Be worried when fossil fuel lobbyists support current environmental laws



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Chris McGrath, The University of Queensland

The fossil fuel lobby, led by the Minerals Council of Australia, seem pretty happy with the current system of environment laws. In a submission to a review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, it “broadly” supports the existing laws and does not want them replaced.

True, the group says the laws impose unnecessary burdens on industry that hinder post-pandemic economic recovery. It wants delays and duplication in environmental regulation reduced to provide consistency and certainty.




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But for the fossil fuel industry to broadly back the current regime of environmental protection is remarkable. It suggests deep problems with the current laws, which have allowed decision-making driven by politics, rather than independent science.

So let’s look at the resources industry’s stance on environment laws, and what it tells us.

Cut duplication

The Minerals Council’s submission calls for “eliminating or reducing duplication” of federal and state laws.

The fossil fuel lobby has long railed against environmental law – the EPBC Act in particular – disparaging it as “green tape” that it claims slows projects unnecessarily and costs the industry money.

On this, the federal government and the mining industry are singing from the same songbook. Announcing the review of the laws last year, the government flagged changes that it claimed would speed up approvals and reduce costs to industry.

Previous governments have tried to reduce duplication of environmental laws. In 2013 the Abbott government proposed a “one-stop shop” in which it claimed projects would be considered under a single environmental assessment and approval process, rather than scrutinised separately by state and federal authorities.




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That proposal hit many political and other hurdles and was never enacted. But it appears to remain on the federal government’s policy agenda.

It’s true the federal EPBC Act often duplicates state approvals for mining and other activities. But it still provides a safety net that in theory allows the federal government to stop damaging projects approved by state governments.

The Commonwealth rarely uses this power, but has done so in the past. In the most famous example, the Labor party led by Bob Hawke won the federal election in 1983 and stopped the Tasmanian Liberal government led by Robin Gray building a major hydroelectric dam on the Gordon River below its junction with the Franklin River.

The High Court’s decision in that dispute laid the foundation for the EPBC Act, which was enacted in 1999.

In 2009 Peter Garrett, Labor’s then-federal environment minister, refused the Queensland Labor government’s proposed Traveston Crossing Dam on the Mary River under the EPBC Act due to an unacceptable impact on threatened species.

The Conversation put these arguments to the Minerals Council of Australia, and CEO Tania Constable said:

The MCA’s submission states that Australia’s world-leading minerals sector is committed to the protection of our unique environment, including upholding leading practice environmental protection based on sound science and robust risk-based approaches.

Reforms to the operation of the EPBC Act are needed to address unnecessary duplication and complexity, providing greater certainty for businesses and the community while achieving sound environmental outcomes.

But don’t change the current system much

Generally, the Minerals Council and other resources groups aren’t lobbying for the current system to be changed too much.

The groups support the federal environment minister retaining the role of decision maker under the law. This isn’t surprising, given a succession of ministers has, for the past 20 years, given almost unwavering approval to resource projects.

For example, in 2019 the then-minister Melissa Price approved the Adani coal mine’s groundwater management plan, despite major shortcomings and gaps in knowledge and data about its impacts.




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Independent scientific advice against the mine over the last ten years was sidelined in the minister’s final decision.

Countless more examples demonstrate how the current system works in the favour of mining interests – even when the industry itself claims otherwise.

The Minerals Council submission refers to an unnamed “Queensland open-cut coal expansion project” to argue against excessive duplication of federal and state processes around water use.

I believe this is a reference to the New Acland Coal Mine Stage 3 expansion project. I have acted since 2016 as a barrister for a local landholder group in litigation against that project.

When approached by The Conversation, the Minerals Council did not confirm it was referring to the New Acland project. Tania Constable said:

The case studies were submitted from a range of companies, and are representative of the regulatory inefficiency and uncertainty which deters investment and increases costs while greatly limiting job opportunities and economic benefits for regional communities from mining.

The New Acland mine expansion is on prime agricultural land on the Darling Downs, Queensland’s southern food bowl. Nearby farmers strongly opposed the project over fears of damage to groundwater, the creation of noise and dust, and climate change impacts.

But the Minerals Council fails to mention that since 2016, the mine has been building a massive new pit covering 150 hectares.

West Pit at the New Acland Coal Mine sprawling amid prime agricultural land in 2018. The right half of this pit is outside the area approved for mining under the EPBC Act in 2017 but no action has been taken by the Commonwealth to stop it.
Oakey Coal Action Alliance Inc, Author provided

When mining of this pit began, the mine’s expansion was still being assessed under state and federal laws. Half of the pit was subsequently approved under the EPBC Act in 2017.

But the Queensland environment department never stopped the work, despite the Land Court of Queensland in 2018 alerting it to the powers it had to act.

Based on my own research using satellite imagery and comparing the publicly available application documents, mining of West Pit started while Stage 3 of the mine was still being assessed under the EPBC Act. And after approval was given, mining was conducted outside the approved footprint.

The extent of West Pit on September 30, 2016 and relevant boundaries of the New Acland Coal Mine Stage 3 expansion, then being assessed under the EPBC Act. At this time, West Pit had extended into the project area still being assessed. Stage 3 was approved in early 2017, and since then West Pit has continued south, outside the area applied for or approved under the EPBC Act.
Adapted from GoogleEarth by author.

Despite these apparent breaches, the federal environment department has taken no enforcement action.

The Conversation contacted New Hope Group, the company that owns New Acland mine, for comment, and they refuted this assertion. Chief Operating Officer Andrew Boyd said:

New Hope Group strongly deny any allegations that New Hope Coal has in any way acted unlawfully.

New Acland Coal had and still has all necessary approvals relating to the development of the pit Dr McGrath refers to. It is also not correct to say that the Land Court alerted the Department of its powers to act with regards to this pit.

The Department is obviously aware of its enforcement powers and was aware of the development of the pit well before 2018. Further, the Land Court in 2018 rejected Dr McGrath’s arguments and accepted New Acland Coal’s position that any issues relating to the lawfulness of the pit were not within the jurisdiction of the Land Court on the rehearing in 2018.

Accordingly, the lawfulness of the pit was irrelevant to the 2018 Land Court hearing.

Dr McGrath also fails to mention that his client had originally accepted in the original Land Court hearing (2015-2017) that the development of the pit was lawful only to completely change its position in the 2018.

State and federal environmental laws work in favour of the fossil fuel industry in other ways. “Regulatory capture” occurs when government regulators essentially stop enforcing the law against industries they are supposed to regulate.

This can occur for many reasons, including agency survival and to avoid confrontation with powerful political groups such as farmers or the mining sector.

In one apparent example of this, the federal environment department decided in 2019 not to recommend two critically endangered Murray-Darling wetlands for protection under the EPBC Act because the minister was unlikely to support the listings following a campaign against them by the National Irrigators Council.

Holes in our green safety net

Recent ecological disasters are proof our laws are failing us catastrophically. And they make the mining industry’s calls to speed-up project approvals particularly audacious.

We need look only to repeated, mass coral bleaching as the Great Barrier Reef collapses in front of us, or a catastrophic summer of bushfires.




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Both tragedies are driven by climate change, caused by burning fossil fuels. It’s clear Australia should be looking to fix the glaring holes in our green safety net, not widen them.The Conversation

Chris McGrath, Associate Professor in Environmental and Planning Regulation and Policy, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate explained: why we need to focus on increased consumption as much as population growth


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Glenn Banks, Massey University


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Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz

Almost every threat to modern humanity can be traced simply to our out-of-control population growth (think about arable land going to housing; continued growth in demand for petroleum fuels). Is anything being done to contain population growth on a national and international scale?

The question of population is more complex that it may seem – in the context of climate change as well as other issues such as biodiversity loss and international development.

As a starting point, let’s look at the statement “out-of-control population growth”. In fact, population growth is more “in control” than it has been for the past 50 years.




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Population isn’t growing everywhere

The global rate of population growth has been declining from just over 2% per year in 1970 to less than 1.1% in 2020 (and this estimate was made before COVID-19 erupted globally).

To put this in perspective, if the 2% growth rate had continued, the world’s population would have doubled in 35 years. At a 1.1% growth rate, it would now be set to double in 63 years – but the growth rate is still declining, so the doubling time will be lengthened again.

Population growth also varies significantly between countries. Among the 20 most populous countries in the world, three countries have growth rates of more than 2.5% – Ethiopia, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo – while Japan’s population is in decline (with a negative growth rate, -0.3%) and China, Russia, Germany and Thailand all have very low growth rates.

These growth rates vary in part because the population structures are very different across countries. Japan has an aged population, with 28% over 65 years and just 12% under 15 years. Nigeria has only 3% of people in the over-65 bracket and 44% under 15.

For comparison, 20% of New Zealanders are younger than 15 and 16% are older than 65. For Australia, the respective figures are 18% and 17%.

Migration also makes a significant contribution in some countries, propping up the working-age population and shaping the demographic structure. History and levels of economic development play an important role too: higher-income countries almost consistently have smaller families and lower growth rates.

Rise in consumption

It’s certainly valid to link population growth (even a more limited “in control” population growth) with climate change and loss of land. Everything else being equal, more people means more space taken up, more resources consumed and more carbon emitted.

But while population growth has slowed since the 1970s, resource consumption hasn’t. For example, there is no equivalent decline in fossil fuel use since the 1970s.

Fuel consumption varies throughout the world.
Flickr/Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, CC BY-NC

This is an area where not everyone is equal. If all people were to use the same amount of resources (fossil fuels, timber, minerals, arable land etc), then of course total resource use and carbon would rise. But resource use varies dramatically globally.

If we look at oil consumption per person in 2019, the average American used almost twice as much as someone in Japan, the second oil-thirstiest populous nation, and almost 350 times as much as a person living in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It is an easy out for us in the industrialised world to say “out-of-control population growth” is killing the planet, when instead it is equally valid – but more confronting – to say our out-of-control consumption is killing the planet.




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Population growth slows when women are educated

To come to the final part of the question: is anything being done to contain population growth, on a national or international scale?

Even if we set aside the argument above that population is not the only issue, or even the most significant one, in terms of threats to humanity, what factors might influence population growth in parts of the world where it is high?

Things are being done, but they may not be what most people expect. It has long been shown that as incomes rise and health care improves, more children survive and people tend to have smaller families.

This effect is not instantaneous. There is a lag where population growth rates might rise first before they begin to drop. This demographic transition is a relatively consistent pattern globally.

But, at the country level, the single most significant influence on reducing fertility rates, family size and overall population growth is access to education for girls and women.

Fertility rates drop when girls get access to education.
Oksana Kuzmina/Shutterstock

One study in 2016, drawing on World Bank population data across a wide range of countries, found:

… the main driver of overall fertility reduction is clearly the change in proportions of women at each education level.

In relation to climate change action, this study specifically notes:

It is education, or more specifically girls’ education, that is far more likely to result in lower carbon emissions than a shift to renewables, improved agricultural practices, urban public transport, or any other strategy now being contemplated.

Recent research looked at how the global population might change if we implemented the aspirations of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. It found the change would be significant and could even mean the global population stabilises by mid-century.The Conversation

Glenn Banks, Professor of Geography and Head of School, School of People, Environment and Planning, Massey University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

After the bushfires, we helped choose the animals and plants in most need. Here’s how we did it



Daniel Marius/AAP

John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Dale Nimmo, Charles Sturt University; Rachael Gallagher, Macquarie University, and Sarah Legge, Australian National University

No other event in our lifetimes has brought such sudden, drastic loss to Australia’s biodiversity as the last bushfire season. Governments, researchers and conservationists have committed to the long road to recovery. But in those vast burnt landscapes, where do we start?

We are among the wildlife experts advising the federal government on bushfire recovery. Our role is to help determine the actions needed to stave off extinctions and help nature recover in the months and years ahead.

Our first step was to systematically determine which plant and animal species and ecosystems needed help most urgently. So let’s take a closer look at how we went about it.

Plants and animals are recovering from the fires, but some need a helping hand.
David Crosling/AAP

Sorting through the smoke

One way to work out how badly a species is affected by fire is to look at how much of its distribution – or the area in which it lives – was burnt.

This is done by overlapping fire maps with maps or records showing the species’ range. The greater the overlap, the higher the potential fire impact. But there are several complicating factors to consider:

1. Susceptibility: Species vary in how susceptible they are to fire. For instance, animals that move quickly – such as red-necked wallabies and the white-throated needletail – can escape an approaching fire. So too can animals that burrow deeply into the ground, such as wombats.

Less mobile animals, or those that live in vegetation, are more likely to die. We also considered post-fire recovery factors such as a species’ vulnerability to predators and reproductive rate.

The white-throated needle tail can escape the flames.
Tom Tarrant/Flickr

2. What we know: The quality of data on where species occur is patchy. For example, there are thousands of records for most of Australia’s 830 or so bird species. But there are very few reliable records for many of Australia’s 25,000-odd plant species and 320,000-odd invertebrate species.

So while we can estimate with some confidence how much of a crimson rosella’s distribution burned, the fire overlaps for less well-known species are much less certain.

3. The history of threats: The impact of fires on a region depends on the extent of other threats, such as drought and the region’s fire history. The time that elapses between fires can influence whether populations have recovered since the last fire.

For instance, some plants reproduce only from seed rather than resprouting. Fires in quick succession can kill regrowing plants before they’ve matured enough to produce seed. If that happens, species can become locally extinct.


Authors supplied

4. Fire severity: Some areas burn more intensely than others. High severity fires tend to kill more animals. They also incinerate vegetation and can scorch seeds lying in the soil.

Many Australian plant species are exquisitely adapted to regenerate and resprout after fire. But if a fire is intense enough, even these plants may not bounce back.

5. Already threatened?: Many species affected by these bushfires were already in trouble. For some, other threats had already diminished their numbers. Others were highly vulnerable because they were found only in very limited areas.

The bushfires brought many already threatened species closer to extinction. And other species previously considered secure are now threatened.




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Which species made the list?

With these issues in mind, and with contributions from many other experts, we compiled lists of plant, invertebrate and vertebrate species worst-affected by the 2019-20 fires. A similar assessment was undertaken for threatened ecosystems.

Some 471 plant, 213 invertebrate and 92 vertebrate species have been identified as a priority for interventions. Most had more than half their distribution burnt. Many have had more than 80% affected; some had 100% burnt.

The purple copper butterfly is listed as a priority for recovery efforts.
NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment

Priority invertebrates include land snails, freshwater crayfish, spiders, millipedes, beetles, dragonflies, grasshoppers, butterflies and bees. Many species had very small ranges.

For example, the inelegantly named Banksia montana mealybug – a tiny insect – existed only in the foliage of a few individuals of a single plant species in Western Australia’s Stirling Range, all of which were consumed by the recent fires.

Some priority plants, such as the Monga waratah, have persisted in Australia since their evolution prior to the break-up of the Gondwanan supercontinent about 140 million years ago. More than 50% of its current range burned, much at high severity. During recovery it is vulnerable to diseases such as phytophthora root rot.




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Some priority vertebrates have tiny distributions, such as the Mt Kaputar rock skink that lives only on rocky outcrops of Mt Kaputar near Narrabri, New South Wales. Others had large distributions that were extensively burnt, such as the yellow-bellied glider.

The priority lists include iconic species such as the koala, and species largely unknown to the public, such as the stocky galaxias, a fish that lives only in an alpine stream near Cooma in NSW.

Half the Monga waratah’s range burned in the fires.
Wikimedia

What’s being done

A federal government scheme is now allocating grants to projects that aim to help these species and ecosystems recover.

Affected species need immediate and longer-term actions to help them avoid extinction and recover. Critical actions common to all fire-affected species are:

  1. careful management of burnt areas so their recovery isn’t compromised by compounding pressures

  2. protecting unburnt areas from further fire and other threats, so they can support population recovery

  3. rapid surveys to identify where populations have survived. This is also the first step in ongoing monitoring to track recovery and the response to interventions.

Targeted control of feral predators, herbivores and weeds is also essential to the recovery of many priority species.

In some rare cases, plants or animals may need to be moved to areas where populations were reduced or wiped out. Captive breeding or seed collection can support this. Such restocking doesn’t just help recovery, it also spreads the risk of population loss in case of future fires.

Feral animals such as cats threaten native species in their recovery.
Hugh McGregor, Threatened Species Recovery Hub

Long road back

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to some challenges in implementing recovery actions. Like all of us, state agency staff, NGOs, academics and volunteer groups must abide by public health orders, which have in some cases limited what can be done and where.

But the restrictions may also have an upside. For instance, fewer vehicles on the roads might reduce roadkill of recovering wildlife.

As states ease restrictions, more groups will be able to continue the recovery process.




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As well as action on the ground, much planning and policy response is still required. Many fire-affected species must be added to threatened species lists to ensure they’re legally protected, and so remain the focus of conservation effort.

Fire management methods must be reviewed to reduce the chance of future catastrophic fires, and to make sure the protection of biodiversity assets is considered in fire management planning and suppression.

Last bushfire season inflicted deep wounds on our biodiversity. We need to deal with that injury. We must also learn from it, so we can respond swiftly and effectively to future ecological disasters.


Many species experts and state/territory agency representatives contributed to the analyses of priority species. Staff from the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (especially the Environmental Resources Information Network (Geospatial and Information Analytics Branch), the Protected Species and Communities Branch and the Threatened Species Commissioner’s Office) and Expert Panel members also contributed significantly to this work.The Conversation

John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Dale Nimmo, Associate Professor in Ecology, Charles Sturt University; Rachael Gallagher, Senior Lecturer/ARC DECRA Fellow, Macquarie University, and Sarah Legge, Professor, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.