Will Australia follow the UK’s lead on significant biodiversity policy reform?
By Peter Burnett
Author’s note: this is the second part of a two part blog: See Leaders and laggards for part one.
At the end of my earlier blog on Professor Partha Dasgupta’s recent review of The Economics Of Biodiversity for the UK Government, I posed the question of why the UK Government seems to be taking the challenge of biodiversity decline reasonably seriously while the Australian Government had made the biodiversity crisis such a low priority?
After all, it’s hard not to agree with Dasgupta’s basic argument that Nature is our most precious asset, that it is biodiversity that enables Nature to be productive, resilient and adaptable, and that our demands on Nature far exceed its capacity to continue supplying us with the goods and services on which we will rely.
And, helpfully, Dasgupta has given us a clear recipe for fixing the problem:
First, ensure that our demands on Nature do not exceed its supply.
Second, change our measures of economic success to base them on wealth, not income alone (ie GDP).
Third, transform our institutions and systems to enable these changes for the long term.
The UK response
The UK’s response to Dasgupta formed part of a multi-pronged environmental push, taking advantage of the coincidence of three major global meetings being held in 2021. The first two were or are being hosted in the UK: the G7 in Cornwall, (June) and the COP 26 Climate Convention meeting in Glasgow (November). Then there was the COP 15 Biodiversity Convention in Kunming, earlier this month.
The Dasgupta Review helped the UK negotiate the G7 2030 Nature Compact, in which the G7 leaders committed to halting and reversing biodiversity loss by 2030, as part of a double commitment that ‘our world must not only become net zero, but also nature positive’.
A ‘nature positive’ outcome would be actioned across four ‘core pillars’:
Transition for example by reviewing environmentally-harmful subsidies;
Investment in nature, including identifying ways to account for nature in economic and financial decision making;
Conservation, including through new global targets to conserve or protect at least 30% of land globally and 30% of the global oceans by 2030; and
Accountability, including by producing ambitious and strengthened National biodiversity plans and more transparent metrics and success indicators.
The UK is also seeking to leveraging its COP 26 Presidency in Glasgow to accelerate the transition towards more sustainable international supply chains (supply chains that factor in impacts to biodiversity).
In its domestic response to the Dasgupta Review, the UK’s headline commitments were first, to adopt the ‘nature positive’ goal, defining it as ‘leaving the environment in a better state than we found it, and reversing biodiversity loss globally by 2030’; and second, to reform economic and financial decision-making, including the systems and institutions that underpin it, to support the delivery of a nature positive future.
Specifically, the government amended its Environment Bill, which already contained a mechanism for setting environmental targets, to include a legally binding target on species abundance in England for 2030. It is also legislating a ‘biodiversity net gain’ standard for nationally-significant infrastructure projects.
Finally, the UK co-sponsored a ‘30 by 30’ Leaders’ Pledge for Nature at the CBD COP 15 in Kunming, China. This pledge, currently supported by some 70 countries, is to protect at least 30% of global land and at least 30% of the global ocean by 2030.
What about Australia?
While Australia has now moved, with great reluctance, to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, it has displayed no interest in the Dasgupta Review or in making serious biodiversity commitments more generally.
We did join the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and commit to the 30×30 target although, as I explain below, our commitment is not what it seems.
Nevertheless, because Prime Minister Morrison announced this at the G7 meeting in Cornwall (as an invited guest) I think we can give part of the credit for this to Dasgupta and the UK: the PM would not have wanted to attend without a good ‘announceable’ in his pocket.
Anyhow, our 30×30 commitment comes on top of having exceeded (or, as the PM would say, beaten) our Aichi 2020 targets of 17% of land in reserve and 10% of marine areas in reserve, by reaching nearly 20% of land in reserve and 37% of marine areas.
In announcing our 30×30 commitment, the PM announced an intention to increase the area in marine reserves to 45%.
In her subsequent statement to COP 15 in Kunming, Environment Minister Sussan Ley announced plans to increase Australia’s Indigenous Protected Area network by another 3.7 million hectares of land and sea, and to establish two new Australian Marine Parks around the waters of Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. These would increase the percentage of protected Australian waters from 37% to 45%.
Despite the size of this increase, I think it represents talking up easy goals. As you can see, the marine reserves are in the Indian Ocean, well away from areas of significant economic activity on the Australian mainland.
Similarly, I think the government has found it easy to add further Indigenous Protected Areas to the reserve system because, again, most of them are away from areas of significant economic activity. The government has acknowledged this in Australia’s most recent report to the CBD in our most recent national report:
“despite this growth [in the size of the reserve system], only minor progress has been made since 2011 in meeting representation targets for ecosystems and threatened species. In part, this is because most growth has been in desert bioregions, so that representation improvements have been highly localised.”
UK v Australia: what’s the difference?
While no doubt there’s plenty of politics and padding in the UK’s response to Dasgupta, I think there is also plenty of substance to the actions they are taking. And legislating targets for species abundance and biodiversity net gain for major developments (along with an independent monitoring agency) should reduce the wriggle room substantially.
Australia, on the other hand, is all for the talk but not much for the walk.
At the end of the day, Australia’s position on biodiversity is similar to our position on climate change. We are all for signing up to the goals, as long as, to use the words of Scott Morrison in announcing Australia’s net zero by 2050 commitment:
Its not a plan at any cost. There’s no blank cheques here. It will not shut down our coal or gas production or exports. It will not impact households, businesses or the broader economy with new costs or taxes imposed by the initiatives that we are undertaking. It will not cost jobs, not in farming, mining or gas, because what we’re doing in this plan is positive things, enabling things. It will not increase energy bills. It won’t. It is not a revolution, but a careful evolution to take advantage of changes in our markets.
That’s right. We’re all in favour of action, provided this comes at no significant cost to the budget, no taxes or other costs to households and no loss of production, exports or jobs (ie no costs to the economy. And no legislation.
Can you imagine what kind of policies meet these stringent no-cost, no-obligation criteria? That’s right. Marine reserves thousands of kilometres from both population centres and economically-significant activity.
UK v Australia: why the difference?
And why is this ‘Australian way’, as Morrison calls his approach, so different to the British way? I think it’s just the way the politics have played out. In Australia, the Coalition has demonised environmental policy for so long as being a creature of the ‘green left’, that the political cost of substantive action on the environment is just too high.
In the UK, it played out differently. Margaret Thatcher was in favour of climate action in the 1980s, while in the 2000s, David Cameron, then still in Opposition, was able to galvanise support for the Conservative Party with his line ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’.
Will the Coalition in Australia ever run such a slogan? Not in this political generation.