Getting results: the first transformation of our national environmental law starts with ‘standards’

By Peter Burnett

‘All that’s gold does not glitter’.

So opens the poem that Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit, wrote to his cousin Frodo, the hero of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

In my last blog I argued that, underlying the definitely non-glittering recommendations of the Samuel Review of Australia’s main national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, lay policy gold, a call for five major transformations in law and policy.

The first of these was to shift from a regulatory regime that was prescriptive and focussed on processes, to one built around the setting and pursuing of national environmental outcomes.

In doing so we would get away from our current ‘box-ticking’ approach to regulation, under which decision-makers (typically the environment minister) consider various factors such as biodiversity loss and the precautionary principle but, at the end of the day, decide pretty much anything they want to.

The main driver of this shift in Professor Samuel’s recommended reforms is the creation of statutory ‘national environmental standards.’

Standards both old and new

We are already used to environmental standards in dealing with certain issues. We have, for example, had standards for ambient air quality and contaminated site remediation for decades.

But we have gone down a different track with nature conservation. Early battles focused on saving precious places from development and indeed the environment movement in Australia was built on some of these, such as the (unsuccessful) fight to save Lake Pedder in the 1970s and the (successful) fight to save the Franklin River in the 1980s.

These were more battles of the heart than the head.

Things shifted in the 1990s. Under the banner of ‘sustainable development’, or, in Australia, ‘Ecologically Sustainable Development’ (ESD), we became more focused on conserving entire landscapes and ecosystems.

But we struggled to pin down exactly what we were trying to achieve. Unable to answer the question, ‘how much environment is enough?’, something we could have worked out if we had done enough science and environmental monitoring, we defaulted to a legalistic approach in which we asked decision-makers to ‘consider’ or ‘have regard to’ certain principles such as precaution or intergenerational equity.

The trouble with such principles is that they are too general to serve as standards and instead become ‘mandatory considerations’ in discretionary decision-making (ie, boxes to be ticked).

The only real limit on this discretion-based decision-making is the ability of the courts to strike down a truly egregious decision on grounds of ‘irrationally’.

The first transformation

Discretionary, bottom-up decision-making is no way to achieve a consistent and ecologically sustainable outcome. Professor Samuel therefore recommended flipping the system on its head: spell out what an ecologically sustainable environment looks like, partly through National Environmental Standards and partly through a comprehensive environmental planning regime, and then require that individual development decisions comply with these standards and plans.

Although transformative, this change seems straight-forward enough; why haven’t we been doing this all along?

One reason is ‘path dependency’. Because many conservation problems first emerged as place-based or issue-specific concerns, we started dealing with them on a reactive, case-by-case basis. This is how our system deals with most issues, environmental or otherwise. As such it was as comfortable as a pair of old slippers — and in we slipped.

Another reason is that we haven’t had the comprehensive environmental information or the deep ecological understanding we needed to draw a line between harm that ecosystems can absorb without losing their identity (resilience), and harm that they cannot absorb. We still can’t do that precisely, although technology and good science have brought us a long way.

More significantly, it is only now that most members of the political class, and indeed a majority in society, are coming to understand and accept that if we don’t act soon, it may be too late.

What would these standards look like?

If standards are central to halting environmental decline, what would they look like? Well, the devil is in the detail, but Professor Samuel included some draft standards in his report, so I’ll use elements of the threatened species standard to give you a brief taste.

In part, this draft standard just repeats some existing formulae, for example that approved developments should not be ‘inconsistent with’ relevant recovery plans.

On the other hand, it also introduces new requirements. One of these is that decisions must take cumulative impacts into account. Another is that decisions must avoid adverse impacts to critical habitat and ensure ‘no net reduction’ of critical habitat.

Note the use of the word ‘net’, which implies that environmental offsets could be used.

So, would they work?

My general view is that Samuel’s draft standards would deliver significant marginal gains, but are not worded tightly enough to halt further major environmental decline.

Just looking at the examples above, I think the following changes (and complementary measures) are needed to make the standard strong enough to halt decline:

  • it is not enough that developments ‘not be inconsistent with’ recovery plans — they need to comply with plans; moreover, the plans themselves must spell things out with much greater precision than existing plans, eg by mapping critical habitat to be protected
  • taking cumulative impacts into account is a significant advance, but doing so requires a major national exercise in gathering and maintaining environmental data over time
  • if a species is to recover, decision-makers must not approve impacts to critical habitat, rather than simply ‘avoiding’ them
  • further, if there is to be ‘no net reduction’ in critical habitat, then offset rules would have to be so stringent that I doubt whether they can be met in practice, which probably means that the word ‘net’ should go from this requirement.

And will standards become reality?

Having National Environmental Standards would be truly transformative for environmental decision-making and in my view they could indeed be policy gold, as long as we get the detail right.

By the same token, standards lack lustre for a reason. As you can see from these brief examples, formulating the right words of protection is not that hard. The real challenge is to build political support for the tough decisions that strong standards imply.

Banner image: Good clear environmental standards could provide a pathway to transform our national environmental law into something that makes a real difference. (Image by David Salt)

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