’s operation.
Under the laws, proponents of activities likely to have big impacts on so-called “matters of national environmental significance” must get federal approval. The minister or a representative makes this decision and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, grants approval.
This approval power should be vested in an independent body to take the politics out of decisions. Criteria for deciding on approvals should be clearer, including thresholds for when applications must be refused on environmental grounds.
A search of the EPBC Act will not find any reference to cumulative impacts, or the need to consider whether approval of one proposal is likely to lead to a raft of new projects being proposed. There is little scope to consider cumulative impacts that might happen in future — only when a new proposal constitutes the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
The Act must do better at considering both how proposed activities and future plans will interact, and the background processes of environmental change and decline.
Improving the content of the Act is one thing, but monitoring, compliance and enforcement are critical. There is little point imposing tough conditions if no one is there to ensure they are met. This demands an ongoing sustainable funding base that is not dependent on political budget priorities.
Access to information about environmental decisions is essential for good governance. Not all documents and decisions are publicly available. It is very difficult to track down detailed aspects of approval conditions – for example, the detail of the groundwater management and monitoring plan for the Adani coal mine. This is especially important when the department’s capacity to oversee compliance is so constrained.
Tasmania’s Tarkine needs a strategic plan
The Act should consider the need for public registers of all documents and data collected as part of decision-making and monitoring processes, including decisions, approvals, conditions, offset locations, compliance reports and monitoring data.
Commonwealth involvement in environmental approvals is limited to specific “matters of national environmental significance”. Land clearing and climate change are not included in the list of such matters, and are usually considered under state laws.
This means activities that may damage native vegetation or lead to rising emissions are only scrutinised under federal law if they might affect other things, such as threatened species or world heritage places.
Also, the Act only seeks to protect water resources when the proposed project is a large coal mine or coal seam gas venture. New triggers are needed to require federal assessment and approval for all activities that might significantly affect water, native vegetation and climate change.
Habitat loss is recognised as the primary driver of species decline in Australia. Rates of land clearing have increased dramatically in recent years, despite the operation of the Act.
Stronger protections are needed. These must prevent further clearing of vegetation types that are not adequately conserved in Australia’s system of protected natural areas. In cases where a proponent plans to offset damage caused by their project by restoring land elsewhere, construction should be delayed until work has begun on the restoration project and conservation benefits are occurring.
Conservation planning and environmental assessment are complex. Major new initiatives can involve interacting influences and trade-offs. The Act’s so-called “strategic assessment” process to some extent accounts for this — for example it might consider development plans across a region, rather than project-by-project.
But strategic planning must occur for a wider range of activities that may have long-term impacts on conservation: for example, the Tasmanian government’s desire to open up the Tarkine region to further mining. The planning must also better consider spatial conflicts and account for future change.
This list is just the tip of the law reform iceberg, but addressing these priorities would be a good start. With only one environmental law expert and no environmental scientist on the newly announced panel, it remains to be seen how these priorities will be addressed, if at all.
Putting your pregnancy on pause until the time is right to give birth sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel, but for many mammals what’s known as “embryonic diapause” is an essential part of raising their young.
Although scientists have known since the 1850s that some animals have this ability, it is only now becoming clear how it could teach us valuable lessons about human pregnancy, stem cells, and cancer.
More than 130 species of mammal can pause their pregnancies. The pause can last anywhere between a couple of days and 11 months. In most species (except some bats, who do it a little later) this happens when the embryo is a tiny ball of about 80 cells, before it attaches to the uterus.
It’s not just a single group of mammals, either. Various species seem to have developed the ability as needed to reproduce more successfully. Most carnivores can pause their pregnancies, including all bears and most seals, but so can many rodents, deer, armadillos, and anteaters.
More than a third of the species that take a breather during gestation are from Australia, including some possums and all but three species of kangaroo and wallaby.
The record-holder for pregnancy pause time is the tammar wallaby, which has been studied extensively for its ability to put embryos on hold for up to 11 months.
The main advantage to pausing pregnancy is that it separates mating and birth. There are two main ways in which animals do this.
The first way is to mate soon after giving birth, to have a backup pregnancy in case something happens to the newborn young. The stress of lactating triggers a pause that lasts during suckling, and the pregnancy restarts once the young leave.
The second way is to pause every pregnancy until the time is right (usually depending on the season). For example, minks mate around the start of March but put the embryos on pause until after the spring equinox (March 21), when the days are growing longer in their northern hemisphere homes. This ensures that the young are born in spring when conditions improve, and not in winter.
The tammar wallaby combines these two methods (suckling in the first half of the year, short days in the second) to pause for almost a year and give birth in January. This ensures the young leave the pouch the following spring instead of in the middle of a hot Australian summer.
Diapause was first identified in 1854 after hunters in Europe noticed that pregnancy in roe deer seemed to last a lot longer than normal. Since then scientists have been fascinated by this process and it has helped us understand more about basic reproductive processes in all mammals.
But it took until 1950 before our knowledge of pregnancy had increased enough so that we could confirm what the hunters had observed 100 years earlier.
But how the process worked at the molecular level is still a mystery. Until recently, there seemed to be no connection between which species used it and which didn’t and there didn’t seem to be a unifying mechanism for how pregnancy was paused. Even the hormones controlling diapause are different between mammal groups.
However, research now suggests that regardless of what hormones affect the uterus, the molecular signalling between the uterus and the embryo is conserved, at least between the mouse, mink and tammar wallaby.
Furthermore, researchers in Poland paused embryos from sheep (a non-diapause species) by transferring them into a mouse uterus and then back into the sheep with no ill effects.
This indicates the potential for diapause could lie in all mammals, including humans.
It’s unlikely that pausing pregnancy will become the norm in humans. For starters, you’d have to know you were pregnant within five days of conceiving to match the time when most species start diapause.
Understanding how mammals pause their pregnancies does have significant implications for our understanding of how to make healthy embryos. The time when the embryo enters into diapause is the same time in IVF when an embryo is transferred into the uterus. Diapause could help us improve how we grow embryos in culture or how to recognise which is the “best” embryo to transfer.
Explainer: what are stem cells?
Diapause could also help create better stem cells and find new cancer treatments. The first stem cells ever isolated by scientists came from a mouse embryo in diapause, when the cell cycle of the embryo is arrested. Stem cells are also remarkably similar to a diapaused embryo.
So understanding how diapause works at the molecular level could lead to new therapies to halt cell division or to identify markers for tumour stem cells, which are thought to be responsible for metastasis in cancer.
Recently, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published a global assessment of biodiversity that set out alarming statistics: a million species at threat of extinction, 75% of terrestrial environments severely altered by human activity, and a 30% reduction in global habitat integrity.
Despite all this, practical solutions to redress an ecological crisis — land use and economic reform, action on climate change and improvements to environmental governance — are not prioritised. One key reason for this is how we frame our relationship to the living world.
Our prevailing relationship with nature is instrumental – that is, we predominantly frame the living world as a set of natural resources, apart from humans, for our privileged use.
Such framing is so deeply embedded, and our material dependence on nature so total, that it can seem strange even to question the idea of nature as natural resource. In Western nations, this position has deep philosophical and religious roots.
My latest book, The Imagination of Plants, highlights the role of the creation story in Genesis and the philosophy of Aristotle in rendering plants, the living beings that make up the visible bulk of most terrestrial ecosystems, as existing for the sake of animals, and both for the sake of humans.
Such accounts have powerfully shaped a human-centred, utility-based worldview that has silenced the needs of plants and animals. They form the philosophical basis of our claims to “own” other species.
If plants and animals exist for the sake of humans, why take action to conserve them when they’re not useful? Why care when their numbers are going down, as long as we can still get what we materially need from them?
Conservation concepts and strategies that place the living world within this frame, including ideas of natural capital, ecosystem services and the protection of the living world for our enlightened self-interest, are destined to fail because they do not address this underlying framing. Indeed, as researchers have pointed out, by not addressing such framing they perpetuate the very drivers of biodiversity loss.
Environmental thinkers have warned for decades that such a view of nature is at the root of our ecological crisis. More recent research has argued against this instrumental view, criticising its value as a basis for conservation action.
Since the 1980s, discussions of the intrinsic value of nature – “valuing it for what it is, not only what it does” – have happened across a number of environmental disciplines. This led to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), founded on the cornerstone of the intrinsic value of biological diversity.
In some countries, such as New Zealand, the concept of intrinsic value appears in major pieces of resource management and conservation legislation. It has been instrumental in recent legal battles over land use.
Recent work by environmental philosopher Michael Paul Nelson shows people acknowledge the intrinsic value of nature. He argues that the only reason we make decisions inconsistent with this value is because we don’t believe the general populace shares this belief.
But the concept of intrinsic value does not demand a move away from a dominant use-based frame. In the preamble of the CBD itself, intrinsic values sit alongside a raft of use-based values, including economic, scientific, educational, cultural and aesthetic values. The power of the use-based frame dominates the concept of intrinsic value.
There is an alternative to the dichotomy of a purely instrumental relationship and the concept of intrinsic value.
In many Indigenous cultures, such relationships are built on fundamental kinship with the living world, a kinship that actually blurs and subverts the very concepts of nature and culture.
Within these kinship relationships, the needs and capacities of living beings are acknowledged, not left in the background. This is what the late anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose called the Indigenous ethic of connection, or what is also called kincentric ecology.
Kinship offers a way of connecting to nature that acknowledges our need to use plants and animals, but constructs relationships beyond use. Where the concept of intrinsic value can be difficult to engage with, kinship relationships naturally extend to care, respect and responsibility.
Framing nature in terms of kinship can motivate people to care and make the loss of the living world real for people. Ever since Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species, science has known of our fundamental kinship with nature. Yet we don’t frame (or live with) nature in a way that honours this.
A recent example gives me hope. At the school climate strike, a young Brazilian Indigenous woman addressed a crowd in New York, speaking in terms of kinship about the human children of a mother Earth, fighting to save their mother from destruction. Framing nature in terms of kinship noticeably energised the crowd of young people.
The challenge to reframe the living world in terms of kinship is massive. A good step would be to convene a human-nature kinship platform as a way of influencing the UN Biodiversity Conference in China next year. Another step could be to enshrine our fundamental kinship with other species in all major environmental governance frameworks, including the CBD and national environmental legislation.
Both could provide the springboard for us to undergo the hard work of talking about, and living with, other species in ways that acknowledge them as our earthly relations.