Fracking policies are wildly inconsistent across Australia, from gung-ho development to total bans


Hanabeth Luke, Southern Cross University; Martin Brueckner, Murdoch University, and Nia Emmanouil, Southern Cross University

Last week, the Western Australian Government lifted its state-wide moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Unconventional gas industries were given the green light to develop on existing petroleum leases, especially in WA’s vast Kimberley region.

Following the Northern Territory government’s April decision to lift its temporary fracking ban, this decision paves the way for future growth of the industry across much of northern Australia.




Read more:
Australian gas: between a fracked rock and a socially hard place


Fracking policies vary widely across Australia’s states and territories, and so do community attitudes. Our review of the literature on unconventional gas development in Australia reveals an inconsistent approach in how governments have responded to the industry. While coal seam gas extraction has proceeded almost unimpeded in Queensland, the industry was halted in its tracks in Victoria, with a permanent ban on fracking legislated in March this year.

In the NT, despite an inquiry that acknowledged clear and widespread public opposition to fracking, the territory’s moratorium was lifted. In Tasmania, a moratorium is in place until 2025.

Unconventional gas development in New South Wales – despite pressing energy needs – has been protracted owing to growing community opposition towards fracking, with exclusion zones created near residential areas and industries such as wine-making and horse breeding.

The WA government’s decision to leave in place localised bans in the state’s most populated areas, while allowing fracking in existing petroleum tenements elsewhere, echoes the position taken by the South Australian government in September. The latter’s policy imposes a ten-year fracking ban in SA’s agriculturally rich southeast, while allowing the practice to continue in the northeast.

Balancing policy?

Labelled as a “clean” alternative to coal by industry, unconventional gas is presented as a key “transition” fuel, capable of delivering reliable, lower-emission electricity – a stepping stone along the path to zero-carbon energy. Our research suggests that this clean image is pivotal to public support for the industry.

The unconventional gas industry has been hailed as an economic lifeline for regional Australia. Justification for its growth into new regions is tied closely to the purported domestic “gas crisis”. Others predict that fracking for unconventional gas could have negative economic consequences.

Many affected communities continue to question the capacity of the industry to operate with low risk to health and the environment. In the Kimberley and across Australia, opposition to fracking simmers.

WA and SA exemplify efforts to strike a balance between the unconventional gas industry and concerned community members. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the effectiveness of attempts to secure fracking bans could relate to the political and economic muscle of affected communities. Our ongoing research seeks to analyse this development pattern.




Read more:
Fracking can cause social stress in nearby areas: new research


What are the real emissions?

The industry has argued that “fugitive emissions” of methane from Australian unconventional gas wells are relatively low. However, more recent studies warn that we may be underestimating the true climate risks of unconventional gas.

Indeed, Australia’s spike in greenhouse gas emissions is attributed to the expansion of unconventional gas production and exports. They underpinned a 13.7% increase in national fugitive greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to Australia recording its 15th consecutive quarter of greenhouse gas emission increases this year. These figures call into question Australia’s trajectory to meeting its obligations under the Paris Agreement.

The impacts of rising greenhouse emissions are becoming increasingly visible and costly, in the form of more frequent violent storms, intense rainfall, drought and bushfires. Last week, the Victorian Labor Government was re-elected on the back of
strong climate policy. With 15,000 children walking out of school on Friday, the youth “climate strike” rallies attest to the strength of community feelings on climate action and the role of fracking in this context.

Future of fracking?

For state and territory leaders, the job of balancing gas industry interests with those of increasingly vocal communities is becoming more of a juggling act than ever before. With climate concerns intensifying, renewable energy supported by battery power appears a promising option for meeting regional development and energy needs. This has potential to gain widespread public support and create “green-collar” jobs while helping to reduce Australia’s emissions.

In contrast, a reliance on unconventional gas as an interim energy solution may “frack” more than just deep rock formations – but potentially communities, politics … and not least the climate.The Conversation

Hanabeth Luke, Lecturer, School of Environment, Science and Engineering, Southern Cross University; Martin Brueckner, Senior Lecturer in Sustainability, Murdoch University, and Nia Emmanouil, Research associate, Southern Cross University

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

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India unveils the world’s tallest statue, celebrating development at the cost of the environment


Ruth Gamble, La Trobe University and Alexander E. Davis, La Trobe University

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi will today inaugurate the world’s largest statue, the Statue of Unity in Gujarat. At 182m tall (240m including the base), it is twice the height of the Statue of Liberty, and depicts India’s first deputy Prime Minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.

The statue overlooks the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River. Patel is often thought of as the inspiration for the dam, which came to international attention when the World Bank withdraw its support from the project in 1993 after a decade of environmental and humanitarian protests. It wasn’t until 2013 that the World Bank funded another large dam project.

Like the dam, the statue has been condemned for its lack of environmental oversight, and its displacement of local Adivasi or indigenous people. The land on which the statue was built is an Adivasi sacred site that was taken forcibly from them.




Read more:
India’s development debate must move beyond Modi


The Statue of Unity is part of a broader push by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to promote Patel as a symbol of Indian nationalism and free-market development. The statue’s website praises him for bringing the princely states into the Union of India and for being an early advocate of Indian free enterprise.

The BJP’s promotion of Patel also serves to overshadow the legacy of his boss, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru’s descendants head India’s most influential opposition party, the Indian National Congress.

The statue was supposed to be built with both private and public money, but it attracted little private investment. In the end, the government of Gujarat paid for much of the statue’s US$416.67 million price tag.

The statue under construction, January 2018.
Alexander Davis

The Gujarat government claims its investment in the statue will promote tourism, and that tourism is “sustainable development”. The United Nations says that sustainable tourism increases environmental outcomes and promotes local cultures. But given the statue’s lack of environmental checks and its displacement of local populations, it is hard to see how this project fulfils these goals.

The structure itself is not exactly a model of sustainable design. Some 5,000 tonnes of iron, 75,000 cubic metres of concrete, 5,700 tonnes of steel, and 22,500 tonnes of bronze sheets were used in its construction.

Critics of the statue note that this emblem of Indian nationalism was built partly with Chinese labour and design, with the bronze sheeting subcontracted to a Chinese firm.

The statue’s position next to the controversial Sardar Sarovar Dam is also telling. While chief minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, Modi pushed for the dam’s construction despite the World Bank’s condemnation. He praised the dam’s completion in 2017 as a monument to India’s progress.

Both the completion of the dam and the statue that celebrates it suggest that the BJP government is backing economic development over human rights and environmental protections.

The statue’s inauguration comes only a month after the country closed the first nature reserve in India since 1972. Modi’s government has also come under sustained criticism for a series of pro-industry policies that have eroded conservation, forest, coastal and air pollution protections, and weakened minority land rights.

India was recently ranked 177 out of 180 countries in the world for its environmental protection efforts.

Despite this record, the United Nations’ Environmental Programme (UNEP) recently awarded Modi its highest environmental award. It made him a Champion of the Earth for his work on solar energy development and plastic reduction.

The decision prompted a backlash in India, where many commentators are concerned by the BJP’s environmental record.




Read more:
Bridges and roads in north-east India may drive small tribes away from development


Visitors to the statue will access it via a 5km boat ride. At the statue’s base, they can buy souvenirs and fast food, before taking a high-speed elevator to the observation deck.

The observation deck will be situated in Patel’s head. From it, tourists will look out over the Sardar Sarovar Dam, as the accompanying commentary praises “united” India’s national development successes.

But let’s not forget the environmental and minority protections that have been sacrificed to achieve these goals.


This article was amended on November 7, 2018, to clarify the role of Chinese companies in the statue’s design and construction.The Conversation

Ruth Gamble, David Myers Research Fellow, La Trobe University and Alexander E. Davis, New Generation Network Fellow, La Trobe University

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

Green light for Tasmanian wilderness tourism development defied expert advice



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At least 30 tourism developments have been proposed for Tasmania’s World Heritage-listed wilderness.

Brendan Gogarty, University of Tasmania; Nick Fitzgerald, University of Tasmania, and Phillipa C. McCormack, University of Tasmania

The Commonwealth government’s decision to wave through a controversial tourism development in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area was made in defiance of strident opposition from the expert statutory advisory body for the region’s management, it was revealed today.

In August, federal environment minister Melissa Price’s office decided the proposed luxury development on Halls Island did not need to be assessed under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

But according to documents tabled in Tasmania’s parliament by the Greens this morning, the state’s National Parks and Wildlife Advisory Council had advised the opposite, as well as recommending that the proposal should not be approved at all in its current form. The council also argued “contentious projects” like this one should not be considered for the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area without “an agreed framework to guide assessment”.

This situation is not unique, and reveals a deeper problem with our national environmental laws. They may look strong on paper, but their strength can be eroded by bureaucratic discretion.

From conservation to commercialisation

Tasmania’s wilderness has long been ground zero for the struggle between conservation and commercialisation of our natural estate. In the 1980s, the Commonwealth government nominated the area for World Heritage listing to stop the state government building a hydroelectric dam on one of Australia’s last truly wild rivers.

The “locking up” of large parts of wilderness from industrial development has prompted deep social divisions. Nevertheless, the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) has since become part of Tasmania’s cultural and natural fabric. Yet this wilderness is now under renewed threat, as commercial interests seek to capitalise on its tourism potential.




Read more:
Explainer: wilderness, and why it matters


World Heritage Areas must have an up-to-date management plan to ensure compliance with Australia’s obligations under the World Heritage Convention. In 2016 the Commonwealth and Tasmanian governments revised the TWWHA management plan to reflect its “socio-economic” value, allowing a range of tourism uses that were banned under the previous 1999 plan.

The World Heritage Committee warned in 2015 that without “strict criteria for new tourism development”, there would be significant risks to the area’s “wilderness character and cultural attributes”. Australia accepted the recommendation but has still not meaningfully implemented strict criteria to assess and protect wilderness values, even as it accepts proposals for tourism developments.

Proposed commercial infrastructure projects involving built structures, transport, and modification of the natural environment in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, which have received preliminary or final approvals at October 2018. 30 proposals have been made and additional projects are likely to be announced as the EOI process continues.
(c) Nick Fitzgerald 2018.

Since both levels of government agreed to open up the TWHHA, a range of commercial interests have proposed tourism developments there. Expressions of interest for commercial developments are done behind closed doors, but it is clear that at least 30 commercial development proposals have been made for sites in the TWWHA, including projects involving permanent huts, lodges and camps, and some that would necessitate helicopter access.

Halls Island

The first of these proposals to be released for public comment and assessed under the 2016 management plan is a plan to build a “luxury standing camp and guided ecotourism experience” at Halls Island in Walls of Jerusalem National Park – a remote highland region of the TWWHA.

The plan includes reclassifying the lake surrounding Halls Island from “wilderness” to “self-reliant recreation”. On March 22, 2018, the proponent (Wild Drake Pty Ltd) referred the proposal to the Commonwealth Environment Minister to determine whether it should be formally assessed under the EPBC Act.

Upon referral the proposal met with widespread opposition from scientists, conservation specialists, civil society, and recreational users of the park, especially the fishing community. What became clear today is that it was also strongly opposed by the expert advisory council for the TWWHA.

Expert advice

The National Parks and Wildlife Advisory Council (NPWAC) is a statutory body of independent experts, with responsibility to advise on the management of the TWHHA in line with Australia’s national and international World Heritage commitments. The documents released today show that on July 13 2018, the NPWAC argued strongly against the proposal being allowed to proceed, stating that it “does not support this project progressing at this time”.

It cited a range of objections, including the fact that the development would effectively grant “exclusive private commercial use” of an area in the TWWHA, and that the opening up of airspace to helicopters would set an unwelcome precedent. It also described the development’s planned “standing camp” as a “pretence” because it would involve the construction of permanent buildings for year-round use. And it pointed to the proposal’s failure to address adequately the risk to threatened species and the fire-sensitive nature of the property.

Like the World Heritage Committee, NPWAC argued that the range of projects currently proposed for the TWWHA “should not be considered until there is an agreed framework to guide assessment”. Yet despite this, the minister’s delegate allowed the proposal to proceed without further assessment under the EPBC Act.

Commonwealth government’s decision

On August 31, 2018, the delegate of the minister decided that the referred action “is not a controlled action”, which means that it will not be subject to any further assessment, or even attention, by the Commonwealth government. No other reasons were given to reject the NPWAC’s recommendations, or the submissions from 78 individuals (including expert scientists) and 808 campaign submissions opposing the development.

Government ministers are not bound to act on expert advice. But they do have a duty to take it into account in a meaningful way. That is especially the case when expert advice is so clear, and supported by a range of relevant, independent and compelling public submissions from scientists and specialist groups.

According to the IUCN, world heritage wilderness area areas allow us to understand nature on its own terms and maintain those terms while allowing (and even encouraging) humans to experience wild nature.
(c) Brendan Gogarty

In the case of Halls Island, these factors should have tipped the balance towards undertaking a proper, legal assessment of the proposal and its likely impacts.

In a response to The Conversation, Price said her department had considered a range of advice and concluded that the proposed development is “not likely to have significant impacts on any nationally protected environmental matters, including the value of the World Heritage Area”.

Examined against the government’s increasingly cavalier attitude to our national estate, world heritage, and role in global environmental governance it is tempting to conclude that Tasmania’s wilderness has become yet another place where economic values trump conservation ones.

The Commonwealth is supposed to provide a check and balance on states’ self-interest in exploiting areas of outstanding universal value. But with another 29 development proposals on the list, our fear is that Tasmania’s World Heritage “wilderness” will become a lot less wild in the future.The Conversation

Brendan Gogarty, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Tasmania; Nick Fitzgerald, PhD candidate, University of Tasmania, and Phillipa C. McCormack, Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Tasmania

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

Kokoda Track blockade alludes to deeper development issues in Papua New Guinea



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By preventing Australians from visiting a ‘sacred place’ like the Kokoda Track, it is more likely that local landowners grievances will be met.
ABC News/Eric Tlozek

Nicholas Ferns, Monash University

In recent days, several local landowners have blocked the Owers Corner end of the famed Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea. They claimed they would stop tourists from accessing the track until the PNG government meets their demands.

According to their spokesman James Enage, government promises of economic benefits have not been fulfilled. Understaffed health centres and lack of education funding are causing great resentment among the local population. This is despite the establishment of the Kokoda Initiative, a joint undertaking between the Australian and Papua New Guinean governments that aims to “improve the livelihoods of communities along the track”.

The closure of the Kokoda Track by local landowners is not unprecedented; a similar closure took place at the Kokoda end in 2009.

The current blockade is a product of the complex political and economic issues affecting PNG, which is still dealing with the consequences of a controversial election late last year. It also highlights the complicated relationship between Australian war memory and its developmental assistance to a former colonial possession.

Australian aid preserving ‘hallowed ground’

The Kokoda Track experienced a resurgence of Australian attention following Prime Minister Paul Keating’s 1992 visit. He famously kissed the “hallowed ground” of the former battlefield.

In the 2000s, increasing numbers of Australian visitors sought to make the arduous trek, retracing the footsteps of former Australian soldiers. But with increased visitors came increased pressure on the local population.

In response to growing local discontent (which resulted in the 2009 blockade), the Kokoda Initiative Development Program was established in 2010 to improve living standards in areas along the track. The program includes educational services, provision of health supplies and infrastructure, and maintenance of the track itself.

Despite Australian government claims to have established several of these services, the protests at Owers Corner suggests that Australian aid is not making its way to the intended recipients. This is a common issue in aid delivery, particularly in remote areas such as those along the Kokoda Track.

Maintaining the Kokoda Initiative’s effective implementation is vital to ensuring the local population is able to enjoy the benefits of increased Australian visits to the track.

PNG’s health crisis

Compounding the problems with Australian aid are domestic issues related to the provision of health services throughout PNG. According to the country’s shadow minister for health and HIV/AIDS, Joseph Yopyyopi, PNG is suffering from a “health crisis”. Health workers are going without pay, and numerous hospitals are running out of basic supplies and medicines.

All of this comes despite Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s promise of free education and health for all. But, if anything, the PNG population’s health has been in decline since O’Neill came to power. There is also little prospect of things changing quickly, given the unstable political situation following the 2017 election.

The Lowy Institute’s Jonathan Pryke and Paul Barker argue that Papua New Guineans experience lower health standards now than during the Australian colonial period prior to 1975. They suggest medical clinics are in crisis.

It is little surprise, then, that local communities suffering from the lack of health and education services have resorted to protests.

Striking a balance

Targeting the entry to a “sacred place” for Australians can be seen as a calculated move on the part of local PNG landowners. By preventing Australians from visiting the Kokoda Track, it is more likely that their grievances will be met.

It also points to a broader issue in PNG, as the problems people like Enage are facing are not isolated. Significant improvements are needed to improve basic services throughout PNG – not just along the Kokoda Track.

PNG continues to require significant amounts of Australian aid. According to 2017-18 budget estimates, PNG is to receive more than A$500 million, making it Australia’s largest aid recipient. This situation is very similar to the mid-1970s, when the colonial grant to PNG constituted two-thirds of Australian “aid”.

The ConversationAustralia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade claims it is providing “tangible and lasting benefits” to the local communities surrounding the Kokoda Track. The blockade suggests this is not the case. Improved aid provision and governance within PNG is required to meet the needs of the people living near this “sacred place”.

Nicholas Ferns, Teaching Associate, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Climate action is the key to Australia achieving the Sustainable Development Goals


Nina Lansbury Hall, The University of Queensland; Dani J. Barrington, The University of Queensland, and Russell Richards, The University of Queensland

Australia will join the 71st United Nations General Assembly in New York this week. Some of the discussion will focus on progressing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as agreed at the UN last year.

Australia is a signatory to the goals, but it is difficult to know where to begin, as the goals are further broken down into 169 targets. These range from eradicating extreme poverty to developing measurements of progress on sustainable development.

But new research from the University of Queensland reveals that actions on climate change (SDG 13) and global partnerships (SDG 17) are likely to influence all other efforts by Australia to achieve the other SDGs.

Australia’s role in sustainable development

The SDGs form part of the UN development agenda, Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, released in September 2015.

Unlike the preceding UN Millennium Development Goals, which ran until 2015, the SDGs apply to all countries and citizens to create a common outlook, irrespective of the country’s level of development. The new goals are to be achieved by 2030.

The Australian government has emphasised the role of the SDGs in reinforcing economic growth, development and investment in the Indo-Pacific region, and has assigned the SDGs to the portfolios of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), and Environment.

Australia’s support for the SDGs is laudable. But the focus on international trade and investment, with responsibilities placed in only two portfolios, limits Australia’s potential for significant social, economic and environmental improvement on the SDGs at home and abroad.

But where do we start?

Part of the challenge of the SDGs is their complexity and the way they link together. This may explain Australia’s limited approach to date.

To help navigate this web of goals, we mapped the most influential goals. We found the goals that affect all the others are climate action (SDG 13) and global partnerships (SDG 17), as shown in the figure below. Without these, the other goals are very difficult to attain.

Proposed relationships between 17 UN Sustainable Development Targets
Global Change Institute, UQ

For example, the increased intensity of extreme weather events due to climate change will likely make it harder to achieve clean drinking water under SDG 6. In droughts, less water is available, and in floods, the water is often contaminated. Both events result in the proliferation of diseases.

These findings also identified that the goal for health and wellbeing (SDG 3) is the ultimate goal: every other SDG contributes towards this outcome. For example, a woman who has given birth to a daughter cannot achieve optimal physical, social and mental wellbeing for herself and her child without proper nutrition (SDG 2), access to clean water and sanitation (SDG 6), gender equality (SDG 5) and adequate financial resources (SDG 1).

We also found that within SDG 6, implementing the integrated water resources management target (6.5) enables the other SDG 6 targets to be met. Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin is a good example of this type of approach. There, states negotiated across borders to reduce salinity, minimise extractions and improve water quality.

Can we do it?

Linking together these goals will require high-level government co-ordination beyond merely the DFAT and environment portfolios.

Our policy analysis found that no single portfolio can take responsibility for the entire set of 17 SDGs – and that all 21 government departments have more than one SDG relevant to their responsibilities.

Australia’s ability to progress the SDGs in Australia and overseas is likely to be more attainable with the involvement and cross-collaboration of other portfolios.

Damaged and polluted waterways affect the ability to attain the Sustainable Development Goal for water and sanitation (SDG 6).
Sanjog Chakraborty

The UN SDGs are an opportunity for Australia’s efforts towards sustainable development to be recognised on a global stage. To achieve progress on this complex agenda we have to understand that climate action and global partnerships are crucial to sustainable development and ultimately to health and wellbeing.

The Conversation

Nina Lansbury Hall, Sustainable Water Program Manager, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland; Dani J. Barrington, Lecturer, Global Change Institute, Honorary Fellow, School of Public Health, The University of Queensland, and Russell Richards, , The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

EcoCheck: Victoria’s flower-strewn western plains could be swamped by development


Georgia Garrard, RMIT University and Sarah Bekessy, RMIT University

Our EcoCheck series takes the pulse of some of Australia’s most important ecosystems to find out if they’re in good health or on the wane.

When Europeans first saw Victoria’s native grasslands in the 1830s, they were struck by the vast beauty of the landscape, as well as its productive potential.

The explorer Sir Thomas Mitchell described the western Victorian plains as “an open grassy country, extending as far as we could see … resembling a nobleman’s park on a gigantic scale”. His fellow pioneer John Batman, in 1835, described the grassy plains to the north and west of what is now Melbourne as “the most beautiful sheep pasturage I ever saw in my life”.

Victoria’s volcanic plain, home to a rich variety of wildflowers.
Hesperian/IBRA/Wikimedia Commons

The native temperate grasslands of southeastern Australia are a group of ecosystems defined mainly by the presence of dominant native grasses. Trees are either completely absent, or occur in very low numbers.

In Victoria, native grasslands can be found on the volcanic plains that stretch from Melbourne as far west as Hamilton. Despite their rather plain name, native grasslands are extraordinarily diverse, containing many species of wildflowers that grow between the tussocks of grasses.

It is possible to find more than 25 different plant species in a single square metre of native grassland, and the wildflowers produce dazzling displays of colour during spring.

Anything but plain.
Ryan Chisholm, Author provided

The animals that inhabit these grasslands are equally diverse and fascinating. The striped legless lizard, grassland earless dragon and golden sun moth are three that live there today, although many others are now locally extinct. One can only imagine how impressive it would have been to see brolgas, rufous bettongs and eastern barred bandicoots roaming, nesting and digging on these plains.

Grassland earless dragon.
John Wombey/CSIRO/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Native grasslands were a significant food source for Aboriginal people. They provided both meat (kangaroos and other grazing animals were attracted to the open grassy landscapes) and vegetables.

Many of the native forb plants produce energy-rich tubers or bulbs that can be eaten much like a potato. These made up a large part of the diet of Aboriginal people living in these areas.

Fire is critical to maintaining the diversity and health of native grasslands, and fire regimes used by Indigenous people are an important aspect of grassland management.

Plains to pasture

The story of Victoria’s native grasslands since European settlement is not a happy one. Grasslands offer extremely fertile land (by Australian standards, at least), which made them attractive for agriculture and grazing. Overgrazing by sheep and cattle, the addition of fertilisers to “improve” pastures, and changes to the frequency and extent of fires in the landscape led to a noticeable degradation of Victoria’s native grasslands by the early 20th century.

Since then, habitat loss and degradation from intensive grazing, cropping and – more recently – urbanisation have reduced the native grasslands of the Victorian volcanic plain to less than 1% of their original extent (as documented in the paper titled “Vegetation of the Victorian Volcanic Plain” available here).

Land clearing for urban development continues to pose a major threat to Victoria’s native grasslands. Many remnants exist in and around Melbourne’s key urban growth corridors.

A 15,000-hectare grassland reserve is planned to the west of the city to offset the losses that will occur as Melbourne grows. This is an exciting prospect – such a large reserve would provide an opportunity to showcase this threatened ecosystem on a landscape-wide scale.

But successful implementation of this reserve requires significant investment in restoration and management, and only time will tell whether it truly compensates for the inevitable losses elsewhere.

Saving what remains

A major challenge for the conservation of Victoria’s native grasslands is to maintain the patches that remain. These remnants, nestled in agricultural and urban landscapes, are often small and fragmented, and are subject to threats such as weed invasion and broad-scale use of herbicides and fertilisers.

Without regular fires or some other form of biomass removal, the native grasses grow too big and smother the wildflowers. Over time, grasslands can lose their species diversity, and with it the intricate beauty of their varied wildflowers.

Redreaming the Plain.
Digital composite created for Imagine The Future (ITF) Inc. by Csaba Szamosy, 1996, from photographs by James Ross (Victorian National Parks Association), Mike Martin (Victoria University), Tom Wheller (VNPA), Vanessa Craigee (Department of Natural Resources and Environment), John Seebeck (NRE) and Ian McCann (courtesy NRE/McCann Collection), and based on a concept by Merrill Findlay for ITF.

On the face of it, the prognosis for these grasslands does not look great. They are certainly one of Australia’s most endangered ecosystems, and their conservation must necessarily occur alongside human-dominated land uses. This brings social challenges as well as ecological ones.

Native grasslands suffer from a public relations problem. The need for regular fires is not always well aligned with objectives for human land uses. What’s more, all those wildflowers only appear in season, and even then their beauty is only really evident at close quarters.

But grasslands have a few tricks up their sleeves. First, high-quality grasslands can be maintained in relatively small patches. There are some great examples around Melbourne, including the Evans Street Native Grassland, which covers just 4 hectares. But as tiny as they are, these reserves can be just as diverse as larger grassland remnants.

Second, native grasslands can be surprisingly resilient, in both urban and agricultural landscapes. A case in point is the tiny grassland at the Watergardens shopping centre northwest of Melbourne, which has been maintained despite being completely surrounded by a car park. Several high-quality grasslands in pastoral areas have been maintained for decades under grazing at low stocking rates.

Third, native grasslands represent a great opportunity to engage urban residents with nature in cities. Many beautiful remnants exist in some of Melbourne’s newest suburbs. Some already benefit from the efforts of dedicated community groups, while others are still waiting to be discovered.

Grasslands in other parts of the world, such as North America’s prairies or the African savannah, are viewed with romanticism and awe. In the Australian consciousness, grasslands take a back seat to the mythical outback. But the future of the grasslands of southeastern Victoria may well depend on our capacity to generate the same public profile for this truly remarkable but critically endangered ecosystem.

Are you a researcher who studies an iconic Australian ecosystem and would like to give it an EcoCheck? Get in touch.

The Conversation

Georgia Garrard, Research fellow, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group, RMIT University and Sarah Bekessy, Associate professor, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Development and the Reef: the rules have been lax for too long


Bob Pressey, James Cook University; Alana Grech; Jon C. Day, James Cook University, and Marcus Sheaves, James Cook University

This article is part of a series examining in depth the various threats to the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef, in one of the world’s best-managed marine parks, might seem safe enough from human activities on land. But its future depends to a large degree on what people do alongside it.

The Reef’s coastline spans about 2,300 km, and its catchment is home to 1,165,000 people, most of whom live along the coast. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park attracts some 1.6 million tourists each year, while the coastal zone produces or exports large volumes of farming and mining products.

While most development has been in the southern two-thirds of the Reef’s coast, south of Cooktown, much of the Reef’s coastal zone has been converted (see pages 6-36 here) to various land uses, such as housing and other urban infrastructure like roads, drainage, commercial and light-industry areas, and tourism facilities. Land has been developed for sugar cane and other crops, aquaculture, stock grazing, highways, railways, refineries and other industrial developments, and ports.

People have changed the Reef’s coastal zone dramatically, and the direct result is the decline of the Reef’s ecosystems. Further declines are likely, but not inevitable – with enough commitment, we can improve the Reef’s condition.

Effects of coastal development

The beauty, biological richness, and cultural values that have made the Great Barrier Reef a World Heritage Area, not to mention a global and national icon, are at stake, as UNESCO weighs up whether to add the Reef to the List of World Heritage in Danger.

The water that flows into the Reef’s lagoon is polluted with sediments, nutrients and pesticides. Urban development is a big contributor, while some tourism developments, such as Port Hinchinbrook, have been ecologically damaging because of poor planning or inappropriate fast-tracking.

Many coastal waterways have been blocked by roads and dams; recreational and commercial fishing have damaged habitats and populations of dolphins and dugongs (see page 127 here); and shipping traffic is set to increase markedly, with the associated port development posing a threat from dredging.

Add climate change to the mix, and the upshot is a long list of threats (see page 256 here) to the Reef, some of which are set to intensify rapidly.

Gladstone is one area on the Great Barrier Reef coast that has hosted a range of different development types.
AAP Image/Dan Peled

The danger is death by a thousand cuts. No single development has tipped the balance, but a litany of poor choices has resulted in a tyranny of small decisions, with a large cumulative impact.

The problem is simple, even if the solutions are not: a long succession of piecemeal developments and government approvals has ignored or failed to understand the environmental problems, and put short-term gain before the long-term survival of the Reef.

What are we doing about it?

To the casual observer, checks and balances seem to be in place for safeguarding the Reef. Large developments are subject to environmental impact assessments (EIAs), while there are systems aimed at monitoring cumulative damage and offsetting any environmental losses.

The reality is different. The EIA process is broken, with a focus on bureaucratic procedure instead of good environmental outcomes, and permit conditions are not being monitored. Offsets are poorly implemented, preventing real compensation for environmental losses, and the assessment of cumulative impacts is primitive.

Last year, when the Federal and Queensland governments released their draft 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, they acknowledged that the greatest risks to the Reef are “climate change, poor water quality from land-based run off, impacts from coastal development and some fishing activities”. In a critical response, the Australian Academy of Science pointed out that the draft plan would promote further coastal development and fail to assess and mitigate the resulting impacts on the Reef.

The revised Reef 2050 Plan, released in March, is still short on specific commitments to tackle the impacts of coastal development. The Academy remains concerned.

Some statements of achievement don’t stand up to close scrutiny. For example, the ban on marine dumping of dredge spoil from new port developments leaves the Queensland government with the problem of deciding where else it will go, with the environmental impacts still unknown. And the plan is vague about the management of around a million cubic metres a year of spoil from maintenance dredging at existing ports.

The Reef Trust, bolstered by an extra $100 million in the recent Federal Budget, provides welcome additional funding, although not enough to address all the threats to the Reef. And some of the Reef Trust money amounts to a levy on developers who damage the Great Barrier Reef, with the funds set to be used in ways that are obscure and – if past performance is any guide – possibly ineffective.

The Reef 2050 Plan sets targets for ecosystem health and biodiversity that are general and qualitative, making achievement subject to argument. Enhancements to management of coastal land-use change are described using terms such as “add to”, “require”, “strengthen”, and “ensure” – vaguely encouraging, but essentially lacking in specific commitment.

Time to get serious

If the Federal and Queensland governments are serious about reducing the impacts of present and future coastal development on the Great Barrier Reef, there are several ways forward.

First, the burden of proof should rest with developers. We have pushed the Great Barrier Reef to the point where there can be no more tolerance of uncertainty about the impacts of developments. Where there is any uncertainty, proponents of new developments must demonstrate that no harm will ensue.

Second, the environmental impact assessment process needs to be made effective, by appointing contractors capable of independent assessment, introducing peer-review of assessments, ensuring financial guarantees against unexpected impacts, and regular auditing of approval conditions.

Third, governments need to use the best available methods to assess cumulative impacts on the Reef as a result of changes in land and water use, coastal planning decisions, and the future demands for coal, sugar cane, tourism or other products. We have the ability to model the effects of all these factors on the Reef, using the best available data and expert opinion.

Fourth, there is an urgent need to tighten the process of environmental offsets, which are meant to deliver environmental benefits elsewhere to make up for damage caused by development. Above and beyond the need to first avoid or mitigate environmental damage from developments, offsets should be designed according to world’s best practice, an appropriate standard for the Great Barrier Reef.

Fifth, targets for recovery of the Reef need actual numbers, not vague statements. And those numbers should, at any time, be the best available estimates of what is needed for the recovery of key ecosystems and species, coupled with ongoing monitoring.

Committed action on these five fronts would be a strong start toward reversing the decline of the Great Barrier Reef. There is no time to lose.

The Conversation

Bob Pressey is Professor and Program Leader, Conservation Planning, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.
Alana Grech is Lecturer in Spatial Information Science at Macquarie University.
Jon C. Day is PhD candidate, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.
Marcus Sheaves is Professor of Marine Biology at James Cook University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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