We need lithium for clean energy, but Rio Tinto’s planned Serbian mine reminds us it shouldn’t come at any cost


Ana Estefanía Carballo, The University of Melbourne; Gillian Gregory, The University of Melbourne, and Tim Werner, The University of MelbourneThousands of demonstrators rallied across the Serbian capital Belgrade this month, protesting the US$2.4 billion (A$3.3 billion) Jadar lithium mine proposed by global mining giant Rio Tinto. The project, Rio Tinto’s flagship renewable energy initiative, is set to become the largest lithium project in the European Union.

Lithium is a crucial component of energy storage, both for renewable energy technologies and electric vehicles. Forecast demand has prompted efforts by companies and governments worldwide to tap into this market – a scramble dubbed the “white gold rush”.

As lithium projects have multiplied across Australia, Europe, Latin America and the US in recent years, so too have concerns over their environmental and social impacts. Communities near proposed and existing lithium mines are some of the loudest opponents. In a town near the proposed mine in Serbia, a banner reads: “No mine, yes life”.

Lithium extraction serves legitimate global environmental needs. But the industry must not ignore local social and environmental risks, and community voices must be included in decision making. The harsh lessons of mining to date need not be learned again in new places.

Weighing the risks

According to the latest estimates, the world’s resources of lithium sit at 86 million tonnes, a number that continues to grow as new deposits are found every year. Australia is the main producer of lithium, where it’s mined from hard rock called “spodumene”. The largest deposits are found in South America, where lithium is extracted from brines underneath salt flats.

Lithium mining operates beneath the salt flats in the Atacama, Chile.
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In many cases, lithium mines are relatively new operations, yet complex and adverse social and environmental impacts have already been observed. More research and better targeted policy are needed to help understand and manage the socio-environmental impacts.

In Chile, lithium has been mined since the 1980s. It has been shown to interfere with cultural practices of local Indigenous communities, alter traditional economic livelihoods and exacerbate the fragility of surrounding ecosystems.




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The Jadar lithium project is operated by Rio Sava, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto. It’s expected to become one of Serbia’s largest mines, occupying around 387 hectares, and contribute to at least 1% of Serbia’s GDP.

An environmental impact study commissioned by Rio Tinto, and obtained by Reuters, found the project would cause “irredeemable damage” to the environment, concluding the project should not go ahead. Environmental impacts are expected for any mine proposal. Yet some are manageable, so such a grave assessment in this case is not encouraging.

The extent to which a project shows best practice in mine management can depend on pressure from communities, investors and governments. Promises to adhere to all regulations are a common response from the industry.

But as we’re seeing in Chile, significant environmental damage and socio-environmental impacts can still occur within established regulations. Here, communities living on the salt flats are concerned about the effect of removing groundwater for lithium extraction on their livelihoods and surrounding ecosystems.

Communities near the Jadar Mine project hold similar concerns. They have gathered in formal organisation to reject the project and stage demonstrations. A petition against the project has gained over 130,000 signatures, and a report by the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences has protested the project’s approval.

The communities fear the potential risks of air and waterborne pollution from the lithium mine, destruction of biodiversity, and the loss of land to mine infrastructure. These risks could affect the livelihoods of local landholders, farmers and residents.

Of particular concern is that the proposed locations for mine waste (tailings) are in a valley prone to flash flooding and may lead to toxic waste spills. This previously occurred in the same region when the abandoned Stolice antimony mine flooded in 2014. Rio Tinto has said it will try to mitigate this risk by converting the liquid waste into so-called “dry cakes”.

In response to this article, a Rio Tinto spokesperson said it has been working through the project requirements for 20 years, with a team of over 100 domestic experts studying the possible cumulative impacts in accordance with Serbian law, adding:

The study will consider all potential environmental effects of proposed actions and define measures to eliminate or reduce them […] including water, noise, air quality, biodiversity and cultural heritage.

Can we decarbonise without sacrifice?

The Jadar Mine project is touted for its potential to bring significant profits to both Rio Tinto and the Serbian state, while helping usher in the era of decarbonisation.

Rio Tinto plans to begin construction by 2022, “subject to receiving all relevant approvals, permits and licences and ongoing engagement”, with first saleable production expected in 2026.

But relatively fast timelines like this can sometimes be a sign of regulatory governance instability, including weak regulatory frameworks or regulatory capture (when agencies are increasingly dominated by the interests they regulate). We have seen this in Guyana, Peru and Brazil.




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In Australia, Rio Tinto’s recent destruction of the culturally invaluable Juukan Gorge — which, notably, occurred legally — also demonstrates regulatory governance risks.

Jadar River Valley in western Serbia, home to a huge deposit of lithium.
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Rio Tinto’s spokesperson said its Environmental Impact Assessment process includes a public consultation period including, for example, meetings with non-government organisations, adding:

We have established information centres in Loznica and Brezjak and, since 2019, have hosted over 20 public open day events in these centres focusing on aspects of the project including environment studies, cultural heritage and land acquisition.

Although the Serbian government indicated that it’s prepared to hold a referendum to find out the will of citizens about the Jadar mine project, the community protests suggest the project hasn’t obtained any social license to operate.

A “social license to operate” is, despite its corporatised name, increasingly key to sustainable or responsible mining projects. It centres on ongoing acceptance by stakeholders, the public, and local communities of a company’s standard business practices. Building such trust takes time, and a social license is only a minimum requirement.




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In Argentina, for example, Indigenous communities living near the lithium mines have developed their own protocol for giving their informed consent.

Similarly, processes of community-based impact assessment or self-government structures led by First Nations in Canada offer insight into potential collaborative relationships.

These processes cannot be rushed to ensure voices are heard, rights are respected, and environmental protection is possible.

Lithium is essential for the transition away from fossil fuels, but it shouldn’t come at any cost.
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A new frontier

Like many other communities negotiating proposed mine projects, local communities and residents in Serbia should not become another zone of sacrifice, shouldering the socio-environmental costs of supporting a renewable energy transition.

Lithium deposits are often seen as “new frontiers” in the places they’re discovered. Yet we must learn from historical lessons of frontier expansion, and remember that places imagined as “undiscovered” aren’t actually empty.

The people who live there must not bear the brunt of a so-called “green” future.




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The Conversation


Ana Estefanía Carballo, Research Fellow in Mining and Society, School of Geography, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, The University of Melbourne; Gillian Gregory, Research Fellow in Mining Governance, School of Geography, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, The University of Melbourne, and Tim Werner, ARC DECRA Fellow, School of Geography, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, The University of Melbourne

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

Scientists still don’t know how far melting in Antarctica will go – or the sea level rise it will unleash


Chen Zhao, University of Tasmania and Rupert Gladstone, University of LaplandThe Antarctic ice sheet is the largest mass of ice in the world, holding around 60% of the world’s fresh water. If it all melted, global average sea levels would rise by 58 metres. But scientists are grappling with exactly how global warming will affect this great ice sheet.

This knowledge gap was reflected in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It contains projections from models in which important processes affecting the ice sheets, known as feedbacks and tipping points, are absent because scientific understanding is lacking.

Projected sea level rise will have widespread effects in Australia and around the world. But current projections of ice sheet melt are so wide that developing ways for societies to adapt will be incredibly expensive and difficult.

If the world is to effectively adapt to sea level rise with minimal cost, we must quickly address the uncertainty surrounding Antarctica’s melting ice sheet. This requires significant investment in scientific capacity.

Tourists photograph beachside homes damaged by storm
Australia is vulnerable to sea level rise and associated storm surge, such as this scene at a Sydney beach in 2016.
David Moir/AAP

The great unknown

Ice loss from the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets was the largest contributor to sea level rise in recent decades. Even if all greenhouse gas emissions ceased today, the heat already in the ocean and atmosphere would cause substantial ice loss and a corresponding rise in sea levels. But exactly how much, and how fast, remains unclear.

Scientific understanding of ice sheet processes, and of the variability of the forces that affect ice sheets, is incredibly limited. This is largely because much of the ice sheets are in very remote and harsh environments, and so difficult to access.

This lack of information is one of the main sources of uncertainty in the models used to estimate ice mass loss.

At the moment, quantifying how much the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets will contribute to sea level rise primarily involves an international scientific collaboration known as the “Ice Sheet Model Intercomparison Project for CMIP6”, or ISMIP6, of which we are part.

The project includes experts in ice sheet and climate modelling and observations. It produces computer simulations of what might happen if the polar regions melt under different climate scenarios, to improve projections of sea level rise.

The project also investigates ice sheet–climate feedbacks. In other words, it looks at how processes in the oceans and atmosphere will affect the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, including whether the changes might cause them to collapse – leading to large and sudden increases in sea level.




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a melting glacier
Ice loss from sheets in Antarctic and Greenland were the biggest contributor to sea-level rise in recent decades.
John McConnico/AP

Melting from below

Research has identified so-called “basal melt” as the most significant driver of Antarctic ice loss. Basal melt refers to the melting of ice shelves from underneath, and in the case of Antarctica, interactions with the ocean are thought to be the main cause. But gathering scientific observations beneath ice shelves is a major logistical challenge, leading to a dearth of data about this phenomenon.

This and other constraints mean the rate of progress in ice sheet modelling has been insufficient to date, and so active ice sheet models are not included in climate models.

Scientists must instead make projections using the ice sheet models in isolation. This hinders scientific attempts to accurately simulate the feedback between ice and climate.

For example, it creates much uncertainty in how the interaction between the ocean and the ice shelf will affect ice mass loss, and how the very cold, fresh meltwater will make its way back to global oceans and cause sea level rise, and potentially disrupt currents.

Despite the uncertainties ISMIP6 is dealing with, it has published a series of recent research including a key paper published in Nature in May. This found if the world met the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5℃ this century, land ice melt would cause global sea level rise of about 13cm by 2100, in the most optimistic scenario. This is compared to a rise of 25cm under the world’s current emissions-reduction pledges.

The study also outlines a pessimistic, but still plausible, basal melt scenario for Antarctica in which sea levels could be five times higher than in the main scenarios.

The breadth of such findings underpinned sea level projections in the latest IPCC report. The Antarctic ice sheet once again represented the greatest source of uncertainty in these projections.

The below graph shows the IPCC’s latest sea level projections. The shaded area reflects the large uncertainties in models using the same basic data sets and approaches. The dotted line reflects deep uncertainty about tipping points and thresholds in ice sheet stability.

IPCC reports are intended to guide global policy-makers in coming years and decades. But the uncertainties about ice melt from Antarctica limit the usefulness of projections by the IPCC and others.




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The IPCC’s projections for global average sea level change in metres, relative to 1900.
IPCC

Dealing with uncertainty

Future sea level rise poses big challenges such as human displacement, infrastructure loss, interference with agriculture, a potential influx of climate refugees, and coastal habitat degradation.

It’s crucial that ice sheet models are improved, tested robustly against real-world observations, then integrated into the next generation of international climate models – including those being developed in Australia.

International collaborations such as NECKLACE and RISE are seeking to coordinate international effort between models and observations. Significant investment across these projects is needed.

Sea levels will continue rising in the coming decades and centuries. Ice sheet projections must be narrowed down to ensure current and future generations can adapt safely and efficiently.


The authors would like to acknowledge the contributions of Dr Ben Galton-Fenzi, Dr Rupert Gladstone, Dr Thomas Zwinger and David Reilly to the research from which this article draws.The Conversation

Chen Zhao, Research associate, University of Tasmania and Rupert Gladstone, Adjunct professor, University of Lapland

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

Tasmania’s salmon industry detonates underwater bombs to scare away seals – but at what cost?


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Benjamin J. Richardson, University of TasmaniaAustralians consume a lot of salmon – much of it farmed in Tasmania. But as Richard Flanagan’s new book Toxic shows, concern about the industry’s environmental damage is growing.

With the industry set to double in size by 2030, one dubious industry practice should be intensely scrutinised – the use of so-called “cracker bombs” or seal bombs.

The A$1 billion industry uses the technique to deter seals and protect fish farming operations. Cracker bombs are underwater explosive devices that emit sharp, extremely loud noise impulses. Combined, Tasmania’s three major salmon farm operators have detonated at least 77,000 crackers since 2018.

The industry says the deterrent is necessary, but international research shows the devices pose a significant threat to some marine life. Unless the salmon industry is more strictly controlled, native species will likely be killed or injured as the industry expands.

pile of grey and white fish
Tasmanian salmon farming is a billion-dollar industry.
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Protecting a lucrative industry

Marine farming has been growing rapidly in Tasmania since the 1990s, and Atlantic salmon is Tasmania’s most lucrative fishery‑related industry. The salmon industry comprises three major producers: Huon Aquaculture, Tassal and Petuna.

These companies go to great effort to protect their operations from fur seals, which are protected in Australia with an exemption for the salmon industry.

Seals may attack fish pens in search of food and injure salmon farm divers, though known incidents of harm to divers are extremely rare.

The industry uses a number of seal deterrent devices, the use of which is approved by the government. They include:

  • lead-filled projectiles known as “beanbags”, which are fired from a gun
  • sedation darts fired from a gun
  • explosive charges or “crackers” thrown into the water which detonate under the surface.

In June this year, the ABC reported on government documents showing the three major salmon producers had detonated more than 77,000 crackers since 2018. The documents showed how various seal deterrent methods had led to maiming, death and seal injuries resulting in euthanasia. Blunt-force trauma was a factor in half the reported seal deaths.

A response to this article by the salmon industry can be found below. The industry has previoulsy defended the use of cracker bombs, saying it has a responsibility to protect workers. It says the increased use of seal-proof infrastructure means the use of seal deterrents is declining. If this is true, it’s not yet strongly reflected in the data.




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salmon farm infrastructure in water
Seal deterrents are deployed to protect salmon farm operations.
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Piercing the ocean silence

Given the prevalence of seal bomb use by the salmon industry, it’s worth reviewing the evidence on how they affect seals and other marine life.

A study on the use of the devices in California showed they can cause horrific injuries to seals. The damage includes trauma to bones, soft tissue burns and prolapsed eye balls, as well as death.

And research suggests damage to marine life extends far beyond seals. For example, the devices can disturb porpoises which rely on echolocation to find food, avoid predators and navigate the ocean. Porpoises emit clicks and squeaks – sound which travels through the water and bounces off objects. In 2018, a study found seal bombs could disturb harbour porpoises in California at least 64 kilometres from the detonation site.

There is also a body of research showing how similar types of industrial noise affect marine life. A study in South Africa in 2017 showed how during seismic surveys in search of oil or gas, which produce intense ocean noise, penguins raising chicks often avoided their preferred foraging areas. Whales and fish have also shown similar avoidance behaviour.

The study showed underwater blasts can also kill and injure seabirds such as penguins. And there may be implications from leaving penguin nests unattended and vulnerable to predators, and leaving chicks hungry longer.

Research also shows underwater explosions damage to fish. One study on caged fish reported profound trauma to their ears, including blistering, holes and other damage. Another study cited official reports of dead fish in the vicinity of seal bomb explosions.




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dolphin jumps out of waves
Man-made noise can disturb a variety of marine animals, including porpoises.
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Shining a light

Clearly, more scientific research is needed into how seal bombs affect marine life in the oceans off Tasmania. And regulators should impose far stricter limits on the salmon industry’s use of seal bombs – a call echoed by Tasmania’s Salmon Reform Alliance.

All this is unfolding as federal environment laws fail to protect Australian plant and animal species, including marine wildlife.

And the laws in Tasmania are far from perfect. In 2017, Tasmania’s Finfish Farming Environmental Regulation Act introduced opportunities for better oversight of commercial fisheries. However, as the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) has noted, the director of Tasmania’s Environment Protection Authority can decide on license applications by salmon farms without the development necessarily undergoing a full environmental assessment.

Tasmania’s Marine Farming Planning Act covers salmon farm locations and leases. As the EDO has noted, the public is not notified of some key decisions under the law and has very limited public rights of appeal.

Two relevant public inquiries are underway – a federal inquiry into aquaculture expansion and a Tasmanian parliamentary probe into fin-fish sustainability. Both have heard evidence from community stakeholders, such as the Tasmanian Alliance for Marine Protection and the Tasmanian Conservation Trust, that the Tasmanian salmon industry lacks transparency and provides insufficient opportunities for public input into environmental governance.

The Tasmanian government has thrown its support behind rapid expansion of the salmon industry. But it’s essential that the industry is more tightly regulated, and far more accountable for any environmental damage it creates.




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In a statement in response to this article, the Tasmanian Salmonid Growers Association, which represents the three producers named above, said:

Around $500 million has been spent on innovative pens by the industry. These pens are designed to minimise risks to wildlife as well as to fish stocks and the employees. We believe that farms should be designed to minimise the threat of seals, but we also understand that non-lethal deterrents are a part of the measures approved by the government for the individual member companies to use. If these deterrents are used it is under strict guidelines, sparingly, and in emergency situations when staff are threatened by these animals, which can be very aggressive.

Tasmania has a strong, highly regulated, longstanding salmon industry of which we should all be proud. The salmon industry will continue its track record of operating at world’s best practice now and into future. Our local people have been working in regional communities for more than 30 years, to bring healthy, nutritious salmon to Australian dinner plates, through innovation and determination.The Conversation

Benjamin J. Richardson, Professor of Environmental Law, University of Tasmania

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

Destroying vegetation along fences and roads could worsen our extinction crisis — yet the NSW government just allowed it


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Euan Ritchie, Deakin University; Ben Moore, Western Sydney University; Jen Martin, The University of Melbourne; Mark Hall, Western Sydney University; Megan C Evans, UNSW, and Ross Crates, Australian National UniversityWhat do koalas, barking owls, greater gliders, southern rainbow skinks, native bees, and regent honeyeaters all have in common? Like many native species, they can all be found in vegetation along fences and roadsides outside formal conservation areas.

They may be relatively small, but these patches and strips conserve critical remnant habitat and have disproportionate conservation value worldwide. They represent the last vestiges of once-expansive tracts of woodland and forests, long lost to the chainsaw or plough.

And yet, the NSW government last week made it legal for rural landholders to clear vegetation on their properties, up to 25 metres from their property boundaries, without approval. This radical measure is proposed to protect people and properties from fires, despite the lack of such an explicit recommendation from federal and state-based inquiries into the devastating 2019-20 bushfires.

This is poor environmental policy that lacks apparent consideration or justification of its potentially substantial ecological costs. It also gravely undermines the NSW government’s recent announcement of a plan for “zero extinction” within the state’s national parks, as the success of protected reserves for conservation is greatly enhanced by connection with surrounding “off-reserve” habitat.

Small breaks in habitat can have big impacts

A 25m firebreak might sound innocuous, but when multiplied by the length of property boundaries in NSW, the scale of potential clearing and impacts is alarming, and could run into the hundreds of thousands of kilometres.

Some plants, animals and fungi live in these strips of vegetation permanently. Others use them to travel between larger habitat patches. And for migratory species, the vegetation provides crucial refuelling stops on long distance journeys.

For example, the roadside area in Victoria’s Strathbogie Ranges shown below is home to nine species of tree-dwelling native mammals: two species of brushtail possums, three species of gliders (including threatened greater gliders), common ringtail possums, koalas, brush-tailed phascogales, and agile antenchinus (small marsupials).

Roadside and fenceline vegetation is often the only substantial remnant vegetation remaining in agricultural landscapes. This section, in northeast Victoria’s Strathbogie Ranges, running north to south from the intersection, is home to high arboreal mammal diversity, including the threatened greater glider.
Google Earth

Many of these species depend on tree hollows that can take a hundred years to form. If destroyed, they are effectively irreplaceable.

Creating breaks in largely continuous vegetation, or further fragmenting already disjointed vegetation, will not only directly destroy habitat, but can severely lower the quality of adjoining habitat.

This is because firebreaks of 25m (or 50m where neighbouring landholders both clear) could prevent the movement and dispersal of many plant and animal species, including critical pollinators such as native bees.

An entire suite of woodland birds, including the critically endangered regent honeyeater, are threatened because they depend on thin strips of vegetation communities that often occur inside fence-lines on private land.

Ecologically-sensitive fence replacement in regent honeyeater breeding habitat.
Ross Crates

For instance, scientific monitoring has shown five pairs of regent honeyeaters (50% of all birds located so far this season) are nesting or foraging within 25m of a single fence-line in the upper Hunter Valley. This highlights just how big an impact the loss of one small, private location could have on a species already on the brink of extinction.




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But it’s not just regent honeyeaters. The management plan for the vulnerable glossy black cockatoo makes specific recommendation that vegetation corridors be maintained, as they’re essential for the cockatoos to travel between suitable large patches.

Native bee conservation also relies on the protection of remnant habitat adjoining fields. Continued removal of habitat on private land will hinder chances of conserving these species.

Glossy black cockatoos rely on remnant patches of vegetation.
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Disastrous clearing laws

The new clearing code does have some regulations in place, albeit meagre. For example, on the Rural Fire Service website, it says the code allows “clearing only in identified areas, such as areas which are zoned as Rural, and which are considered bush fire prone”. And according to the RFS boundary clearing tool landowners aren’t allowed to clear vegetation near watercourses (riparian vegetation).

Even before introducing this new code, NSW’s clearing laws were an environmental disaster. In 2019, The NSW Audit Office found:

clearing of native vegetation on rural land is not effectively regulated [and] action is rarely taken against landholders who unlawfully clear native vegetation.

The data back this up. In 2019, over 54,500 hectares were cleared in NSW. Of this, 74% was “unexplained”, which means the clearing was either lawful (but didn’t require state government approval), unlawful or not fully compliant with approvals.

Landholders need to show they’ve complied with clearing laws only after they’ve already cleared the land. But this is too late for wildlife, including plant species, many of which are threatened.




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Landholders follow self-assessable codes, but problems with these policies have been identified time and time again — they cumulatively allow a huge amount of clearing, and compliance and enforcement are ineffective.

Vegetation along roadsides and close to fences can be critical habitat for greater gliders.

We also know, thanks to various case studies, the policy of “offsetting” environmental damage by improving biodiversity elsewhere doesn’t work.

So, could the federal environment and biodiversity protection law step in if habitat clearing gets out of hand? Probably not. The problem is these 25m strips are unlikely to be referred in the first place, or be considered a “significant impact” to trigger the federal law.

The code should be amended

Nobody disputes the need to keep people and their assets safe against the risks of fire. The code should be amended to ensure clearing is only permitted where a genuinely clear and measurable fire risk reduction is demonstrated.

Many native bees, like this blue-banded bee (Amegilla sp.), will use the nesting and foraging resources available in remnant vegetation patches.
Michael Duncan

Granting permission to clear considerable amounts of native vegetation, hundreds if not thousands of metres away from homes and key infrastructure in large properties is hard to reconcile, and it seems that no attempt has been made to properly justify this legislation.

We should expect that a comprehensive assessment of the likely impacts of a significant change like this would inform public debate prior to decisions being made. But to our knowledge, no one has analysed, or at least revealed, how much land this rule change will affect, nor exactly what vegetation types and wildlife will likely be most affected.

A potentially devastating environmental precedent is being set, if other regions of Australia were to follow suit. The environment and Australians deserve better.




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Clarification: some text has been added to clarify the land cleared is on the landowner’s property, not outside their property boundaryThe Conversation

Euan Ritchie, Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University; Ben Moore, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, Western Sydney University; Jen Martin, Leader, Science Communication Teaching Program, The University of Melbourne; Mark Hall, Postdoctoral research fellow, Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, Western Sydney University; Megan C Evans, Lecturer and ARC DECRA Fellow, UNSW, and Ross Crates, Postdoctoral fellow, Australian National University

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