To: Federal Department of the Environment and Energy

Submission to the Independent review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999

Made: April 2020

We are strongly of the opinion that Federal legislation to set the vision, standards and requirements for appreciation and management of the entire environmental estate is both essential and critical.
Particular comments are:

  1. Matters of national environmental significance.

While there seems to be some hesitancy in developing a Federal environmental framework in response to an apparent constitutional limitation on environmental responsibility, we argue that the hesitancy is misguided and, given the lagtimes and thresholds involved, even dangerous.  Environmental health is a fundamental national issue

  1. The opportunity

An EPBC type Act could (and should) be the framework in which the environment is properly recognised, supported and protected. It should confirm and define responsibilities at each of the levels of government, and establish the interdependencies of each.
There is a unique opportunity right now to formulate a new and fundamental approach, and not just apply a bit of ‘spit-and-polish’ to a lumpy, unwieldy and temporally limited legislation. The convergence of drought, bushfires, a heating planet, a pandemic, and massive species extinctions is a clear indication of the urgent and strong need not to continue as we were.
Will we recognise the depth of both political and cultural change required to bring about environmental sustainability?  Are we up to the challenge?

  1. Vision and goals

The EFN consider that much more attention must be paid to the detailed environmental status and conditions needed for true sustainability. If we know such, then a pertinent policy and legislative agenda can be set to make progress. We cannot devise ways of reaching a goal without knowing what the goal is?
As in point 2: here is an opportunity to define what we want.

  1. Learning from history

A fundamental question to be answered: why have our policy and legislative actions not been effective? Such considerations will help to direct the review.

  1. Barriers to the move to environmental sustainability

One of the primary roles of legislation (apart from formalising vision and standards) is to set up a system to create requirements and prohibitions lacking within the free market system. Hence, a good evaluation of the barriers to achieving environmental sustainability is essential. Some of them, as perceived by us, are: excessive focus on short term economic gains; limited knowledge; insufficient scientific research and monitoring; and, anthropocentric arrogance.

  1. Knowledge base

Knowledge is both a barrier (in terms of deficiencies) and a tool of achievement (in terms of assisting proper decision making) to environmental sustainability. It covers more than just how ecosystems work, it is also about environmental status, one-off stocks, and their rates of depletion, vision and goals; management performance, management effectiveness, and even the assessment and application of appropriate behaviours. A good EPBC type act will ensure that knowledge is acquired, and its management is recognised and facilitated.

  1. Interactions between environment legislation and “development” legislation

Our experience is that environmental legislation is not particularly effective if it is deployed as a stand-alone gesture. It ends up being sidelined by some other short term (but ultimately less important) developmental or economic imperative. Cross linkages (and interdependencies) with other economic and social legislation (covering hierarchy’s and priorities) is needed to improve effectiveness.

  1. Ecosystem services

Ecosystem services provided to society and the planet from the environment are what matters in getting to environmental sustainability. These services need to be kept as diverse as possible. It will be counterproductive if we have them excessively focussed into economically anthropocentric services. A primary role for an EPBC type act must focus on identifying and protecting the diversity and capacity of the required ecosystem services.

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