Environmental to-do list: five ministerial priorities for Tanya Plibersek | Environment


There was a surprise last week when Tanya Plibersek was announced as Australia’s new Environment and Water Minister. The portfolio, which had been held by Terri Butler in opposition before losing her seat, comes with a long list of unresolved challenges.

Here are five that Plibersek will face as she gets to grips with her new role.

Correction of environmental laws

Little is universally accepted in Australian public life, but it is widely accepted that national environmental laws fail to protect the country’s unique natural heritage.

An official review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) by Graeme Samuel, the former consumer watchdog, found the laws were failing and the environment was in decline unsustainable. The Auditor General has twice come to similar conclusions.

The law’s framework, which leaves decisions on what constitutes a minimum level of protection almost entirely to the then environment minister, was questionable when the legislation was introduced in 1999 and makes less sense in 2022. Australia is the world leader in mammalian extinction and the number of species at risk has increased dramatically while the law was in place.

The new minister has no shortage of advice to rely on when deciding how to react. First and foremost, there are 38 recommendations from Samuel that the previous government failed to address, including the introduction of national environmental standards against which major developments must be assessed.

Labor went to the election with a minimal stance on the EPBC Act, promising only to respond fully to Samuel’s scrutiny. This answer will be the best early indication of Plibersek’s plans.

It will be measured alongside the findings of the five-year State of the Environment Report, a major assessment of nature across the country. The Coalition sat on the report before the election, refusing to release it despite receiving it in December. Publishing it should be one of Plibersek’s first actions as minister.

Forest destruction and extinction crisis

The recent listing of the koala as endangered is a highly publicized example of the combined impact of forest destruction and bushfires on Australia’s native wildlife. Photography: Lukas Coch/AAP

Former environment ministers have often spoken of the need to strike the right balance between environmental protection and sustainable development, but evidence shows that governments have rarely made nature a priority.

Changing this would require adopting a national view of land clearing and working with states, which have the greatest responsibility for approving agricultural and urban expansion and indigenous logging, to reduce the impact. The recent listing of the koala as an endangered species is just one highly publicized example of the combined impact of forest destruction and bushfires on Australia’s native wildlife.

There are several steps Plibersek could take quickly. They include reversing a decision by his predecessor, Sussan Ley, to scrap recovery plans for 176 threatened species and habitats, restore lost funding and cultural status to the environment department and its programs after years of devaluation, and to tackle the threat posed by invasive species. species.

Scientists and environmental groups estimate that between $1.5 billion and $2 billion a year, a relatively small commitment in terms of the overall budget, could help in the recovery of endangered species. For some of the most endangered animals, the extra conservation work required wouldn’t amount to much at all.

Consideration of the climate crisis

Coal and gas mining approval will almost certainly receive renewed attention in this legislature. Photograph: David Gray/Reuters

Climate change policy is not Plibersek’s responsibility – it is Chris Bowen’s – but there is an urgent challenge to help species and ecosystems cope with the changes they are already experiencing.

In terms of development permissions, there is no climate test – no “greenhouse trigger” – in the EPBC Act. This means that the Minister does not have to take into account the contribution that a coal or gas development will make to increased global warming before approving it.

This became a point of attention last year when, in a landmark decision, the Federal Court found that the Minister had a common law duty of care to protect young people from future harm from the climate crisis when she was considering a coal mine expansion project.

The judgment was short-lived – Ley appealed and it was overturned by the full court bench – but scientists, lawyers and activists said it highlighted a gaping hole in the architecture national environmental.

Approval of coal and gas mines will almost certainly receive renewed attention in this legislature, as the Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate and have made halting new coal and gas developments their top priority. priority.

Questions for Plibersek will include whether she will approve the fossil fuel projects that land on her desk, how she will justify them if she does – including to her inner-city Sydney electorate – and whether changes to the law will be meaningful. if they don’t. include a test of a development’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Creation of an APE

In one of its last commitments before election day, the Labor Party promised to set up an independent environmental protection agency to enforce national conservation laws and collect data on wildlife health.

Plibersek will be tasked with determining how the new agency will operate.

The idea is not new. Conservation groups have long called for an independent regulator, legal scholars have published a proposed model and Labor has pledged ahead of the 2019 election to create an EPA that “would ensure we are no longer the water capital of the world. extinction and ensure that when projects need an answer, they get one.

His engagement this time seems based on Samuel’s recommendation to create an office with independent compliance oversight and appoint a “custodian” to fill key information and oversight gaps.

A first question for Plibersek will be whether an EPA will be independent in name only or will be created as an autonomous statutory authority protected by law. There will also be questions about funding and the extent of its powers.

Currently, the default policy is to approve projects using environmental compensation, which means developers must compensate for the habitat destruction they cause.

In practice, offsets have been poorly controlled. An investigation by Guardian Australia found several instances where offsets were never implemented or were done on land that was already protected.

It would be reasonable to expect that an EPA would have the authority to solve this problem. A related key question is whether it will be asked whether the heavy reliance on offsets is meeting the country’s needs or, as the Auditor General has found, whether their management is worsening the plight of endangered species.

The great coral barrier

Great Barrier Reef
The world will watch if the new government, as guardian of the reef, can argue more forcefully for its future in international forums. Photograph: J Sumerling/AP

The Albanian government will need to show it has a plan to protect Australia’s “iconic” natural sites, including the Great Barrier Reef.

The Coalition has taken an aggressive approach to prevent the United Nations from placing the reef on its list of “in danger” World Heritage sites. Labor said they would stand by Australia’s position against such a move. What this means in practice may become clear in the coming weeks.

Australia is no longer part of the Unesco World Heritage committee making the decision, so some leverage has been lost.

Later this month, Unesco is due to release a report from a United Nations monitoring mission to the reef that took place in March. The mission was carried out during the fourth massive coral bleaching on the reef in seven years. Its report will not make recommendations on the condition of the reef, but will assess its health and the measures in place to protect it.

A question for the Albanian government is whether it will accept Australian climate policies being taken into account when the World Heritage committee makes a decision on any future ‘at risk’ recommendations.

Unesco will submit draft recommendations to the World Heritage reef committee before the next meeting – a date has not yet been set.

The reef is one of Australia’s most recognizable natural wonders, known around the world. The world will watch if the new government, as guardian of the reef, can argue more forcefully for its future in international forums.


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