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.


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

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This quenda seems to have been a victim of land clearing.
Colin Leonhardt/Birdseyeviewphotography.com.au, Author provided

Hugh Finn, Curtin University

Tens of millions of wild animals are killed each year by land clearing across Australia, according to our research on the harm done to animals when native vegetation is removed for agricultural, urban and industrial development.

As my colleague Nahiid Stephens and I point out in our study, this harm to animals is largely invisible, unlike the obvious effects of clearing on trees and other plants. But just because something is invisible, that does not mean it should be ignored.

We argue that reforms are necessary to ensure that decision-makers take wild animals’ welfare into account when assessing development proposals and land clearing applications.

How does land clearing harm animals?

Land clearing harms animals in two basic ways. First, they may be killed or injured when native vegetation is removed, typically through the use of earth-moving machinery. For example, animals may suffer traumatic injuries or be smothered when vegetation is cut or soil and debris are shifted.

Second, the removal of native vegetation puts animals in harm’s way. Those that survive the clearing process will be left in an environment that is typically hostile, unfamiliar or unsuitable. Animals are likely to find themselves in landscapes that are devoid of food and shelter but filled with predators, disease, and increased aggression from members of their own species as they struggle to make a living.

Land clearing causes animals to die in ways that are physically painful and psychologically distressing. Animals will also suffer physical injuries and other pathological conditions that may persist for days or months as they try to survive in cleared areas or other environments to which they are displaced.

Many reptiles and mammals are territorial or have small home ranges, and thus have strong associations with small areas of habitat. Koalas in urban areas, for example, tend to rely on particular food trees. Likewise, lizards and snakes often rely on particular microhabitat features such as logs, rocks, and leaf litter to provide the combination of temperature and humidity that they need to survive.

Laws are not protecting animals

Land clearing remains a fundamental pressure on the Australian environment. While the regulatory frameworks for land clearing vary greatly across the Australian states and territories, the principal statutes that govern native vegetation clearance in most jurisdictions typically contain some sort of express recognition of the harm that land clearing causes, such as the loss or fragmentation of habitat, land degradation, and salinity.

Habitat lost: land cleared for the now-discontinued Perth Freight Link road project.
Colin Leonhardt/Birdseyeviewphotography.com.au, Author provided

Yet these regulations are uniformly silent on the issue of how land clearing harms animals. No state or territory has developed a clear framework to evaluate this harm, let alone minimise it in future development proposals.

This failure to recognise animal welfare as a significant issue for decision-making about land clearing is troubling, especially given the scale of current land clearing. In Queensland, for example, an estimated 296,000 hectares of woody vegetation was cleared in 2014-15, nearly all of which was for the purpose of converting native vegetation to pasture. In our study we estimate that, on the basis of previous studies and current estimates of clearing rates, land clearing in Queensland and New South Wales combined kills more than 50 million birds, mammals and reptiles each year.

What reforms are necessary?

We suggest that two basic reforms are required. First, state and territory parliaments should amend the laws that govern environmental impact assessments and native vegetation clearance, to require decision-makers to take animal welfare into account when assessing land clearing applications.

Second, we urgently need accurate ways to evaluate the harm that proposed clearing actions may cause to individual animals. Animal welfare is broadly recognised as an important social concern, so it makes sense that in a situation where we know animals are being harmed, we should take steps to measure and prevent that harm.

The basic aim of any reform should be to ensure that the harm that land clearing causes to individual wild animals is appropriately considered in all forms of environmental decision-making and that such evaluations are based on clear and objective criteria for animal welfare.

At a minimum, those who apply to clear native vegetation should be required to provide an estimate of the number and type of native animals that will be killed by the proposed land clearing. This would ensure that all parties – applicants, decision-makers, and the community – understand the harm that the clearing would cause. These estimates could be made by using population density information for species that are likely to be affected – an approach that has been already been used.

We also need to revise our perceptions about the usefulness and necessity of land clearing in Australia. A better idea of what is “acceptable” would include not only the environmental costs of clearing an area of native vegetation, but also the individual suffering that animals will experience.

Issues of causation and responsibility are critical here. While it’s unlikely that someone who wants to clear land actually wants native animals to suffer, such suffering will nevertheless be an inevitable consequence. The relevant question is not whether animals will be killed and harmed when land is cleared, but how much of that harm will occur, how severe it will be, and whether it ought to be avoided.

The ConversationIf such harm is deemed necessary – based on an accepted system for weighing the potential benefits and harms – the next question is how the harm to animals can be minimised by, for example, keeping the amount of vegetation to be cleared to a minimum.

Hugh Finn, Lecturer, Curtin University

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

Land clearing on the rise as legal ‘thinning’ proves far from clear-cut

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A ‘thinned’ landscape, which provides far from ideal habitat for many species.
Author provided

April Reside, The University of Queensland; Anita J Cosgrove, The University of Queensland; Jennifer Silcock, The University of Queensland; Leonie Seabrook, The University of Queensland, and Megan C Evans, The University of Queensland

Land clearing is accelerating across eastern Australia, despite our new research providing a clear warning of its impacts on the Great Barrier Reef, regional and global climate, and threatened native wildlife.

Policies in place to control land clearing have been wound back across all Australian states, with major consequences for our natural environment.

One of the recent policy changes made in Queensland and New South Wales has been the introduction of self-assessable codes that allow landholders to clear native vegetation without a permit. These codes are meant to allow small amounts of “low-risk” clearing, so that landholders save time and money and government can focus on regulating activities that have bigger potential impacts on the environment.

However, substantial areas of native forest are set to be cleared in Queensland under the guise of vegetation “thinning”, which is allowed by these self-assessable codes. How did this happen?

Thin on the ground

Thinning involves the selective removal of native trees and shrubs, and is widely used in the grazing industry to improve pasture quality. It has been argued that thinning returns the environment back to its “natural state” and provides better habitat for native wildlife. However, the science supporting this practice is not as clear-cut as it seems.

Vegetation “thickening” is part of a natural, dynamic ecological cycle. Australia’s climate is highly variable, so vegetation tends to grow more in wetter years and then dies off during drought years. These natural cycles of thickening and thinning can span 50 years or more. In most areas of inland eastern Australia, there is little evidence for ongoing vegetation thickening since pastoral settlement.

Thinning of vegetation using tractors, blades and other machinery interrupts this natural cycle, which can make post-drought recovery of native vegetation more difficult. Loss of tree and shrub cover puts native wildlife at much greater risk from introduced predators like cats, and aggressive, “despotic” native birds. Thinning reduces the diversity of wildlife by favouring a few highly dominant species that prefer open vegetation, and reduces the availability of old trees with hollows.

Many native birds and animals can only survive in vegetation that hasn’t been cleared for at least 30 years. So although vegetation of course grows back after clearing, for native wildlife it’s a matter of quality, not just quantity.

Land clearing by stealth?

Thinning codes in Queensland and New South Wales allow landholders to clear vegetation that has thickened beyond its “natural state”. Yet there is little agreement on what the “natural state” is for many native vegetation communities.

Under the Queensland codes, up to 75% of vegetation in an area can be removed without a permit, and in New South Wales thinning can reduce tree density to a level that is too low to support natural ecosystems.

All of this thinning adds up. Since August 2016, the Queensland government has received self-assessable vegetation clearing code notifications totalling more than 260,000 hectares. These areas include habitat for threatened species, and ecosystems that have already been extensively cleared.

It may be that the actual amount of vegetation cleared under thinning codes is less than the notifications suggest. But we will only know for sure when the next report on land clearing is released, and by then it will be too late.

Getting the balance right

Vegetation policy needs to strike a balance between protecting the environment and enabling landholders to manage their businesses efficiently and sustainably. While self-regulation makes sense for some small-scale activities, the current thinning codes allow large areas of vegetation to be removed from high-risk areas without government oversight.

Thinning codes should only allow vegetation to be cleared in areas that are not mapped as habitat for threatened species or ecosystems, and not to an extent where only scattered trees are left standing in a landscape. Stronger regulation is still needed to reduce the rate of land clearing, which in Queensland is now the highest in a decade.

Protecting native vegetation on private land reduces soil erosion and soil salinity, improves water quality, regulates climate, and allows Australia’s unique plants and animals to survive. Landholders who preserve native vegetation alongside farming provide essential services to the Australian community, and should be rewarded. We need long-term incentives to allow landholders to profit from protecting vegetation instead of clearing it.

Our research has shown that Australian governments spend billions of dollars trying to achieve the benefits already provided by native vegetation, through programs such as the Emissions Reduction Fund, the 20 Million Trees program and Reef Rescue. Yet far more damage is inflicted by under-regulated clearing than is “fixed” by these programs.

The ConversationImagine what could be achieved if we spent that money more effectively.

April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Anita J Cosgrove, Research Assistant in the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Jennifer Silcock, Post-doctoral research fellow, The University of Queensland; Leonie Seabrook, Landscape Ecologist, The University of Queensland, and Megan C Evans, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Environmental Policy, The University of Queensland

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


Australia: Land Clearing


Stopping land clearing and replanting trees could help keep Australia cool in a warmer future

Clive McAlpine, The University of Queensland; Jozef Syktus, The University of Queensland, and Leonie Seabrook, The University of Queensland

Land clearing is on the rise in Queensland and New South Wales, with land clearing laws being fiercely debated.

In Queensland in 2013–14, 278,000 hectares of native vegetation were cleared (1.2 times the size of the Australian Capital Territory). A further 296,000ha were cleared in 2014–15. These are the highest rates of deforestation in the developed world.

Land clearing on this scale is bad for a whole host of reasons. But our research shows that it is also likely to make parts of Australia warmer and drier, adding to the effects of climate change.

How do trees change the climate?

Land clearing releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but the effect of land clearing on climate goes well beyond carbon emissions. It causes warming locally, regionally and even globally, and it changes rainfall by altering the circulation of heat and moisture.

Trees evaporate more water than any other vegetation type – up to 10 times more than crops and pastures. This is because trees have root systems that can access moisture deep within the soil. Crops and pastures have 70% of their roots in the top 30cm of the soil, while trees and other woody plants have 43% of their roots in the deeper part of the soil.

The increased evaporation and rough surface of trees creates moist, turbulent layers in the lower atmosphere. This reduces temperatures and contributes to cloud formation and increased rainfall. The increased rainfall then provides more moisture to soils and vegetation.

The clearing of deep-rooted native vegetation for shallow-rooted crops and pastures diminishes this process, resulting in a warmer and drier climate.

We can see this process at work along the “bunny fence” in southwest Western Australia, where there is a moister atmosphere and more clouds over native vegetation compared with nearby farming areas during summer.

Studies in Amazonia also indicate that as deforestation expands rainfall declines. A tipping point may be reached when deforestation reaches 30-50%, after which rainfall is substantially reduced. Complete deforestation results in the greatest decline in rainfall.

More trees, cooler moister climate

We wanted to know how land clearing could affect Australia’s climate in the future. We did this by modelling two scenarios for different amounts of land clearing, using models developed by CSIRO.

In the first scenario, crops and pasture expand in the semi-arid regions of eastern and southwest Australia. The second scenario limits crops and pastures to highly productive lands, and partially restores less productive lands to savanna woodlands.

We found that restoring trees to parts of Australia would reduce surface temperatures by up to 1.6℃, especially in western Queensland and NSW.

We also found that more trees reduced the overall climate-induced warming from 4.1℃ to 3.2℃ between 2050 and 2100.

Replanting trees could increase summer rainfall by 10% overall and by up to 15.2% in the southwest. We found soil moisture would increase by around 20% in replanted regions.

Our study doesn’t mean replanting all farmed land with trees, just areas that are less productive and less cost-effective to farm intensively. In our scenario, the areas that are restored in western Queensland and NSW would need a tree density of around 40%, which would allow a grassy understorey to be maintained. This would allow some production to continue such as cattle grazing at lower numbers or carbon farming.

Political and social challenges

Limiting land clearing represents a major challenge for Australia’s policymakers and farming communities.

The growing pressure to clear reflects a narrow economic focus on achieving short- to medium-term returns by expanding agriculture to meet the growing global demand for food and fibre.

However, temperatures are already increasing and rainfall is decreasing over large areas of eastern and southwest Australia. Tree clearing coupled with climate change will make growing crops and raising livestock even harder.

Balancing farming with managing climate change would give land owners on marginal land new options for income generation, while the most efficient agricultural land would remain in production. This would need a combination of regulation and long-term financial incentives.

The climate benefits of limiting land clearing must play a bigger part in land management as Australia’s climate becomes hotter and drier. Remnant vegetation needs to be conserved and extensive areas of regrowth must be allowed to regenerate. And where regeneration is not possible, we’ll have to plant large numbers of trees.

The Conversation

Clive McAlpine, Professor, The University of Queensland; Jozef Syktus, Principal Research Fellow, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland, and Leonie Seabrook, Landscape Ecologist, The University of Queensland

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


Queensland moves to control land clearing: other states need to follow

Megan C Evans, Australian National University

Queensland’s land clearing has yet again become a national issue. After laws were relaxed under the then Liberal-National state government in 2013, land-clearing rates tripled, undermining efforts to conserve wildlife and reduce carbon emissions.

Now the Labor state government wants to re-tighten the laws. The revised legislation is expected to be debated after June 30.

Land clearing is a highly contentious and polarising issue in Queensland. Scientists and environmental groups have voiced concerns about the dramatic increase in land clearing. But some rural landholders are reportedly worried about the prospect of re-tightened regulations and their possible impact on property values and business certainty.

So, what does the big picture suggest?

Then and now

Since the 1980s, all Australian states and territories have introduced laws to protect native vegetation, in response to rising public concern about land degradation, salinity, biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions.

The most significant policy reforms have been in Queensland – where the vast majority of land clearing in Australia has occurred over the past four decades – as I show in a new paper published in Pacific Conservation Biology.

Total forest loss due to human activity from 1972 – 2014. Data is sourced from the National Carbon Accounting System (NCAS), Australian Department of the Environment (2015). Image: Evans (2016) http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/PC15052

Changes to land-clearing laws in 2007 were heralded as the end of broad-scale clearing in Queensland. Clearing of remnant (old-growth) forest was restricted on freehold land, all remaining clearing permits (issued under a ballot) expired and A$150 million of compensation was provided to landholders. Further amendments in 2009 placed protections on “high value” (more than 20 years old) regrowth forest.

Fast forward to 2012, and Premier Campbell Newman was elected on a promise to keep Queensland’s land clearing laws in place. Soon afterwards though, Natural Resources Minister Andrew Cripps announced the Government would “take an axe” to tree-clearing laws.*

The 2013 amendments:

  • removed protections on “high value” regrowth forest

  • allowed landholders to self-assess clearing for activities such as fodder harvesting and vegetation thinning

  • allowed clearing of remnant forest for “high-value agriculture”

  • changed the onus of proof so that the Queensland government had to prove that land-clearing laws had been violated.

Queensland’s current Labor government intends to reverse most of the 2013 amendments to vegetation-clearing laws, as well as extending protections on regrowth forest to three additional catchments, to reduce runoff onto the Great Barrier Reef.

The laws will also be retrospective, in an effort to prevent panic clearing before the changes come in.

How does Queensland compare?

Queensland is not alone in its recent changes to vegetation protection laws.

New South Wales introduced self-assessment for “low risk” clearing in 2013. It also promised to repeal the Native Vegetation Act and replace it with a new Biodiversity Conservation Act. An independent review recommended that these changes occur, but environmental groups remain opposed.

Victoria’s vegetation laws were also changed in 2013. The then Coalition government’s changes included the removal of the “net gain” target in vegetation extent and quality that had been in place since 2003. The Victorian Labor government is now undertaking another review of the state’s regulations.

Laws have also been relaxed in Western Australia, where landholders may now clear up to 5 hectares per year on individual properties without a permit (an increase from 1 ha per year).

From state to self-regulation

Within ten years of what looked like the end of broad-scale land clearing in Australia, most state vegetation laws across the country have been relaxed.

Government regulation of native vegetation is generally unpopular with landholders and so maintaining these policies has proven to be politically unpalatable. At this stage, only Queensland is looking to re-strengthen land-clearing laws – and, even so, self-assessment for some clearing activities will remain.

What does this all mean for native vegetation in Australia? This is actually a difficult question to answer.

Many factors influence land clearing: rainfall, the price of key agricultural commodities and the amount of land available to clear. This complexity means it’s difficult to know what impact (if any) changes in policy have on the rate of land clearing.

Trends in national-scale deforestation and key macroeconomic variables. Plots are total deforestation versus: a) Year, b) Extent of primary forest remaining, c) Log-transformed total rainfall, d) Gross domestic product per capita (current USD) , e) Agriculture, value added (% total GDP) f) Farmer’s terms of trade. Image: Evans (2016) http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/PC15052

It’s quite clear that the relaxation of Queensland’s clearing laws was followed by a sharp increase in vegetation clearing, but it’s not yet apparent whether this has happened in other states.

A big issue is a lack of reliable data. There’s no consistent reporting of vegetation clearing across Australia. Some states, such as New South Wales, only publish information on the amount of clearing permitted by regulation.

As reported last week, total vegetation clearing in New South Wale is much higher than official data shows as most clearing is exempt from regulation, or illegal.

Better policy needed

If we’re serious about protecting Australia’s native vegetation for the sake of soil health, biodiversity and the climate, we need to use all the tools we have available to achieve this goal.

Using a mixture of government regulation, self-regulation and genuine economic incentives, such as carbon farming, is the best approach.

But no matter which policies we use, they all need to be monitored and evaluated to be effective. Otherwise, we have no idea whether all the time and money devoted to designing and implementing new policies has been worthwhile.

The inconsistency between the federal government’s Direct Action policy and the relaxation of state restrictions on vegetation clearing is a big problem. Landholders need a clear and consistent message from all levels of government if they are to adapt and make long-term business decisions.

Interestingly, around 75% of the recent clearing in Queensland has occurred in the Brigalow Belt and Mulga – areas where we’ve found that carbon farming could be more profitable than cattle grazing.

If only the price, and the policies, were right.

*This sentence was amended on May 10 2016 to clarify that land clearing laws were originally to be maintained.

The Conversation

Megan C Evans, PhD Candidate in Environmental Policy, Australian National University

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


Dominican Republic: Loma Charco Azul Biological Reserve – Clearing Begins

The link below is to an article reporting on land clearing in the Loma Charco Azul Biological Reserve in the Dominican Republic.

For more visit: