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Minister outlines major update to Australian environmental laws and the EPBC Act by end of 2023

Photo: Tanya Plibesek speech
Australia: Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek announces formal response to the Independent Review of Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

 

“At the heart of our reform is a conceptual shift. When we reform our environmental laws, we will take them from being nature negative, where we just manage an overall decline in our environment, to nature positive, where we protect our land and leave it in a better state than we found it.” said Plibersek at a Queensland Conservation Council event. 
Major Reforms include: 
  • introduction of National Environmental Standards, 
  • new system of regional planning, 
  • overhaul of environmental offsets, and 
  • establishment of an independent Environment Protection Agency. 
New National Environmental Standards will apply to Regional Forestry Agreements, which were previously exempt from EPBC Act regulation. This means threatened species and ecosystems will come back under Federal government regulation.
Climate will be a consideration, but no climate trigger for the amended legislation: 

“proponents of large projects be required to publish their lifetime, domestic carbon dioxide emissions. Proponents will also be required to disclose what they will do to manage or offset their emissions, in line with Australia’s climate targets.”

The Minister outlined how Australia’s environment is in a state of accelerating decline. 

Oceans filling with plastics, invasive species, rivers drying up, fish dying, topsoil blowing away, forests being cleared faster than they can regrow, native animals going extinct at a terrifying rate. That was the backdrop to Samuel’s review.

That we have environment protection laws in this country that are incapable of protecting the environment.

The Minister outlined that the Government will develop legislation by the end of 2023 to introduce laws before the end of sitting next year.

Australian Conservation Foundation Response

Australian Conservation Foundation CEO Kelly O’Shanassy said while there was a lot of detail still to come, the national environment group was encouraged by Minister Plibersek’s response to Professor Graeme Samuel’s landmark review of the Environment Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Act.

“Strong national nature protection laws that halt the destruction of wildlife habitat and ecosystems are critical if Australia is meet its worthy goal of no new extinctions,” she said.

“We are encouraged that Minister Plibersek intends for the new national EPA to have decision-making powers to stop political influence affecting nature protection.

“We support environmental standards applying to all industries – including native forest logging, which has an exemption under the present law.

“The logging industry’s outrageous exemption has pushed numerous Australian species – including the swift parrot and Leadbeater’s possum – to the edge of extinction.

“As Australia experiences climate-fuelled floods and fires, it is deeply disappointing the Minister has made no reference to adding a climate trigger to the law, allowing the climate impacts of coal and gas projects to continue to be ignored.

“The full suite of national environmental standards must be developed as a priority by independent experts to deliver clear and strong protection for wildlife and ecosystems.

“ACF calls on the government to make sure these reforms are well resourced, the national EPA has strong governance arrangements that guarantee its independence, and there is provision for merits reviews to maximise accountability.

“A great deal more detail needs to be fleshed out to make sure these reforms halt the alarming ongoing destruction of Australia’s bushlands, forests, wetlands and coastlines.

“The test of success for these reforms will be whether they end Australia’s extinction crisis by protecting our unique wildlife, plants and ecosystems from destruction through land clearing, logging and climate change, and result in a net gain in natural habitat this decade.”

Minister’s speech Transcript

Thank you for having me here this morning, in Meanjin, on the home of the Turrbal and Jagera people.
I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and pay my respects to their elders past and present.
In the words of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, First Nations people have lived on this land:
‘According to the reckoning of our culture, from the Creation; according to the common law, from time immemorial; and according to science, for more than 60,000 years’.
We are so lucky in this country to have the world’s oldest continuous cultures to learn from.
As Galarrwuy Yunupingu once said, this land is our ‘backbone’.
It’s a part of us, our support structure, giving us life and making everything else possible.
If we are going to protect this beautiful country, if we are going to reverse the damage we have already done, we have to embrace this wisdom.
It’s one of the many reasons our government is committed to establishing the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
It’s why we’re expanding Indigenous Protected Areas right across Australia.
And it’s why we are doubling the number of Indigenous Rangers employed to protect and manage their traditional land and sea.
Can I also thank the hosts of today’s event – the Queensland Conservation Council.
The Council represents over fifty local conservation groups, dotted around this great state. 
It just goes to show, environmentalism is not limited to any one place, or one class of people, or any one side of politics. 
Farmers, surfers, weekend bushwalkers, families on their summer camping trip, city people volunteering their time to pull shopping trollies out of the local creek – we all want to protect the things that make us uniquely Australian. 
Go anywhere in this country and people will tell you how much they love our landscapes and special places, and how much they cherish our native plants and animals. 
And as Minister for the Environment, I can tell you that nothing gives me hope like watching local community groups like yours in action.
It’s why I wanted to be here with you this morning, on this important day, as we outline our government’s agenda for environmental reform.
Friends, at the federal election, Labor made a number of significant promises in the environment portfolio:
•    To provide a full response to the Samuel Review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act
•    To reform our national environmental laws
•    And to establish a new Environment Protection Agency
When you add them up, it amounts to the biggest environmental reform agenda in a generation, and today we are taking the next step towards realising it. 
This morning, our government released our formal response to the Independent Review of Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
I want to thank the author of the independent review, Professor Graeme Samuel and his team for their significant contribution, and I want to acknowledge the dedication and insight they brought to their work.
Since becoming Minister for the Environment and Water, this is the second major report I’ve responded to, after the State of the Environment in July.
The two reports began with different purposes, but they both ended up telling the same disturbing story: that our environment is in a state of decline, and that decline is now accelerating.
It doesn’t matter where you live in Australia, the signs of decline are all around us.
It’s our oceans filling with plastic.
It’s our native plants being overwhelmed by invasive species.
It’s our beaches eroding.
It’s our rivers drying up and our fish dying – first from not enough water, then from too much.
It’s our topsoil blowing away and our land becoming more vulnerable to drought. 
It’s our forests being cleared faster than they can regrow, and our habitats being destroyed, and our native animals becoming extinct at a terrifying rate – one of the fastest rates on earth. 
This was the backdrop to Professor Samuel’s independent review.
And what he concluded was that Australia’s environmental decline is a direct product of Australia’s poor environmental laws.
Let me quote a few sentences from page one:
‘The EPBC Act is ineffective’.
‘It does not enable the Commonwealth to effectively protect environmental matters that are important to the nation’.
‘Good outcomes for the environment, including heritage, cannot be achieved under the current laws’.
‘The overall result for the nation is net environmental decline, rather than protection and conservation’.
That is the fundamental, inescapable problem that Samuel identified.
We have environmental protection laws in this country that are incapable of protecting the environment.
Under the best case scenario, if we implement them effectively and enforce them properly, they can only slow the pace of environmental loss.
And what’s more, the system is slow, unwieldy, banked up in paperwork, and unpredictable and costly for businesses to navigate.
Our laws are not good for the environment.
They’re not efficient for business.
They’re not good for anyone.
Which is why, in our response today, our government is setting out our broad intentions for reforming Australia’s environmental laws.
Our response is now public – and I would encourage people to seek it out.
There’s a lot of necessary detail in there, which I will go into later in the speech.
But at the heart of our reform is a conceptual shift.
When we reform our environmental laws, we will take them from being nature negative, where we just manage an overall decline in our environment, to nature positive, where we protect our land and leave it in a better state than we found it.
That’s the really important point here: we want to stop the slide, but our ambitions are larger than that.
The overall outcome of these changes, baked into law, will be a net improvement in nature, not just a defence of the status quo.
That’s our vision for Australia: ‘net zero and nature positive’.
It’s our commitment to zero net carbon pollution by 2050, and zero new extinctions.
It’s what we signed up for when we joined 94 nations in supporting the Leaders Pledge for Nature – a world that is repairing and restoring nature by 2030, and that is nature positive by 2050.
This was a global agreement, and more and more, it’s going to be the entry price for doing business around the world.
It’s what the G7 Finance Ministers and the G20 Environment Ministers agreed to, when they launched the Taskforce on Nature Related Financial Risk Disclosure. 
This involved central banks and financial regulators coming together and saying:
“We know environmental damage is a risk to business and industry. We want to understand this risk and do something to turn it around.”
This risk is something that environmentalists and business leaders can agree on.
Which explains why there was such a remarkable consensus around the Samuel Review.
Business representatives, environmental organisations, First Nations groups, academics, conservationists – a broad spectrum of Australian society came to the table, putting aside their differences, to try and fix our broken system.
And overwhelmingly, they pointed in the same direction – that we need better, quicker, clearer decisions, decisions that protect nature, and that people can trust.
As Minister, I’ve been encouraged by this spirit of cooperation, and I want to build on it, as we move into the next phase of designing our new laws.
If we can agree broadly on what the problems are, it must be possible to agree on some of the solutions.
As I said at the National Press Club, our government will develop legislation in 2023, with the intention of introducing it by the end of the sitting year next year.
These reforms will be guided by three essential principles:
•    Delivering better environmental protection and a nature positive Australia
•    Speeding up decisions and making it easier for companies to do the right thing
•    And restoring integrity and trust to the system
Our first major change will be the introduction of National Environmental Standards, in line with the chief recommendation made by the Samuel Review.
At the moment, there is no requirement that approval decisions must deliver a positive outcome for the environment. 
Which is one of the reasons why nature is declining in Australia, without effective legal protections to stop it. 
Our reforms will change that, by establishing National Environmental Standards that write nature positive outcomes into the law. 
These Standards will be legally enforceable, creating positive requirements for decision making.
They will describe the outcomes we want – and our new Environment Protection Agency will make sure those outcomes are being delivered on the ground.
We will consult widely on the detail of these Standards, but Professor Samuel outlined what one might look like in his review:
“A decision should protect, conserve and improve outcomes for Matters of National Environmental Significance – such as threatened species.”  
In practice, this would mean developers need to avoid impacts where they can, reduce impacts that can’t be avoided, and more than compensate for any damage done, so they leave our environment better off overall.  
There are currently 140 individual proposals across New South Wales, Queensland and the ACT that could potentially impact koala habitats.
In many parts of the east coast, these habitats have been under siege for decades now.
We’re at the point where, if we don’t make urgent changes to protect these places, koalas could become extinct in New South Wales before 2050 – according to a recent state parliamentary enquiry.
That’s the scale of threat we are dealing with here.
Which is why our reforms will ensure that development is consistent with our nature positive, legally enforceable, national environmental standards.
We’ll be working on other standards too:
•    For First Nations engagement – so we can identify cultural heritage concerns early on.
•    For community consultation – so people can understand the impacts of projects and provide feedback.
•    And for environmental offsets and regional planning and assessments – so we can make sure the system is delivering on its promise.
These standards will set our national goals for environmental protection.
And they will complement our second major change – which is regional planning.
A new system of regional planning will allow Australia to fast-track sensible projects in robust places, while stopping damaging projects in fragile places.
Currently, when a company makes a development proposal, they have to find out, often from scratch, whether a site contains important heritage values, critical habitats, endangered animals, or migratory species.
It can take years to establish that a proposal is fine, and even longer to establish that a project will have an unacceptable impact, when that should have been made clear from the start.
It all adds up to wasted time, wasted money and a massive opportunity cost.
With regional planning, we will be able to map out, quite literally, the places where development will have minimal consequence, and the places where development will be devastating.
We will make it as simple as possible to navigate, by painting the regional map like a traffic light.
There will be green areas, for minimal consequences – which are the priority areas for development.
There will be orange, for proceed with caution – so you might need to design your project to avoid environmental impacts as much as possible.
And there will be red, for the places that are precious and irreplaceable – so you need to avoid these areas.
This system will give businesses certainty, it will give them clarity, and it will help us build the things we need to build – like the transmission lines carrying renewable energy, or new homes for Australian families, or transport projects that make life easier for everyone.
I just mentioned the 140 proposals on our books that could potentially impact koala habitats.
Regional plans will also help us address the problem of cumulative impacts, because we won’t be dealing with each project in isolation – we’ll be considering how they connect and overlap.
And this will mean better conservation planning too, because we’ll be managing our threatened species and precious places at a regional scale, as real life ecosystems.
This will guide our conservation and restoration efforts, too, so they can have the greatest impact.
These regional plans are something the federal government will need to work on with the states and territories, and with local government as well.
All jurisdictions are facing the same challenges, so we have a strong incentive to work together.
I have already discussed regional planning with my colleagues at the Environmental Ministers meeting, and there’s been great interest in what we can achieve together. 
We’re in Queensland today, so the examples I’m giving have a certain Queensland flavour.
But Queensland is a great example, because it’s really booming – and facing the tensions between a need for development and the need for environmental protection.
Which is why I’m pleased to announce today that we will be working on regional plans in partnership with the Queensland government. 
There’s a lot of reasons I’m glad that Queensland is putting their hand up to work with us.
We know that Queensland has the highest population growth rate in Australia, leading to a growing demand for homes.
We also know that Queensland is investing heavily in renewable energy, with the state Government committing $145 million to establish three new renewable energy zones in northern, central and southern Queensland.
And of course, the Olympics are coming to Brisbane in 2032, with all the demands that come with that great event.
Which means that regional planning makes perfect sense here in Queensland, allowing us to map out the places we need to protect, while making it faster and easier to get approval for the houses, wind farms and infrastructure that need to be built.
I will be pursuing some of these regional plans immediately, because there are areas of development that we can’t sit around and wait for any longer.
With the energy mess we inherited from the previous government, we have no choice but to accelerate the renewable roll out across the country.
Under the current system, renewable energy projects are waiting an average of 640 days for federal approval. 
And renewable energy transmission lines are waiting 733 days.
Which is why, as an early focus, I will be working with Minister Bowen and the states and territories on the urgent creation of renewable energy zones.
These plans will address assessment and approvals, community consultation and feedback, and the laying down of transmission lines – so we can move our renewable energy from the places it’s being generated to the homes and businesses that need cheaper, cleaner power.
Our third major change will be an overhaul of environmental offsets.
The current offset arrangements have a poor reputation, and for good reason.
Too often they don’t lead to better environmental outcomes.
And they may deliver no environmental outcome at all, because they allow developers to claim credit for saving areas that would never have been cleared in the first place.
We are going to change this system, taking offsets from a net drain on the environment, to a genuine benefit.
We will establish a new offsets standard, embedded in legislation, that sets out a hierarchy of action:
First: to avoid harm to the environment.
Second: to reduce or mitigate environmental damage.
Third: to identify offsets within the region that deliver a net gain for the imperilled plants or animals affected by the project.
And as a last resort: to make a conservation payment to enable a better environmental outcome – one that genuinely leaves nature better off overall.
This new conservation payment will send a price signal about the value of conservation – making it more clearly worthwhile to avoid damaging nature in the first place.
And when people make conservation payments, that money will fund nature repair and habitat restoration, to more than compensate for any damage done.
It will be good for businesses too, by helping them reduce investment risk and calculate the value of their projects more accurately.
And once our nature repair market is well established, it will be easier to find genuine offsets that match the requirements under our new environmental laws.
The new market will allow companies to invest directly in nature, supporting landholders as they manage critical habitats on their property.
The fourth and final major reform will be the establishment of an independent Environment Protection Agency.
This will help restore trust to a system that badly needs it.
Professor Samuel described distrust as a ‘dominant theme’ in the 30,000 submissions he received during the review.
This is no surprise, because up until now we have just been managing decline.
People don’t trust the system because it’s weak, but also because it’s opaque.
It’s not clear whether environmental conditions placed on projects are being enforced on the ground.
The EPA will address this trust deficit.
It will make environmental assessments.
It will decide whether projects can proceed and under what conditions.
And it will enforce those decisions in the community.
The EPA will be governed by its mission to ensure a nature positive Australia, while also factoring in social and economic considerations.
Our population is predicted to grow beyond thirty million, and Australia already has a shortage in housing supply of 200,000 homes.
So we clearly need development in this country, but it has to be sustainable development in the right places.
We will also be creating a new data division in our department, which will be responsible for integrating new and existing information, making it accessible and searchable, while reporting the progress we’re making against our environmental goals.
These changes represent the bones of our reform agenda:
•    National Environmental Standards
•    Regional planning
•    Offset reform
•    And the new Environment Protection Agency
They will all be working together in service of our ultimate goals – nature positive environmental outcomes, faster and clearer decisions, implemented by an independent, dedicated agency that everyone can trust.
These are the structure of our reforms, but there are a couple of other important changes that I want to explain in my remaining time today.
The first is on regional forestry agreements.
Regional forestry agreements are designed to have regard to environmental values, such as old growth forests and wilderness, endangered species, and World Heritage matters.
But they are currently exempt from the EPBC Act – which make them unique.
As part of these reforms, our government will begin a process of applying our new National Environmental Standards to Regional Forestry Agreements.
We will consult with stakeholders on how this will be done.  Australia needs timber products, and we want forestry jobs, but forests are becoming increasingly valuable for their carbon sequestration and the habitat they provide.
We will work with the industry to support sustainable forestry and the jobs that go with it, and to ensure a healthy balance with the environment.
The final point is on climate change and environmental approvals.
We support the Samuel’s recommendation that proponents of large projects be required to publish their lifetime, domestic carbon dioxide emissions.
Proponents will also be required to disclose what they will do to manage or offset their emissions, in line with Australia’s climate targets.
And climate will be considered when we do environmental planning too. For instance, when we’re considering wildlife corridors and future housing development.
Our goal is to integrate climate considerations into national environmental law, without duplicating existing policies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions – such as the safeguard mechanism.
Friends, this is a big agenda.
Our reforms are seeking to turn the tide in this country – from nature destruction to nature repair.
And they match what we’ve done in our first six months in office.
A stronger emissions reduction target, with a clear path to net zero. 
A plan for zero new extinctions on this continent.
A commitment to protecting thirty percent of Australia’s land and oceans by 2030. 
A new nature repair market.
Reducing waste and building a more circular economy.
Campaigning on the world stage, to protect our oceans, to support blue carbon, and to fight for a plastic free Pacific.
And $1.8 billion in our Budget –
•    to protect the Great Barrier Reef
•    to save our native species 
•    to employ 1,000 new Landcare Rangers
•    to support new Indigenous Protected Areas
•    to fund the Environmental Defenders Office, for the first time in nine years
•    and to clean up our urban rivers and waterways.  
These are matters of the highest national interest, but they also place us at the centre of a global movement.
Next week, I will be traveling to Montreal to join the UN Biodiversity Conference – or COP15.
Our hope is that Montreal can achieve for nature what the Paris Agreement achieved for climate change.
We will be bringing governments together from around the world, to agree on the next phase of international goals for nature.
And I can promise you all this: Australia will be campaigning for strong goals and clear targets.
We will be fighting for the promises we’ve made to each other – to reverse our global decline by 2030, and to be living in harmony with nature by 2050. 
That’s what ‘net zero and nature positive’ means – and that’s what our environmental reforms will achieve in this country.
We are proud to be releasing our response to the Samuel review today.
And we are proud to be leading the world again – to ensure our prosperity, to support our health and well-being, and to protect our beautiful home.
Thank you.

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