Australia will get the biggest overhaul of its federal environment laws in two decades if a Labor government is elected next year.
Labor would establish a new Australian Environment Act and create a federal Environmental Protection Agency in its first term.
The commitments were flagged by Bill Shorten and approved by delegates at the ALP national conference, which is meeting in Adelaide.
The new legislation would replace the present Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act which was passed under the Howard government’s environment minister Robert Hill in 1999.
The new agency would oversee and enforce the revised act, conduct inquiries and advise the minister on environmental approval decisions.
Environment shadow minister Tony Burke said the current act was now twenty years old and had not been significantly reformed.
“It is time to bring it into the twenty-first century. In 2018, it is bizarre that the national environmental law does not properly factor in climate change”, Burke said.
He said the new EPA would have “the mission to protect Australia’s natural environment”.
“It will be informed by the best available scientific advice and ensure compliance with environmental law.”
It would “have the ability to conduct public inquiries on important environmental matters”.
“The new legal framework will compel the Australian government to actively protect our unique natural environment and demonstrate national leadership”
The decisions are a victory for the Labor Environment Action Network (LEAN), a group within the ALP membership that lobbies on environmental matters. LEAN got about 480 branches to sign up to its push for extensive reforms.
While LEAN did not obtain its whole agenda, it won extensive elements of what it was pressing for.
The changes were promoted by the left of the ALP.
It was reported that there was resistance from Burke to some of the LEAN demands.
Burke said Labor would establish a working group of experts including scientists, environmental lawyers and public policy thinkers to refine the detail of the changes. Stakeholders, including states and territories, Indigenous representatives, affected industries, business groups, unions and civil society would also be involved.“
“The Australian Environment Act will aim to tackle problems identified by industry, which has identified inefficiencies, delays and hurdles. The new law will protect the environment while aiming to give business more certainty”, Burke said.
The Greens said the environmental protections endorsed by Labor would “fail without proper investment and a commitment to no new coal, oil and gas”.
The Places You Love alliance of 54 environment groups said: “The ALP’s commitment to stronger laws that will help end the decline of nature and our extinction epidemic, and an independent national watchdog to enforce those laws, represents a step by a major political party towards rectifying decades of neglect of Australia’s environment”.
Labor’s reform agenda was attacked by the Minerals Council of Australia which said it would “add another layer of green bureaucracy, which will cost jobs, discourage investment and make it easier for activists to disrupt and delay projects”.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack last week suggested the government would look at changing the law to allow water to be taken from the environment and given to farmers struggling with the drought.
This is a bad idea for several reasons. First, the environment needs water in dry years as well as wet ones. Second, unilaterally intervening in the way water is distributed between users undermines the water market, which is now worth billions of dollars. And, third, in dry years the environment gets a smaller allocation too, so there simply isn’t enough water to make this worthwhile.
In fact, the growingpolitical pressure being put on environmental water holders to sell their water to farmers is exactly the kind of interference that bodies such as the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder were established to avoid.
The environment always needs water
The ongoing sustainable use of rivers is based on key ecosystem functions being maintained, and this means that environmental water is needed in both wet and dry years. The objectives of environmental watering change from providing larger wetland inundation events in wet years, to maintaining critical refuges and basic ecosystem functions in dry years.
Prolonged dry periods cause severe stress to ecosystems, such as during the Millennium Drought when many Murray River red gums were sickened by salinity and lack of water. Environmental water is essential for ecosystem survival during these periods.
But during dry years the environmental water holders receive the same water allocations as other users. So it’s very unlikely there will be any “spare” water during drought. During a dry period, the environment is in urgentneed of water to protect endangered species and maintain basic ecosystem functions.
In response to McCormack’s suggestion, the National Irrigators’ Council argued that compulsorily acquiring water from the environment can actually hurt farmers who depend on the water market as a source of income or water during drought.
Water markets are underpinned by clear legal rights to water. In other words, the entitlements the environment holds are the same as those held by irrigators. If the government starts treating environmental water rights as barely worth the paper they’re printed on, farmers would have every reason to fear that their own water rights might similarly be stripped away in the future.
Maintaining the integrity of the water market is important for all participants who have chosen to sell water, based on reasonable expectations of how prices will hold up.
Can taking environmental water actually help farmers?
As federal Water Resources Minister David Littleproud noted this week, environmental water is only about 8% of total water allocations in storage throughout the Murray Darling Basin. In the southern basin, it is still only about 14%. This means that between 86% and 92% of water currently sitting in storage is already allocated to human use, including farming.
There are calls for the Commonwealth government to treat the drought as an emergency and to take (or “borrow”) water from environmental water holders. But the Murray-Darling Basin Plan already has specific arrangements in place for emergencies in which critical human water needs are threatened.
The current situation in New South Wales is not an emergency under the plan. Water resources across the northern Murray-Darling Basin are indeed low, but storages in the southern basin are still 50-75% full. Although many licence holders in NSW received zero water in July’s round of allocations, high-security water licences are at 95-100%. In northern Victoria, most high-reliability water shares on the Murray are at 71% allocation.
The situation can therefore be managed using existing tools, such as providing direct financial support to farming communities and buying water on the water market.
Environmental water is an investment, not a luxury
As Australia’s First Nations have known for millennia, a healthy environment is not an optional extra. It underpins the sustainability and security of the water we depend on. When river flows decline, the water becomes too toxic to use.
Water has been allocated to the environment throughout the Murray-Darling Basin to prevent the catastrophic blue-green algal blooms and salinity problems we have experienced in the past. If we want safe, secure water supplies for people, livestock and crops, we need to keep these key river ecosystems alive and well during the drought.
In the past decade alone, Australia has spent A$13 billion of taxpayers’ money to bring water use in the Murray-Darling Basin back to sustainable levels. If we let our governments treat the environment like a “water bank” to spend when times get tough, this huge investment will have been wasted.
It was reported this week that the federal Environment Department declined to prosecute Adani for failing to disclose that its Australian chief executive, Jeyakumar Janakaraj, was formerly the director of operations at a Zambian copper mine when it discharged toxic pollutants into a major river. Under the federal Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act, Adani is required to reveal the environmental history of its chief executive officers, and the federal report found Adani “may have been negligent”.
The revelations come as Adani faces down the Queensland government in the planning and environment court, over allegations the company concealed the full amount of coal-laden water discharged into the fragile Caley Valley Wetlands last year.
These concerns highlight some fundamental problems with the existing regulatory framework surrounding the long term utility and effectiveness of environmental conditions in upholding environmental protections for land impacted by mining projects.
These licences were contingent on Adani creating an environmental management plan, monitoring the ongoing impact of its mining activities on the environment, and actively minimising environmental degradation.
But are these safeguards working?
In 2015 Advocacy group Environmental Justice Australia reported several non-compliance issues with the Abbott Point Storm Water Dam, such as pest monitoring, weed eradication, establishing a register of flammable liquids, and implementation of the water monitoring plan.
More recently, in late 2017, significant amounts of black coal water were discovered in the fragile Caley Valley Wetlands next to the mine. Adani stands accused of withholding the full extent of the spill, redacting a laboratory report showing higher levels of contamination.
Adani seems to have released coalwater into the wetland despite it being a condition of its environmental approval that it takes sufficient care to avoid contamination. Its A$12,000 penalty for non-compliance is relatively small compared with the company’s operating costs.
In this instance, the environmental conditions have provided no substantive protection or utility. They have simply functioned as a convenient fig leaf for both Adani and the government.
Who is responsible for monitoring Adani?
Adani’s proposed mine falls under both state and federal legislation. Queensland’s Environmental Protection Act requires the holder of a mining lease to plan and conduct activities on site to prevent any potential or actual release of a hazardous contaminant.
Furthermore, the relevant environmental authority must make sure that hazardous spills are cleaned up as quickly as possible.
But as a project of “national environmental significance” (given its potential impact on water resources, threatened species, ecological communities, migratory species, world heritage areas and national heritage places), the mine also comes under the federal Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act.
Federal legislation obliges Adani to create an environmental management plan outlining exactly how it plans to promote environmental protection, and to manage and rehabilitate all areas affected by the mine.
Consequently, assessment of the environmental impact of the mine was conducted under a bilateral agreement between the both the federal and state regulatory frameworks. This means that the project has approval under both state and federal frameworks.
The aim is to reinforce environmental protection however in many instances there are significant problems with a lack of clear delineation with respect to management, monitoring and enforcement.
Does the system work?
Theoretically, these interlocking frameworks should work together to provide reinforced protection for the environment. The legislation operates on the core assumption that imposing environmental conditions minimises the environmental degradation from mining. However, the bilateral arrangement can often mean that the responsibility for monitoring matters of national environmental significance devolves to the state and the environmental conditions imposed at this level are ineffectively monitored and enforced and there is no public accountability.
For example, it has been alleged that Adani altered a laboratory report while appealing its fine for the contamination of the Caley Valley Wetlands, with the original document reportedly showing much higher levels of contamination. The allowable level of coal water in the wetlands was 100 milligrams. The original report indicated that Adani may have released up to 834 milligrams. This was subsequently modified in a follow-up report and the matter is currently under investigation.
If established, this amounts to a disturbing breach with potentially devastating impacts. It highlights not only the failure of the environmental condition to incentivise behavioural change, but also a fundamental failure in oversight and management.
If environmental conditions are not supported by sufficient monitoring processes and sanctions, they have little effect.
Environmental conditions are imposed with the aim of managing the risk of environmental degradation by mining projects. However, their enforcement is too often mired by inadequate andopaque enforcement and oversight procedures, a lack of transparency and insufficient public accountability
While the Queensland Labor government considers whether to increase the regulatory pressures on Adani, by subjecting them to further EPBC Act triggers such as the water resource trigger or the implementation of a new climate change trigger, perhaps the more fundamental question is whether these changes will ultimately improve environmental protection in the absence of stronger transparency and accountability and more robust management and enforcement processes for environmental conditions attached to mining projects.
What actions are required to implement nature-based solutions to Oceania’s most pressing sustainability challenges? That’s the question addressed by the recently released Brisbane Declaration on ecosystem services and sustainability in Oceania.
Compiled following a forum earlier this year in Brisbane, featuring researchers, politicians and community leaders, the declaration suggests that Australia can help Pacific Island communities in a much wider range of ways than simply responding to disasters such as tropical cyclones.
Many of the insights offered at the forum were shocking, especially for Australians. Over the past few years, many articles, including several on The Conversation, have highlighted the losses of beaches, villages and whole islands in the region, including in the Solomons, Catarets, Takuu Atoll and Torres Strait, as sea level has risen. But the forum in Brisbane highlighted how little many Australians understand about the implications of these events.
Over the past decade, Australia has experienced a range of extreme weather events, including Tropical Cyclone Debbie, which hit Queensland in the very week that the forum was in progress. People who have been directly affected by these events can understand the deep emotional trauma that accompanies damage to life and property.
At the forum, people from several Pacific nations spoke personally about how the tragedy of sea-level rise is impacting life, culture and nature for Pacific Islanders.
One story, which has become the focus of the play Mama’s Bones, told of the deep emotional suffering that results when islanders are forced to move from the land that holds their ancestors’ remains.
The forum also featured a screening of the film There Once Was an Island, which documents people living on the remote Takuu Atoll as they attempt to deal with the impact of rising seas on their 600-strong island community. Released in 2011, it shows how Pacific Islanders are already struggling with the pressure to relocate, the perils of moving to new homes far away, and the potentially painful fragmentation of families and community that will result.
Their culture is demonstrably under threat, yet many of the people featured in the film said they receive little government or international help in facing these upheavals. Australia’s foreign aid budgets have since shrunk even further.
As Stella Miria-Robinson, representing the Pacific Islands Council of Queensland, reminded participants at the forum, the losses faced by Pacific Islanders are at least partly due to the emissions-intensive lifestyles enjoyed by people in developed countries.
What can Australians do to help? Obviously, encouraging informed debate about aid and immigration policies is an important first step. As public policy researchers Susan Nicholls and Leanne Glenny have noted,
in relation to the 2003 Canberra bushfires, Australians understand so-called “hard hat” responses to crises (such as fixing the electricity, phones, water, roads and other infrastructure) much better than “soft hat” responses such as supporting the psychological recovery of those affected.
Similarly, participants in the Brisbane forum noted that Australian aid to Pacific nations is typically tied to hard-hat advice from consultants based in Australia. This means that soft-hat issues – like providing islanders with education and culturally appropriate psychological services – are under-supported.
The Brisbane Declaration calls on governments, aid agencies, academics and international development organisations to do better. Among a series of recommendations aimed at preserving Pacific Island communities and ecosystems, it calls for the agencies to “actively incorporate indigenous and local knowledge” in their plans.
At the heart of the recommendations is the need to establish mechanisms for ongoing conversations among Oceanic nations, to improve not only understanding of each others’ cultures but of people’s relationships with the environment. Key to these conversations is the development of a common language about the social and cultural, as well as economic, meaning of the natural environment to people, and the building of capacity among all nations to engage in productive dialogue (that is, both speaking and listening).
This capacity involves not only training in relevant skills, but also establishing relevant networks, collecting and sharing appropriate information, and acknowledging the importance of indigenous and local knowledge.
Apart from the recognition that Australians have some way to go to put themselves in the shoes of our Pacific neighbours, it is very clear that these neighbours, through the challenges they have already faced, have many valuable insights that can help Australia develop policies, governance arrangements and management approaches in our quest to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
This article was co-written by Simone Maynard, Forum Coordinator and Ecosystem Services Thematic Group Lead, IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management.
If the allegations are true that billions of litres of water worth millions of dollars were illegally extracted, this would represent one of the largest thefts in Australian history. It would have social and economic consequences for communities along the entire length of the Murray-Darling river system, and for the river itself, after years of trying to restore its health.
Water is big business, big politics and a big player in our environment. Taxpayers have spent A$13 billion on water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin in the past decade, hundreds of millions of which have gone directly to state governments. Governments have an obligation to ensure that this money is well spent.
The revelations cast doubt on the states’ willingness to do this, and even on their commitment to the entire Murray-Darling Basin Plan. This commitment needs to be reaffirmed urgently.
To work out where to go from here, it helps to understand the principles on which the Basin Plan was conceived. At its foundation, Australian water reform is based on four pillars.
1. Environmental water and fair consumption
The initial driver of water reform in the late 1990s was a widespread recognition that too much water had been allocated from the Murray-Darling system, and that it had suffered ecological damage as a result.
State and Commonwealth governments made a bipartisan commitment to reset the balance between water consumption and environmental water, to help restore the basin’s health and also to ensure that water-dependent industries and communities can be strong and sustainable.
Key to this was the idea that water users along the river would have fair access to water. Upstream users could not take water to the detriment of people downstream. The Four Corners investigation casts doubt on the NSW’s commitment to this principle.
This involved calculating how much water could be taken from the river while ensuring a healthy ecosystem (the Sustainable Diversion Limit). Based on these calculations, state governments developed a water recovery program, which aimed to recover 2,750 gigalitres of water per year from consumptive use, through a A$3 billion water entitlement buyback and a A$9 billion irrigation modernisation program.
This program hinged on the development of water accounting tools that could measure both water availability and consumption. Only through trust in this process can downstream users be confident that they are receiving their fair share.
3. States retain control of water
Control of water was a major stumbling block in negotiating the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, because of a clash between states’ water-management responsibilities and the Commonwealth’s obligations to the environment.
As a result, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority sits outside of both state and Commonwealth governments, and states have to draw up water management plans that are subject to approval by the authority.
The states are responsible for enforcing these plans and ensuring that allocations are not exceeded. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority cannot easily enforce action on the ground – a situation that generates potential for state-level political interference, as alleged by the Four Corners investigation.
Water trading has also helped to make water use more flexible. In a dry year, farmers with annual crops (such as cotton) can choose not to plant and instead to sell their water to farmers such as horticulturists who must irrigate to keep their trees alive. This flexibility is valuable in Australia’s highly variable climate.
Yet it is also true that water trading has created some big winners. Those with pre-existing water rights have been able to capitalise on that asset and invest heavily in buying further water rights, an outcome highlighted in the Four Corners story.
The public needs to be able to trust that all parties are working honestly and accountably. This is particularly true for the downstream partners, who are the most likely victims of management failures upstream. Without trust in the upstream states, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan will unravel.
State governments urgently need to reaffirm their commitment to the four pillars that underpin the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and to reassure the public that in retaining control of water they are operating in good faith.
Finally, rigour and transparency are needed in assessing the Basin Plan’s methods and environmental benefits, and the operation of the water market. The Productivity Commission’s review of national water policy, and its specific review of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan next year, will offer a clear opportunity to reassure everyone that the A$13 billion of public money that has gone into water reform in the past decade has been money well spent.
Only then will the fragile trust that underlies the water reform process be maintained and built.
As President Donald Trump mulls over whether to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, it is hard to imagine that he’s listening to the experts. US climate researchers are being so stifled, ignored or blackballed that France has now offered sanctuary to these misunderstood souls.
One might prefer to think of Trump as an outlier in an otherwise environmentally sane world. But alarmingly, there’s just too much evidence to the contrary.
A recent analysis, led by Guillaume Chapron of Sweden’s Agricultural University, reveals a rising tide of assaults on environmental safeguards worldwide. If nothing else, it illustrates the sheer range and creativity of tactics used by those who seek to profit at the expense of nature.
The assaults on environmental protections are so diverse that Chapron and his colleagues had to devise a new “taxonomy” to categorise them all. They have even set up a public database to track these efforts, giving us a laundry list of environmental rollbacks from around the world.
One might perhaps hope that species staring extinction in the face would be afforded special protection. Not in the western US states of Idaho and Montana, where endangered gray wolves have been taken off the endangered species list, meaning they can be shot if they stray outside designated wilderness or management areas.
In Western Australia, an endangered species can be legally driven to extinction if the state’s environment minister orders it and parliament approves.
Think diverse ecosystems are important? In Canada, not so much. There, native fish species with no economic, recreational or indigenous value don’t get any legal protection from harm.
And in France – a crucial flyway for Eurasian and African birds – killing migratory birds is technically illegal. But migrating birds could be shot out of the sky anyway because the environment minister ordered a delay in the law’s enforcement.
In South Africa, the environment minister formerly had authority to limit environmental damage and oversee ecological restoration at the nation’s many mining sites. But that power has now been handed over to the mining minister, raising fears of conflict between industry and environmental interests.
In Brazil, the famous Forest Code that has helped to reduce deforestation rates in the Amazon has been seriously watered down. Safeguards for forests along waterways and on hillsides have been weakened, and landowners who illegally fell forests no longer need to replant them.
And in Indonesia, it’s illegal to carry out destructive open-pit mining in protected forest areas. But aggressive mining firms are forcing the government to let them break the law anyway, or else face spending public money on legal battles.
In many parts of the world, those who criticise environmentally destructive corporations are getting hit with so-called “strategic lawsuits against public participation”, or SLAPP suits.
In Peru, for instance, a corporation that was mowing down native rainforest to grow “sustainable” cacao for chocolate routinely used lawsuits and legal threats to intimidate critics.
That’s before we’ve even discussed climate change, which you might not be allowed to do in the US anyway. Proposed legislation would prohibit the government from considering climate change as a threat to any species. No wonder researchers want to move overseas.
As the above examples show, essential environmental safeguards are being conveniently downsized, diminished, ignored or swept under the carpet all over the world.
Viewed in isolation, each of these actions might be rationalised or defended – a small compromise made in the name of progress, jobs or the economy. But in a natural world threatened with “death by a thousand cuts”, no single wound can be judged in isolation.
Without our hard-won environmental protections, we would all already be breathing polluted air, drinking befouled water, and living in a world with much less wildlife.
This article is an edited version of a blog post that originally appeared here.
The Federal Budget has been delivered and Australians are headed for the polls. In this series, Reform Revisited, we ask writers for innovative ways to tackle our reform agenda.
Charles Dickens’ character Oliver Twist is perhaps best known as the boy who wanted more. Of course, he got none. Instead, his efforts prompted Mr Bumble, the parish beadle (official) to offer a princely £5 to anyone who would take the boy off his hands.
The environment is something of a modern Oliver Twist in the budget workhouse. There’s certainly no more porridge on offer – indeed significantly less counting the changes to renewable energy funding announced on 23 March. Last Tuesday’s federal budget contained no new policy and no new money, only some savings and the allocation of funds already set aside for environmental purposes. And, Mr Bumble-like, the Government remains committed to its “one-stop shop” policy of transferring environmental approval powers to “willing jurisdictions”, to use the terminology of the Department of Environment.
But how much budget porridge is needed for a hungry environment? And what does the environment do that deserves porridge anyway? The budget might at least be expected to consider the environment’s contribution to the economy (for example, through agriculture) if not in relation to the broader goal of maintaining the environment for its inherent value, as articulated by Environment Minister Greg Hunt’s budget media release.
The budget continues to support some worthy initiatives, such as the management and protection of the Great Barrier Reef through the Reef 2050 Plan. But, overall, we do not know if the budget funding will deliver the desired results across the environment, to maintain the functions that support our economy and lifestyle. Compare this the comprehensive information and accounting systems in place to measure the performance and contribution of different industries (agriculture, manufacturing, retail trade and education) in the economy.
None of this is factored into the Budget in the way that economic indicators such as unemployment or economic growth rates are, so the impacts and risks of the changing environment on the economy are ignored.
These days, the problem is more one of data organisation rather than data availability. The obscurely-titled System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA) attempts to do for the environment what the System of National Accounts has done for the general economy: systematically and regularly present data in a way that reveals what is going on, and to some extent, why.
The ABS already uses SEEA to produce accounts, although these are as yet very basic. If Treasury used information from a comprehensive set of environmental accounts alongside its existing information in developing the Budget, the economic and environmental justifications for environmental spending would be much clearer. More fundamentally, we would have a much better sense of whether we were on the path to sustainability, and if not, where additional investment could have most impact.
Oliver Twist was of course fiction. But in penning his novel Dickens had a real-world target: the British Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which ushered in a primitive work-for-the-dole scheme in the form of parish workhouses. While the immediate problem in the story might have been Oliver’s empty bowl, the underlying problem in the real world was that with the industrial revolution, the parish system on which British society had operated for centuries was breaking down rapidly as rural workers migrated en masse to the newly-industrialised cities. Forcing the indigent into workhouses was a budget fix, when what was really needed was a new welfare system.
The approaches taken in managing Australia’s environment, including through the Budget, are as obsolete as the Poor Law was in Dickensian Britain. We don’t know how much environmental investment is needed, or where best to place it. But just as the Turnbull government has a 10-year economic plan for reducing company tax, and is making a 40-year investment in submarines, we need a long-term plan for environmental investment. Until we have a comprehensive set of environmental accounts linked to existing economic information, such a plan will lack foundation and our modern Oliver Twist will have no option beyond the poorhouse plea: “Please, sir, I want some more.”