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Nature-positive information: devilish detail and a head with two hats and no teeth

by | Jul 1, 2024 | 0 comments

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By Michael Vardon and Peter Burnett

Australia is about to get its first comprehensive national law on environmental information. In a post-truth world, trusted information is more important than ever, and, as in other sectors, we must have confidence in the laws and agencies providing environmental information and measuring progress on “nature positive”.

A lot is at stake in the current parliamentary debate of the Nature Positive (Environment Information Australia) Bill 2024. The bill has already been referred to a Senate committee, which will hold public hearings and must report by 8 August.

Unless the Greens decide to block the bill, chances are that it will pass in Spring, with some negotiated amendments emerging from the Senate committee process.

As noted by Professor Hugh Possingham and colleagues in The Conversation, this will be a significant step forward for a country that has a poor track record monitoring biodiversity.

But will the new Environment Information Australia (EIA) be up to the job? Can it equip us, for example, with the necessary data to discern if the government’s new “nature positive” policies and nature repair markets are delivering real gains, or just biodiversity conservation doublespeak?

The Devil in the detail

As the saying goes, the Devil is in the detail. Or in this case, in the lack of it.

While it’s laudable to see environmental information and natural capital accounts in the mix, overall this is an underwhelming proposal.

For example, the bill makes it clear that “nature positive” is a central idea, essentially defining “nature positive” as an ecological improvement, but saying nothing about the biodiversity targets that Australia and most other countries have agreed to under the Convention on Biological Diversity. These targets include reversing the decline of nature by 2030 and achieving recovery by 2050.

The bill also leaves other key specifics, including defining a baseline from which “nature positive” will be judged and designing a monitoring, evaluation and reporting (MER) framework to the new agency’s Chief Executive Officer, known as the ‘Head of EIA’.

This is concerning because in the absence of legislative guidance on such things, the Head’s role requires them to make calls with implications, not just for policy, but for politics.

Baseline basics

For example, setting a dry, high fire year like 2020 as the baseline could allow natural regrowth in subsequent wet years to look like governments, rather than rainfall, have been very active.

A 2025 baseline — the likely first year of operation — might lead to a markedly different picture. A low baseline has let Australia off the hook before, with the 1990 baseline for greenhouse gas emissions allowing us to meet targets without, as Penny van Oosterzee has explained, doing anything.

Someone has to make the call on a baseline and 2020 has been advocated internationally. If Parliament adopts a 2020 or other baseline, there’s a chance for a transparent debate among people who are directly politically accountable for that call, rather than EIA’s Head, whose accountability is indirect.

Judging “nature positive”?

In a similar vein, “nature positive” is a vague concept and aspiration, covering a multitude of variables in nature. Some kind of aggregation will be necessary to form an overall view on whether nature positive is being achieved. The legislation gives insufficient guidance on how to aggregate and compare information about species and ecosystems and make the judgement on “nature positive”.

For example, an aggregation that gave greater emphasis to abundance over diversity might present a rosier picture than one that took the opposite view. Judging nature positive means answering questions like: “Does a growth in the number of common species like eastern grey kangaroos compensate for population declines in threatened species like glossy black cockatoo?”

Such issues may seem purely technical, but such technical decisions can have significant political implications and may even drive the overall political narrative about progress towards nature positive.

Of course, it’s unrealistic to fill legislation with scientific protocols and in the case of MER, it’s probably better, as the government proposes, to leave the details to the experts.

But if that’s the solution, given the stakes, EIA needs not only to be independent of government on paper, but independent in practice. And seen to be so.

Two hats

That’s not how the government sees it. Under the EIA bill, the Head of EIA will wear two hats.

In their statutory hat, the Head is independent, accountable to the minister and Parliament only for performing certain (albeit important) functions under the EIA Act, like preparing and publishing a State of the Environment Report every two years.

But in all other respects, the Head of EIA will be a senior officer of the Environment Department, appointed by the Secretary and reporting “up the agency line” to the Secretary and Minister.

This “two hat” model could place the Head in very uncomfortable positions. For example, would the Head defer releasing data to avoid embarrassing government close to an election? Wearing the statutory hat, the Head would not dream of doing so, but wearing the senior officer’s hat, they might well consider it, given it would be lawful and would keep them in the minister’s good books.

Such dilemmas, and above all the perception of such dilemmas, must be avoided at all costs.

No teeth

Another problem with the EIA bill is that it requires the Head to operate in contested space, but with few powers to deal with contested issues.

State governments still make most environmental decisions and hold most of the data, but the federal role has grown enormously over the years and states worry about federal ‘mission creep’. Retaining control of data is one way to resist this trend.

Similarly, developers, researchers and Indigenous people hold significant quantities of relevant information, but will worry about the implications of handing it over to processes beyond their control, including the Head’s almost unconstrained power to pass that information on to any federal agency.

But unlike the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), which has powers to require information, EIA is toothless. The bill does allow the Head to declare a data system belonging to states or other third party to be a ‘national environmental information asset’, but what does this mean? It seems this is simply an acknowledgement of the data’s importance. The Head has no direct control over those assets, and limited capacity to negotiate arrangements to support them.

In short, the bill empowers the Head to do little more than keep a list of important information assets that lie beyond their control. Without the ability to acquire data through compulsion, or the degree of separation from the Commonwealth held by a true statutory authority, the Head has a much tougher task in assembling a national and truly comprehensive environmental data set.

A healthy solution?

A solution to these problems can be found in the health portfolio, where the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) performs a similar role to that proposed for EIA.

The AIHW Act takes a more comprehensive and integrated approach than the EIA Bill. It creates a truly independent agency, governed by a board and with its own Parliamentary appropriation and powers to contract and to form expert committees.

If we applied the AIHW model to EIA, the Head would truly be independent, able to make politically-sensitive decisions without fear or perception of influence from the federal government.

And EIA would be more likely to garner the trust of the states, researchers, Indigenous peoples and major developers, all of whom hold significant data, through the legal separation of AIHW from the Commonwealth and the allocation of board seats to persons from these sectors.

What now?

Hopefully the Senate Environment Committee will make recommendations for a significant strengthening of EIA and a deal will be done for Greens’ and crossbench support in the Senate for a strong EIA.

That would not be the end of things though: answering one set of questions just raises more questions.

Foremost among those is the question of natural capital adequacy. Once we start getting a comprehensive and regularly-updated picture of the Australian environment, the question becomes “how much environment — natural capital — is enough to keep the environment healthy, now and for the future?”

And beyond that, how do we manage natural capital adequacy? As we have written elsewhere, perhaps through a Natural Capital Bank.

These are issues and questions for another day.

Michael Vardon is an expert in environmental accounting and has been collecting and analysing data for more than 20 years. He is currently researching and teaching environmental accounting at the Australian National University. He is a member of the Policy and Technical Expert Committee of the World Bank’s Wealth Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem (WAVES) program and was a member of the Editorial Board of the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting – Central Framework.

Peter researches environmental policy, including its translation into law. Current research themes include environmental impact assessment and the policy applications of environmental-economic accounting.

Banner image: Image by xiSerge from Pixabay

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