Environment Minister Sussan Ley is in a tearing hurry to embrace nature law reform – and that’s a worry



Graeme Samuel, left and Environment Minister Sussan Ley.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Peter Burnett, Australian National University

The Morrison government on Monday released a long-awaited interim review into Australia’s federal environment law. The ten-year review found Australia’s natural environment is declining and under increasing threat. The current environmental trajectory is “unsustainable” and the law “ineffective”.

The report, by businessman Graeme Samuel, called for fundamental reform of the law, know as the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. The Act, Samuel says:

[…] does not enable the Commonwealth to play its role in protecting and conserving environmental matters that are important for the nation. It is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges.

Samuel confirmed the health of Australia’s environment is in dire straits, and proposes many good ways to address this.

Worryingly though, Environment Minister Sussan Ley immediately seized on proposed reforms that seem to suit her government’s agenda – notably, streamlining the environmental approvals process – and will start working towards them. This is before the review has been finalised, and before public comment on the draft has been received.

This rushed response is very concerning. I was a federal environment official for 13 years, and from 2007 to 2012 was responsible for administering and reforming the Act. I know the huge undertaking involved in reform of the scale Samuel suggests. The stakes are far too high to risk squandering this once-a-decade reform opportunity for quick wins.

A dead koala outside Ipswich. Federal environment laws have failed to protect threatened species.
Jim Dodrill/The Wilderness Society



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‘Fundamental reform’ needed: Samuel

The EPBC Act is designed to protect and conserve Australia’s most important environmental and heritage assets – most commonly, threatened plant and animal species.

Samuel’s diagnosis is on the money: the current trajectory of environmental decline is clearly unsustainable. And reform is long overdue – although unlike Samuel, I would put the blame less on the Act itself and more on government failings, such as a badly under-resourced federal environment department.

Samuel also hits the sweet spot in terms of a solution, at least in principle. National environmental standards, legally binding on the states and others, would switch the focus from the development approvals process to environmental outcomes. In essence, the Commonwealth would regulate the states for environmental results, rather than proponents for (mostly) process.




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Samuel’s recommendation for a quantum shift to a “single source of truth” for environmental data and information is also welcome. Effective administration of the Act requires good information, but this has proven hard to deliver. For example the much-needed National Plan for Environmental Information, established in 2010, was never properly resourced and later abolished.

Importantly, Samuel also called for a new standard for “best practice Indigenous engagement”, ensuring traditional knowledge and views are fully valued in decision-making. The lack of protection of Indigenous cultural assets has been under scrutiny of late following Rio Tinto’s destruction of the ancient Indigenous site Juukan caves. Reform in this area is long overdue.

And notably, Samuel says environmental restoration is required to enable future development to be sustainable. Habitat, he says “needs to grow to be able to support both development and a healthy environment”.

Many in the public are concerned at the state of Australia’s environment.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Streamlined approvals

Samuel pointed to duplication between the EPBC Act and state and territory regulations. He said efforts have been made to streamline these laws but they “have not gone far enough”. The result, he says, is “slow and cumbersome regulation” resulting in significant costs for business, with little environmental benefit.

This finding would have been music to the ears of the Morrison government. From the outset, the government framed Samuel’s review around a narrative of cutting the “green tape” that it believed unnecessarily held up development.

In June the government announced fast-tracked approvals for 15 major infrastructure projects in response to the COVID-19 economic slowdown. And on Monday, Ley indicated the government will prioritise the new national environmental standards, including further streamlining approval processes.




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Here’s where the danger lies. The government wants to introduce legislation in August. Ley said “prototype” environmental standards proposed by Samuel will be introduced at the same time. This is well before Samuel’s final report, due in October.

I believe this timeframe is unwise, and wildly ambitious.

Even though Samuel proposes a two-stage process, with interim standards as the first step, these initial standards risk being too vague. And once they’re in place, states may resist moving to a stricter second stage.

To take one example, the prototype standards in Samuel’s report say approved development projects must not have unacceptable impacts on on matters of national environmental significance. He says more work is needed on the definition of “unacceptable”, adding this requires “granular and specific guidance”.

I believe this requires standards being tailored to different ecosystems across our wide and diverse landscapes, and being specific enough to usefully guide the assessment of any given project. This is an enormous task which cannot be rushed. And if Samuel’s prototype were adopted on an interim basis, states would be free, within some limits, to decide what is “unacceptable”.

It’s also worth noting that the national standards model will need significant financial resources. Samuel’s model would see the Commonwealth doing fewer individual project approvals and less on-ground compliance. However, it would enter a new and complex world of developing environmental standards.

The government has said little about improving the environment on the ground.
Eric Vanderduys/BirdLife Australia

More haste, less speed

Samuel’s interim report will go out for public comment before the final report is delivered in October. Ley concedes further consultation is needed on some issues. But in other areas, the government is not willing to wait. After years of substantive policy inaction it seems the government wants to set a new land-speed record for environmental reform.

The government’s fixation with cutting “green tape” should not unduly colour its reform direction. By rushing efforts to streamline approvals, the government risks creating a jumbled process with, once again, poor environmental outcomes.The Conversation

Peter Burnett, Honorary Associate Professor, ANU College of Law, Australian National University

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

New Zealand’s White Island is likely to erupt violently again, but a new alert system could give hours of warning and save lives



Jorge Silva/Reuters

David Dempsey and Shane Cronin

Tourists visiting Whakaari/White Island on December 9 last year had no warning of its imminent violent eruption. The explosion of acidic steam and gases killed 21 people, and most survivors suffered critical injuries and severe burns.

The tragedy prompted us to develop an early alert system. Our research shows patterns of seismic activity before an eruption that make advance warning possible. Had our system been in place, it would have raised the alert 16 hours before the volcano’s deadly eruption.

Ash covers the ground after Mt Tongariro erupted overnight on August 7 2012.
NZ Police

We were also motivated by the fact that several other New Zealand volcanoes pose similar threats. Explosions and surges at the popular visitor destination Waimangu geothermal area killed three people in 1903, an eruption at Raoul Island in 2006 killed one person, ballistics at Mt Ruapehu in 2007 caused serious injuries and tourists narrowly escaped two eruptions on a popular day walk in the Tongariro national park in 2012.

Our automated warning system provides real-time hazard information and a much greater level of safety to protect tourists and help operators determine when it is safe to visit volcanoes.




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This image of the 2019 eruption of Whakaari White Island eruption was taken by a visitor.
Michael Schade/AAP

A history of eruptions

New Zealand has a network of monitoring instruments that measure even the smallest earth movements continuously. This GeoNet network delivers high-rate data from volcanoes, including Whakaari, but it is not currently used as a real-time warning system for volcanic eruptions.

Although aligned with international best practice, GeoNet’s current Volcano Alert Level (VAL) system is updated too slowly, because it relies mainly on expert judgement and consensus. Nor does it estimate the probability of a future eruption — instead, it gives a backward view of the state of the volcano. All past eruptions at Whakaari occurred at alert levels 1 or 2 (unrest), and the level was then raised only after the event.

Our study uses machine learning algorithms and the past decade of continuous monitoring data. During this time there were five recorded eruptions at Whakaari, many similar to the 2019 event. Since 1826, there have been more than 30 eruptions at Whakaari. Not all were as violent as 2019, but because there is hot water and steam trapped in a hydrothermal area above a shallow layer of magma, we can expect destructive explosions every one to three years.

A memorial in Whakatane, following the White Island eruption in 2019.
Jorge Silva/Reuters

Last year’s eruption was preceded by 17 hours of seismic warning. This began with a strong four-hour burst of seismic activity, which we think was fresh magmatic fluid rising up to add pressure to the gas and water trapped in the rock above.

This led to its eventual bursting, like a pressure cooker lid being blasted off. A similar signal was recorded 30 hours before an eruption in August 2013, and it was present (although less obvious) in two other eruptions in 2012.

Building an early warning system

We used sophisticated machine-learning algorithms to analyse the seismic data for undiscovered patterns in the lead-up to eruptions. The four-hour energy burst proved a signal that often heralded an imminent eruption.

We then used these pre-eruption patterns to teach a computer model to raise an alert and tested whether it could anticipate other eruptions it had not learned from. This model will continue to “learn by experience”. Each successive event we use to teach it improves its ability to forecast the future.

We have also studied how best to optimise when alerts are issued to make the most effective warning system. The main trade-off is between a system that is highly sensitive and raises lots of alerts versus one that sets the bar quite high, but also misses some eruptions.

We settled on a threshold that generates an alert each time the likelihood of an eruption exceeds 8.5%. This means that when an alert is raised – each lasting about five days – there is about a 1-in-12 chance an eruption will happen.

This system would have raised an alert for four of the last five major eruptions at Whakaari. It would have provided a 16-hour warning for the 2019 eruption. But these evaluations have been made with the benefit of hindsight: forecasting systems can only prove their worth on future data.

We think there is a good chance eruptions like the 2019 event or larger will be detected. The trade-off is that the alerts, if acted upon, would keep the island off-limits to visitors for about one month each year.




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Where to from here

We have been operating the system for five months now, on a 24/7 basis, and are working with GNS Science on how best to integrate this to strengthen their existing protocols and provide more timely warnings at New Zealand volcanoes.

The Tongariro crossing is one of New Zealand’s most popular day walks and receives thousands of visitors each year.
EPA

We plan to develop the system for New Zealand’s other active volcanoes, including Mt Tongariro and Mt Ruapehu, which receive tens of thousands of visitors each year. Eventually, this could be valuable for other volcanoes around the world, such as Mt Ontake in Japan, where a 2014 eruption killed 63 people.

Because of the immense public value of these kinds of early warning systems, we have made all our data and software available open-source.

Although most eruptions at Whakaari appear to be predictable, there are likely to be future events that defy warning. In 2016 there was an eruption that had no obvious seismic precursor and this would not have been anticipated by our warning system.

Eruptions at other volcanoes may be predictable using similar methods if there is enough data to train models. In any case, human operators, whether assisted or not by early warning systems, will continue to play an important role in safeguarding those living near or visiting volcanoes.The Conversation

David Dempsey, Senior Lecturer in Engineering Science and Shane Cronin, Professor of Earth Sciences

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

Meet Moss, the detection dog helping Tassie devils find love



Zoos Victoria, Author provided

La Toya Jamieson, La Trobe University and Marissa Parrott, University of Melbourne

Moss bounds happily through the bush showing the usual exuberance of a young labrador. Despite this looking like play, he is on a serious mission to help fight the extinction of some of our most critically endangered species.

Moss is a detection dog in training. Unlike other detection dogs, who might sniff out drugs or explosives, he’ll be finding some of Victoria’s smallest, best camouflaged and most elusive animals.




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These dogs use their exceptional olfactory senses to locate everything from koalas high in the trees, desert tortoises burrowed deep under soil and even whales — often more effectively than any human team could aspire to.

What makes Moss unique, however, is he’ll not only find endangered species in the wild, but will also be part of a larger team helping endangered species breed in captivity. These dogs will be the first in the world to do this, starting with a ground-breaking trial with Tasmanian devils.

Moss will eventually help find the tiny, cryptic Baw Baw Frog in the wild.

Why Moss needed a job

Wildlife detection dogs are a very rare type of dog — they are highly motivated, engaged and energetic, but also incredibly reliable and safe around the smallest of creatures.

And Moss is the first dog to join Zoos Victoria’s Detection Dog squad, a permanent group of highly trained dogs that will live at Healesville Sanctuary.




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Moss was adopted at 14 months old, after he somewhat “failed” at being a family pet. He is a hurricane of energy with an intelligent and playful mind. He’s thriving with a job to keep him occupied and new challenges for his busy brain.

One sign he was perfect for this program was his indifference to the free range chickens at his foster home. For obvious reasons, a dog who likes chasing chickens wouldn’t be a good candidate for protecting some of Australia’s rarest feathered treasures.

Moss will also help monitor incredibly well camouflaged plains-wanderers, which are nearly impossible to spot in the day.

Currently Moss is learning crucial foundational skills, and getting plenty of exposure to different environments. Equally important, he is developing a deep bond and trust with his handlers.

The detection dog-handler bond is crucial not only for his happiness, but also for working success and longevity. Research from 2018 found a strong bond between a handler and their dog dramatically improved the dog’s detection results and reduced signs of stress.

The Tasmanian devil’s advocate

Healesville Sanctuary breeds endangered Tasmanian Devils every year as part of an insurance program to support conservation and research. This program is crucial to help protect the devil following an estimated 80% decline in the wild due to a horrific transmissible cancer, Devil Facial Tumour Disease.




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But managing a predator that’s shy, nocturnal and prefers to be left alone can be tricky.

Wildlife, including Tasmanian devils, need a hands-off approach where possible, so they can maintain natural behaviours and thrive in their environment.

Tasmanian devils prefer to be left alone.
Healesville Sanctuary, Author provided

In the wild, devils leave scats (faeces) at communal latrine sites and use scent for communication. Male devils can tell a female is ready to mate by smelling her scat. And we think dogs could be trained to detect this, too.

We aim to train dogs to detect an odour profile in the collected scat of female devils coming into their receptive (oestrus) periods, so we can introduce females and suitable males to breed at the optimal time. The odour profile will be further verified via laboratory analyses of hormones in the scats.




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The project will also explore whether dogs can detect pregnancy and lactation in the devils.

Currently, the best way to determine if a female has young is to look in her pouch, but our preference is to remain at a distance during this important time while females settle into being new mums.

Moss with his trainer, Latoya. Moss is a ball of energy and thrives in the challenging environment of conservation detection.
Healesville Sanctuary, Author provided

If the dogs are able to smell a scat sample (while never coming into contact with the devil) and identify that a female is lactating with small joeys in her pouch, we can support her – for example, by increasing her food – while keeping a comfortable distance.

A new partnership in conservation

The results from this devil breeding research could offer innovative new options for endangered species breeding programs around the world.

Wildlife detection in the field means we can more accurately monitor some of our most critically endangered species, and quickly assess the impact of catastrophic events such as bushfires.




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Detection dogs are the perfect intermediary between people and wildlife — they can sniff out what we can’t and communicate with us as a team.

And over the next few years, the Detection Dog Squad will expand to five full-time canines. They will all be selected based on their personalities rather than specific breeds, so will likely come in all shapes and sizes.

Dogs may yet go from being man’s best friend to the devil’s best friend and beyond, all starting with a happy labrador named Moss.


This article is co-authored by Naomi Hodgens, Wildlife Detection Dog Officer at Zoos Victoria, and Dr Kim Miller, Life Sciences Manager, Conservation and Research, at Healesville Sanctuary, Zoos Victoria.The Conversation

La Toya Jamieson, Wildlife Detection Dog Specialist, La Trobe University and Marissa Parrott, Reproductive Biologist, Wildlife Conservation & Science, Zoos Victoria, and Honorary Research Associate, BioSciences, University of Melbourne

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