Why aren’t Australia’s environment laws preventing widespread land clearing?

Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

Australia has national environment laws – the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act). Yet given the staggering rates of land clearing taking place, resulting in the extinction and endangerment of plants and animals in Australia, these laws are clearly not working.

About 395,000 hectares of regrowth and old growth vegetation were cleared during 2015-16 in Queensland. Australia is set to clear up to 3 million hectares of native forest by 2030, and more than 1,800 plant and animal species are currently listed as threatened nationally.

Read more:
Turnbull wants to change Australia’s environment act – here’s what we stand to lose

When the EPBC Act was first implemented in 1999, the idea was for it to provide reinforced federal environmental protection to areas of national environmental significance. But in reality, many projects that come within the ambit of the Act are not rigorously evaluated for their environmental impact.

Why isn’t the EPBC Act working?

Land clearing was listed in the 2001 and 2006 State of the Environment Reports as one of the greatest threats to biodiversity.

Deforestation and excessive land clearing fundamentally impacts existing biodiversity, damages fragile ecosystems, destroys wildlife habitat, and increases greenhouse gas emissions. In Queensland, where much of the land clearing is taking place, the state law (Vegetation Management Act) is not strong enough to diminish incentives for land clearing. Yet the national environmental laws have not provided greater protection.

There are several reasons for this. While land clearing is indirectly regulated by the EPBC Act due to the significant impact it can have on the environment, land clearing is not directly addressed by the EPBC Act.

As it stands, land clearing will only attract EPBC Act application where it can be established that it impacts a directly protected entity such as a World Heritage area, Ramsar wetland, threatened species, ecological community, or migratory species. If this connection cannot be established, no environmental assessment under the EPBC Act will occur.

Even where projects do attract the application of the EPBC Act, its capacity to advance best practice environmental impact assessment is highly questionable. One of the biggest problems is that the process of assessment is insufficiently robust.

Read more:
Commonwealth should keep final say on environment protection

This problem is evident in other environmental issues too. Where a bilateral state and federal assessment is approved, as was the case with the Adani coalmine, the federal department often relies on state counterparts to undertake a thorough environmental assessment. Many of the proposals evaluated by state departments are assessed with reference to the least onerous environmental impact assessment available.

This documentation is generally prepared by the project proponent. Unsurprisingly, as a consequence, many of the projects that are evaluated under the EPBC Act are approved, subject to the imposition of environmental conditions. This means the environmental conditions need to be carefully monitored if environmental protection is to be optimised.

This creates a new set of problems. Where a breach is alleged, it must be proved and appropriate sanctions enforced. In reality, this rarely happens, and the sanctions that are imposed can be woefully inadequate. For example, Adani was fined A$12,000 for breaching an environmental condition relating to the release of coalwater in Abbott Point coal terminal, which flowed into the fragile Caley Valley Wetlands.

The substantive problem with the EPBC Act is that its implementation is subject to departmental discretion and therefore the vagaries of government administration. This is particularly problematic given the political nature of many of these decision-making processes.

Lack of rigorous scrutiny

In circumstances where, for example, there is a need to challenge the approval of a resource title in light of its environmental consequences, the EPBC Act relies heavily on environmental groups or other third parties to scrutinise the federal decision-making process.

For example, the Australian Conservation Foundation took strong action in challenging the issuance of the mining licence for Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine. It argued the endangered species and climate change impacts were insufficiently taken into account by the then Environment Minister Greg Hunt in exercising discretion under the EPBC Act.

Read more:
Latest twist in the Adani saga reveals shortcomings in environmental approvals

The case was dismissed because the Federal Court found that this decision was authorised by the discretions included within the EPBC Act. The minister was therefore within his power to decide not to take account of the climate change impacts of such a vast new coalmine. This is concerning given the profound impact that climate change can have upon fragile ecologies in areas of national environmental significance.

These findings indicate a lack of preparedness by the federal minister to accept a causal connection between climate change and domestic coal production, and to focus on narrow jurisdictional boundaries and strict domestic obligations. It also strongly highlights the deficiencies of our national environment act because the existing triggers do not address some of the most important environmental concerns of the modern world.

New environment laws urgently needed

Climate change is almost universally accepted as one the most serious environmental threats. Yet the EPBC Act does not include a climate change trigger (or a land clearing trigger, as discussed above).

This means these key threats to Australia’s environment will not be protected by EPBC Act. They may attract the EPBC Act indirectly, but only if it can be established that they raise a different trigger that is listed under the Act. This calls into question the capacity of our national environment laws to truly protect areas of national environmental significance.

The ConversationIn order to reverse unacceptable rates of land clearing, preserve ecosystems and habitats and diminish greenhouse gas emissions, a new framework for our national environment act is urgently needed.

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

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


Should Australia recognise the human right to a healthy environment?

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Australia is one of very few countries that does not recognise the right to a healthy environment.
Jordan Davis, Author provided

Meg Good, University of Tasmania

Australia is one of only 15 nations (a list that also includes Canada and the United States) that does not recognise the human right to a healthy environment at the federal level.

Last year, the Australian Panel of Experts on Environmental Law recommended that environmental democracy in Australia “must have as a foundation, respect for fundamental human rights and, in particular, an enforceable right to a clean and healthy environment”.

Read more:
Is a healthy environment a human right? Testing the idea in Appalachia

Suggestions have also been made by various academics and environmental protection organisations to recognise the right in existing and proposed state human rights charters, including the soon-to-be-developed Queensland Human Rights Act.

So should Australia heed these calls and recognise the right? The global experience with environmental rights recognition suggests that it could be beneficial.

Environmental protection

In 2012, Canadian environmental lawyer David Boyd published The Environmental Rights Revolution, an analysis of the dozens of nations which have already recognised the human right to a healthy environment in their constitutions.

Although there is no internationally accepted definition of the right, Boyd cites the Stockholm Declaration as its first formal recognition:

Man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being, and he bears a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations.

His research found that across Latin America, Europe and Asia, the right to a healthy environment has helped to strengthen existing environmental protection laws and policies and encouraged the introduction of new stronger legislation. Significantly, it has also prevented governments from “rolling back” effective laws created by their predecessors.

Lawsuits utilising the right have been successful in achieving better protection for the environment, safeguarding crucial natural resources for current and future generations.

Whether Australia would enjoy similar benefits would significantly depend on the expression of the right and the form of legal recognition adopted.

Read more:
The government vs the environment: lawfare in Australia

In Latvia, the right is expressed as a right to live in a “benevolent environment”, whereas in Brazil citizens are granted a right to an “ecologically balanced environment”. Exactly how the right would be expressed in Australia would be a question for parliament.

It’s highly unlikely the Australian Constitution would be changed to incorporate the right (since 1906, constitutional reform has succeeded only eight times), so it’s probable that Australia would recognise the right through legislation.

Although Australia has so far resisted introducing comprehensive national human rights legislation, the right could be recognised within a statutory bill of human rights based on the “dialogue model”.

The dialogue model of recognition

Recommended by the National Human Rights Consultation Committee, the dialogue model involves all three arms of government engaging in a “dialogue” about human rights protection. It requires public authorities to act in line with protected rights, and courts to (if possible) interpret legislation in a compatible manner.

However, one of the most powerful consequences of recognising the right within this model is that all future legislation would be scrutinised for consistency with the right.

Australia already has a Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, which examines the compatibility of proposed legislation with specified international human rights standards. Presumably, if the right was recognised in a federal bill of rights, the Committee’s mandate would alter to include consideration of all rights recognised under the legislation.

At present, the Committee is not required to consider the compatibility of proposed legislation with the human right to a healthy environment.

This was highlighted in 2016, when the federal government controversially proposed amending the nation’s key environmental protection legislation to limit standing for environmental protection groups to challenge decisions made under the Act.

Due to the Minister stating that there is “no standalone right to a healthy environment”, the Committee only considered the legislation’s impact on environmental protection indirectly through consideration of its impact on the right to health (which includes the “underlying determinants of health”, such as a healthy environment).

Read more:
Turnbull wants to change Australia’s environment act – here’s what we stand to lose

Ideally, the Committee would be empowered to consider the impacts of proposed legislation on the right to a healthy environment directly. This scrutiny process would help to ensure that proposals which jeopardise the government’s ability to protect, respect and fulfil the right could be identified and challenged before they pass into law.

A limited but useful tool

Under the dialogue model, the parliament retains the final say, meaning it would still be possible for the legislature to pass legislation manifestly incompatible with the right. The “safety net” of protection offered by this form of recognition would not suffice to address all potential and actual breaches of the right, or even guarantee its fulfilment.

Read more:
We quibble over ‘lawfare’, but the law is not protecting species properly anyway

However, it would ensure that the right enters the legal and policy discourse around natural resources management and sustainable development.

In a time of unprecedented climate change, the right invites another way of thinking about our relationship with the natural world, and offers a useful tool for improving environmental protection in Australia.

The ConversationThis article is based on the author’s 2016 PhD thesis which proposed legal recognition of the human right to a healthy environment in Australia under a statutory bill of rights.

Meg Good, Adjunct Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Tasmania

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

Doom and gloom? Here are the environment stories that cheered us up in 2017

Madeleine De Gabriele, The Conversation and Michael Hopkin, The Conversation

Don’t let anyone tell you we’re not a cheerful bunch here on the Environment + Energy desk – even if many of the stories we cover are a little on the gloomy side.

From the Great Barrier Reef to the Australian outback, and from Canberra to the White House, it’s been another less than stellar year for the environment.

That said, the soap opera over energy policy kept us pretty entertained in the meantime.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of positive, amazing and ridiculous stories out there. So for some festive cheer, here are some good news stories we covered in 2017, and a few more we would have liked to have had room for alongside the heatwaves and political hot air.

Parrots on a flyer

Rare parrots had some rare wins this year. A night parrot was photographed for the first time in Western Australia. For a bird that’s so secretive it was previously assumed by many people not to exist, that’s a solid result.

Meanwhile, scientists in Tasmania developed amazing automatic light-sensitive doors to protect the swift parrots’ nest boxes (the excellently named “possum-keeper-outer”).

Boxing clever.
Keep out, sugar gliders.

Yoghurt-pot-washers rejoice

If you’ve invested an inadvisable amount of your free time in washing scraps of food off cans, containers and bottles before tossing them straight into the recycling, then suffer no longer. In May we reported the exciting news that most recycling facilities can handle a bit of mess.

Our Facebook page rang to the joyous strains of readers gleefully telling their parents/partners/housemates to stop nagging and let them enjoy the sweet freedom from the tyrannical regime of spotless peanut butter jars.

Hoodwinked no longer

Have you ever discovered a never-before-seen fish species that can grow larger than a very large human? Of course you haven’t. But Murdoch University’s Marianne Nyegaard has.

Beachcombing: expert level.
Marianne Nyegaard/Murdoch University

Starting with some tantalising DNA evidence that suggested there was a new species of sunfish somewhere out there, she embarked on a four-year detective mission. After a tip-off she eventually found four of them washed up on a beach near Christchurch, and named the species Mola tecta – the “hoodwinker sunfish” – in honour of its long-running disappearing trick.

When little kids say they want to be a marine biologist when they grow up, this is exactly what they mean.

We used some fancy new words

The interminable politicking over energy policy, including the Finkel Review and the National Energy Guarantee, made us want to pull our hair out at times. But look on the bright side: the endless debate brought previously obscure terms such as dispatchables, baseload, spinning reserve, inertia, and frequency control into common parlance.

As energy nerds, we’re super excited that all this stuff finally went mainstream in 2017. It’s made us so much more fun to talk to at parties. But after thinking about dispatchable energy all year, we kind of wish someone would dispatch us a stiff drink.

Whisky wonder

Speaking of which, it turns out that it’s possible to make a ten-year malt whisky in a matter of weeks, because chemistry loves us and wants us to be happy.

Swoop on this

Just as exciting is the news that you can make friends with your local magpies, with the help of some judiciously offered food. And because magpies are so smart, once you gain their trust they’ll remember you forever, with obvious benefits when swooping season rolls around.

They’re apparently partial to mince, and while it might seem eccentric to carry it around in your pockets, you’ll reap the rewards when the maggies aren’t making mincemeat out of your ears next spring.

Meanwhile, here are some other cheery developments we didn’t have space for this year.

Snow leopards on the comeback trail

A three-year survey that concluded in September found at least 4,000 snow leopards in the wild, moving the elusive big cats off the IUCN endangered list for the first time in 44 years.

While it’s not all sunshine – snow leopards are still considered “vulnerable” and face considerable challenges with poaching and habitat loss – population numbers aren’t declining as sharply as previously thought, and scientists say there could be as many as 10,000 prowling the Himalayas.

I, for one, welcome our cephalopod overlords

In absolutely stunning footage, David Attenborogh’s Blue Planet II captured an octopus using shells to disguise itself from a shark. A dexterous animal using tools to outwit a more deadly predator? Sounds familiar.

When you combine this video with reports of dozens of octopuses crawling out of the ocean onto a British beach, it might be time to get worried. The good news is that they seem to be invading Wales first.

Noisy neighbours

Nature is cool, if not always quiet. Scientists described a kind of shrimp (named after Pink Floyd) that can kill its prey with concussive sound.

Meanwhile, another study found that orgies of Mexican fish are deafening dolphins. On reflection, this is probably only good news for the fish.

Check out this spider, man

Closer to home, and considerably more quiet, a new species of jumping spider has been found on the Cape York Peninsula.

What’s in a name?

The ConversationIn a fit of unwarranted optimism, the naming of this spider has been thrown open to the public. It’s a safe bet that most of the 700 submissions will turn out to be unprintable, improbable, or unimaginative variations on Spidey McSpideyface.

Madeleine De Gabriele, Deputy Editor: Energy + Environment, The Conversation and Michael Hopkin, Section Editor: Energy + Environment, The Conversation

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


By slashing environment spending, the government is slashing opportunities

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At a time of growing human impacts, spending on environmental protection is more important than ever.
Author provided

Don Driscoll, Deakin University

Australia’s native plants and animals are integral to the success of our society. We depend on wildlife to pollinate many of our crops. Most of our cities depend on effective water catchments to provide clean water. And medical scientists are making important breakthroughs in managing disease and health issues based on discoveries in nature.

The mental health benefits of a “dose of nature” are becoming more widely recognised, on top of our own experiences of having fun and enjoying the natural wonders of national parks. Our nature inspires us in all kinds of ways, and you can build major industries around that; the Great Barrier Reef is reportedly worth A$56 billion to the Australian economy.

It is therefore surprising, on one hand, to read the Australian Conservation Foundation and WWF Australia budget submission that the Australian government has slashed environmental spending by one third since 2013.

On the other hand, I’m not especially surprised because we ecologists have been living through the ongoing attack on the environment every day. We see how cuts to environmental budgets play out.

Read more: Why a walk in the woods really does help your body and your soul

Our native species and ecosystems are under growing pressure. Australia’s 1.6% annual population growth outstrips many other countries. This is compounded by rises in per-capita consumption and greenhouse emissions.

Escalating consumption translates into growing impacts on biodiversity as more land is released for housing and infrastructure, extractive industries such as mining, recreational and industrial fishing expand and agriculture intensifies.

Climate change further interacts with land clearing associated with producing more for a growing and greedier population. Many species are expected to have to shift their range as the environmental conditions they live in move, and if they can’t move because there is no habitat to move through, extinctions will result.

Read more: Land clearing isn’t just about trees – it’s an animal welfare issue too

State of the Environment reports document the extent of the problem.

For example, between 2011 and 2015, there was a 66% increase in the number of critically endangered animals (from 38 in 2011 to 63 in 2015), and a 28% increase in critically endangered plants (112 in 2011; 143 in 2015). By critically endangered, we mean that extinction is a real possibility in the short term for these species. Immediate action is needed if we are to avoid terminating millions of years of independent evolution, as these biological lineages die out.

Given the extraordinary value of biodiversity and the extreme and growing threats, it would make sense to maximise our spending on biodiversity conservation now, to protect our wildlife through this period of peak human.

Key areas for investment include creating an effective national reserve system, at least meeting the arbitrary international goals of 17% of the land and 10% of the sea area.

Funding is needed to manage the reserve system, containing threats and nurturing already threatened species. Meanwhile, outside of reserves where most of the people live and interact with nature, biodiversity needs to be provided for, and threats need to be managed. Biosecurity is a critical area for funding, particularly to more tightly regulate rogue industries, like horticulture.

Horticulture was recently responsible for introducing myrtle rust, a disease that is devastating many gum-tree relatives, in the family Myrtaceae. Finally, climate change demands a strong response, both in mitigation and adaptation.

Science and environment work needs funding

I’ve never seen so many fantastic, skilled, enthusiastic young ecologists struggling to get a job. At a time when ecologists and conservation scientists are needed more than ever to help solve the problems created by the growth economy, funding for ecology is at a low.

Read more: Vale ‘Gump’, the last known Christmas Island Forest Skink

Of course, beyond the people, we see conservation programs in desperate need of support that just isn’t forthcoming. Christmas Island is a case in point.

The island’s reptiles have been devastated by invasive pests, most likely the wolf snake and perhaps the giant centipede. Two endemic species (species that only lived on Christmas Island) are presumed extinct; the last known forest skink died in 2014.

This Christmas Island Forest Skink was the last known member of her species.
Director of National Parks/Supplied

Two other endemic species are extinct in the wild, but small populations of around 1,000 animals are kept in captivity on the island and at Taronga Zoo.

While ideally a population of at least 5,000 would be maintained to minimise loss of genetic diversity, funding is not available to house that many animals. And it’s rock-bottom budget accommodation; Lister’s geckos are housed in tents because the budget doesn’t stretch to building something permanent.

We’ve also seen important long term research programs defunded. Long-term data provides crucial insights into how our biodiversity responds to decadal changes in weather patterns as well as longer-term changes caused by the greenhouse effect. It is unimaginable that the government have slashed the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network’s funding so far that well-established long-term data series are now being compromised.

Ultimately, the environmental funding shortfall needs to be fixed. Our livelihoods and well-being depend on it.

The ConversationThe original version of this article incorrectly reported that the budget submission was made by the Australian Conservation Foundation and The Wilderness Foundation. It was in fact made by the Australian Conservation Foundation and WWF Australia.

Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University

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


China’s growing footprint on the globe threatens to trample the natural world

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A Chinese road-building corporation felling rainforest in the Congo Basin.
Bill Laurance, Author provided

Bill Laurance, James Cook University

Many observers of China’s escalating global program of foreign investment and infrastructure development are crossing their fingers and hoping for the best. In an ideal world, China’s unbridled ambitions will improve economic growth, food security and social development in many poor nations, as well as enriching itself.

Such hopes are certainly timely, given the isolationism of the US Trump
administration, which has created an international leadership vacuum that China is eager to fill.

But a close look reveals that China’s international agenda is far more exploitative than many realise, especially for the global environment. And the Chinese leadership’s claims to be embracing “green development” are in many cases more propaganda than fact.

Read more: China will need to be more transparent to achieve its development goals

To help steer through the maze, I provide here a snapshot of China’s present environmental impacts. Are China’s assertions reasoned and defensible, or something else altogether?

Predatory force?

For a start, China is overwhelmingly the world’s biggest consumer of illegally poached wildlife and wildlife products. From rhino horn, to pangolins, to shark fins, to a menagerie of wild bird species, Chinese consumption drives much of the global trade in wildlife exploitation and smuggling.

Over the past 15 years, China’s rapacious appetite for ivory has largely driven a global collapse of elephant populations. In response to growing international criticism, China promised to shut down its domestic ivory trade by the end of 2017.

The author examining a Forest Elephant gunned down by ivory poachers in central Africa.
Mahmoud Mahmoud

But even before China’s ban has taken full force, a black market for ivory is developing in neighbouring Laos. There, Chinese entrepreneurs are churning out great quantities of carved ivory products, specifically designed for Chinese tastes and openly sold to Chinese visitors.

China is also the world’s biggest importer of illegal timber, a trade that imperils forests while defrauding developing nations of billions of dollars each year in timber royalties.

China claims to be working to reduce its illegal timber imports, but its efforts are half-hearted at best, judging by the amount of illegal timber still flowing across its border with Myanmar.

A queue of logging trucks in Southeast Asia.
Jeff Vincent

Infrastructure tsunami

More damaging still are China’s plans for infrastructure expansion that will irreparably degrade much of the natural world.

China’s One Belt One Road initiative alone will carve massive arrays of new roads, railroads, ports, and extractive industries such as mining, logging, and oil and gas projects into at least 70 nations across Asia, Europe, and Africa.

A partial representation of China’s One Belt One Road scheme, circa 2015.
Mercator Institute for China Studies

Chinese President Xi Jinping promises that the Belt and Road initiative will be “green, low-carbon, circular and sustainable”, but such a claim is profoundly divorced from reality.

As my colleagues and I recently argued in Science and Current Biology, the modern infrastructure tsunami that is largely being driven by China will open a Pandora’s box of environmental crises, including large-scale deforestation, habitat fragmentation, wildlife poaching, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

China’s pursuit of natural resources is also escalating across Latin America. In the Amazon, for example, big mining projects – many of which are feeding Chinese industries – don’t just cause serious local degradation, but also promote widespread deforestation from the networks of roads bulldozed into remote areas to access the mines.

Why roads are so dangerous for nature.

Overall, China is the most aggressive consumer of minerals on the planet, and the biggest driver of tropical deforestation.

Beyond this, China is pushing to build a 5,000km railroad across South America, to make it cheaper for China to import timber, minerals, soy and other natural resources from ports along South America’s Pacific coast. If it proceeds, the number of critical ecosystems that would be impacted by this project is staggering.

A World Bank study of more than 3,000 overseas projects funded or operated by China revealed how it often treats poor nations as “pollution havens” – transferring its own environmental degradation to developing nations that are desperate for foreign investment.

Finally, much has been made of the fact that China is beginning to temper its appetite for domestic fossil-fuelled energy. It is now a leading investor in solar and wind energy, and recently delayed construction of more than 150 coal-fired electricity plants in China.

These are unquestionably pluses, but they need to be seen in their broad context. In terms of greenhouse-gas emissions, China has exploded past every other nation. It now produces more than twice the carbon emissions of the United States, the second-biggest polluter, following the greatest building spree of coal, nuclear, and large-scale hydro projects in human history.

Despite its new post-Trump role as the world’s de facto climate leader, China’s overall agenda could scarcely be described as green.

A tiger relaxes along a grassy bank.
Matt Gibson/Shutterstock

Iceberg ahead

Some would say it’s unfair to criticise China like this. They would argue that China is merely following a well-trodden path of exploitative development previously forged by other nations and colonial powers.

But China is not the same as any other nation. The astounding growth and size of its economy, its dangerously single-minded vision for exploiting natural resources and land internationally, its intolerance of internal and external criticism, and its increasingly closed media and official myopia all combine to make it unique.

Read more: Developing countries can prosper without increasing emissions

President Xi admits that many Chinese corporations, investors and lenders operating overseas have often acted aggressively and even illegally overseas. But he says his government is powerless to do much about it. The most notable government response to date is a series of “green papers” containing guidelines that sound good in theory but are almost universally ignored by Chinese interests.

Indigenous forest people in the Congo Basin become increasingly poor and marginalised as foreign miners, loggers and poachers invade their lands.
Mahmoud Mahmoud

Are Xi’s assertions of powerlessness believable? He increasingly rules China with an iron hand. Is it really impossible for China to guide and control its overseas industries, or are they simply so profitable that the government doesn’t want to?

The ConversationOf course, China’s huge international ambitions will have some positive effects, and could even be economically transformative for certain nations. But many other elements will benefit China while profoundly damaging our planet.

Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University

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


Why has BHP distanced itself from legal threat to environment groups?

Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

Australian environment groups this week found an unexpected supporter in BHP, the world’s largest mining company.

BHP has defended green groups’ right to receive tax-deductable donations, in the face of a concerted push from both the federal government and the Minerals Council of Australia.

Given the influential role of the environment movement in Australia, and the legal precedent that NGOs and charities can be political, the big Australian evidently sees value in defending them.

Environment groups’ tax status

Environmental organisations in Australia have traditionally been able to claim tax-deductible status under both the Income Tax Act and the Charities Act, in recognition of the fact that the work these groups do has a clear public benefit. But this status has now come under threat.

The federal government issued a report in 2016 entitled Tax Deductible Gift Recipient Reform Opportunities, examining the administration and transparency of the environment groups. The ostensible aim of this report was to ensure that tax-deductible donations to environmental organisations were being used properly.

Among its key recommendations was that environmental organisations would be required to seek tax-deductible status directly from the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), and that they be registered as environmental charities in order to qualify. The report also recommended removing the list of environmental groups set out under the Income Tax Act.

Read more: Government inquiry takes aim at green charities that ‘get political

Controversially, the report also recommended that the ATO require environmental charities to spend at least 25% of their donation income on “environmental remediation work”, as opposed to campaigning or other activities. The government has subsequently indicated that it is considering increasing this percentage to 50%.

But the Minerals Council of Australia argues that environmental charities should be forced to commit 90% of their resources to on-the-ground environmental remediation, education and research, leaving only 10% for political advocacy.

Support within the LNP

Federal resources minister Matt Canavan has indicated his support for removing tax-deductible status from environmental organisations. In 2015 he stated:

…there are a large minority [of environmental groups] who are clearly engaged primarily in trying to stop fossil fuel development in Australia and I don’t think it’s right that Australian taxpayers, including people who work in the mining industry, be asked to fund those activities.

The Minerals Council of Australia has also backed the removal of tax-deductible status from environmental organisations, claiming that many of these groups are “not environmental organisations but rather professional activist groups whose objective is to disrupt and hamper the resources sector”.

The Minerals Council issued its own report documenting environmental organisations that is claims have committed or encouraged unlawful or unsafe activities or sought tax-deductible donations to support politically partisan activities.

The report specifically refers to activities by organisations including Greenpeace, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Nature Conservation Foundation of NSW, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, and Australian Marine Conservation, arguing that their activities are against federal law.

It is also important to note that environmental organisations are not the only groups to receive tax-deductible status. Other groups, such as the Institute for Public Affairs, which often campaigns on behalf of large organisations to remove environmental protections, also has this status.

Environment groups can be political

Legally speaking, there is no doubt that environmental charities and other NGOs do engage in political activities in addition to their focus on public welfare and the environment. This does not prevent them from being treated as charities.

Indeed, in the landmark High Court decision of Aid/Watch in 2011, the court specifically stated that where it is clear that public welfare is a primary motivation, the fact that the organisation also has political purposes is irrelevant.

On this basis, an environmental organisation can engage in activities to promote political change while still maintaining as its principal purpose the conservation or improvement of the natural environment.

Read more: Australia needs politically active environmental groups

Even BHP agrees. In response to the Minerals Council report, BHP announced that it holds a different view. It argued that environmental organisations should not be stripped of their tax-deductible status, because these organisations perform important advocacy roles for policy development in a democratic society.

Subsequently, 100 BHP shareholders have put forward a shareholder resolution through the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility calling on the company to leave the Minerals Council of Australia. They argued that the Minerals Council’s position is directly at odds with “our company’s long-term financial and strategic interests”.

BHP has agreed to review its membership of the Minerals Council of Australia. It is not alone. In 2016, one of Australia’s largest emitters of greenhouse gas, AGL, left the Minerals Council, citing material differences in their respective policies on climate change and energy.

Environment groups should be allowed to do their work

At a time when we are facing a rapidly transitioning energy landscape – with the acceleration of climate change, renewable energy production, new technologies for unconventional gas extraction, and increasing concerns regarding groundwater depletion and contamination – environmental protection is a major public concern.

It’s hardly surprising that in a democratic framework, environmental organisations have become more politically active. They are striving to ensure that the research and education they conduct with respect to the environment is appropriately reflected within the Australian legal framework.

The ConversationThis work ultimately benefits all Australians. These organistions are constantly seeking to improve and protect the natural habitat in which we all live. In a democracy like ours, the work of these groups should not be drained of funding through changes to the taxation system.

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

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


Money can’t buy me love, but you can put a price on a tree

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Mountain ash in the Victorian Central Highlands.
Takver/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Heather Keith, Australian National University; David Lindenmayer, Australian National University, and Michael Vardon, Australian National University

What is something worth? How do you put a dollar value on something like a river, a forest or a reef? When one report announces that the Great Barrier Reef is worth A$56 billion, and another that it’s effectively priceless, what does it mean and can they be reconciled?

This contrast points to fundamentally different notions of value. Environmental accounting is a way of recognising and comparing multiple sources of value, in order to better weigh competing priorities in resource management.

In practice it is sometimes crude, but it’s been standardised internationally and its scope is expanding to include social, cultural, and intrinsic benefits.

Read more: What’s the economic value of the Great Barrier Reef? It’s priceless

Using environmental accounting we’ve investigated the tall, wet forests of Victoria’s Central Highlands to weigh the competing economic cases for continuing native timber harvesting and creating a Great Forest National Park. But first we’ll explain a little more about environmental accounting, and how we put a price on trees.

What we count

Essentially, environmental accounting involves identifying the contributions of the environment to the economy, summarised as gross domestic product (GDP). In Australia, the Australian Bureau of Statistics standardises the data and reporting of these contributions in the System of National Accounts. The Bureau also produces environmental accounts that extend the range of information presented – e.g. water and energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Read more: Why we need environmental accounts alongside national accounts

But there are other things of value, like positive environmental and social outcomes, worth incorporating into calculations. Ecosystem accounting gives researchers a framework for doing this, extending the accounting to look at the value of different “ecosystem services” – the contributions of ecosystems to our wellbeing – and not just goods and services captured in our national accounts or environmental accounts.

For example, businesses and homes pay a price for water delivery, but the supplier doesn’t pay for the water that entered the dam. That water is an ecosystem service created by forests and the atmosphere. By assessing costs in the water supply industry, we can estimate the value of the ecosystem service of water provisioning.

The value of Victoria’s Central Highlands

Victoria’s Central Highlands are contested ground. Claims and counter-claims abound between the proponents of native timber production and those who are concerned about the impacts of logging on water supply, climate abatement and threatened species.

Our research has, for the first time, directly compared the economic and environmental values of this ecosystem. It shows that creating a Great Forest National Park is clearly better value.

Read more: Why Victoria needs a Giant Forest National Park

With any change in land management, there will be gains and losses for different people and groups. Assessing these trade-offs is complex, made even more so by patchy and inconsistent data.

Through careful accounting, we synthesised the available data and calculated the annual contributions of industries to GDP. In 2013-14, the latest year for which all financial data were available, these came to A$310 million for water supply, A$312 million for agriculture, A$260 million for tourism and potentially A$49 million for carbon storage. (There is no current market for carbon stored in native forests in Australia – more on that in a minute.)

All of this far exceeds the A$12 million from native timber production. Although timber production is a traditional industry, its contribution to the regional economy is now comparatively small.

The GDP contribution in millions of dollars by primary industries in 2013-14.
Author provided

The industries that use ecosystem services are classified as primary production – agriculture, forestry and water supply. This classification is comprehensive (it covers all economic activities) and mutually exclusive (there is no overlap of categories). Downstream uses of the products from agriculture, forestry and water supply are an important consideration for the industries as a whole, but are included in manufacturing industries and not in ecosystem accounts.

Older forests are more valuable

Native timber production involves clearfell harvesting (removing the majority of trees at the site) and slash burning (using high-intensity fire to burn logging residue and provide an ash bed for regeneration). Regenerating forests are younger, with all trees the same age, and have lower species diversity.

This means these young forests contribute less to biodiversity, carbon storage, water supply and recreation. Therefore harvesting native timber requires a trade-off between these conflicting activities.

Trade-offs between industries in their use of ecosystem services can be complementary (green) or conflicting (red).
Author provided

But more than 60% of the native timber harvested in the Central Highlands is used for pulp. This can be substituted by production from plantations that are more efficient and increased use of recycled paper. Both softwood and hardwood plantations can provide substitute sawlogs.

If we phased out native forest harvesting, increases in the value of water supply and carbon storage would offset the loss of A$12 million per year contributed by the industry. (It would also most likely increase profits for the tourism and plantation timber sectors.)

Older trees use less water than young regrowth, and allowing native forests to age would increase the supply of water to Melbourne’s main reservoirs by an estimated 10.5 gigalitres per year. That’s worth A$8 million per year. Security of water supply for the increasing population of Melbourne is an ever-present concern, particularly with projected decreases in rainfall and streamflow.

Older forests also store more carbon than younger regrowth forests. The federal government’s Emission Reduction Fund does not recognise native forest management as an eligible activity for carbon trading, but if this changed the forest could earn carbon credits worth A$13 million per year. This would provide an ongoing and low-cost source of carbon abatement, which could be used to meet Australia’s emissions reduction targets, while the Victorian government could use the money gained to support an industry transition.

Of course, economic benefit is only one way of looking at land. We know that the Central Highlands is home to unique flora and fauna that cannot be replaced (much of which is increasingly under threat). But careful environmental accounting can help explicitly define the various trade-offs of different activities.

The ConversationIt’s particularly important when legacy industries – like native timber harvesting – are no longer environmentally or economically viable. The accounting reveals the current mix of benefits and costs, allowing management of this area to be reconsidered.

Heather Keith, Research Fellow in Ecology, Australian National University; David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University, and Michael Vardon, Visiting Fellow at the Fenner School, Australian National University

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