Australia’s conservation laws are failing our endangered species

| September 20, 2020

“Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat. The current environmental trajectory is unsustainable.”

So says Professor Graeme Samuels in his interim review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

Conservation ecologist Jessica Walsh, from the Monash Faculty of Science, led the School of Biological Sciences’ submission to the EPBC Act review. The Monash team agreed with Professor Samuels that the national environmental legislation is not working to effectively conserve and protect threatened species and ecosystems,” Dr Walsh says. “Overall, the Act has several problems.”

Although threatened species and ecological communities can be listed under the Act, the legislation fails to protect them. That is partly because its scope is too narrow, and partly because insufficient resources are directed to improving environmental outcomes, among other reasons, she says.

Major environmental threats such as “climate change and land clearing are not adequately addressed”, by the Act, she says, despite the threat they pose to vulnerable species and ecosystems. Professor Samuels says they’re tackled in other legislation – but the lack of mechanisms to directly mitigate these threats to biodiversity are significant omissions in the EPBC Act and in the interim review, Dr Walsh says.

“There’s no suggestion in the interim review that vegetation loss should be a trigger for the Act,” she says. “So currently, vegetation and habitats are being lost.

“How climate change will be mitigated is also not addressed,” she says. “Given that many species could be threatened by climate change in the future, decisions should factor in the resulting carbon emissions of the proposed developments.”

Alpine Sphagnum Bogs and Associated Fens ecological community. Endangered, occurring in alpine areas across NSW, ACT, Vic and Tas.
Endangered: Alpine sphagnum bogs and associated fens ecological communities are under threat in alpine areas across NSW, the ACT, Victoria and Tasmania. Photo: Joslin Moore

A narrow focus contributes to the Act’s failings

The Act’s narrow focus is partly responsible for its failings. Its provisions don’t “account for cumulative impacts across multiple developments”, Dr Walsh says.

“It’s the idea of death by a thousand cuts. This happens when individual developments are assessed and approved separately, while only accounting for the impacts at that small scale. But if these impacts are considered cumulatively at the broader scale, actually these developments are contributing to significant overall declines of suitable habitat.”

The case of the endangered black-throated finch, which has been severely impacted by ongoing habitat loss through mining, agriculture and urban expansion, is a well-documented example of the effects of cumulative impacts, she says. By the time Adani’s Carmichael coal mine was given approval to clear critical finch habitat, 88% of the finch’s habitat had already been lost.

Another issue is that vulnerable species and ecological communities are “not given the same level of protection under the Act as those that are classified as endangered or critically endangered”, she says.

This is problematic, given that four times more vulnerable species have declined since the introduction of the Act, compared with those that have increased. In addition, vulnerable ecological communities (for example, subtropical and temperate coastal saltmarsh) aren’t considered as “Matters of National Environmental Significance”, and thus aren’t protected under the Act.

“Given that many species could be threatened by climate change in the future, decisions should factor in the resulting carbon emissions of the proposed developments.”

Importantly, “there are insufficient resources to adequately protect, manage and restore threatened species and ecosystems”, Dr Walsh says. She recognises this issue is not specifically relevant to the review of the legislation itself – but the lack of funding and implementation of the Act is one crucial reason for the continued biodiversity declines in Australia.

“Management actions that are needed to recover threatened species and ecosystems are not being implemented,” she says. National recovery plans for individual species are written and rarely carried out.

A further issue is that the list of threatened species identified under the Act is incomplete, Dr Walsh says. Many species and ecological communities that could be threatened have not even been assessed.

Picture of the New Holland Mouse, nationally threatened species that occurs in the states of Tasmania, Victoria and NSW
The New Holland Mouse, found in Tasmania, Victoria and NSW, is nationally threatened, with declining populations. Photo: Rohan Clarke

National environmental standards required

So what can be done?

Professor Samuels suggests national environmental standards be introduced. These would be equivalent to safety standards for infant car seats or air quality. Future developments would have to meet these environmental standards before receiving approval.

“In principle, we agree that this is a good way to go,” Dr Walsh says. “The problem is that the development of these standards is being rushed. It’s important to get these standards right. That’s quite concerning.”

A petition signed by more than 400,000 Australians urging legislators to strengthen Australia’s environmental protections has been delivered to the federal Parliament. And three Senate crossbenchers – Stirling Griff, Jacqui Lambie and Rex Patrick – have joined the Greens and Labor in calling for any proposed changes to the EPBC Act to be thoroughly scrutinised.

Professor Samuels also proposed that an independent regulatory body be established to ensure the new standards are met and enforced.

“We think that this is key and critical for the success of any future changes,” Dr Walsh says. “Without that independent body, there is a huge risk that other proposed changes in the review could lead to a weakening of the Act and further species declines.” The government has so far not expressed support for such a body.


Finally, the interim review proposes that power to approve projects be given to the states, who must comply with the yet-to-be-announced national standards.

The proposal could be problematic, Dr Walsh believes. “If the states are able to approve developments, the national perspective is lost,” she says. Species, wetlands and ecosystems cross borders, meaning “the cumulative impacts across states wouldn’t be considered”, she says.

Also, “each state and territory has very different approval processes. In some cases, they might be inferior to the protections that would be offered under the EPBC Act. Without adequate monitoring and compliance audits through an independent regulatory body, there’s a risk of losing the safety net of having two levels of approval.”

It’s not all gloom

On the positive side, Professor Samuels proposes that data collection and environmental monitoring techniques be used more extensively – a suggestion backed by the Monash team. He also emphasises the importance of habitat restoration. Dr Walsh agrees.

A great deal of positive work involving private landowners, NGOs and all levels of government is already taking place in this area, she says, and “the report’s focus on restoration will hopefully result in more landscape-scale habitat restoration across Australia”.

Traditional owners must be given a more active role in caring for their environment, too, Professor Samuels proposes. “Indigenous Australians’ traditional knowledge and views are not fully valued in decision-making, and the Act does not meet the aspirations of Traditional Owners for managing their land,” he writes.

“A specific Standard for best practice Indigenous engagement is needed to ensure that Indigenous Australians who speak for, and have traditional knowledge of, Country have the proper opportunity to contribute to decision-making.”

The Monash team fully supports increased involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples in the governance and management of Australia’s environment.

This article was published by Lens.