Back in the late 1980s the underlying idea behind Australia’s new goal of ‘Ecologically Sustainable Development’ was to pursue economic growth without jeopardising the ‘future productive base’, which we would now describe as ‘natural capital’. That idea was never properly operationalised. Could the new talk of getting real about ‘Nature Positive’ finally deliver on those earlier ambitions?
The big switch
Dr Henry recommended what I described as a ‘big switch’ in regulatory decisions relating to biodiversity — decisions in which a new housing development, road or mine is given the green light following an environmental impact assessment (EIA).
This shift would involve moving away from a discretionary ‘balancing’ of environmental, economic and social considerations, supposedly applying the principles of Ecologically Sustainable Development, to a ‘Nature Positive’ framework, under which approved developments would be required to achieve a ‘net gain’ for biodiversity.
Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) was developed by the Hawke Government in the late 1980s. The underlying idea was to pursue economic growth without jeopardising the ‘future productive base’, which we would now describe as ‘natural capital’.
However, this simple idea of conserving natural capital got lost in the wash during subsequent policy development. We ended up with a set of five ‘ESD principles’, which were subsequently enshrined in over 100 federal and state laws.
Typically, those laws required decision-makers to consider the ESD principles, including the principle that the conservation of biodiversity and ecological integrity was a ‘fundamental consideration’, without actually saying how the decision-maker should respond once he or she had ‘considered’ them.
The usual result has been that decision-makers pay lip service to ESD. They ‘ticked the ESD boxes’ but then make decisions which usually result in biodiversity losses. Unsurprisingly, the cumulative outcome is biodiversity decline.
This is what both the Henry Review, and the earlier Samuel Review of the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, have said must stop.
Proposed only recently (in 2020) as a global biodiversity target that would correspond to the Paris climate target of ‘well below 2 degrees’, ‘net positive’, or ‘Nature Positive’ as it soon became, has rapidly become the phrase on everyone’s lips in biodiversity debate.
This includes both Australian environment minister Tanya Plibersek, in her 2022 response to the Samuel Review, the Nature Positive Plan and now Dr Henry, in his NSW review.
As Joseph Bull and colleagues put it* in advancing the original ‘net positive’ idea:
The key is to ensure that any biodiversity losses are not ecologically irreplaceable, that they are socially acceptable and that they are more than fully compensated for, so that overall, nature is retained or restored in net terms.
Although the Henry Review concerned a state law, it has national implications, for three reasons, all connected with policy momentum.
First, the Henry Review highlights similar problems to those identified in the Samuel Review and points in a similar direction of reform. This will increase pressure on the federal government, not just to deliver its promised shift to Nature Positive, without any fudging, when Parliament debates the resulting legislation in the New Year, but to strengthen its proposals when the Bills reach Australia’s now-environmentally-progressive Senate.
Second, this alignment of reform directions will also increase the pressure in the other direction. Even though the NSW government has yet to respond to the review, the fact that the Henry Review has picked up on national and international policy directions will increase momentum towards a Nature Positive approach in NSW.
That’s not to say that the NSW government wasn’t already heading in that direction. In June, at the most recent meeting of federal and state environment ministers, Tanya Plibersek succeeded in having everyone sign up to Nature Positive, including the new NSW minister, Penny Sharpe.
But every contribution helps.
Finally, the Henry Review is likely to have a domino effect. Ken Henry is a national figure in public policy and his findings about the need to overhaul a failed biodiversity law will influence other states over time.
If Dr Henry had gone another way, there would have been competing models on the table, but with him reinforcing the federal momentum to Nature Positive, while ESD-based approaches are failing, there really isn’t another biodiversity policy game in town.
But will Nature Positive make a real difference in Australia?
With Nature Positive endorsed by the Henry Review and by the meeting of environment ministers last June, I think the main issue now is not whether the states will join the federal commitment to Nature Positive, but whether Nature Positive can turn biodiversity decline around.
In that regard, Tanya Plibersek’s Nature Positive Plan has yet to be translated into legislation — an exposure draft is expected late this year. Despite a number of good reforms in this plan, it also has weaknesses that could make Nature Positive hollow.
For example, the plan contains a commitment to accept conservation payments in lieu of biodiversity offsets, in circumstances where a proponent has been unable to find a ‘like for like’ offset and the minister concludes that a conservation payment would deliver a ‘better overall environmental outcome’.
This is a recipe for environmental horse-trading, in which, at worst, a minister can decide to write off an endangered species for a fist full of dollars to spend on the environmental recovery of something else. Last year, the NSW Auditor-General was highly critical of outcomes of this kind.
All in all, Nature Positive is a concept with 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.
By this time next year we should know, at least federally and possibly also in NSW, whether Nature Positive will deliver real change or just a new opportunity for box ticking and political window dressing.
When Joseph Bull and colleagues published their ‘net positive’ article in 2020, it immediately struck me as significant. That’s not to say that I foresaw that it would trigger a global move to Nature Positive. I wish I had.
However, the article did prompt me, with colleagues, to write to Nature Ecology and Evolution to point out that the integrated measurement framework which Bull et al said was needed to measure ‘net positive’ already existed in the UN System of Environmental-Economic Accounting, better known as ‘SEEA’ or just natural capital accounting.
Australia has officially endorsed SEEA, but implementation is both haphazard and underwhelming. But that’s another story …