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  • How Will Australia's Environmental Laws Change?

How Will Australia's Environmental Laws Change?

Jul 10 2020 Read 350 Times

2020 is the year in which Australia’s environmental laws will be reviewed. Every ten years, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) is subject to an audit, during which government ministers will assess how effectively the legislation has safeguarded endangered species over the preceding decade and what needs to be done to improve its efficacy going forwards.

The timing of the review could not be more pertinent. With forest fires raging out of control last year, coal-fired power stations linked to extreme rainfall events and mounting concerns over Australia’s deforestation laws, the country is facing something of an environmental crisis. The decisions taken by Graeme Samuel, the businessman in charge of chairing the review, will affect national policy for the next 10 years, gifting the country a rare opportunity to take far-reaching, meaningful action.

What is the EPBC Act?

The EPBC Act was first introduced in 2000 under John Howard’s Liberal Party. As Australia’s main piece of environmental legislation, the Act is tasked with governing how the country cares for its wildlife and promotes biodiversity. Particular areas of interest include conservation of the Great Barrier Reef, wetlands of national importance and other world heritage sites, as well as all of the flora and fauna living in the aforementioned locations.

The Act is broadly used as a barometer for how fragile a particular species or ecosystem has become and can be used to denote it as “vulnerable”, “endangered” or “critically endangered”. Once such a designation has been assigned to a location, it should theoretically enjoy greater legislative protection against damaging activities like mining, logging and other industrial pursuits.

What are the problems with the law?

Australia’s environmental performance has come under fire from several quarters over recent years. Its over-reliance on coal and its sluggish uptake of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology - despite the extensive potential for CCS in the country – has drawn criticism over its energy generation methods, while its conservation of national wildlife has also fallen short of expectations.

While none could have predicted the devastating impacts of the forest fires that decimated the country last year, the ongoing decline of Australian ecosystems is certainly cause for concern. It currently suffers from the highest rate of mammal extinction in the world and the fact that the EPBC Act contains loopholes which still allows for commercial fishing of endangered marine species or logging of areas under regional forestry agreements without federal input does not help the issue. As such, there are plenty of areas in which the EPBC Act – and its implementation by the government – could be improved.

What next?

Samuel delivered the conclusions of the review panel at the beginning of July. At that point, the process is opened up to public debate, where ordinary Australian citizens have the opportunity to put forward their suggestions and make their voices heard. After several months of such discussion, the review panel will finalise its report and publish it in October of this year.

With coronavirus dominating the national and international headlines at the moment, the Australian government has previously indicated that it wishes to streamline environmental legislation in order to facilitate an economic recovery. Depending on what form such streamlining takes, that could come into direct conflict with the EPBC Act review – but only time will tell if the country uses this opportunity to reform its environmental strategy for the better.

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