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Thursday, 06 February 2020 20:39

Following the Fires – Time to Reboot Biodiversity Management

Currently there are several reviews taking place into biodiversity management at the federal level:

  • Senate inquiry into faunal extinction
  • review of the Biodiversity Conservation Strategy
  • review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act)

The outcomes of these reviews will be important in setting policies for the long-term survival of Australia’s unique biodiversity.

In the shorter term there is vital work to be done in ensuring that the wildlife that has survived the drought and fires has sufficient food and water and is not overwhelmed by feral animals such as cats and foxes. The major work will be in bushland to ensure it not invaded by weeds or pillaged by feral horses and deer.

Funding for biodiversity management at the federal and state level has been cut severely since the coalition came into power in 2013. Surely, after the massive bushfires governments need to reassess their priorities for biodiversity management. The media focus has been on the rescue of cute and cuddly animals. Even their long-term survival depends on restoration of habitat.

STEP Matters has included articles about Australia’s biodiversity strategy before. In Issue 194 we lamented the inadequacy of the 2010–2030 strategy. In summary it was at the level of simplistic statements with no quantification of targets. Instead it linked to various strategies that are to be adopted by the states and territories.

It is pleasing to report that progress has been made. On 8 November 2019, Australian, state and territory environment ministers endorsed a new approach to biodiversity conservation through Australia’s Strategy for Nature 2019–2030. The strategy is supported by a dedicated website, Australia’s Nature Hub. Both the strategy and the hub are owned by all the governments involved.

The strategy is coordinated with the Aichi Biodiversity Targets under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. These targets are meant to be in place by 2020. We are a bit late but at least we have started.

The strategy provides an adaptive approach allowing each jurisdiction the flexibility to establish targets appropriate to the variety of environments across Australia and to change these as we continue to build knowledge during the life of the strategy.

It does acknowledge the scale of our biodiversity crisis and the role of science in finding solutions. For the first time there is explicit recognition of the need for management to allow for climate change.

An example of the goals is ‘reduce threats to nature and build resilience’. There are six progress measures under this goal, but most are not anything that can be measured, for example ‘retention, protection and/or restoration of landscape-scale, native vegetation corridors’.

A baseline is needed in order to assess progress in achieving this sort of goal. Following the fires, we may need two baselines for many species and vegetation communities – pre-fires and post-fires.

In a positive move the strategy sets an accountability framework, with ongoing working groups and four-yearly reporting, and should drive collaboration between federal agencies, the states and territories on nature conservation – all welcome moves. Fingers crossed that there is the will to progress the strategy beyond statements of the problems and the desire to fix them.

The amount of funding provided for the implementation of the strategy by all the jurisdictions involved is unknown. In the short term, funding will be focussed on fire recovery. Federal funding for the environment department has been cut.

The legislation to support the strategy at the federal level is the EPBC Act. It is currently under review – see below. The shortcomings of the NSW biodiversity legislation will be a stumbling block.

The Nature Hub is a link to projects and strategies that have been adopted so far. There is not much information there yet so the implementation mechanisms for most objectives are unclear.

For example, the national Threatened Species Strategy that commenced in 2016 has goals to tackle the feral cat problem, create safe havens for species at risk from feral cats, improve habitat and apply emergency interventions to avert extinctions. Targets to measure success are:

  • 2 million feral cats culled by 2020
  • 20 threatened mammals and 20 threatened birds improving by 2020
  • protecting Australia’s plants
  • improving recovery guidance

Senate Inquiry into Faunal Extinctions

This enquiry commenced in June 2018 and provided an interim report in April 2019 just prior to the federal election at which point the enquiry automatically folded.

The main points in the interim report were:

  • Our lack of knowledge about fauna species – estimates suggest that, at present, there are 250 000 faunal species in Australia, with around 120 000 of these yet to be scientifically documented.
  • We have a damning track record with a continuing decline in mammal species and a very significant slump in bird populations.
  • Evidence given to the enquiry raised serious questions about the ability of the EPBC Act to achieve its objectives with extinctions continuing since the act was introduced in 1999.
  • The EPBC Act has no compulsory mechanism to address the cumulative impacts of species decline including the loss, degradation and fragmentation of habitat, the threats posed by invasive species and the effects of climate change.
  • The framework of the EPBC Act is not adequate to address the drivers of species decline plus there have been significant failures in its implementation, including use and resourcing of compliance and protection mechanisms, and that these would need to be addressed in a new or revised act.
  • New environmental laws should be developed and there should be an independent institution with sufficient powers and funding to administer and oversee environmental approvals and compliance.

After the election the Senate granted the committee a further extension of time to produce a final report to 7 September 2020. We hope the Senate inquiry has some influence on the formal government processes and the funding available.

Review of EPBC Act

The federal government is undertaking a review of the chief biodiversity conservation law, the EPBC Act. It is led by Prof Graeme Samuel. A discussion paper can be found here.

The closing date for submissions has been extended to 17 April 2020.

The EPBC Act is more than 1000 pages of complex legislation, to which has been added over 400 pages of regulations. Clearly it is not fit for purpose of improving biodiversity into the future when we consider the outcomes of the past 20 years.

The Environment Defenders Office is calling for:

  • A new Australian environment act that elevates environmental protection and biodiversity conservation as the primary aim of the act instead of the narrowly defined matters of national environmental significance.
  • Duties on decision makers to exercise their powers to achieve the act’s aims.
  • Two new statutory environmental authorities – a National Sustainability Commission and a National Environment Protection Authority.
  • New triggers for federal protection action including activities that will impact on national reserve system (terrestrial and marine protected areas), ecosystems of national importance, vulnerable ecological communities, significant land-clearing activities, significant greenhouse gas emissions, significant water resources (beyond coal and gas project impacts).
  • A dual focus on protection and recovery of threatened species and ecological communities.
  • A national ecosystems assessment and environmental data and monitoring program that links federal, state and territory data.
  • Greater emphasis on indigenous leadership, land management and biodiversity stewardship, including formal recognition of indigenous protected areas.
  • A suite of international conservation protections to ensure Australian governments, companies, citizens and supply chains protect and support global biodiversity.

One of the stumbling blocks is the mindset held by governments and business that decisions should be made quickly to reduce ‘green tape’. The value of the environment has to be elevated above the value of development at any cost.