The slippery slopes of failed environmental governance: Who accounts for the regulators?

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By David Salt

Liberia is having problems with its environmental governance. And so are we.

Deforesting a biodiversity hotspot

Logging companies are exploiting weak monitoring and enforcement of Liberia’s forestry laws. Apparently, a 2019 audit had found that around 14,000 cubic metres of timber supposedly harvested legally was actually untraceable (and therefore probably illegal) yet permits for the sale and export of much of the timber were still approved. Authorities have known about the case for more than two years, and done nothing. What’s more, the logging company responsible has a long and troubled history of violations.

Well, is anyone surprised? Liberia, a biodiversity hotspot, is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. It’s been ripped apart by civil war and disease, and corruption is endemic at every level of the Liberian government. Illegal timber harvesting has, in particular, been an ongoing running sore; as is the case in so many developing countries (like our nearest neighbours, PNG).

Thank God we can trust environmental governance in Australia.

Or can we?

Too steep to log

Over the last year it’s come to light that Victoria’s state-owned timber corporation, VicForests, has been illegally harvesting timber on some of the Central Highland’s steepest slopes, thereby risking the quality of water flowing from these landscapes. This is not a metaphorical slippery slope we’re talking about here.

If that wasn’t bad enough, an investigation undertaken by the ABC suggests the government regulator, whose job it is to monitor VicForests, was alerted to the breaches but failed to properly investigate.

Unfortunately, it’s not the first time the timber corporation has been accused of illegal logging, nor the first time the regulator has been accused of ignoring it.

According to leading ecologist Professor David Lindenmayer, who has been researching these forested landscapes for decades, it’s the story of Australia’s “lawless” loggers, and a regulator failing to regulate.

Buried without consent

And then there’s the sad tale of the mining company Whitehaven Coal attempting to carry out the mass disposal of its mining tyres by burying them in the Leard Forest Precinct, on the ancestral lands of the Gomeroi traditional owners. The land is under a Native Title claim. Under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Regulation 2000, approval of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council is required. Whitehaven has no such approval, something the Land Council has pointed out to them. Allegations have been circulating in the region that Whitehaven attempted to threaten Gomeroi with loss of jobs if they do not sign off on the tyre landfilling.

Sad as this sounds, the more worrying aspect of this story is that the primary environmental regulator for New South Wales, the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA), has given the okay to conduct the mass burial of mining tyres. While technically termed “agency advice” and not “approval”, the NSW EPA’s approval of Whitehaven Coal’s application to bury off-the-road mining tyres for the life of the Maules Creek mine, would be subject only to a “review” every two years.

This has led some to suggest that the NSW EPA has been captured by the coal industry in north west NSW.

Against the flow of law

Maybe you think a few thousand giant tyres buried on Aboriginal land against its owners wishes is small beer not worthy of losing any sleep over. If so, what’s your view on the state’s water supply being governed for the interests of irrigators and not the public interest? Impossible you say? Well, not according to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). It found that the New South Wales Government was favouring irrigators over other water users in a manner that went against its own laws!

In November of last year, ICAC released a damning report on water mismanagement in New South Wales (NSW), Australia. The report detailed a history of water agencies’ ‘undue focus on irrigator’s interests’, including more than a decade of failure to give ‘proper and full effect to the objects, principles and duties’ of the Water Management Act 2000.

For example, the ICAC found that one of the State’s former top water bureaucrats had held a clear bias in favour of irrigators. It confirmed that this person had provided a select group of irrigator lobbyists with confidential legal advice as part of a strategy to undermine national water laws; that he conflated the commercial interests of certain irrigator groups with the broader interests of the entire state; and that he assumed that the interests of ‘direct’ water users trumped those of ‘indirect’ users (whom he helpfully identified as the environment and First Nations peoples).

Despite this clear finding, the Commission did not find that this approach (let’s call it ‘business-as-usual’) was ‘corrupt’ behaviour. This has led many to suggest that anti-corruption watchdogs are perhaps unable – or unwilling – to take on ‘regulatory capture’ of entire agencies. Regulatory capture might be defined as decision making by public servants that favours particular and regulated interests, rather than incorporating the broader public interest, or the objects of the relevant legislation.

A slippery slope

Corruption is a slippery slope.

There will always be bad actors out there attempting to get the most they can out of a system. That’s why we have laws to constrain them. But those laws are meaningless unless there is monitoring and enforcement to ensure they are respected. And that’s why we have environmental regulators established with these powers.

But we kid ourselves if we believe you can simply set up an environmental regulator and then just leave it – set and forget – because over time things change. Environmental regulators often face funding cuts making it difficult for them to fulfil their mission. Lobbyists influence political parties to modify regulation and oversight to benefit their industry groups, and companies do everything in their power to get the regulators to smile on their enterprise.

The examples I cite here are just those that have come to light in recent months, but it’s happening all the time. That’s why, with the best will in the world, it’s not enough to believe our environmental regulators can be left alone, out of sight, to get on with the job.

Their accountability, transparency and capacity to operate at arm’s length from companies they regulate all need to be constantly reviewed and tested. They need to be examined by a robust free press, questioned by an enquiring general public, and audited and interrogated by anti-corruption government agencies (auditors and independent corruption commissions).

And even if this all happens, things can still turn rotten. It’s a big challenge.

However, in Australia, our national leaders are still unable to create a decent anti-corruption agency despite years of promises. It’s clearly not a priority despite multiple failures over time.

There are so many reasons to feel sorry for Liberia and its attempts curb environmental degradation.

We don’t have those excuses. And we kid ourselves if we believe our environmental regulators are fit for purpose.

Banner image: tmcreynolds at Pixabay

And for my next environmental trick …

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Will the federal government engage in real environmental reform before the election?

By Peter Burnett

One of my favourite environmental cartoons appeared in 2015 in the lead up to the Paris climate meeting. It depicts Australia’s environment minister (who was then Josh Frydenberg) as a magician performing for a domestic audience. The magician pulls a climate policy rabbit out of a hat. Meanwhile, a giant rabbit called ‘Paris’ peers round a curtain on the stage …

This October Prime Minister Morrison tried something of a similar trick, releasing the ‘Australian Way’, a climate ‘plan’ that ramped up Australia’s climate ambition to Net Zero by 2050, without the benefit of any new policy to support this heightened ambition.

With almost breathtaking hutzpah, Mr Morrison even told the domestic audience that ‘the Australian way shows a way for other countries to follow’! Meanwhile, a justified monstering awaited him at Glasgow …

A Magic Pudding

At the time of the PM’s announcement, my immediate thought was not of magicians but of Norman Lindsay’s 1917 children’s book, The Magic Pudding, in which Albert, the irascible pudding, is forever being eaten but is never consumed.

When the ‘modelling’ behind the plan was released, it confirmed my suspicion of ‘magical thinking’. For example, it uses an unrealistic baseline scenario called ‘No Australian Action’, in which every country except Australia reduces their emissions to achieve a below 2 degrees emissions trajectory. The scenario then assumes that the only adverse reaction to such free riding by Australia comes from investors imposing a capital risk premium.

Meanwhile, the costs of climate inaction, imposed by extreme weather, climate refugees and so on do not rate a mention.

Content-free reform

While the government has yet to display such blatant ‘magical thinking’ in its approach to reforming Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), it is certainly showing ‘magical’ tendencies in the sense that the ‘reforms’ it has announced to date contain nothing real.

Readers will recall that the EPBC Act was the subject of a major independent review by Professor Graeme Samuel in 2020. The centrepiece of the Samuel Review was a shift from process-based regulation to outcome-based National Environmental Standards.

Releasing a reform ‘pathway’ in response to the Samuel Review in June this year, the Government announced that it would adopt Interim Standards that — wait for it — reflected the (process-based) status quo!

Yet all is not quite as vacuous as it seems. The government does have an agenda, just not one concerned with halting environmental decline.

Rather, its priority is to devolve environmental approvals to the states. It has labelled its devolution proposals as ‘single touch’ approvals and declared these to be the ‘priority reforms’ in its response to the Samuel Review.

While, on paper, there’s a timeline for substantive environmental reforms to come later, in reality, nothing happens until Parliament passes the necessary legislation.

The subtext? If you want environmental reform, you’ll pass our devolution laws.

Trouble is, the devolution laws are stuck in the Senate and are looking increasingly unlikely to pass. Cross-benchers have called the government’s bluff.

So, with an election looming, will the government be content to leave it at that?

One more shot in the environmental reform locker?

Well, the government has another shot in its environmental reform locker, but it is not clear how they will use it.

In the last federal Budget, they announced $2.7 million over three years to pilot a Commonwealth-accredited regional plan to ‘support and accelerate development in a priority regional area’. Tiny as it is, this is a response to one of Professor Samuel’s 38 reform recommendations.

Accrediting bioregional plans under the EPBC Act holds the prospect of both better-protecting the environment while also fulfilling the government’s dream of getting the federal government out of giving environmental approvals on a case-by-case basis and leaving that to the states.

Especially in light of the Senate bottleneck with the ‘single touch’ legislation, you’d think the government would have moved quickly with this project, to get some runs on the board before the election.

This expectation is reinforced by the Budget itself, with the largest share of the funding, $1.179 million, allocated to the current financial year.

Yet with the year almost half over, there’s been no announcement of a partnership with a state or territory for the pilot plan.

Going to plan(?)

So, is the federal government taking regional environmental planning seriously? If it does, there’s a lot of groundwork to do and statutory requirements to be met. ‘Bioregional’ plans, as the EPBC Act calls them, can be disallowed by either House of Parliament; they could also be subject to court challenge if substantive requirements were not met.

With nearly half the year gone, there’s probably not time before the election for much more than an announcement of a deal with one lucky state or territory to develop a pilot regional plan.

Not a lot of electoral bang there.

And there are also potential downsides. For example, the exercise of preparing a regional plan might reveal that the environment in that region in fact needs more protection (and more investment in recovery) that the government might like.

There’s always the base political option of not taking regional planning seriously and simply putting a federal ‘koala stamp’ on an existing, or rustled up, state plan. This could then be trumpeted as the first instalment of a major reform, though it would almost certainly bring on Parliamentary and legal challenges.

Certainly nothing for the environment in that. But would the Coalition see votes in it?

Or will it simply roll out some ‘practical environmental restoration’ (known to the rest of us as marginal-electorate-targeted environmental pork barrelling) as it did last time with the $100 million Environmental Restoration Fund?

Magic Pudding anyone?

Banner image: And for my next trick (Image by u_dg9pheol at Pixabay)

Where to now with biodiversity after Dasgupta?

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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.

In fact, our current biodiversity strategy, Australia’s Strategy for Nature 2019-2030 is a lightweight document that has was heavily criticised during public consultation.

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.

Banner image: Image by Angelo Giordano from Pixabay

Leaders and laggards: The Dasgupta Review of Economics of Biodiversity

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United Kingdom acts on biodiversity, while Australia says ‘Das who?’

By Peter Burnett

Author’s note: this is the first part of a two part blog.

In our colonial past (and, more recently, as a pre-World War II British ‘Dominion’), Australia used to look routinely to the United Kingdom for policy leadership.

For example, when we were hit by the Great Depression, the Australian Government invited Sir Otto Niemeyer, of the Bank of England, to visit and advise on how to respond to the crisis. Mind you, we owed the Brits a lot of money, which we were now struggling to pay, so in many respects the visit was a negotiation between debtor and creditor.

More relevant to the environment, Australia’s post-war planning laws were heavily influenced by British reforms such as their Town and Country Planning Act 1932.

These days, while Australia retains a strong affinity with Britain, the UK is just one among many countries whose policies we might consider as possible models.

In the case of biodiversity, it’s a pity we aren’t still a little tied to the old apron strings, as the British are leaders in this area while we are laggards. (As one recent example, Australia has been singled out for mammal extinction in a recent UN biodiversity report.)

Review and response

The Dasgupta Review on the Economics of Biodiversity was written by Sir Partha Dasgupta, a professor of economics at Cambridge. It was commissioned by the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer (ie, the Treasurer) and published in early 2021.

Within a few months, in July 2021, the UK Government published a formal response.

I know they were in a hurry, so as to leverage their hosting and thus chairing, two out of three major international meetings this year — the G7 Summit in Cornwall (June), the Biodiversity COP 15 in Kunming (this month, October) and the Glasgow Climate COP 26 (November) — but the speed and substance of this response are impressive nonetheless. This is especially true given the limited impact of an earlier report from 2010, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), an initiative of the G8 environment ministers.

What Dasgupta found

Some of Professor Dasgupta’s findings will not surprise readers of this blog:

  • Our economies, livelihoods and well-being all depend on our most precious asset: Nature. Nature is more than an economic good: many value its very existence and recognise its intrinsic worth too …
  • Biodiversity enables Nature to be productive, resilient and adaptable. Our demands far exceed its capacity to supply us with the goods and services we all rely on …
  • Our unsustainable engagement with Nature is endangering the prosperity of current and future generations …

Some of Dasgupta’s conclusions about existing policy will also have a familiar ring to many readers, though they bear a welcome clarity (remember, this is an economist advising a Treasury):

  • At the heart of the problem lies deep-rooted, widespread institutional failure …
  • Nature’s worth to society – the true value of the various goods and services it provides – is not reflected in market prices because much of it is open to all at no monetary charge …
  • These pricing distortions have led us to invest relatively more in other assets, such as produced capital, and underinvest in our natural assets …
  • Many of our institutions have proved unfit to manage the externalities …
  • Governments almost everywhere exacerbate the problem by paying people more to exploit Nature than to protect it … A conservative estimate of the total cost globally of subsidies that damage Nature is around US$4 to 6 trillion per year …

From this point, the narrative becomes less familiar and more enticing. Choosing a sustainable path, says Professor Dasgupta, will require transformative change, underpinned by levels of ambition, coordination, and political will akin to, or even greater than, those of the Marshall Plan*.

(*The Marshall Plan was a huge five year US program that invested in rebuilding Western Europe after World War II and which spawned the OECD and, in part, the EU itself.)

Although Dasgupta does not make specific policy recommendations, he does provide clear advice for change, geared towards three broad transitions:

(i) Ensure that our demands on Nature do not exceed its supply,
and that we increase Nature’s supply relative to its current level.

In this regard, he says we cannot rely on technology alone. Instead, we need to restructure our patterns of reduction and consumption, fundamentally.

Consistent with this strong advice, Dasgupta favours some types of policy that one might expect to find in a report on biodiversity policy, such as major investment in environmental restoration.

But nor does he hesitate to go into more controversial areas.

For example, many of Dasgupta’s economist colleagues, including those in government, will balk at his rejection of the economic truism that correct pricing will solve all problems:

  • In the face of significant risk and uncertainty about the consequences of degrading ecosystems, in many cases there is a strong economic rationale for quantity restrictions over pricing mechanisms.

(ii) Change our measures of economic success to guide us on a more sustainable path.

It is not new to argue that GDP does not account for the depreciation of assets, including Nature, and that an inclusive measure of wealth is needed.

Nor is Dasgupta breaking new ground in finding it critical that natural capital be incorporated into national accounting systems. In fact, the UK has been a leader in natural capital accounting.

Nevertheless, until governments really take policy integration to heart, especially by measuring and managing the natural capital impacts of every significant decision, it is good to see strong advice on this point going from an internationally-eminent economist direct to Treasury and government.

(iii) Transform our institutions and systems – in particular our finance and education systems – to enable these changes and sustain them for future generations.

Here, Dasgupta has again been brave enough to enter controversial territory. He says that ecosystems that are global public goods require supra-national institutional arrangements. This is indeed sensitive territory for a government that has just ‘Brexited’ from such a supra-national institution.

For those ecosystems or biomes located within national boundaries such as tropical rainforests, Dasgupta says we need a system of payments to nations for protecting the ecosystems on which we all rely.

Where ecosystems are beyond national boundaries, eg, the oceans beyond exclusive economic zones, he says there should either be globally-accepted charges for their use, eg, for fisheries or, in ecologically sensitive areas, prohibitions.

And this collective international action would not be confined to direct protection of the physical environment. Sustained collective action is needed to transform the systems that underpin our engagements with Nature, above all our financial and education systems.

The global financial system should channel public and private investment towards economic activities that enhance stocks of natural assets and encourage sustainable consumption and production.

Businesses and financial institutions could be required to measure and disclose, not only climate-related risks but Nature- related risks as well. And central banks and financial regulators could support increased understanding by assessing the systemic extent of Nature-related financial risks.

Ultimately, says the report, a set of global standards is needed, underpinned by credible, decision-grade data.

Finally, individual citizens could be empowered to make informed choices and demand the change that is needed. For example, citizens could be educated to insist that financiers invest their money sustainably and that firms disclose environmental conditions along their supply chains, and even to boycott products that do not meet standards.

This recommendation, too, will tread on many toes.

Where to next?

At the end of the day, Dasgupta acknowledges the enormous challenge of the biodiversity crisis but concludes that the same ingenuity that has led us to make such large and damaging demands on Nature can also be deployed to bring about the transformative change we need.

‘We and our descendants deserve nothing less,’ he says.

In other words, we know how we came to fall into this hole, and we have both the capacity and the duty to climb out.

Why then does the UK Government seem to be taking this challenge reasonably seriously while Australian Government makes our biodiversity crisis such a low priority? It’s a question I’ll attempt to answer in my next blog …

Banner image: Detail from the cover of the Dasgupta Report.

A tale of two wetlands – what a difference a minister makes

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Or is this about different approaches to political lobbying?

By Peter Burnett

This is the story of two ‘Ramsar’ wetlands, one on the west coast of Australia, and one on the east. And it’s also the tale of two large developments, one affecting each wetland.

Ramsar wetlands are listed under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, made at Ramsar, Iran, in 1971. Australia has 65 Ramsar sites and we tell the world we look after them.

Domestically, Australian Ramsar wetlands are listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) as ‘matters of national environmental significance’. This protects them from any developments that are likely to have a significant impact upon them, unless the environment minister approves the development, following an environmental impact assessment (EIA).

The two wetlands

The first wetland borders a part of Moreton Bay, near Brisbane in Southeast Queensland. This wetland is subject to a $1.3 billion residential and tourism development by Walker Corporation at Toondah harbour. Originally submitted to then federal environment minister Josh Frydenberg in 2015, this controversial development appears to be stalled, as a draft environmental impact statement forecast by Walker for release in ‘early 2021’ has yet to be submitted to the federal environment minister.

The other wetland is on Eighty Mile Beach between Broome and Port Hedland in Western Australia. This wetland lies near the proposed site for a large-scale wind and solar renewable energy project (known as the Asian Renewable Hub) being proposed by NW Interconnected Power Pty Ltd.

The Renewable Hub would occupy a huge area of 6,500 square kilometres in the East Pilbara and produce a staggering 26 Gigawatts from a combination of wind turbines and solar panels. This is equivalent to the output of 15 or more large coal-fired power stations.

Originally aiming to supply power by undersea cable, the now-enlarged hub project will use renewable energy to extract hydrogen from desalinised water. The hydrogen will be converted to ammonia and piped 20 km out to sea, for loading onto tankers. The project was given ‘major project’ status by the federal government in October 2020 and is said to cost around $22 billion.

Both these wetlands provide important habitat for a range of water birds and migratory birds in particular. Migratory birds are also ‘matters of national environmental significance’, being protected by the Bonn Convention on Migratory Species. This meant that the species most affected by the developments are, in theory at least, twice protected.

Two recommendations for rejection but only one accepted

In both these cases the federal environment department advised the minister that the projects should be rejected upfront as ‘clearly unacceptable’, without going through the full EIA process.

In the Toondah Harbour case, minister Josh Frydenberg rejected the advice and allowed the project to proceed to its current assessment.

But it’s not as simple as that. Using Freedom of Information, The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) discovered that the minister received two consecutive briefs on the same topic, on the same day (see the ACF Submission to the independent review of the EPBC Act April 2020, pages 28, 29). One conveyed the department’s advice that the development was clearly unacceptable — this was the advice that Frydenberg rejected.

The second brief advised that the impacts on the Ramsar wetland and migratory species were significant and, in the case of the wetland itself, difficult to mitigate and offset. Frydenberg accepted this advice and decided that because significant impacts were likely, the matter should proceed to environmental assessment.

In the Renewable Hub case, current environment minister Sussan Ley accepted the department’s advice and stopped the project from moving into full EIA, at least for the time being.

In her official statement of reasons, she accepted that the installation of a marine infrastructure corridor through the Ramsar area would disrupt tidal flows, ultimately affecting the foodwebs on which the migratory birds depend. She also found that the foodwebs would be affected by ammonia spillage, desalination brine and a chronic increase in pollutants from a new town and shipping route.

Unusually, though not unsurprisingly given the identified impacts and uniqueness of the area concerned, the Minister also found that these impacts could not be compensated for by biodiversity offsets. Overall, there would be permanent and irreversible impacts to Eighty-mile Beach and its migratory species if the project proceeded in its current form.

Why the different decisions?

Why did one minister reject the department’s advice while the other minister accepted it? The differences might be down to simple differences in ministerial values or style.

But I think the two cases show different to approaches by developers to regulation.

Walker Corporation’s approach might be described as old style politicking, involving significant political donations to both major parties and backroom influence — Walker lobbied extensively against a ‘clearly unacceptable’ decision.

Frydenberg seemed so keen to allow the project to proceed that he wrote to a Queensland (Labor) minister floating the ‘option’ of the two governments working together to amend the boundary of the Moreton Bay wetland under the ‘urgent national interest’ clause of the Ramsar Convention. Frydenberg went on to note that ‘any proposed boundary change would need to have a ‘clear benefit to the ecological character of the wetlands a whole’, something that seems to me like clutching at straws to me (and also a bad look politically).

Walker Corporation sent executives to Geneva, to discuss a boundary change with the Ramsar Convention Secretariat, a most unusual move. The move was even more strange given that a file note subsequently released under FoI disclosed that Walker Corporation told the Secretariat that it could potentially reconfigure its development, including by restricting construction to an area outside the wetlands, or by looking ‘for other suitable development areas nearby’.

This was news to the department. ‘I wonder whether that is an error of what was discussed, given that it is at odds with Walker’s discussion with us to date, and the referral (which states that there are no alternatives to the proposal)’ wrote a senior department official to colleagues.

The hub consortium on the other hand appears to be playing with a straight bat. Despite the enormous size of the project, and its significance to Australia’s future as a ‘hydrogen superpower’, as Professor Ross Garnaut has termed it, apparently the consortium was not consulted about this unusual decision.

Yet the consortium issued a flat media release accepting the minister’s decision and committing to revising their proposal. ‘We will take [the Minister’s] concerns on board as we continue to work on the detailed design and engineering aspects of the project,’ they said. ‘[We] will address fully any concerns in preparing future project referrals.’

A tale of two approaches to political lobbying?

Both of these developer reactions are unusual. The chutzpah of Walker Corporation, to the point of taking its lobbying to Geneva, presumably to convince the Ramsar Secretariat that yet another Australian foreshore development represented an ‘urgent national interest’ is breathtaking.

And the environment department’s sending two briefs to minister Frydenberg, containing either conflicting or ‘alternative’ advice, is very suspicious. At a minimum, it represents an attempt by officials to avoid disclosure under FoI of a minister’s rejection of their advice by ‘splitting’ their brief. It should be investigated by the Public Service Commission as a possible breach of the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct.

On the other hand, the apparently mild (to say the least) reaction of the Asian hub consortium is also breathtaking. I would have expected the proponents of something this big to have been throwing their weight around with vim and vigour.

Perhaps these developers are cool customers playing a very long high stakes game and figuring that the best strategy is to hold the tongues and get on with the job.

Perhaps they are expressing outrage privately and we just don’t know about it. If so, there is no sign of it in a recent FoI release.

In any case, these two wetland decisions leave some significant unanswered questions, the most important of which concerns the power of lobbying. These cases provide another illustration of why the EPBC Act is badly in need of reform.

Banner image: Australia has signed international conventions committing it to protect migratory bird species and wetlands used by migratory birds. Proposals to develop on or near Ramsar listed wetlands deserve close scrutiny, and shouldn’t be allowed if they threaten these wetlands. (Image by David Salt)

Forget charisma, save our insects! Never underestimate the politics swirling around charismatic megafauna

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By David Salt

Three insect scientists* recently spoke on Off Track on Radio National bemoaning the lack of resources going into invertebrate research and conservation.

If invertebrates make up over 90% of animals on earth, why do they receive so little conservation funding the researchers wanted to know? Good question insect scientists.

As the program finished, one of the researchers challenged the host of Off Track, a show devoted to exploring the world of nature, to ensure that future programming better reflected this breakdown of species. In other words, rather than doing most shows on birds, mammals and reptiles, the majority of programs should be on invertebrates, the things that make up most of nature. Everyone laughed at the comment, acknowledging the truth of the mismatch of current programming. However, there was possibly a fatalistic merriment in the laughter because they all knew in their insect hearts** that the media*** is always going to focus on the charismatic megafauna before all else when it comes to talking about nature. Such is life.

Hating koalas

And such was the disappointment of the insect scientists on radio about the plight of invertebrate knowledge and conservation that at one point they agreed that they were totally against koalas, Australias’ most iconic mammal (and so cute and cuddly). Of course, their ‘hatred’ was not aimed at the animal itself, but at the mismatch between the resources allocated to conserving the koala when the rest of nature was facing profound decline and in many cases extinction.

Rational conservation should be looking beyond species to ecosystems, the scientists opined. If we looked beyond saving individual species to the places that sustain all species (ultimately including ourselves) then we’d be achieving better conservation outcomes. We’d be saving the charismatic megafauna and all the unseen (often unknown) invertebrates at the same time.

They make a good point and it’s an argument that has been made many times in the past by many good hearted and wise conservation scientists and conservationists. Hearing it again last week on radio got me thinking about what happened when this approach was suggested at the national level some ten years ago, which I’ll discuss in a moment.

‘Charismatic’ wins every time

Unfortunately, being rational and looking beyond the charismatic threatened megafauna when framing your conservation priorities is an argument that simply doesn’t work. I wish it did. I wish society could be a little more honest with how it stewards biodiversity and do the job a little better, I really do. But with the world as it is at the moment, rational (and compassionate and humane) decision making around biodiversity conservation just doesn’t happen.

I base this belief on years of involvement with a group of environmental decision scientists from all around Australia and across the world (the main network was called the Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions or CEED, you can read about the fabulous research it did on its archived website at http://ceed.edu.au/). The prime focus of all of these scientists was how to conserve biodiversity through better decision making. And the key to better conservation outcomes is decision making that is transparent, accountable and adaptable.

If we wanted better conservation we would be putting more resources into monitoring and managing our biodiversity. We wouldn’t only be worried about the cute and cuddlies (which always get the lion share of the resources), we’d be monitoring and improving our efforts over time, and we’d be considering our biodiversity on a number of scales (genes, species and ecosystems), not just charismatic species. (We’d be doing everything the insect scientists were pleading for last week on radio.)

The decision scientists in these networks published thousands of peer reviewed papers (in high impact journals) demonstrating why this is the way to go. They delivered hundreds of briefings to governments, business and industry groups; and produced stories and briefings for newspapers, magazines and social media.

We made a difference (?)

And there was a time, a bit over a decade ago, that I thought all this work, research and energy was making a real difference at the national policy level. We were being listened to and it felt like we were influencing national policy.

Possibly this was best expressed when the then Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, announced a change in focus in tackling conservation and threatened species. He said there needed to be a greater emphasis on ecosystems and how they function. We needed to be more holistic rather than adopting a band-aid approach of simply working on the most threatened species (all of which were mammals, birds or reptiles; insects hardly got a look in).

This would have been a major shift in conservation policy and reflected the science of the conservation scientists I was working with. Could it be that our political leaders were actually being influenced by what we were doing?

The political reflex

Possibly we were being listened to, but before the new approach could be enacted the opposition conservative party, led by Tony Abbott, cynically declared the new approach as ‘giving up on species’, something they would never do.

For this is always the problem with anyone proposing a shift away from a tight focus on only worrying about (and resourcing) charismatic megafauna. The first political response is always: ‘look, they’re giving up the koala (or mallee fowl or Tasmanian Devil or ‘insert favourite threatened species here’).’ And I do mean ‘always’, it’s a political reflex action. Voters care about koalas, they’ve never even heard of the Lord Howe Island Phasmid (a threatened giant stick insect).

Abbott’s (climate-change denialist-dominated) Liberal party threw out many bland and empty slogans in the run up to the next federal election like ‘We’ will: ‘kill 2-million feral cats’, ‘plant 20-million trees’ and ‘deploy a Green Army’ (and, most famously, ‘axe the carbon tax’). And, against a shambolically disorganised Labor Party, the conservatives won. The environmental decision networks got no more funding but the government instead funded a Threatened Species Recovery Hub while at the same time drastically slashing the budget of the environment department. The Threatened Species Recovery Hub did some great research, including a study on what resources would be needed to improve our failing track record on saving threatened species, but found there are no quick fixes for solving the problem of threatened species. The Hub was defunded earlier this year.

Better conservation policy

I don’t want to suggest that better policy on threatened species is impossible, just that it’s very difficult to achieve and no-one should kid themselves that it’s rational, accountable or transparent. Science is important but a hell a lot of science has been done in this area and politicians rarely use it to guide reform in this area.

What is needed is greater community awareness on the need for better decision making and the state of our country’s biodiversity. Citizen science and greater engagement with the public (and the education system) by environmental scientists play an important role here (eg, like the insect scientists on Off Track).

Just as important is the need for a process that feeds environmental values into our political and policy decision-making. Environmental accounts are possibly our best bet here but for it to flourish we need society to demand that it happens, and that requires a greater community awareness (which would be achieved if environmental accounts were more prominent). It’s a bit chicken-and-egg; one gives you the other but you need both.

I don’t know-what pathway will deliver us better environmental decision making (ie, transparent, accountable and adaptable). However, when people start demanding more of our political candidates than simply: ‘Save the koala!’ (kakapo/Tassie devil whatever) I’ll be satisfied that we’re making progress. What we should be demanding is: ‘Prove to us you’re investing our money in a way that’s making a difference when it comes to protecting biodiversity!’

Unfortunately, we’re a long way from that at the moment.

*Scientists who study insects, not scientists who are insects.

**These scientists are super passionate about the things they study, but they have human hearts. One of the insect scientists is Manu Saunders (based at the Uni of New England). She produces an excellent blog on conservation and insects at Ecology is not a dirty word.

***Off Track, IMHO, is an excellent nature program that does much better than most media in providing balanced coverage on biodiversity conservation and science. It does more than pay lip service to covering issues relating to invertebrates and its last four programs (at the time of writing) were devoted to insects. Having said that, most of its programs are devoted to charismatic megafauna.

Image: Who could hate a koala? But is it fair that it gets most of the funding when so many other species are on the lip of extinction? (Image by Image by Welcome to all and thank you for your visit ! ツ from Pixabay)

Words are cheap, but conservation is expensive

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The new Threatened Species Strategy is big on rhetoric and small on resources.

By Peter Burnett

What is it the Government is trying to achieve with its new Threatened Species Strategy? It’s stated aim, as its title suggests, is saving threatened species. However, if you consider the evidence it’s hard not to conclude its real aim is something very different.

Saving species

Several years ago, Professor Brendan Wintle of the University of Melbourne and his colleagues published a study, Spending to save: What will it cost to halt Australia’s extinction crisis?, which found that, based on US expenditure, Australia would need to spend something between $910 million and $1.7 billion per year to avoid extinctions and recover threatened species.

This was roughly 7 to 14 times the $122 million that federal and state governments were spending each year between them on threatened species recovery. In other words, on a median figure, we’re spending around 10% of what is needed.

If you think that’s a lot, argued the authors, Australians spend twice as much on pet care. In fact, as Professor Wintle explained recently to a Senate Committee, it’s about the same as Australians spend on pet trinkets – diamanté collars and the like. [

What price the new threatened species strategy?

Last week, federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley released the Australian Government’s new 10 year Threatened Species Strategy. According to the minister, this new strategy builds on the momentum of the first strategy, which was launched in 2015.

It’s not easy to tie actions under these strategies to expenditure, as successive governments have worked hard to make evaluation and thus accountability difficult. However, in the recent 2021-22 Budget the Government announced $18 million to protect ‘iconic’ threatened marine species such as turtles and seabirds, and $29.1 million to protect native species from invasive pests.

The Budget papers don’t break these particular figures down over the four year period that is generally used for budget funding, but on average that’s an extra $11.8m per year, roughly a 10% increase on the $122 million figure from the Wintle et al study or an extra 1% of what is needed. That’s very small beer.

The strategy will be underpinned by consecutive five year action plans, which are intended to identify priority spaces and places, along with ‘concrete actions and practical, measurable targets to assess progress’. The first action plan is in preparation.

A little history

Before releasing the new strategy, the Government released a discussion paper, in October 2020. The discussion paper described the previous strategy, which had concluded four months earlier, but gave no information on how successful the completed strategy had been.

It simply stated that the Threatened Species Commissioner was ‘working on a final report which will present a robust, evidence-based analysis of progress against these 2020 targets’.

Now, some seven months later, we have a new strategy, but still no evaluation on the previous one. So we don’t know if the new strategy addresses the failings of the old.

Unfortunately I’ve seen this happen before, with Australia’s overarching national biodiversity strategy as well: roll out the new strategy without evaluating the old. This conveniently avoids unnecessary embarrassment about poor performance, or, perhaps worse, the inability even to measure performance.

Anyone who contributed to developing the strategy would have had to make do with the Threatened Species Commissioner’s annual progress reports, which include extremely general statements such as the Year 3 report that ‘eleven of these targets were met, four were partially met and six were unmet’ and the Year 4 headline that ‘we continued work to support all targets, with a sharpened focus on those the year 3 report identified as needing greater effort’.

A little strategy

So now we have new strategy, but it’s all high level stuff, broad descriptions on problems and approaches that few could disagree with, such as the vision that ‘Australia’s threatened species are valued, protected and on the path to recovery’.

We do know that, responding to stakeholder comments, the new strategy has been broadened to add reptiles, frogs, insects and fish to the priority birds, mammals and plants identified in the first Strategy. And that it will include marine and freshwater species, as well as terrestrials.

The strategy also includes a new focus on ‘priority places’ to ‘expand the new Strategy’s influence across our land and seascapes’. These priority places will include sites where threat mitigation and habitat protection efforts will benefit multiple species and ecological communities.

The strategy will also expand the number of key action areas to focus Australian Government efforts to landscape-scale actions, including major threats like weeds and diseases.

The devil’s in the detail

As to the detail, well that’s coming in the first action plan, development of which will commence in June; ie, 12 months after the last plan expired. This delay in dealing with such an urgent problem doesn’t fill one with confidence.

But we know that the action plan will cover at least 100 priority species and 20 priority places. There will be a continued focus on feral cats and a new focus on invasive pests and weeds.

We also know that the action plan will attempt to foster greater community engagement through citizen science and partnerships between First Nations people, business and non-government organisations.

Forgive my cynicism, but references to partnerships with business and the like are often code for Government attempts to avoid responsibility and share blame. It reminds me of the statement in our national biodiversity strategy that ‘caring for nature is the shared responsibility of all Australians’.

But one problem is already apparent: the broader the plan the more thinly the meagre available resources are likely to be spread, because I can’t see the government suddenly turning on the money taps. (At least not in a properly targeted way. As I discussed in an earlier blog, the government announced a $100m Environmental Restoration Fund just before the last election, and then promptly committed most of it through election announcements, without any expert advice as to how this money might best be spent.)

What’s the real strategy?

From a policy point of view, there is a complete disconnect between the size of the problem (enormous) and the approach to the solution (narrow focus, tiny resources). Governments are not irrational; when they do something that seems irrational it’s usually because they are actually solving a different problem.

In this case, I think the problem they are solving is the political problem of being seen to be doing something credible about a problem that they either don’t acknowledge or don’t want to engage with.

On that logic, the recipe of conferring the title of Threatened Species Commissioner on a public servant; engaging stakeholders in lots of consultation; producing a glossy strategy and sprinkling a little money around looks quite good to me.

Unfortunately, unless and until there’s a real groundswell of concern among voters about biodiversity loss, that’s the way it’s likely to stay.

Banner image: The Endangered cassowary is threatened by a loss of habitat, vehicle strikes, dog attacks and disease. Recovering just this species alone requires serious resources. (Image by Jessica Rockeman from Pixabay)

A major report excoriated Australia’s environment laws. Sussan Ley’s response is confused and risky

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By Peter Burnett

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

It’s official: Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in deep trouble. They can’t withstand current and future threats, including climate change. And the national laws protecting them are flawed and badly outdated.

You could hardly imagine a worse report on the state of Australia’s environment, and the law’s capacity to protect it, than that released yesterday. The review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity (EPBC) Act, by former competition watchdog chair Professor Graeme Samuel, did not mince words. Without urgent changes, most of Australia’s threatened plants, animals and ecosystems will become extinct.

Federal environment minister Sussan Ley released the report yesterday after sitting on it for three months. And she showed little sign of being spurred into action by Samuel’s scathing assessment.

Her response was confusing and contradictory. And the Morrison government seems hellbent on pushing through its preferred reforms without safeguards that Samuel says are crucial.

A bleak assessment

I was a federal environment official for 13 years, and from 2007 to 2012 was responsible for administering and reforming the EPBC Act. I believe Samuel’s report is a very good one.

Samuel has maintained the course laid out in his interim report last July. He found the state of Australia’s natural environment and iconic places is declining and under increasing threat.

Moreover, he says, the EPBC Act is outdated and requires fundamental reform. The current approach results in piecemeal decisions rather than holistic environmental management, which he sees as essential for success. He went on:

The resounding message that I heard throughout the review is that Australians do not trust that the EPBC Act is delivering for the environment, for business or for the community.

A proposed way forward

Samuel recommended a suite of reforms, many of which were foreshadowed in his interim report. They include:

  • national environmental standards, legally binding on the states and others, to guide development decisions and provide the ability to measure outcomes
  • applying the new standards to existing Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs). Such a move could open up the forest debate in a way not seen since the 1990s
  • accrediting the regulatory processes and environmental policies of the states and territories, to ensure they can meet the new standards. Accredited regimes would be audited by an Environment Assurance Commissioner
  • a “quantum shift” in the availability of environmental information, such as accurate mapping of habitat for threatened species
  • an overhaul of environmental offsets, which compensate for environmental destruction by improving nature elsewhere. Offsets have become a routine development cost applied to proponents, rather than last-resort compensation invested in environmental restoration.

Under-resourcing is a major problem with the EPBC Act, and Samuel’s report reiterates this. For example, as I’ve noted previously, “bioregional plans” of land areas – intended to define the environmental values and objectives of a region – have never been funded.

Respecting Indigenous knowledge

One long-overdue reform would require decision-makers to respectfully consider Indigenous views and knowledge. Samuel found the law was failing in this regard.

He recommended national standards for Indigenous engagement and participation in decision-making. This would be developed through an Indigenous-led process and complemented by a comprehensive review of national cultural heritage protections.

The recommendations follow an international outcry last year over mining giant Rio Tinto’s destruction of 46,000-year-old caves at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia. In Samuel’s words:

National-level protection of the cultural heritage of Indigenous Australians is a long way out of step with community expectations. As a nation, we must do better.

Confusing signals

The government’s position on Samuel’s reforms is confusing. Ley yesterday welcomed the review and said the government was “committed to working through the full detail of the recommendations with stakeholders”.

But she last year ruled out Samuel’s call for an independent regulator to oversee federal environment laws. And her government is still prepared to devolve federal approvals to the states before Samuel’s new national standards are in place.

In July last year, Ley seized on interim reforms proposed by Samuel that suited her government’s agenda – streamlining the environmental approvals process – and started working towards them.

In September, the government pushed the change through parliament’s lower house, denying independent MP Zali Steggall the chance to move amendments to allow national environment standards.

Ley yesterday reiterated the government’s commitment to the standards – yet indicated the government would soon seek to progress the legislation through the Senate, then develop the new standards later.

Samuel did include devolution to the states in his first of three tranches of reform – the first to start by early 2021. But his first tranche also includes important safeguards. These include the new national environmental standards, the Environment Assurance Commissioner, various statutory committees, Indigenous reforms and more.

The government’s proposed unbundling of the reforms doesn’t pass the pub test. It would tempt the states to take accreditation under the existing, discredited rules and resist later attempts to hold them to higher standards. In this, they’d be supported by developers who don’t like the prospect of a higher approvals bar.

A big year ahead

Samuel noted “governments should avoid the temptation to cherry pick from a highly interconnected suite of recommendations”. But this is exactly what the Morrison government is doing.

I hope the Senate will force the government to work through the full detail of the recommendations with stakeholders, as Ley says she’d like to.

But at this stage there’s little sign the government plans to embrace the reforms in full, or indeed that it has any vision for Australia’s environment.

All this plays out against still-raw memories of last summer’s bushfires, and expected pressure from the United States, under President Joe Biden, for developed economies such as Australia to lift their climate game.

With the United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow in November, it seems certain the environment will be high on Australia’s national agenda in 2021.

Peter Burnett, Honorary Associate Professor, ANU College of Law, Australian National University

Image by pen_ash from Pixabay

Saving the Environment in a Day

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You have 24 hours to save the planet! Your time starts now.

By David Salt

Can the environment be saved by proclaiming a ‘day for the environment’?

I once attempted to start a ‘day’ to save the environment. I called it ‘Anthropocene Day’ and its aim was to get people thinking about the impact of our species on Planet Earth (nothing too ambitious there).

What, you’ve never heard of ‘Anthropocene Day’? (Please tell me you know about the ‘Anthropocene’.) Well, that’s not surprising. The idea went nowhere. I managed to stage a public forum involving some leading scientists debating the pros and cons of when the Anthropocene began*.

The forum went well, we got a full house (at the National Museum of Australia) and generated some lively debate.

After the event, everyone said “what a great idea for a ‘think fest’; let’s do this again next year, but maybe even bigger! Heck, let’s make Anthropocene Day a Week!”

Then, when I attempted to get follow up action, everyone was too busy to do anything more and the idea, with my enthusiasm, fizzled. Clearly the world was too preoccupied for my great concept. (Or maybe the idea simply wasn’t as compelling as I thought it was.)

In any case, I began to think, does the Environment really need another ‘celebratory’ day to save it?

In a days

Now, most people are aware one environment day or another. Earth Day is celebrated on 22 April in more than 193 nations. World Environment Day, hailed as the “United Nations’ principal vehicle for encouraging awareness and action for the protection of the environment”. It’s staged each 5 June in over 143 countries.

But do you know how many big days there are for the environment around the world? A quick net search turns up a Wikipedia list of around 130 days! That means approximately every third day the world is celebrating some worthy environmental cause – from International Zebra Day on 1 January through to Monkey Day on 14 December. (Sensibly the world is given time off in the week before Christmas to shop).

So, maybe the world simply can’t accommodate one more environmentally themed day; though Anthropocene Day was down for the 16 July* which meant it would only have had to share the time with World Snake Day.

However, even if we could squeeze in one more environment day (or even 10 more), would it actually make any difference?

World Reef Day (June 1) is not reversing the increased frequency of mass coral bleachings being witnessed around the world.

International Orangutan Day (19 August) isn’t doing much to reverse the clearing of the tropical forest the critically endangered orangutan depends on.

And Freshwater Dolphin Day (24 October) is unlikely to secure a certain future for the five remaining species of freshwater dolphin, all of which are endangered or critically endangered and live in degrading river systems.

In fact given the dire outlooks provided by multiple international groups like the UNEP, IPCC and IPBES on climate change and biodiversity you really have to ask what difference any of these environment days make.

Seeds of hope or fig leaves of distraction?

I think there are several strong arguments for and against the big day for the environment.

They encourage increased focus and energy around single issues, something that wouldn’t happen otherwise. They generate activity that builds awareness and sometimes even makes a difference to specific locations and species. Sometimes these activities produce environmental champions that dedicate their lives to saving some part of the environment.

On the other hand, environmental days often give the impression that major issues of environmental degradation are being addressed when in fact they’re being ignored. Sometimes this is by putting out pretty brochures while not doing anything substantive for the issue in question; some would describe this as greenwashing. Sometimes it’s by doing great work on the issue in question while ignoring its connection to other environmental issues like climate change. In this way we focus on the small picture while ignoring the larger context.

Consider World Wetlands Day (2 February). It’s one of the big environmental days of the year and it occurs next week. The day marks the date of the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands on 2 February 1971. This occurred in the Iranian city of Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea (and the agreement is more often referred to as the Ramsar Convention).

Wetlands going under

This year the Ramsar Convention is 50 years old making it one of the oldest and most significant international environmental agreements ever formulated. One hundred and seventy countries have signed up to it. In signing up, a country agrees to conserve and wisely use all wetlands, prioritise the conservation of ‘Wetlands of International Importance’ (Ramsar Sites), and cooperate across national boundaries on transboundary wetlands, shared wetland systems and shared species (for example, migratory water birds). There are currently over 2,300 Ramsar Sites, covering almost 2,500,000 km2.

The Ramsar Convention Secretariat supports World Wetlands Day (which has been running since 1997) and also produces the Global Wetland Outlook which summarises wetland extent, trends, drivers of change and the steps needed to maintain or restore their ecological character.

All this is good but in their very own Outlook statement they record that 87% of the global wetland resource has been lost since 1700. More worrying, approximately 35% of the world’s wetlands were lost between 1970-2015 with annual rates of loss accelerating from the year 2000. In other words, since World Wetlands Day has been running we’ve been losing wetlands at an accelerating rate. You could argue that the result may have been worse had World Wetlands Day never existed but you couldn’t claim this Day has saved our wetlands.

By the way, the city of Ramsar is rapidly becoming land locked as the Caspian Sea retreats as temperatures rise with climate change. Its wetlands will soon be no more.

On our side of the planet, the wetlands of Kakadu, a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, is facing the opposite problem. The floodplains are being inundated by saltwater as sea levels rise, again associated with climate change. Our national government proudly supports World Wetlands Day and the Ramsar Convention while doing as little as possible against climate change.

More than greenwash

This isn’t an argument against World Wetlands Day or environmental days in general. But it is a call that such celebrations need to be more honest and reflective rather than just celebratory. They cannot merely be an exercise to making us feel good.

All indicators are telling us the environment is in serious trouble and in most cases that degradation is accelerating. If you are a fervent supporter of one of these events, ask yourself if it’s making a real difference to the situation it was established to address. If it’s not, look around for something that is making a difference and invest your blood, sweat and tears there.

But also ask yourself what you might do to make more of these events because they are opportunities to raise issues that maybe are forgotten most of the time. One colleague of mine checks each day to see what environmental theme is being celebrated. He uses this as a conversation starter with his work mates to find out what they think about the plight of sea turtles, frogs, zebras, pangolins…

I reckon that’s the right spirit to engage with these Days. Don’t ask “what this Day can do for me?”, rather consider “what can I do for this Day?”

*The Anthropocene refers to the age of humans, a time in which human activity has distorted the Earth System. Many researchers are campaigning to have it be declared as official geological time period. It began at 5.29am on Monday 16th of July 1945 (the dawn of the Great Acceleration) though some scientists contend that it actually began with the invention of the steam engine (in 1778, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution) or the development of agriculture (some 10,000 years ago, the Agricultural Revolution). Either way, it’s a great concept to get people engaged with what we humans are doing to the planet. And, while climate change is a central part of this story, it’s not the first thing argued so discussions on the Anthropocene don’t instantly polarise the debate as occurs when the topic of climate change is raised on its own.

Image: World Wetlands Day is held on 2 February every year. It encourages the community to learn about and celebrate the many values of wetlands, and governments to protect them for current and future generations. World Wetlands Day has been running since 1997. Since then, wetlands around the world have been lost at an accelerating rate. (Image by David Salt)