Sustainability Bites

There is no such thing as a free lunch

Peter Burnett

The need for speed: can we buy faster environmental approvals to enable Australia to become a clean energy superpower?

The need for speed: can we buy faster environmental approvals to enable Australia to become a clean energy superpower?

Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment, without diluting environment has now become a national priority. What was once a problem of red tape and substandard practice, is now central to the clean energy revolution and vital to our collective future. Throwing money at the problem won’t solve it. Even more data and regulatory guidance won’t solve it, though of course it will make inroads. Solving the problem completely, achieving complete regulatory efficiency and removing a major bottleneck to Australia’s transition to a carbon-neutral economy, will take something out of the box. Maybe we should look at how the courts now do case management.

It’s time to strike an environmental grand bargain between businesses, governments and conservationists – and stop doing things the hard way

It’s time to strike an environmental grand bargain between businesses, governments and conservationists – and stop doing things the hard way

For policymakers, this suggests environmental laws should define minimum viability thresholds. Some thresholds would be absolute; others would be crossable in one location provided equivalent restoration was done in another. Environmental groups could take satisfaction that thresholds would be maintained in most cases. Ecosystems would function, rivers would flow. But governments would still override thresholds for important economic and social reasons, say to approve a critical minerals project. What’s in it for corporate Australia? Business would gain upfront certainty about what can be approved and quicker approvals for projects. Environmental litigation would fall. But development options would be narrowed and offsets would become more expensive. The government would achieve a key goal: major environmental reform. But it would have to say no more often, and be transparent about crossing environmental thresholds.

Water under the bridge – what were they thinking? (Australia’s Environment Cabinet Papers 2003, Part 2)

Water under the bridge – what were they thinking? (Australia’s Environment Cabinet Papers 2003, Part 2)

Recently released Cabinet Papers throw valuable light on what the government was thinking back in 2003 when it was attempting to tackle the problem of inland water shortages and an ailing River Murray. The papers reveal that they were prepared to accept the scientific advice as long as it didn’t rock the boat and didn’t cost too much. Exercising ‘precaution’ they were not.

Environment Cabinet Papers 2003: An Emissions Trading Scheme was (almost) a lay-down misère

Environment Cabinet Papers 2003: An Emissions Trading Scheme was (almost) a lay-down misère

Back in 2003, PM John Howard’s colleagues were telling him that his entrenched views were standing in the way of sensible policy and that now was a good time to introduce an emissions trading scheme with minimal risk and minimum loss of face. In reply, Howard told his colleagues that his political instincts were right and that the most important players, key Liberal Party backers, agreed with him. The irony was that, while Prime Ministerial power might trump policy power, people power trumps the lot. Two elections later, in 2007, Howard was thrown out, partly because of their lack of action on climate change.

‘Nature Positive’ sausage anyone?

‘Nature Positive’ sausage anyone?

Next year, the Australian Parliament will consider one of the most significant environmental reforms in our history with the Government promising legislation to implement its Nature Positive Plan, replacing the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999. The path to this point has been long and winding. First the National Party backflipped on its support for the bill, then the Greens did a backflip on their opposition to it, all in pursuit of politics over policy. Then we come to other cross-bench Senators, whose position is variable at best and unpredictable at worst. We need this to work.

How to beat ‘rollout rage’: the environment-versus-climate battle dividing regional Australia

How to beat ‘rollout rage’: the environment-versus-climate battle dividing regional Australia

Clean energy developers are caught in a perfect storm, at loggerheads with environmentalists and landholders alike over environmental conditions, proper consultation and compensation, while grappling with long regulatory delays and supply chain blockages for their materials. They see a system that provides environmental approval on paper but seemingly unworkable conditions and intolerable delays in practice. Does the bureaucracy’s left hand, they wonder, know what its right hand is doing? Net zero, nature protection and “rollout rage” feel like a toxic mix. Yet we have to find a quick way to deliver the clean energy projects we urgently need. As tough as this problem appears, elements of a potential solution, at least in outline, are on the table. These elements are: good environmental information, regional environmental planning and meaningful public participation. The government’s Nature Positive Plan for stronger environmental laws promises all three.

Nature Positive: Real change or a just another form of box ticking?

Nature Positive: Real change or a just another form of box ticking?

Will ‘Nature Positive’ deliver real change or just a new opportunity for box ticking and political window dressing? As a concept, Nature Positive has plenty of potential for good biodiversity outcomes and its endorsement in the Henry Review is a good thing for biodiversity nationally. However, like ESD before it, Nature Positive can be hollowed out or reduced to a slogan if that is where the politics takes it.

Biodiversity’s ‘Big Switch’: Ken Henry’s review of the NSW Biodiversity Act

Biodiversity’s ‘Big Switch’: Ken Henry’s review of the NSW Biodiversity Act

The Henry Review found, essentially, that the NSW Biodiversity Act is not working and that biodiversity continues to decline in the state of New South Wales. Although the law is complex, the policy bottom line is simple: biodiversity is protected to a degree, but this will never stand in the way of development prioritised by government. The review proposes to switch off the discretionary ‘balancing’ that occurs under the auspices of the Ecologically Sustainable Development principles (under which the ‘balance’ almost always favours development). And to switch on a ‘nature positive’ framework.

“Measuring What Matters”: With the first results in, what next?

“Measuring What Matters”: With the first results in, what next?

The first version of Australia’s national wellbeing framework “Measuring What Matters” has been released. The basic idea of the report is to shift from our narrow focus on key economic indicators, such as GDP and inflation, to embrace a wider suite of indicators that measure our overall quality of life. In the environment theme, six areas are covered: (urban) air quality; biodiversity; climate resilience; emissions reduction; protected areas; and resource use and waste generation. The headline result has to be that the threatened species index, which tracks the abundance of a selection of threatened species, shows a decline of 55% from a 1985 baseline to 2019, a period of just 34 years. This is a shocking number.

Has time been called on the native forest logging deals of the 1990s? Here’s what the Albanese government can do

Has time been called on the native forest logging deals of the 1990s? Here’s what the Albanese government can do

It seems time is being called on the forest settlement of the 1990s. These developments are already destabilising the federal government’s environmental law reform agenda, and could even derail it. The government could use the time between now and next year’s Senate debate on its reform package to work up a new approach. It could be built around forest restoration, conservation and Indigenous empowerment, as experts are proposing. If it doesn’t, we are headed for quite a stoush.

Get the basics right for National Environmental Standards to ensure truly sustainable development

Get the basics right for National Environmental Standards to ensure truly sustainable development

Australia’s environment minister faces some tough calls in developing national environmental standards. If strong and clear, they will protect nature and make it harder to get developments approved. But if the standards lack a clear statement of purpose and carry over rubbery phrases and weak offset requirements, then it will be business as usual, freshly wrapped.