Government to establish federal environmental protection agency in major overhaul of Australia's environmental laws
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The federal government has committed to a landmark overhaul of Australia's environment laws in a move Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek says will reverse the decline of Australia's environment and "leave it in a better state than we found it".
The sweeping changes were proposed as a formal response to a review of Australia's 23-year-old federal environment laws, conducted by former ACCC boss Graeme Samuel and handed to the former Morrison government.
The reforms will include establishing a federal environmental protection agency (EPA) to act as a "tough cop on the beat", and will impose legally binding standards across all environmental decisions.
The overhaul will also bolster protections for areas of national environmental significance, and tighten standards for the logging of native forests.
Labor's commitment to law reform is a centrepiece of its environmental agenda, and will be key to implementing its goal of zero new extinctions.
It plans to have draft legislation complete by the middle of 2023, ready for introduction to parliament before the end of that year.
Environment groups have described the moves as "a strong start", "a first step" and "promising", but also have concerns about certain aspects.
The opposition called the move an "assault on the job-creators of our nation", while the crossbench, likely required to get the policy through parliament, called for some aspects of the changes to be strengthened.
Underpinning all decisions by the new EPA will be a set of "national standards" which will dictate the intended environmental outcomes of those decisions.
In addition, all conservation plans, policies and strategies developed under the environmental laws will need to be consistent with the national standards.
Shifting responsibility from politicians to a legislated body meant the public would be able to have more confidence in decisions about Australia's environment, Ms Plibersek said.
The first standard developed will govern the protection of Australia's most important places — known as "Matters of National Environmental Significance".
The government says that standard will require all decisions to improve the environment, not merely limit damage.
A national standard on First Nations engagement will also be developed as a priority, ensuring Indigenous people are properly and fully involved in decisions relating to their country and custom.
Those standards will be legally binding and have a ratchet mechanism built in whereby reviews can only result in them being strengthened, not weakened.
The government has accepted a recommendation of the Samuel Review to allow states to take on powers of approval.
However, any such devolution of powers would be required to comply with the new stronger national standards.
In addition, all decision-making processes by states must be transparent, and will be overseen by the new EPA.
Labor will also institute a system of "traffic light" ratings, incorporating very strong protections for "high conservation value" areas which will be marked "red" for protection.
Those areas will be determined through a new system of regional planning, which will ensure the cumulative impacts of multiple developments on one site are considered when assessing projects.
The government said the process of regional planning would also speed up development decisions by providing clear guidance on where different types of development would be appropriate.
In a move expected to please business and developers, the government has expanded the options for how developers can pay compensation for the environmental damage they cause.
Currently, when a project is approved conditional to compensation — or "offsets" — the compensation must be "like for like". So if koala habitat is cleared, koala habitat somewhere nearby needs to be protected.
But Labor's proposals would allow developers to simply pour money into an offset fund, which would be used for environmental restoration.
The government says that payment must be "sufficient to achieve a net positive environmental outcome".
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The government directly compared the scheme to one in New South Wales, which was blasted in September this year by the NSW auditor-general for failing to deliver outcomes.
The government will also establish what it has called a "nature repair market", which it says will allow businesses to "invest" in environmental restoration.
When Ms Plibersek flagged such a move earlier in the year — something she said could be "a green Wall Street" — she said the move was "not designed to be an offset scheme".
The market will be operated by the Clean Energy Regulator, which also regulates the troubled market for carbon offset credits in Australia.
The overhaul will eventually offer increased protections to Australia's native forests, which are controversially exempt from protections currently offered by national environmental laws.
The existing exemption means high-conservation areas, including threatened species habitat, can be logged without assessment or "offset" conditions that would normally be required.
It was described as 'the largest environmental protection policy' in Victoria's history, but within days of the announcement, old-growth forests were logged.
Under the changes, the government flagged loggers could be forced to comply with new national standards, which would likely make native forestry logging impossible in many parts of the country.
But exactly how and when that would happen remains unclear, with the government saying it will work with states and other stakeholders "towards" making those changes, and noting the "form" of the change is yet to be determined.
Developments like mines currently require approval under federal environment laws if they trip one of the "triggers" in the act. That includes whether the mines will impact important water resources or threatened species.
The Greens and many environment groups have argued a new "climate" trigger should be included — meaning projects with significant carbon emissions would need assessment, including consideration of the damage from those emissions.
The Samuel Review did not recommend a climate trigger be put into the legislation, and Labor has agreed.
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The government has said developers will need to report direct emissions of their projects, as well as emissions created by the electricity they use, but did not say fossil fuel projects would need to report emissions created when those fuels are burned by their customers.
The Queensland Conservation Council, who spoke alongside Ms Plibersek at a press conference, welcomed the government's plans, but said it was "disappointed" there was no climate trigger.
A Coalition spokesperson for the environment attacked the reforms for not having enough detail, and for hurting developers.
“Better environmental outcomes are essential," said opposition environment spokesperson Jonno Duniam.
"The Coalition supports the need to ensure that what we do in our country has minimal impact on our precious environment, but not at the cost of thousands of jobs and unworkable regulations which will strangle businesses across the country."
Labor has a minority in the Senate, so without the Coalition’s support, will need to negotiate with an environmentally-focussed crossbench made up of the Greens and Independent Senator David Pocock.
Greens environment spokesperson Sarah Hanson Young said, "the Greens will not be rubber stamping this legislative reform and will be pushing the Albanese Government to go harder and faster to protect our environment."
"We need immediate action, action must include climate action and stopping the destruction of native forests and habitat," she said.
"Sadly, this package does not deliver on these points, but the Greens are willing to work with the government to fix it."
Independent senator David Pocock said the government had a once in a generation opportunity to set the country's environmental laws on the right course.
He welcomed the government's goal to end all extinctions and said that aim needed to be backed with action and investment.
The reforms have been welcomed by the Australian Conservation Foundation's chief executive Kelly O'Shanassy, who said the measure of success would be whether or not they ended Australia's extinction crisis.
Tim Reed from the Business Council of Australia thanked the government for developing the changes through a consultative process and said they could work to the benefit of all Australians.
While welcoming the proposals though, environmental groups have called for a range of further details — including around accountability measures and funding.
Labor's internal environment group Labor Environment Action Network (LEAN) has been lobbying for some of these changes, including a federal EPA, for years.
Felicity Wade, convenor of LEAN, said the changes announced on Thursday were just "the first step in a great leap forward for Australia's wildlife and environment".
She said some of the proposals had the power to "begin tackling the catastrophic loss we are facing" but she wanted to work with the minister to ensure the EPA was "truly independent".
LEAN also wanted independent institutions to develop the national standards to ensure politics was taken out of the process.
Professor Brendan Wintle from the University of Melbourne said the new EPA was a very promising development.
"It will be the detail that will give us a sense of whether that will be a disaster like the NSW system or a better system that produces outcomes," said Professor Wintle, who this week launched the new Biodiversity Council, which aims to be a "strong and trusted voice" on nature.
The Invasive Species Council said there were "a lot of positives" in the proposals, but warned it wasn't enough to achieve the government's aim of zero extinctions, criticising the approach to offsets and calling for more funding to facilitate the changes.
"The environment portfolio is significantly underfunded when it comes to tackling threats to nature and implementing recovery actions," said James Trezise, conservation director at the Invasive Species Council.
"We need to make sure the government is investing more in on-ground conservation efforts if we are to recover threatened species in Australia," he said.
Editor's note (09/12/2022): An earlier version of this story indicated a recommendation of the Samuel Review related to devolving approval powers to the states was rejected, when in fact it was accepted by the Labor government.
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Government to establish federal environmental protection agency in major overhaul of Australia's environmental laws – ABC News
Government to establish federal environmental protection agency in major overhaul of Australia's environmental laws