Australia’s environment in unsustainable state of decline, major review finds

Australia’s environment is in an unsustainable state of decline and laws set up to protect unique species and habitats are ineffective, a major review of the national environmental framework has found.

The interim report from the review of Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act recommends sweeping changes, including the establishment of a set of legally enforceable national environmental standards that set clear rules for environmental protection while allowing for sustainable development.

It also recommends the establishment of an independent environmental regulator to monitor and enforce compliance with environmental laws.

“The EPBC Act is ineffective. It does not enable the commonwealth to protect and conserve environmental matters that are important for the nation,” the chair of the review, Graeme Samuel, said.

“It is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges.”

The report’s first lines are stark: “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.”

It finds that community concern about the state of Australia’s environment is high but trust in both national environmental laws and in state and territory governments to deliver environmental protection is low.

Samuel’s report says the act is too focused on process and is not clear on what environmental outcomes it is trying to achieve for matter of national environmental significance.

The report says there is duplication between national and state and territory processes, processes are cumbersome, and that efforts to harmonise laws at federal and state level have not gone far enough.

It also confirms several reports by Guardian Australia examining failures under the act, including that once species are listed as threatened little effort is made to recover them, that the act creates no requirement to do so and that less than 40% of listed species and habitats have recovery plans.

“The way the EPBC Act currently operates implies that the goal is to list a species and prepare a plan, rather than achieve environmental outcomes,” the report states.

“Under these arrangements it is not surprising that the list of threatened species and communities has increased over time and there have been very few species that have recovered to the point that they can be removed from the list.”

The review finds the government has not effectively managed threats to species, has stopped listing key threats, and that coordinated plans to address major threats – such as feral pests – are “ad hoc” rather than a national priority. It recommends a more coordinated regional approach to both recovery and threat abatement.

It concludes that the current project-by-project approach of the act is not addressing the cumulative harm done to the environment, and the effect of this is environmental decline, rather than protection and conservation.

The centrepiece of Samuel’s proposed reforms would be a set of national environmental standards that would underpin any devolution of powers to the states and territories.

Samuel recommends the government develop a set of interim standards as a first step, in consultation with state governments, Indigenous, science, environmental and business stakeholders, as well as the community

The environment minister, Sussan Ley, said the government would immediately commit to developing national environmental standards and would start conversations that would devolve responsibility for environmental approvals to state governments.

The government plans to put legislation on bilateral approval agreements to parliament in late August before Samuel releases his final report in October.

Environment groups expressed immediate concern the government was pushing ahead to accredit state and territory approvals processes before the final report was handed down.

Samuel recommended that an independent regulator should monitor and enforce compliance with the law, but the government said on Monday it would not be pursuing this.

Samuel’s review also found that few decisions under the laws had been subject to legal challenges, and he said he was unconvinced by claims that projects had become subject to so-called “lawfare” by activists.

But Ley said on Monday she would speak to the attorney general, Christian Porter, about community rights to legal challenges under the Act.

“Not surprisingly, the statutory review is finding that 20-year-old legislation is struggling to meet the changing needs of the environment, agriculture, community planners and business,” Ley said.

“This is our chance to ensure the right protection for our environment while also unlocking job-creating projects to strengthen our economy and improve the livelihoods of everyday Australians.”

Guardian Australia has spent more than two years examining systemic failings under the act.

This reporting has uncovered widespread problems, including poor monitoring of endangered species, major delays in the listing of threatened species and ecosystems, failure to develop, update and implement recovery plans for species and habitats threatened with extinction, failure to list key threats to species, failure to protect important habitat, and threatened species funding being used for projects that do not benefit threatened species.

Samuel’s report finds serious enforcement of environmental laws is rare and when penalties have been issued they were weak.

It says the act has failed Indigenous Australians and recommends much better incorporation of traditional knowledge of country into environmental decision-making. Ley said the government would move to modernise protection of Indigenous heritage, beginning with a roundtable meeting of state Indigenous and environment ministers

The report also finds that environmental offsets are failing, delivering losses for the environment due to poor design and implementation. It recommends they be used only as a last resort when other options to avoid or mitigate environmental damage have been “demonstrably exhausted”.

The report says development proposals should have to specifically address how their projects will mitigate or avoid climate damage but specifically rules out a climate trigger, which many environmental groups had called for.

Kelly O’Shanassy, the chief executive of the Australian Conservation Foundation, said the organisation was “deeply concerned” the government appeared ready to devolve powers to the states before the final report was released and without articulating how it would strengthen protections for species like the koala.

“Advancing bilateral approvals with states before the final review is putting the cart before the horse,” she said.

O’Shanassy also called for the government to adopt Samuel’s recommendation for an independent regulator.

“An independent regulator would be the voice our flora and fauna need to hold the government to account and make sure the law actually does the job of protecting nature,” she said.

“Right now state environmental protection standards are weaker than the national standards and improving them will take some time.

“Without strong standards that protect nature, fast-tracking approvals will simply fast-track extinction.”

Suzanne Milthorpe, the Wilderness Society’s national environment laws campaign manager, said the review outlined the “catastrophic impact of 20 years of failure in Australia’s environment laws, impacts that have been in plain sight throughout the operation of the EPBC Act”.

“Now this Coalition government is asking us to trust them on immediately handing environmental safeguards to the states while promising at some time in the future to make changes of an ill-defined nature to improve environmental standards,” she said.

“Professor Samuel’s report outlines that environment laws are rarely policed, that endangered species recovery plans are rarely implemented, that Australia’s most important environmental values are in decline and yet the central government response is to seek to hand environmental approval powers to the states with no concrete proposals to address any of the main environmental challenges facing Australia.”

Nicola Beynon, the head of campaigns at Humane Society International, said the organisation welcomed the notion of robust national environmental standards but had “deep concerns that the interim standards proposed today are simply not strong enough”.

“We do not want to see standards that enshrine the status quo for threatened species. This is the moment that the government needs to step up protection for nature with stronger standards,” she said.

Labor’s environment spokeswoman, Terri Butler, said the report “describes the government’s woeful failures to protect the environment”.

“Labor will consider the interim report in detail. We call on the government to do the same,” she said. “We are disappointed the government has already begun cherry-picking the report’s recommendations.”

The Greens environment spokeswoman, Sarah Hanson-Young, spoke to the minister on Monday afternoon.

Hanson-Young said without change, environmental decline would continue. She was concerned the government had already rejected a proposal for an independent regulator.

“Environmental standards will be worthless if there is no one there to enforce them,” she said.

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