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There is no such thing as a free lunch

Does ‘Nature Positive’ ‘strike the right balance’? The shifting dial is scaring some players.

by | Apr 9, 2024 | 1 comment

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The unwritten rule of environmental policy is that economy trumps environment. ‘Nature positive’ reforms threaten to put it the other way round, or at least to shift the dial in that direction. And the states (beginning with Western Australia) are not happy about it. Crunch time is approaching.

People who’ve been following the Albanese government’s Nature Positive Plan reforms over the last 18 months will know that the government’s series of consultation ‘lock-ups’ — of which we are at four and counting — have been generating plenty of irritation.

Environment and business groups ‘inside the tent’ are sick of travelling to Canberra, surrendering their devices at the door, and spending two days copying draft laws and policies. Meanwhile, people outside the tent complain about the government hiding ‘dark environmental secrets’. (Oddly, given the requirement to surrender devices, the lock-ups are not secret, though most of the participants have not chosen to publicise what they’ve seen.)

These complaints have featured in the media. What hasn’t made the media is that the government has been running parallel lock-ups with state officials, who have been quietly going about their business.

Until now…

Enter stage west

Last week, West Australia’s Premier Roger Cook flew to Canberra to discuss the nature positive reforms. Cook argues that the nature positive reforms have a disproportionate impact on WA, and warned the PM and environment minister Tanya Plibersek against ‘installing more green tape’.

“We recently embarked on an overhaul of our state approvals system, and it’s important that Commonwealth and state reforms are aligned to avoid duplication,” Mr Cook told The Australian Financial Review.

Backing this concern, the WA Chamber of Commerce and Industry warned that ‘additional green tape’ would affect pretty much everything, including housing and clean energy projects.

Premier Cook probably had other fish to fry in Canberra beyond environment, but the fact that he made a special trip to raise his concerns means that the stakes are high. Especially when the reforms haven’t even made it to Parliament.

So just what is the concern here? Current federal requirements for environmental impact assessment (EIA) have been in place for nearly 25 years, and the Nature Positive Plan reforms promise to reduce, not increase them.

While some, including me, are skeptical about the potential of some reforms to achieve the much touted ‘streamlining’, I don’t think they will make things worse. It doesn’t seem worth a Premier’s flight from Perth to Canberra just to complain that process reforms are not on the right track.

The real concern is about changing the ‘balance’

So, what are the real concerns?

I think ‘green tape’ is now code, not just for perceived unnecessary or duplicative environmental processes, but for unwelcome changes to substantive environmental requirements.

One thing that’s clearly worrying industry, and the Premier, is the change of policy models, from ‘ecologically sustainable development’ (ESD) to ‘nature positive’. (In fact, the government is muddying the waters by proposing to legislate both models, but for simplicity let’s assume it’s a replacement.)

ESD seeks to integrate environmental, economic and social factors. The beauty for politicians (and proponents) is that, on the version of ESD typically applied under the EPBC Act and similar state laws, decision-makers can claim they are ‘striking a balance’ between protecting the environment on the one hand, and economic and social gains, such as jobs, on the other.

The problem with that of course is that nature has no such sense of ‘balance’. A significant environmental loss remains just that, no matter how many dollars or jobs are gained on the back of it.

In reality, ‘balance’ is code for ‘politically acceptable’. And off course, losses from ‘balanced’ decision-making cumulate, contributing to the decidedly out-of-balance state of the natural world.

While ‘nature positive’ makes more sense from an environmental policy point of view, because it promises to turn the decline of nature around, it has a downside for development, because it implies that each approved development should deliver a net gain for nature. This in turn implies a more strict approach to environmental decision-making, at significant cost to developers.

Changing the governance on tough decisions

A related worry for the states and industry is governance. The proposed EPA will be making these tough decisions, unless the environment minister ‘calls them in’.

Under the present system (where the environment minister is decision-maker) the minister can respond to lobbying and tone down any tough conditions that the environment department might recommend, on the grounds of balance.

Under the reforms, the minister will still be able to tone things down calling decisions in, and if she does so, she will have a discretion to depart from nature positive requirements that bind the EPA.

But the minister would be more politically-exposed in doing so, because ‘balance’ will be much harder to justify when nature positive standards clearly point to a higher environmental bar.

So perhaps she won’t call in as many decisions as industry might hope.

Then there is the problem of misalignment. While systems vary in detail, federal and state environmental approval requirements are broadly aligned. This alignment could be lost if the feds move to nature positive, including tougher biodiversity offset rules in particular.

Take the example of a new mine. While both jurisdictions may still approve the project, the feds might charge $10 million for offsets when state offsets cost half that.

Cost concerns apart, the worry for the states may be that these new federal requirements will prevail over time, and that they will lose control over policy.

The unwritten bottom line of environmental policy is that economy trumps environment. Nature positive threatens to put it the other way round, or at least to shift the dial in that direction. And this shift might come from Canberra, when the states believe they should be pre-eminent in setting policy on land and resource development.

Crunch time approaches

There has been so much time and talk on this but we’re approaching crunch time. The nature positive reforms must soon be introduced into Parliament if they are to have any chance of passing in the current Parliament.

Prime Minister Albanese has a slim majority and is very sensitive to holding the WA seats his government picked up at the last election. On the other hand, he and Tanya Plibersek will not want to be seen to water down their environmental reforms — or simply to fail to deliver them.

Hard calls must be made, and Labor bleeds to the Left as well as the Right.

Last week’s Financial Review article was all the more interesting because it quoted WA Farmers Federation president Trevor Whittington as saying it was ‘simply not possible to have a new agricultural development that will be nature positive, as food production requires land, water, fertiliser and chemicals’.

Mr Whittington has belled the cat. The question lurking behind the nature positive reforms is, who will pay the extra cost of caring for the environment?

The easy answer in the past has been ‘no-one’. Hopefully that’s now off the table.

Provided the government doesn’t give the easy answer and water ‘nature positive’ down, it will have to apportion the extra costs across business and the wider economy, affecting the states; and the federal budget.

There’s a lot in the balance.

Banner image: Image by xiSerge from Pixabay

1 Comment

  1. Pete Seekgeek

    Impressively balanced and informed comment, Peter.
    The cost of keeping an environment lies inconveniently before development, I sure wish the planet’s needs can for once and from here on take precedence, but it would be a big jump from here as you so rightly point out.


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