The government’s idea of ‘national environment standards’ would entrench Australia’s global pariah status


Martine Maron, The University of Queensland; Brendan Wintle, The University of Melbourne, and Craig Moritz, Australian National UniversityA growing global push to halt biodiversity decline, most recently agreed at the G7 on Sunday, leaves Australia out in the cold as the federal government walks away from critical reforms needed to protect threatened species.

The centrepiece recommendation in a landmark independent review of Australia’s national environment law was to establish effective National Environment Standards. These standards would have drawn clear lines beyond which no further environmental damage is acceptable, and established an independent Environment Assurance Commissioner to ensure compliance.

But the federal government has instead pushed ahead to propose its own, far weaker set of standards and establish a commissioner with very limited powers. The bill that paves the way for these standards is currently before parliament.

If passed, the changes would entrench, or even weaken, already inadequate protections for threatened species. They would also create more uncertainty for businesses affected by the laws.

Australia’s ineffective environment law

Australia is one of only a handful of megadiverse countries. Most of our species occur nowhere else — 87% of our mammals, 93% of our reptiles, and 94% of our frogs are found only here in Australia.

Yet, Australia risks global pariah status on biodiversity. Last week, threatened species experts recommended the koala be listed as endangered, despite a decade of protection under national environmental law. And this week, a UNESCO World Heritage committee recommended the Great Barrier Reef be listed as “in danger”.

Indeed, Australia has one of the worst track records in the world for biodiversity loss and species extinctions.

Bleached coral
This week the World Heritage committee recommended the Great Barrier Reef be put on the in-danger list.
Shutterstock

Australia’s national environment law — the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act — was introduced 20 years ago, and has not slowed extinction rates. In fact, threatened species populations are declining even faster.

This isn’t surprising, given the lack of mandated funding for threatened species and ecosystems recovery, poor enforcement of the law, and the lack of outcome-based environmental standards. It has allowed for hit after hit on important habitats to be approved.

The independent review of the EPBC Act, led by former competition watchdog chair Professor Graeme Samuel, set out how Australia can turn this around.

Samuel concluded the EPBC Act is no longer fit for purpose, and set out a comprehensive list of recommended reforms, founded upon establishing new, strong national environmental standards.

And he included an explicit warning: do not cherrypick from these recommendations.

Double standards

So how do the government’s proposed standards, released in March, compare to the Samuel review’s recommended version?

The Samuel review’s standards specified what environmental outcomes must be achieved by decisions made under the EPBC Act, such as whether a particular development can go ahead. For example, the standards would have required that any actions must cause no net reduction in the population of endangered and critically endangered species.




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Samuel developed these standards by consulting multiple sectors, and attracted general support. The government’s proposed standards bear no resemblance to these.

Instead, the government’s proposed standards repeat sections of the existing EPBC Act, adding zero clarity or specificity about the outcomes that should be achieved.

Standards like these risk significant and irreversible environmental harm being codified. They are the antithesis of the global push for outcomes-based, nature-positive standards.

The bill underpinning the standards would let actions be approved even if they caused substantial environmental harm, as long as the decision maker — currently the federal environment minister — believed other activities would render the overall outcome acceptable.

To help illustrate this, let’s say a mining operation would lead to significant destruction of koala habitat. The decision maker could consider this acceptable if they thought an unrelated tree-planting program would offset the risk to the koala — even if they had no say over whether the tree planting ever actually went ahead.

A koala with a joey on its back on a branch
Last week experts recommended the koala be listed as endangered.
Shutterstock

What about the responsibilities of the Environment Assurance Commissioner? Samuel recommended this commissioner would oversee the implementation of the standards, and ensure transparency.

But the government’s proposed Environment Assurance Commissioner would be prevented from scrutinising individual decisions made under the EPBC Act.

So, hypothetically, if a risky decision was being made — such as approving new dam that could send a turtle species extinct — checking if the decision complied with required standards would be beyond the commissioner’s remit. Instead, the commissioner would focus on checking processes and systems, not ensuring environmental outcomes are achieved.




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The deficiencies in the proposed standards have caught the attention of Queensland environment minister Meaghan Scanlon. Last year, the federal government introduced a different bill that would allow it to hand its responsibility for approving actions under the EPBC Act to the states. But Scanlon says the state won’t partake in this re-alignment of responsibility, unless the federal government introduces stronger national environment standards.

They’ve also caught the attention of the key cross-bench senators, whose support will ultimately determine whether the government’s standards prevail.

Getting left behind

With such a rich diversity of wildlife, Australia has a disproportionate responsibility to protect the Earth’s natural heritage. And we owe future generations the opportunity to experience the amazing nature we’ve grown up with.

If we are to turn around Australia’s appalling track record on biodiversity, the government’s proposed standards are not a good place to start.

In October, nations worldwide will agree to a new global strategy for protecting biodiversity, under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. The strategy looks set to include a roadmap to halt and reverse biodiversity decline by as early as 2030. Australia risks being left behind in this global push.

And last week, the G7 nations endorsed a plan to reverse the loss of biodiversity, and to conserve or protect at least 30% of land and oceans, by 2030.

These commitments are crucial – not only for wildlife, but for humans that depend on ecosystems that are now collapsing. When nature loses, we all suffer.




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The Conversation


Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Brendan Wintle, Professor in Conservation Ecology, School of BioSciences, The University of Melbourne, and Craig Moritz, Professor, Research School of Biology, Australian National University

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

A lone tree makes it easier for birds and bees to navigate farmland, like a stepping stone between habitats


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Carla Archibald, Deakin University; Eduardo van den Berg, Federal University of Lavras, and Jonathan Rhodes, The University of QueenslandVast, treeless paddocks and fields can be dangerous for wildlife, who encounter them as “roadblocks” between natural areas nearby. But our new research found even one lone tree in an otherwise empty paddock can make a huge difference to an animal’s movement.

We focused on the Atlantic Forest in Brazil, a biodiversity hotspot with 1,361 different known species of wildlife, such as jaguars, sloths, tamarins and toucans. Habitat loss from expanding and intensifying farmland, however, increasingly threatens the forest’s rich diversity of species and ecosystems.

We researched the value of paddock trees and hedges for birds and bees, and found small habitat features like these can double how easily they find their way through farmland.

This is important because enabling wildlife to journey across farmlands not only benefits the conservation of species, but also people. It means bees can improve crop pollination, and seed-dispersing birds can help restore ecosystems.

Connecting habitats

Lone trees in paddocks, hedges and tree-lined fences are common features of farmlands across the world, from Brazil to Australia.

They may be few and far between, but this scattered vegetation makes important areas of refuge for birds and bees, acting like roads or stepping stones to larger natural habitats nearby.

Scattered paddock trees, for instance, offer shelter, food, and places to land. They’ve also been found to create cooler areas within their canopy and right beneath it, providing some relief on scorching summer days.

Hedges and tree-lined fences are also important, as they provide a safe pathway by providing hiding places from predators.

White-browed meadowlark perched on a bush in a farm paddock within the Atlantic Forest
White-browed meadowlark perched on a bush in a farm paddock within the Atlantic Forest.
Milton Andrade Jr, CC BY

For our research, we used satellite images of the Atlantic Forest and randomly selected 20 landscapes containing different amounts of forest cover.

We then used mathematical models to calculate the habitat connectivity of these landscapes for three groups of species — bees, small birds such as the rufous-bellied thrush, and large birds such as toucans — based on how far they can travel.




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And we found in areas with low forest cover, wildlife is twice as likely to move from one natural habitat to another if paddock trees and hedges can be used as stepping stones.

We also found vegetation around creeks and waterways are the most prevalent and important type of on-farm habitat for wildlife movement. In Brazil, there are legal protections for these areas preventing them from being cleared, which means vegetation along waterways has become relatively common compared to lone trees and hedges, in places with lower forest cover.

Insights for Australia

While the contribution of lone trees, hedges and tree-lined fences towards conservation targets is relatively low, our research shows they’re still important. And we can apply this knowledge more widely.

Two koalas sitting on a branch
Koalas use roadside vegetation for feeding and resting.
Shutterstock

For example, in Australia, many koala populations depend on scattered trees for movement and habitat. In 2018, CSIRO researchers in Queensland tracked koalas using GPS, and found koalas used roadside vegetation and scattered trees for feeding and resting significantly more than they expected.

Likewise, lone trees, hedges and tree-lined fences can also facilitate the movement of Australian fruit-eating birds such as the olive-backed oriole and the rose-crowned fruit dove. Improving habitat connectivity can help these birds travel across landscapes, feeding and dispersing seeds as they go.

In fragmented landscapes, where larger patches of vegetation are hard to find, dispersing the seeds of native plants encourages natural regeneration of ecosystems. This is a key strategy to help achieve environmental restoration and conservation targets.

Policies overlook lone trees

In Brazil, there’s a strong initiative to restore natural areas, known as the Brazilian Pact for Restoration. This pact is a commitment from non-government organisations, government, companies and research centres to restore 15 million hectares of native vegetation by 2050.

However, the pact doesn’t recognise the value of lone trees, hedges and tree-lined fences.




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Likewise, the Brazilian Forest Code has historically provided strong legal protection for forests since it was introduced. While this policy does value vegetation along waterways, it overlooks the value of lone trees, hedges or tree-lined fences.

These oversights could result in poor connectivity between natural areas, seriously hampering conservation efforts.

Australia doesn’t fare much better. For example, in Queensland, the native vegetation management laws protect only intact native vegetation or vegetation of a certain age. This means scattered, but vital, vegetation isn’t protected from land clearing.

Small habitat features scattered across a farm paddock in the Atlantic Forest.
Flávia Freire Siqueira, CC BY., Author provided

Helping your local wildlife

But farmers and other landowners in Australia can make a big difference through land stewardship grant schemes (such as from Landcare) and private land conservation programs (such as Land for Wildlife or conservation covenants).

These schemes and programs can help landowners finance revegetation and protect native vegetation. Grants and programs vary by state and territory, and local council.




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Restoring natural areas is a key goal on the global conservation agenda for the next decade, and it’s clear that lone trees, hedges and tree-lined fences on farms may play a larger role than once thought.

So think twice before you remove a tree or a hedge. It might be a crucial stepping stone for your local birds and bees.


The authors gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Dr Flávia Freire Siqueira who led this research collaboration, and co-authours Dr Dulcineia de Carvalho and Dr Vanessa Leite Rezende from the Federal University of Lavras.The Conversation

Carla Archibald, Research Fellow, Conservation Science, Deakin University; Eduardo van den Berg, , Federal University of Lavras, and Jonathan Rhodes, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland

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

The Antarctic Treaty is turning 60 years old. In a changed world, is it still fit for purpose?


AUSTRALIAN ANTARCTIC DIVISION/PR Handout

Donald Rothwell, Australian National UniversityThe 1959 Antarctic Treaty celebrates its 60th anniversary this week. Negotiated during the middle of the Cold War by 12 countries with Antarctic interests, it remains the only example of a single treaty that governs a whole continent.

It is also the foundation of a rules-based international order for a continent without a permanent population.

The treaty is remarkably short and contains only 14 articles. Principal provisions include promoting the freedom of scientific research, the use of the continent only for peaceful purposes, and the prohibition of military activities, nuclear tests and the disposal of radioactive waste.

However, since the treaty was negotiated in a very different era and there have been a number of environmental, resource and geopolitical disputes related to Antarctica in recent decades, it begs the question: is it still fit for purpose?

Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies (left) at the first Antarctic Treaty consultative meeting in Canberra in 1961.
National Archives of Australia

What the treaty says about territorial claims

The most important provision of the treaty is Article IV, which effectively seeks to neutralise territorial sovereignty in Antarctica.

For the Antarctic territorial claimants, this meant a limit was placed on making any new claim or enlargement of an existing claim.

Likewise, no formal recognition was given to any of the seven territorial claims on the continent, by Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom.

Russia, the United States and China — signatories with significant Antarctic interests who have not formally made territorial claims — are also bound by the limitations of Article IV.

And one sector of Antarctica is not subject to the claim of any country, which effectively makes it the last unclaimed land on earth.

The treaty also put a freeze on any disputes between claimants over their territories on the continent. Claimants agreed to abide by the rules and obligations of the treaty, which meant countries that don’t recognise claims (such as China and Russia) are free to go about scientific research and peaceful activities.




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How the treaty has expanded

Though the compact has held for 60 years, there have been tensions from time to time. Argentina and the UK, for instance, have overlapping claims to territory on the continent. When combined with their ongoing dispute over the nearby Falkland (Malvinas) Islands, their Antarctic relationship remains frosty.

Argentina’s Base Orcadas Research Station on Laurie Island in Antarctica. It is the oldest research station on the continent.
Shutterstock

A key reason why the treaty has been able to survive has been its ability to evolve through a number of additional conventions and other legal protocols. These have dealt with the conservation of marine living resources, prohibitions on mining, and the adoption of comprehensive environmental protection mechanisms.

As disputes have arisen over the years, many have been addressed through the expansion of the treaty framework with these agreements. This framework is now referred to as the “Antarctic Treaty System”.

These measures have been a great success, but tensions have arisen in recent years over the promotion of Southern Ocean marine reserves. Agreement was reached in 2016 on a Ross Sea Marine Protected Area, and momentum is building for a broader network of Southern Ocean marine protected areas. China and Russia have resisted these initiatives.

Membership of the treaty has grown in the intervening years, with 54 signatories today.

Scientific engagement in Antarctica is considered critical to exercising influence under the treaty. New treaty parties have to meet certain criteria relating to active scientific programs before they are able to participate in meetings as “consultative parties”. A total of 29 treaty parties, including Australia, meet these scientific engagement thresholds.

Building, operating and conducting scientific research programs are key to the success not only of the treaty, but also to the claimants’ credibility in Antarctica. Australia, for instance, has permitted Belarus, China, France, India, Italy, Russia, and the US to conduct scientific programs at their own research bases within its Antarctic territory, which covers 42% of the continent.




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Where to from here?

While the Antarctic Treaty has been able to successfully respond to a range of challenges, circumstances are radically different in the 2020s compared to the 1950s. Antarctica is much more accessible, partly due to technology but also climate change. More countries now have substantive interests in the continent than the original 12. Some global resources are becoming scarce, especially oil.

This will inevitably result in increased attention being given to the potential for Antarctic mining to take place sometime in the future. Calls to revisit the prohibition on Antarctic mining would seem inevitable.

There is also uncertainty as to China’s intentions in Antarctica. China joined the treaty in 1983, became a consultative party in 1985, and in 2017 hosted a consultative party meeting in Beijing.

Xue Long, a Chinese icebreaker, en route back to Shanghai after a visit to Antarctica in 2016.
Wikimedia Commons

China has a developing scientific program on the continent, with four research stations (three of which are in Australia’s Antarctic Territory), and a fifth planned. While Australia and China cooperate on a number of Antarctic scientific and logistics programs, the direction of China’s Antarctic engagement and long-term support for treaty is not clear.

There is considerable speculation as to China’s interests in Antarctic resources, especially fisheries and minerals, and whether China may seek to exploit weaknesses in the treaty system to secure access to those resources.

All of the treaty signatories, but especially those with significant stakes in the continent, need to give the future of the treaty more attention.

The Australian parliament, for instance, last conducted an inquiry into the Australian Antarctic Territory in 2018. None of the 22 recommendations, however, had a precise focus on the Antarctic Treaty.

The mining ban under the Madrid Protocol to the treaty could be subject to review in 2048. If the treaty’s signatories wish to ensure it remains fit for purpose in 2048 and beyond, more strategic thinking needs to be given to Antarctica’s future.The Conversation

Donald Rothwell, Professor of International Law, Australian National University

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

Net zero by 2050? Even if Scott Morrison gets the Nationals on board, hold the applause


Peter Christoff, The University of MelbourneResurrected Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce is back in the saddle, facing backwards. His determination to prevent the Morrison government from adopting a target of net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050 will again delay the renovation of Australia’s climate policy.

The Nationals’ leadership spill reportedly followed growing disquiet about Morrison’s slow pivot towards a net-zero by 2050 goal. Many Nationals MPs have indicated they don’t back the target, and Joyce says he will be “guided by the party room” on the issue.

If Morrison eventually gets the 2050 target past Joyce and passed by the joint party room, there will be little cause for celebration. In fact, the achievement will be as exciting as watching a vaudeville magician wrench an old rabbit out of a moth-eaten hat.

Australia’s premiers will yawn in unison. Every state and territory in the country has already adopted this target, or better. Yet at the end of the day, net-zero by 2050 is a risky and inadequate goal, especially for wealthy nations such as Australia.

two men and a woman
Barnaby Joyce, centre, says the Nationals’ stance on a zero-emissions target will be guided by the party room.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

A target is nothing without a plan to get there

All G7 states and 11 G20 members are aiming for net-zero emissions by mid-century. These include the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, Germany, France, the Republic of Korea, Italy, the European Union, Argentina and the United States. China, the world’s largest emitter, has committed to net-zero by 2060.

However, as international environment law expert Professor Lavanya Rajamani has argued, net-zero targets should not automatically be applauded. First, they should be checked for their credibility, accountability and fairness. On these measures, a net-zero by 2050 target for Australia is nothing to cheer.

Why? First, because a target is nothing without an effective strategy to get there – something Australia is sorely lacking.

To successfully achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, tough short- and medium-term targets are essential to staying on track. Victoria, for example, has pledged to halve carbon emissions by 2030. The UK is aiming for a 78% reduction by 2035, reflecting its confidence in existing and emerging technologies.




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The Morrison government’s 2030 target – a 26-28% reduction below 2005 emissions levels – is not credible. Experts say a 2030 target of between 50% and 74% is needed to put Australia in line with keeping warming below 2℃ and 1.5℃ respectively – the goals of the Paris Agreement.

So what about Australia’s actual emissions-reduction measures? The Morrison government’s technology-first approach falls short of what’s needed to drive quick and deep emissions cuts.

Reaching net-zero requires substantial government funding and tax relief for investors in renewable technologies. Morrison’s announcement of an additional A$540 million for new technologies is insufficient and partly misdirected.

For instance, the government is investing in carbon capture and storage. As others have argued, the technology is increasingly commercially unviable and encourages further fossil fuel use.

In the meantime, the government is failing to assist the uptake of proven technologies such as electric vehicles, despite transport being Australia’s third-worst sector for emissions.

Close up of words on car reading 'zero emissions'
The Morrison government has failed to invest in electric vehicles.
Shutterstock

2050 goal is risky business

Even if Australia adopted a goal of net-zero by 2050, and measures to get there comfortably, the target is risky.

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report on the potentially catastrophic impacts of exceeding 1.5℃ global warming. In the same report it established the idea of “net zero” as a global aim, saying achieving the target by 2050 was needed to stay below that warming threshold.

The IPCC described the emissions-reduction pathways required, but failed to emphasise crucial assumptions underlying them. Most depended on “negative emissions” – drawing down carbon from the atmosphere.

Many of those presumed drawdown measures involve land use measures that potentially threaten biodiversity or food security, for instance by requiring farmland and virgin forests to be used for growing “carbon crops”. Others involve geo-engineeering technologies which are yet to be tested or proven safe at scale.

It’s a risky strategy to avoid rapid, substantial and real emissions cuts in favour of gradual mitigation pathways that rely on such future carbon drawdown. It locks us into technologies which are problematic or don’t yet exist. To limit these risks, Australia must aim for net-zero well before 2050, predominantly via actual emissions cuts.




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bleached coral
The IPCC warned of catastrophic climate impacts, such as coral bleaching.
Shutterstock

A matter of fairness

The matter of equity is another where policymakers have been inattentive to nuance. The undifferentiated call for net-zero by 2050 shifts the burden and costs of effort onto poorer countries. No wonder so many developed countries have been happy to adopt it!

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement each require developed countries to cut emissions faster than poorer countries – and to assist poorer countries in their efforts. This recognises the fact developed nations are largely responsible for global warming, and have the wealth and technological capacities to act.

Developing nations such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as those in Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Pacific and Africa, are mostly below global average wealth. Forcing them to meet the same net-zero timeframe as rich nations is patently unfair.

And for the international community to achieve even the 2050 goal, China – a global emissions giant – must increase its ambition to at least net-zero by 2050 (rather than its current 2060 timeframe).

smoggy city skyline
China must accelerate its climate efforts.
Shutterstock

Morrison’s bind

It’s clear that rich developed countries must both aim for net-zero emissions well before 2050, and provide climate finance to assist poorer countries to do the same. Anything less will almost certainly guarantee Earth overshoots an already risky target.

Australia, given its wealth and technological means, must certainly aim for net-zero well before 2050. A report in April this year suggested reaching net-zero in 2035, to make a “fair and achievable contribution to the global task” and given our vulnerability to extreme weather.

The issue of climate finance was on the agenda at this month’s G7 summit, but critics say the final commitment – meeting an overdue spending pledge of US$100 billion a year – is inadequate considering the urgency of the task.

Just months out from a crucial UN climate summit in Glasgow in November, Scott Morrison is caught in a bind. On the global stage, he’s under increasing pressure to commit to a net-zero emissions target or face carbon tariffs. At home, he’s forced to assuage a minor coalition partner now led by a man who will reportedly push for a new coal-fired power station, and for agriculture – and potentially mining – to be exempt from emissions targets.

The looming general election will test whether rural voters are prepared to endure Joyce’s climate antics or will swing to savvy independents. And it remains to be seen whether urban voters will tolerate a prime minister whose transactional politics leaves Australia increasingly exposed at home and abroad.The Conversation

Peter Christoff, Senior Research Fellow and Associate Professor, Melbourne Climate Futures initiative, The University of Melbourne

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