Environmental Standards: are they really the treasure at the end of the rainbow?

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What would happen if we actually got decent environmental standards?

By Peter Burnett

After several months of turbulent debate over what will become of Australia’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, we are approaching the end zone of Professor Graeme Samuel’s review. ‘Environmental Standards’ look set to become part of environmental regulation in Australia and many people, including me, are wondering whether they will be good enough and, even if they are, how will it change things.

Professor Samuel’s Independent Review of the EPBC Act is due in a month. The Government has jumped the reform gun by introducing ‘streamlining’ amendments to the Act designed to enable ‘single touch’ environmental decisions by states, replacing the dual system of federal and state decisions that we have now.

Although pitched by federal environment minister Sussan Ley as ‘the first tranche of EPBC Act reforms linked to the independent statutory review of the Act’, [link: ] this Bill is no more than a rebadged version of the Abbott Government’s 2014 ‘one stop shop’ Bill that failed to pass the Senate. It doesn’t include any of the reforms identified by Professor Samuel in his Interim Report, such as the application of binding National Environmental Standards to accredited State environmental decisions.

Once again the Government finds its path blocked in the Senate, although this time the three cross-benchers concerned are not necessarily opposed to the Bill, but only to the idea of passing ‘reforms’ without seeing the report to which the Government links them, or without a Senate Inquiry into the Bill, or perhaps both.

How will things play out?

My crystal ball isn’t good enough to see how all this might play out. Perhaps we’ll see a Senate Inquiry, not just into the streamlining Bill but into the full Samuel Report. This would put everything on the table, from threatened species protection to Indigenous heritage failures (think Juukan Gorge).

On this scenario, instead of being able to deliver the ‘single touch’ model by Christmas as part of its COVID-19 recovery plan, the Government might find itself wading through the environmental policy swamp in the Senate for months, where it does not control the numbers.

Another scenario is that, in an effort to avoid wading into the swamp, that the government cuts a deal with Labor on the policy. What if we ended up with bipartisan support for accreditation based on standards?

Are standards the answer?

On the surface, such a deal could be attractive politically and environmentally. We’d get the efficiency of ‘single touch’ decisions, with checks and balances in the form of standards: quick decisions, but not at the expense of the environment.

Unfortunately it’s not that simple.

Professor Samuel recommended a phased approach, starting with interim standards, but refined over time with increasing ‘granularity’. This might mean that early standards are too general to be enforceable and so make little difference on the ground. Moreover, once interim standards were in place, States and developers alike would probably resist the progressive tightening that would come if the Commonwealth embarked on a program of rolling out progressively more-detailed standards.

Standards would be a new element in the environmental decision-making equation. As such, they represent something of a wild card and would probably attract legal challenges as environment groups tried to establish that standards should make a real difference to decisions.

So we could get standards that don’t really work, or standards that generate controversy. Not all standards are good standards.

But what if we actually got a decent set of standards?

But what if the standards were ideal, clearly and accurately identifying what was needed to maintain or enhance the condition of important environmental values such as threatened species?

We’d still face significant problems.

First, we lack the ability to measure what’s happening to the environment on a routine and ongoing basis. We’d need to complement the standards with quality and up-to-date information. Professor Samuels said a ‘quantum shift is required in the quality of information, accessible data and information available to decision-makers’. This would be expensive and take years to implement.

Then there’s the politics. Given the parlous state of the environment, well-defined standards, applied with precision, would often throw up the answer ‘You can’t approve that. It would result in the degradation or loss of [insert environmental value here, eg significant area of critical habitat, river-flow needed to maintain a Ramsar wetland, etc]’.

I think many politicians know this, if not consciously, at least instinctively, and would not wish to go down this track. We’d be tapping into what makes the environment such a wicked problem.

‘Doing the right thing’ could come at significant opportunity cost to the economy, not to mention direct impacts on various vested interests, while the standards would place any failure to do so in stark relief. There’d be nowhere to hide, no fudges available.

The recent threatened walk-out from Government by the National Party in NSW, over new and more precise guidelines concerning koala habitat provides a foretaste of this.

Standards alone are not enough

To me, the missing link is a means to bring society along with new standards, to create a broad acceptance that maintaining a quality of life for our children, even our future selves, will require difficult decisions.

The Gillard Government sought to do this in its ‘Clean Energy Future’ climate package in 2011. One element of the package was a Climate Commission, charged with engaging with the ordinary person, through ‘town hall’ meetings and the like, to explain the need for climate action. Unfortunately, the Commission bit the dust along with the carbon price, in 2014.

I know that anything associated with the repealed carbon price is political anathema, but this is where we need to go. We need broad community acceptance that we can’t live beyond our environmental means, and to explain what that means.

After 75 years of ‘jobs and growth’ messages from Western governments, going back to US President Truman’s urging in his State of the Union address in 1945 to ‘move forward … to the full utilisation and development of our physical and human resources’, that’s a tall order indeed.

Image by Albrecht Fietz from Pixabay

On target for disappointment

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The Fifth Global Biodiversity Outlook is in and the judges are unanimous – we need better targets

By David Salt

Guess what? Humanity has missed its targets and is failing life on Earth.

We know this because the latest (and grandest) stocktake of efforts to save biodiversity has just been released and it shows that the world has failed to meet a single target it agreed to back in 2010. The stocktake is known as the Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO), and this is the fifth such report.

GBO 5 reports on progress of 20 targets signed up to by signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) at Aichi in Japan in 2010. They are known as the Aichi Targets.

Rather than demonstrating that humanity acknowledges the existential importance of our natural capital and that we might be making steps to look after it, this Outlook report has told us we’re doing the opposite – we’re burning up that capital faster than ever before.

One stand out failure, among many, is that governments around the world are still subsidising environmental damage to the tune of $500 billion, rather than dismantling these perverse policies as they committed to do.

The funny thing is, rather than serving as a wakeup call galvanising governments to change their course, the general response has been to debate what will go into the next set of targets being discussed soon in Kunming China. If the current targets simply set us up for failure – even though they were designed to slow and maybe reverse the destruction of humanity’s life support – then maybe we should adopt more measured targets that are achievable. See the humour there?

Countdown to disappointment

The lead up to this epic fail (as documented by GBO 5) goes back some 30 years, in a documentable sense anyway; the broader history of biodiversity decline is really the flip side of the rise of Homo sapiens.

From the 1960s on there was growing concern around the world that rampant economic growth was resulting in unsustainable environmental degradation with the decline of biodiversity being one of its most worrying manifestations. To address this, most of the world’s nations signed up to the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio (though the US, along with Andorra, Iraq and Somalia, never ratified it). In this Convention, signatories promised to do something about declining biodiversity.

In 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg (famously boycotted by US President George W Bush), signatories agreed to refine this somewhat vague aspiration by agreeing to work to specific targets – these being to halt or reverse declines in biodiversity by the year 2010. To celebrate what nations signing up to the CBD hoped would be achieved, 2010 was declared the International Year of Biodiversity.

Well, rather than demonstrate the success of the CBD, the release of the third Global Biodiversity Outlook in 2010 revealed that biodiversity declines were accelerating (at all scales), that the drivers of decline (land clearing, invasive species, over exploitation, pollution and climate change) were growing and that the future was looking bleak.

I remember reading the press statements put out at the time of the release of the Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 – in what was supposed to be a celebratory International Year of Biodiversity – and feeling both disappointed and disgusted. The issue wasn’t being meaningfully addressed, the losses were accelerating and forecasts were of worse to come.

So, how did the UN and the organisers of the CBD respond to the breathtaking failure of 2010? They came up with a more comprehensive and nuanced set of targets (the Aichi Targets) for what was needed to be achieved by 2020!

Well now it’s 2020

The fact we’ve failed again comes as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying even half attention to the news in the past decade. But it does leave you gasping. It also makes you wonder what it would take to convince humanity to start making a difference when it comes to conserving biodiversity.

Last year the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released its own global assessment of biodiversity. Amidst headlines shouting that 1,000,000 species are threatened with extinction, IPBES said the world needs ‘transformative change’; and by that they meant a “fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

At the time I expressed significant pessimism that the world would listen or do anything because transformative change never comes easy. It requires considerable sacrifice, and the elites who hold the power and derive the most benefits from the existing status quo do the most to block any change that threatens that balance.

“The American way of life is not up for negotiation,” said President George Bush (Snr) at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the event where the Convention of Biological Diversity was signed. Sustainability is all well and good, but not if it requires the rich to forego their privilege.

Which means if you want international consensus on biodiversity you have to be very careful with the targets you choose and the way you word them.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

However, if your targets are consistently not being met, and collapsing ecosystems (the Great Barrier Reef is but one high profile example) and accelerating species loss and histrionic calls to arms are not galvanising widespread action, then what do you do?

What do you do in the face of an existential threat when the world doesn’t seem to want to know? It’s a question I’ve asked myself so many times between 2010 (the failed International Year of Biodiversity) and this latest gloomy report and I think many people resort to nihilism or fundamentalism. Others stay engaged and attempt to make the next step something that works better.

And yet those policy makers, conservationists and diplomats working for a more effective set of targets in 2030 (or whenever) do so in the knowledge there’s little prospect for significant improvement in government policy on the horizon (just consider our own government’s efforts over environmental policy reform).

However, even if we missed the boat on CBD targets, there’s considerable evidence suggesting efforts to conserve biodiversity since the CBD came into force in 1993 have had some impact. As Stuart Butchart, Chief Scientist at Birdlife International, points out, without those efforts 28-48 bird and mammal species would have gone extinct and the extinction rate in recent decades would have been at least 3-4 times higher. What’s more, he says that protected areas are contributing measurably to conserving species in some of the world’s most diverse and threatened terrestrial ecosystems.

So, the future looks grim but we know there are conservation tools that can make a difference. Our real target should be how we make our political leaders agree to deploy them.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Trust us? Well let’s look at your record

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Can governments be trusted to set and enforce effective environmental standards?

By Peter Burnett

Can Governments be trusted to set and enforce effective environmental standards? By ‘effective’, I mean standards that protect the environment to the point of halting long-term environmental decline?

I’m asking this question because in the current debate about reform of Australia’s national environmental law, the EPBC Act, environment minister Sussan Ley is saying ‘trust me’ on two major issues, both arising from Professor Graeme Samuel’s Independent Review of the EPBC Act.

First, she is rushing through a small but controversial set of legislative changes while promising more extensive reforms to come.

These initial changes are about reducing duplication and ‘green tape’ by introducing ‘single touch’ environmental decisions. They are posing as the first tranche of reform but are in fact a recycled version of the Abbott government’s ‘one stop shop’.

Second, the Government has rejected the recommendation of the Independent Review that there should be an ‘independent cop on the beat’ to regulate States accredited to make ‘single touch’ decisions. Without such a regulator, it would be up to Minister Ley to call to account any State making decisions that didn’t comply with Samuel’s proposed National Environmental Standards.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the government can be trusted on this. But it’s not about anyone’s personal qualities. It’s about the politics. I base my argument on two examples, Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) and the Environment Restoration Fund (ERF).

Trust us on the forests

RFA’s were developed in the 1990s as the solution to the ‘forest wars’, especially over the harvesting of old growth forests to produce wood chips. The idea was that, following an environmental assessment, Federal and State governments would produce a 20-year plan, in the form of an RFA, for each forestry region.

There are 10 RFAs across southern Australia. Each one identifies areas for harvest and sets out how the State will conserve ecological values such as threatened species. In return, the Commonwealth grants export licences for forest products covered by the RFA and exempts forestry in RFA areas from the need for development approvals under the EPBC Act.

In 2006 Bob Brown challenged a Tasmanian RFA on the ground that Forestry Tasmania were failing to deliver the protection required by the RFA for several threatened species. He won the initial challenge but lost on appeal.

The interesting point however is not who won or lost but what happened between the initial case and the appeal.

Obviously the Federal and Tasmanian governments were concerned that the appeal court would uphold Brown’s win. So they changed the wording of the RFA. Instead of requiring that the species be protected (by applying agreed management prescriptions), the amended RFA specified that the establishment of the CAR (Comprehensive Adequate and Representative) Reserve System, together with the application of the agreed prescriptions, protected the species.

In other words, instead of requiring an actual environmental outcome, the RFA deemed the agreed inputs to be delivering the outcome.* The two governments were concerned that the law might require, not just that they take action, but that they actually achieve a result!

Trust us on endangered possums

Similar sentiments can be seen at play in the Leadbeater’s Possum Cases of 2018 and 2020, in which environment group Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum took VicForests to court, twice, arguing that the corporation was failing to comply with the RFA and that as a result it had lost its RFA exemption under the EPBC Act. (The cases also related to the Greater Glider.)

The cases are complex, but in brief the Court held that to maintain its EPBC Act exemption, VicForests had to conduct its forestry operations ‘in accordance with’ the RFA.

The first challenge failed because it was based on the failure of the Federal and Victorian governments to conduct, in a timely way, the five year reviews required under RFAs. The court said these reviews, though performing a ‘critical’ role in preserving the currency, appropriateness and effectiveness of the RFA, were not integral to forestry operations.

The second challenge was based on VicForests’ failure to comply to apply the precautionary principle, as required by the Victorian Code of Practice for Timber Production, in planning its logging activities. This time the challenge succeed, because the planning process was integral to forestry operations.

Again, the interesting point here is not so much the outcomes of the cases but the attitude of governments.

First, the Federal and Victorian governments were significantly late in conducting regular reviews of the RFAs. In fact, they missed the first one altogether. And, in playing ‘catch up’, they didn’t review the five Victorian agreements individually but rolled the reviews into one.

This creates a strong impression of initial neglect on both sides, followed by a scramble to get into compliance.

Second, rather than comply with the precautionary principle by undertaking serious on-ground monitoring work, VicForests relied on ‘desktop and other theoretical methods’ which the Court found to be flawed. In fact, the Court said that VicForests had prepared ‘defensive documents … suggesting VicForests felt obliged to have a policy addressing further protection for the Greater Glider, but was reluctant to implement it’.

Again, one is left with the strong impression that protecting the environment was far from the minds of those concerned.

Trust us on restoration

As I’ve written about the Environment Restoration Fund before, I’ll just recap briefly.

This $100m fund was announced in the 2019 Federal Budget, just before the election. The fund was presented as representing ‘practical environmental action’.

The government committed nearly 80% of the funds in the form of election commitments, ie. immediately, without calling for applications and without access to the usual expert advice about how to prioritise the spending for best environmental effect.

In other words, despite serious and ongoing environmental decline, the government’s ‘practical environmental action’ was, in reality, a pork barrel. When challenged about their approach in the Senate, the government’s main defence was that the Opposition did this sort of thing too.

So, who do ya trust?

I could go on, but in my view these two significant examples alone suggest strongly that governments, irrespective of political persuasion, or whether Federal or State, cannot be trusted to implement good environmental policy. Without ginger groups such as Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum to keep them honest, or Professor Samuel’s ‘independent cop on the beat’, they have a strong tendency to ‘talk the talk’ but not ‘walk the walk’.

The politics are just too hard.

With the RFA’s, I’m betting politicians still have an indelible memory of the timber trucks encircling Parliament House, like ‘Indians’ riding around the circled wagons in an old Western, even though this occurred more than 25 years ago. Once bitten, not just twice shy but pathologically averse to stirring up the timber industry.

With the ERF, the Morrison Government was widely expected to lose the 2019 election and perhaps this was an initiative born of desperation. The fact that it worked will only suffice as justification to the most rusted-on Coalition supporters. For the rest of us, it’s only helped to reinforce the widely held view that governments can’t be trusted.

So, while it’s possible that we’ll get a reasonable set of National Environmental Standards out of the current national environmental law review, because talk and even laws are cheap, it’s much less likely that governments would implement them effectively, if left to their own devices.

Bring on Professor Samuel’s independent cop on the beat!

Image by Pixabay

*On appeal, the Full Federal Court said that the change was unnecessary and that, as a matter of interpretation, the original words only required the application of the agreed prescriptions and not the achievement of protection, but this is beside the point.

Last chance to see

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The contradictions of ‘sustainable’ tourism in a post pandemic world

By David Salt

Tourism is riven by irony. It can empower local economies, support meaningful conservation efforts and enable people to learn more about other cultures while simultaneously encouraging them to reflect upon their own. At the same time, the act of travelling to distant locations creates greater strain on the already stressed Earth system, homogenizes and commodifies intangible culture and often places intolerable pressure on limited resources in poor regions.

Tourism can bring out the best in us and yet it frequently comes with a price that few of us want to acknowledge.

But why even talk about this in a time of global pandemic lockdown? No-one is actually travelling at the moment (far fewer people, anyway)!

Well, as Joni Mitchell says: “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” and now that global tourism has been effectively shut down most of us are yearning for our holiday escape.

As the hotel reservations dry up and jet contrails that once criss-crossed our international skies fade away, what is it we can say about tourism and its impacts (both good and bad)? And what will (or should) happen when we get passed the pandemic?

Last week the UN released a policy brief asking these very questions, and it makes some telling points. We might all say we want things to return to ‘normal’, but when it comes to tourism, we really need a new normal. The old ways of doing things are clearly unsustainable.

The loss of an economic powerhouse

Something that is becoming blindingly obvious as the corona lockdown grinds on is that tourism plays a massive role in our economy.

According to 2019 data, tourism generated 7% of global trade, employed one in ten people and provided livelihoods to millions of people in developed and developing countries. As borders closed due to the COVID lockdown, hotels shut and air travel dropped dramatically. According to the World Tourism Organisation, international tourist arrivals decreased by 56%, and $320 billion in exports from tourism were lost in the first five months of 2020. And most forecasts suggest worse is to come.

The UN is particularly concerned about the impact on small island developing states (in, for example, Palau, tourism generates almost 90% of its exports) and developing countries (in Africa, tourism represented 10% of all exports in 2019).

Tourism also provides a critical source of money for conservation, often in developing countries where there is little capacity for such work. For example, a 2015 United Nations World Tourism Organization survey determined that 14 African countries generate an estimated US$142 million in protected-area entrance fees alone. The shutdown of tourism activities has meant months of no income for many protected areas and the communities living around them.

The loss of tourism income further endangers protected and other conserved areas for biodiversity, where most wildlife tourism takes place. Without alternative opportunities, communities may turn to the over-exploitation of nature, either for their own consumption or to generate income. There has already been a rise in poaching and looting, partly due to the decreased presence of tourists and staff.

Cultural conservation is also taking a beating. Many cultural organizations have also seen their revenues plummet with the lockdown. During the crisis, 90% of countries fully or partially closed World Heritage sites, and around 85,000 museums were temporarily closed.

And yet the pandemic has also had an environmental upside with significantly fewer carbon emissions resulting from the downturn in tourism activity. The tourism sector has an incredibly high climate and environmental footprint, requiring heavy energy and fuel consumption and placing stress on land systems. The growth of tourism over recent years has put achieving the targets of the Paris Agreement at risk. Transport-related greenhouse gas emissions from tourism has been estimated at 5% of all human originated emissions.

Return to normal

Taken together, this presents us with a bit of a conundrum. Everyone is pushing for a return to normal, an opening of our borders and the return of the stimulus provided by a growing economy. But that very return to business as usual would see an increase in the environmental decline that international tourism helps create. It’s the conundrum that modern life seems unable to solve, that our societal addiction to economic growth prevents us from engaging with the real costs of that growth.

Even the UN report on COVID-19 and Transforming Tourism seems blind to this contradiction. It points out all the advantages that modern tourism brings but, even though it acknowledges its high environmental footprint, it proposes that we ‘tranform’ tourism as we get past the pandemic by doing it exactly the way we did it before but be a bit more clever about it.

Okay, I’m sure the authors of this report would disagree with my summation. The report uses all the right words (resilience, competitiveness, innovation, green growth, digitalization and inclusiveness) but as far as I can see they are asking for all the benefits of mass tourism without acknowledging the costs of tourism when done as ‘business as usual’ (or the difficulty of reforming this business-as-usual approach).

The term ‘transform’ means different things to different people. To me it means a fundamental shift from the system you are a part of to something quite different. Transformation is not about a little change around the edges, and yet that is what I read in the UN report (noble though its aspirations are).

A new normal

If society was to really to engage with the sustainability of tourism in an uncertain future then maybe we should be talking about how we can protect the many environmental and cultural values of our top tourism destinations in a way that doesn’t involve travelling to see them.

How do we generate the resources required to steward our world heritage in a carbon constrained future? How might we enable access to these rich experiences in a meaningful and fair manner? How do we make tourism more than its current tradition of seeking the new, the pleasurable and the exciting? How do we cultivate this new tourism so that people in the developing world still receive the support they have come to depend upon from traditional tourism?

I believe most people would simply reject any notion of tourism that leaves behind the travel component, and people are hungering for their next hit of travel after this prolonged period of enforced homestay.

However, if we’re being honest, we should acknowledge that tourism is already under mounting pressure from a changing world, and that’s been happening long before COVID 19. Increasing areas of the world are falling out of bounds because of environmental collapse (think fire and storm for starters), political instability, lawlessness and disease.

Last chance to see

If you reject my thesis that tourism as we have known it has to profoundly change – to transform – then may I recommend this itinerary as your next grand tour: the snows of Kilimanjaro, the Great Barrier Reef and Tuvalu. Call it your ‘last-chance-to-see’ tour, and tell your grandchildren you were among the lucky few who used their tourist dollars to experience some of the world’s wonders before they were lost forever.

Maybe that’s the human condition – ‘that we don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone.’

Image: Image by kendallpools from Pixabay