Administrative law: like the Curate’s egg, boring in parts, but environmentally useful nonetheless

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By Peter Burnett

“Off with her head”, said the Queen of Hearts to Alice in Wonderland, when Alice couldn’t read the values of some face-down playing cards. The word of the Queen of Hearts was law. Not a good law, actually.

In the real world, ‘Bad King John’ of England (1166-1216) wanted his word to be law as well. While he might not have been quite so capricious as the Queen of Hearts, he was arbitrary and unjust enough to drive his barons to rebellion.

And that rebellion was settled by a set of rules called the Magna Carta in 1215.

While the Magna Carta is best known for establishing the mother of Parliaments and guaranteeing trial by jury (at least for ‘free men’), it also contained a number of guarantees against arbitrary action by the King and his officials — in other words, by government.

For example, King John guaranteed not to take anyone’s corn or chattels without payment and not to appoint incompetent or corrupt judges and officials.

As a result, the Magna Carta is also known for establishing the principle that government is not above the law and thus cannot behave in arbitrary and unjust ways.

This is the foundational principle of administrative law.

Now some believe ‘law’ is dry and boring, with the very mention of administrative law enough to send you to sleep.

I’m here to convince you that administrative law is far too important to be boring, though I will concede that it can be dry and tedious in the detail. In his book The Rule of Law, one of the great modern British judges, (Lord) Tom Bingham, gives the example par excellence of a tedious regulation:

    Any reference in these regulations to a regulation is a reference to a regulation contained in these regulations. (!!)

And administrative law certainly has failings, as we shall see.

What has this got to do with the environment?

How is this relevant to the environment?

Anyone who has followed environmental issues through the courts will know that many court cases concerning the environment turn not on environment-specific principles (such as precaution or intergenerational equity), but on general principles of administrative law.

One such principle is that decision-makers should not be biased, or even appear biased.

A recent, if extreme, example of an environmental case involving that principle concerned the proposed extension to New Acland Coal’s mine near Oakey, Queensland.

This case has a history of appeals and re-hearings too long to recount, but in brief, an environmental assessment was done and a draft approval issued. However, because there were objections raised, the case was referred to the Land Court of Queensland, which had the role of making non-binding recommendations to the Minister for Natural Resources.

The key point for our purposes is that when the case eventually reached the High Court, they sent it back to the Queensland Land Court for a third hearing. This unusual outcome was required because the first and second hearings were affected by the appearance of bias, rendering both hearings invalid.

In the first hearing, the judge had apparently been deeply offended by a newspaper article on the mine extension, raising the possibility that his subsequent decision to recommend against approving the development might have been biased by his taking offence, while the reasoning of the judge in the second hearing became ‘infected’ by the apprehended bias of the first because she adopted some of his findings (at the direction of one of the intermediate appeal courts).

The High Court’s decision was hailed by the Environmental Defender’s Office as a major victory, and in one sense it is. High standards of decision-making have been upheld.

Yet the case also highlights the process-heavy downside of administrative law. Even if the third hearing is finalised without further appeal, there will have been a total of seven court hearings and a decisional timeframe spanning nine years and counting.

And we still don’t know whether the mine will be approved!

Of course, this is grist to the mill to industry and politicians running a campaign against ‘lawfare and green tape’, but the delays are more due to poor regulatory design than to administrative law itself.

A new line of attack

One feature of administrative law is that although its substantive principles are relatively constant, governments provide new ways to apply those principles by passing a constant stream of new laws.

Take for example the current challenge by the Environment Centre of the Northern Territory (ECNT) to the $21 million grant by Minister for Resources Keith Pitt to Imperial Oil and Gas, to expedite gas exploration activities in the Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory.

In the past, it has not been easy to bring legal challenges to government decisions to give money away. Some recent High Court decisions and federal legislation have changed this.

For example, since 2013, federal government grants must comply with the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act, which requires, among other things, that the minister making the grant be ‘satisfied, after making reasonable inquiries, that the expenditure would be a proper use of [public] money’.

A ‘proper’ use of money is defined in the Act as one that is ‘efficient, effective, economical and ethical’.

ECNT’s argument is that Minister Pitt committed an (administrative) error of law by failing to make enquiries about the climate risks associated with the development of the Beetaloo Basin, as well as the economic risks of that development as the world transitions to a zero carbon economy.

As far as I can tell this is the first time this line of attack has been used, although the Beechworth Lawn Tennis Club, which is challenging the ‘Sports Rorts’ grants made by the Australian Sports Commission, may well be using similar arguments. (Did I hear you mention ‘car parks’ as well?)

Boring in parts, but definitely useful

So, there you have it. While aspects of administrative law can be boring, overall it is far too useful in securing good environmental decisions to be ignored.

It does however have its problems, as the tortured and scandalously expensive chain of decisions in the New Acland Coal case show.

As a result, one of the challenges of environmental reform, beyond saving the environment of course, is to design decision-making processes that are not only fair and effective, but efficient as well.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Three experts and a politician in a sandpit – who has the real insight on climate policy in a connected society

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By David Salt

The scientist, the economist and the lawyer

There were three people at the bar – a scientist, a lawyer and an economist – arguing about how to solve the intractable problem of sustainability, and specifically climate change.

The scientist said we just need to know a little more, remove some of the uncertainty around our knowledge on the earth system (and what humans are doing to it), and then society would fall behind the overwhelming scientific consensus that something needs to happen.

The lawyer said we just need better laws proscribing what’s acceptable and what’s not. Better rules are the solution.

The economist said we just need to provide the right incentives for people to begin doing the right thing and discourage them from doing the wrong thing. Bad behaviour, said the economist, should simply cost more making it ‘common sense’ to be sustainable.

Enter the politician

“You mean, like putting a price on carbon?” said a greying, white gentleman in an expensive suit who had butted into the conversation. “That worked a treat for Australia’s climate change policy.”

“Actually,” said the economist, “it did work well until it was canned by the Abbott Government in 2013.”

“But that’s the point,” purred the politician. “We proposed to ‘axe the tax’ and the people voted us in and we did… axe the tax that is. Putting a price on carbon was electoral poison and may we never hear of it again.”

“And you, Ms Scientist,” he said turning on the person representing science…

“It’s ‘doctor’ actually…” stammered the scientist; but was totally ignored by the politician who was building up a good head of righteous steam.

“…how effective has all your additional science reportage been in winning hearts and minds? For God’s sake, the IPCC’s Sixth Report read like a horror movie in terms of what it’s predicting. Yet we were able to deflect its potency by describing it as horror porn and pointing out we were actually beating our emission targets. It quickly faded from the news cycle.

“And as for you, Ms Lawyer, it’s all well and good to let scared children block coal developments by dragging our Minister for the Environment through the court saying she’s abandoned her duty of care to the future but just you watch happens on appeal.

“Mark my words,” he boomed, “No higher court will uphold a judgement that threatens to block every major economic development that brings with it a residue of environmental harm. To do so would kill the economy, the voters won’t hear of it.

“No, don’t you worry your pretty little heads with all this sustainability clap trap. The adults are in charge, and we’ll make sure there’ll be technology aplenty to ensure our thriving economy continues apace!

“And don’t forget whose taxes keep you happy and out of danger playing away in your little academic sandpits,” he finished with a flourish.

Shifting piles of sand

“You might be surprised what you find in sandpits, Mr Member of Parliament,” hissed back the scientist. “Back in the 80s, physicists experimented with models of sandpiles and discovered they were complex systems. The more grains you add to a pile of sand, the more unstable it becomes. It moves into what’s called a critical state.

“As the pile grows, more and more parts of the sand slope become unstable requiring just one more grain of sand to trigger a slide. At a certain point there are enough small triggers across the pile that setting off one small slide creates an avalanche that can rearrange the whole pile.

“You might think you’re safe from one of the small slides but the interconnected critical nature of the pile means change will occur well away from the initiating disturbance.”

“Thanks for that,” quipped the politician. “I’ll remember that next time a blunder into a sandpit.”

Pile high society

“You don’t get it, do you?” snapped the economist. “Our colleague is actually describing society. You and your conservative brethren are trying to hold things in the same state because that best serves your vested interests, your fossil fuel backers. But our sandpile society is slowly building up a resistance to your efforts. And when the instability corrects itself, your lack of action means the correction will be big.

“Companies and governments, though not the Australian Government, are trying to figure out how to sustain themselves in this increasingly uncertain climate-afflicted world. More and more countries are signing up to economic measures like a price on carbon. Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanisms are being developed by the G7. Even coal companies, irony of irony, are feeling the heat as insurance companies refuse to insure them; companies are having to figure out how they can do this themselves.

“All these things are little patches of instability on the sandpile and it’s making the whole sandpile unstable. This is not just a physics model, economists recognise it all too well and have seen it at play in every economic upheaval from the Great Depression to the GFC.”

“And you piss on the law, Mr Politician,” chimed in the lawyer. “But do you not see what’s happening everywhere at the moment?

“It’s not just a few children disillusioned at your deceit and lack of action. It’s courts at all levels calling you out. The whole Sydney City Council just endorsed the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty and, of course, most of the world signed up to the Paris Agreement. Citizens everywhere are now standing up and demanding what our governments are actually doing to meet these agreement.

“A Dutch court, in a landmark ruling, has just ordered Royal Dutch Shell to drastically deepen planned greenhouse gas emission cuts. This could trigger legal action against energy companies around the world.

“And a Paris court has found the French Government legally responsible for its failure to meet targets intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

“So, Mr Politician,” said the scientist, taking back the reins of the argument. “What does it mean for your efforts to stop change when all sectors of society – law, economics and science just to mention three – begin building in checks and balances to force change? Your malfeasance enables you to disable some of our efforts – ‘axe the tax’, as you say – but over time the little efforts across society build up, the triggers accumulate, the demographics change and the evidence emerges.

“I’d say you’re sitting on a hypercritical pile of sand being peppered by little grains of sand. And each new grain, each new disturbance, could trigger the slide that triggers the avalanche. And when that happens, your smug self-assurance over the success of the games you’ve been playing will be unable to staunch the flow.”

Nowhere to sit

“And if we’ve scared you out of the sandpit, Mr Politician, think of it as a game of musical chairs,” observed the economist. “Unfortunately, I can’t hear the music anymore.

“And, thanks to you and your efforts, it looks like Australia doesn’t have a chair to sit on.”

Image: In the sandpit of life, a single grain of sand can change everything if the circumstances are ripe. For an excellent article on sandpiles as models of economic growth and disruption, see https://www.mauldineconomics.com/frontlinethoughts/the-growing-economic-sandpile
(Image by Nuwanga Mavinda from Pixabay)

Fixing the Environment is the right thing to do? Isn’t it?

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Beware the Siren’s call of populism

By Peter Burnett

The Grattan Institute’s latest report, ‘Gridlock: removing barriers to policy reform’, argues that Australia’s governance is going backwards and that, without reform, there is little prospect for many policy reforms that would ‘increase Australian prosperity’.

To which we at Sustainability Bites would add ‘and avoid environmental catastrophe’.

The report identifies a number of barriers to public interest reforms. These include vested interests, a weakened media, increasing tribalism in politics and society, and, ultimately, plain old unpopularity.

Grattan also gather a number of sensible recommendations for reform: increasing the expertise and independence of the public service, reducing the number of political advisers in ministerial offices, a federal anti-corruption commission and so on.

Interestingly, the report also confirms that the 1980s and 1990s were indeed ‘golden years’ of reform (something we too believe here at Sustainability Bites) and that this view is not just a rose-tinted longing for the ‘good old days’.

Why the gridlock?

This is all good stuff. But what’s really going on here? We are an advanced liberal democracy, better off in material terms than any society in history — so why do we find ourselves stuck in reform gridlock?

In some cases, the explanations are obvious. The decline of traditional media for example is largely due to the rise of social media.

But it’s much harder to explain the recent rise of tribalism and populism, and a corresponding decline in the willingness of our leaders to champion unpopular reforms.

Of course, these things are all manifestations of human nature, but why are they so prevalent now?

The rise of neoliberalism, and the decline of Conservatism

I put much of the current prevalence down to the rise of neoliberalism, pushing out ‘capital C’ Conservatism and other ways of thinking now seen by many as old-fashioned.

Let me explain.

Neoliberalism is based on classical liberal ideas of individual choice and the efficiency of free markets. However, unlike classical liberalism, it is much less focused on governance-oriented themes such as equality before the law and democracy.

As a result, the prescriptions of neoliberalism tend to be focused on economic policy, such as deregulation and privatisation.

In common with economics, neoliberalism is utilitarian, a philosophy which is focused on maximising ‘utility’ or happiness. And utilitarianism belongs to the family of moral philosophies that are consequentalist, assessing the morality of actions on the basis of their consequences.

In contrast, various other moral philosophies are deontological (from the greek word for ‘obligation’ or ‘duty’) and thus concerned about ‘doing the right thing’.

‘Capital C’ Conservatism has a strong deontological theme, as it seeks to conserve institutions and values on the basis that they are good in themselves. Most religions also have strong deontological foundations, as does humanism.

Does it really matter?

Why all the philosophy? Isn’t it enough that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, to point out that neoliberalism has made us all much wealthier and indeed lifted millions out of poverty?

These things are true but there’s more to it. Remember, we are looking for an explanation for a loss of reform momentum and decline in standards of governance.

The philosophy is relevant because it does provide an explanation.

In looking for explanations of the changes in our politics over the last 40 years, it is not enough to point to the rise of neoliberalism. There has also been a corresponding decline in deontological thinking such as Conservatism and traditional religion.

In short, while material wealth is up, it’s just as important to note that commitment-driven behaviour, such as church-going, volunteering and even sticking with one football team for life, is down. We are not as ‘rusted on’ as we used to be.

So how does this explain the politics?

Consistent with the neoliberal focus on ends rather than means, good government does not matter as much as it once did. The most recent examples of this come from two very capable and well-respected centre-right politicians, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and federal Finance Minister Simon Birmingham.

Both were asked to defend pork-barrelling by their respective governments. The Premier said:

“The term pork barrelling is common parlance. And if that’s the accusation … I’m happy to accept that commentary … I think all governments and political parties make promises to the community in order to curry favour … it’s not an illegal practice; unfortunately it does happen from time to time.”

The Finance Minister said (and then promoted it on his own website):

“[T]he Australian people had their chance and voted the government back in at the last election, and we’re determined to get on and deliver those election promises that we made in relation to local infrastructure as we are nation building infrastructure.”

Shocking. Gladys says ‘everyone does it’ and Simon says ‘you had your chance and you chose us, pork and all’.

Yet, other than a few outraged columns from political commentators, these frank admissions of very poor political behaviour seem to have had little impact or generated much backlash.

If that’s our attitude to pork barrelling, is it any wonder that we are in trouble?

Environmental implications

At the most general level, the solution to environmental decline is to keep our consumption of nature’s services to the rate at which nature produces those services. If we fail to do this, we consume nature itself (natural capital), to our own detriment but especially to the detriment of future generations.

This is why ‘intergenerational equity’ is the fundamental principle of environmental sustainability.

Intergenerational equity is a classic example of deontological thinking. It is a moral imperative to do the right thing by future generations, even at the expense of our own consumption.

So if this kind of thinking is out of fashion, what can we do?

A return to moral codes that many have abandoned seems rather unlikely.

The next best thing might be to emulate the pragmatism of the Greek hero, Ulysses. When he knew that the voyage home from Troy would take his ship past the island of the Sirens, he had himself lashed to the mast so that he would be restrained from giving in to their velvet-like and irresistible call.

We too can lash ourselves to the mast of the ship of state, by setting up institutions such as a federal anti-corruption commission, or, for the environment, a legislated ‘net zero’ target and the independent Climate Change Commission (as proposed by independent MP Zali Stegall).

Of course, it would be better just to ‘do the right thing’. Failing that, when we are tempted to give in to the siren call of populism, good institutions can help save us!

Image: To save ourselves from the Siren’s call of populism we need greater institutional integrity — bring on the independent watch dogs! Image by Andy Faeth from Pixabay

Dead in the water

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Making more of the Royal Commission into ‘our greatest environmental catastrophe’

By David Salt

We all know the Murray Darling Basin is in trouble. We’ve all seen the graphic images of millions of fish gasping for air as they died and heard the desperate stories of towns running dry. But we also know the causes of this distress are complex and involve multiple layers of government, countless players and many vested interests. In an effort to uncover the truth behind this mess, the South Australian State Government set up a Royal Commission in 2018 to examine the effectiveness of the $13 billion Basin Plan, supposedly a blue print for saving the mighty Murray Darling River system.

Earlier this year Richard Beasley, Senior Counsel Assisting at the Murray-Darling Royal Commission, published a book, Dead in the water, on what the Royal Commission found. You should read it. It should also be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the failure of our environmental law and policy.

Many angry texts have been written about how our environment has been let down by government but this book stands head and shoulders above them all in terms of forensic rage. Dead in the water takes readers on a whistle stop tour of the ill-fated Basin Plan, one of our Nation’s biggest environmental investments. The Plan was supposed to repair the mighty Murray Darling River system but is instead enabling (and probably accelerating) its continued degradation and desecration.

If you want to read the full 756-page Royal Commission Report, please do. The Analysis & Policy Observatory has a neat summary of it here, together with a link to download the full report.

If you want to read a single plain-speaking, short article on the Report and what it found, you could do worse than scanning this story in The Guardian (summed up by its title: ‘Murray-Darling basin royal commission report finds gross maladministration’).

But if you want to experience the full rage of how bastard politics and corporate power was able to pervert science while despoiling some of our most prized natural and cultural heritage while having the audacity to claim the opposite, then read Dead in the water. It will leave you very angry. Indeed, Beasley subtitled his book – ‘A very angry book’. A bit of background helps you understand why.

An ill-fated Royal Commission

Beasley’s perspective on the management of the Murray Darling Basin was informed by his experience as Senior Counsel Assisting at the Royal Commission.

The Royal Commission was established in 2018 by the South Australian Labor State Government to investigate the Basin Plan and how it impacts on South Australia. South Australia has a keen interest in this as it sits at the end of the Murray River. Leading the investigation was Commissioner Bret Walker SC, often said to be Australia’s pre-eminent senior counsel.

Walker handed down a damning report at the beginning of 2019. Among other things, he found that Commonwealth officials had committed gross maladministration, negligence and unlawful actions in drawing up the multibillion-dollar deal to save Australia’s largest river system; that the Plan ignored potentially “catastrophic” risks of climate change and failed to make use of the best science available. He concluded that the Basin Plan needed a complete overhaul including reallocating more water from irrigation to the environment.

Unfortunately, politics dogged the Royal Commission at every step. The Commonwealth Government prevented public servants from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources from appearing at the Royal Commission (the two key agencies overseeing the Basin Plan); and when Commissioner Walker asked for more time to complete his investigation the South Australian Government, now a conservative Liberal Government after a recent election, turned him down. When Walker submitted his 746-page report (containing 111 findings and 44 recommendations) they were warmly welcomed by the SA Government and then politely ignored.

A very angry book

Richard Beasley witnessed all this, indeed was a central player in the Commission’s search for truth.

I can’t imagine how it must have felt to hear and see and read all the testimonies from multiple experts, stakeholders and witnesses on the degrading state of the Basin and the inadequacy of the Basin Plan to address this decline. To hear statement after statement that the Basin Plan clearly is not based on the best science available, is unlawful, probably unconstitutional, and definitely not fit for purpose.

And rather than have the bureaucrats, managers and public servants responsible for implementing the plan explain and justify why it is as it is, the Federal Government gags them, prevents them from speaking. And then the final report is effectively forgotten because there’s been a change in the South Australian state government.

If I were watching all this I think I’d whither with rage, shrivel with impotence. What would you do?

Richard Beasley walked away from the Royal Commission and wrote an angry book. And, because he’s a skilful writer with a lawyer’s sharp eye for detail and a wicked sense of humour, he laced his observations with wry humour, amusing anecdotes and personal asides. And his anger is palpable, and there are expletives aplenty.

Beasley didn’t want to simply serve up a slightly more plain-speaking version of the Royal Commission Report; he wanted to record his fury at the environmental disaster that is unfolding up and down our nation’s most important river systems. He wanted to enrage his readers about the deep injustices this disaster is propagating across the landscape (for starters the appalling dispossession of First Nations people). And he wanted to highlight the horrific failure in governance that has allowed this to happen.

We need more angry books

I wish there were more ‘Richard Beasleys’ out there who could capture so well the multi-dimensional nature surrounding poor governance, ecosystem collapse and the subsequent societal loss it brings. Unfortunately, I don’t think there are many like him around. Most scientists, for example, are scared to get too emotional or personal in order to tell stories that really move people (and I say this having worked in science communication and with scientists for over 30 years).

I’m sure part of Beasley’s intent with Dead in the water was to vent his own rage. But possibly the greater aim was to enrage the broader community to challenge our governments (at all levels) on their appalling mismanagement of our natural heritage. I know I finished the book feeling quite outraged at what has been allowed to occur.

Beasley’s book carries the subtitle: “A very angry book about our greatest environmental catastrophe… the Murray Darling Basin”. I think it’s possible to cast the Great Barrier Reef, our Box Gum Grassy Woodlands and many of our forest systems in the same light. If only we had more storytellers like Richard Beasley to get people angry enough to demand real action on all these catastrophes from our elected leaders.

‘Standards’ in name only?

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The government’s National Environmental Standards don’t do what you might expect

By Peter Burnett

Last month the federal government introduced the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021 (the Standards and Assurance Bill).

The Standards and Assurance Bill is a follow-on to an earlier bill (the Streamlining Bill), which I’ve written about before (see Red Lines for Green Values).

The Streamlining Bill would amend the EPBC Act to ‘streamline’ environmental decision-making by enabling development approvals, following environmental impact assessment, to be devolved to states and territories. This idea used to be called the ‘one-stop shop’ approach but the government now calls it ‘single-touch approvals’.

The Standards and Assurance Bill provides for National Environmental Standards; it also establishes an independent statutory position of Environment Assurance Commissioner, tasked mainly with monitoring and auditing decision-making by states under devolved arrangements.

The standards should set hard environmental bottom lines, but if this bill goes through, they won’t. More on this in a minute, but first a little context.

Where are we going with this?

The government presents both bills as first steps in responding to the comprehensive reforms recommended by Professor Graham Samuel in his 2020 Independent Review of the EPBC Act.

While it is true that Professor Samuel envisaged the devolution of development approvals to the states as part of his reform package, it is quite a stretch to argue that these two bills are the first steps of a comprehensive reform process, for several reasons.

The most significant reason is that the government has not tabled a response to the Samuel Review and so we have no idea what the government’s environmental reform agenda is, if indeed it has one.

If these two bills are the first steps, then they are steps towards a secret, perhaps even unknown, destination. All we know about the government’s intentions is that its policy narrative on environmental reform has rarely strayed beyond its ‘cutting-green-tape’ mantra of regulatory efficiency.

Stuck in the Senate

But back to the two bills. The Streamlining Bill got stuck in the Senate after three crucial cross-benchers opposed it, not because they were fundamentally opposed to devolution, but because they wanted to be satisfied that devolved approvals would be made properly.

At that point, in November 2020, the government had tabled neither the Samuel Review, nor the template for bilateral agreements setting out accreditation arrangements. In other words, it was asking the Parliament to take it on trust (see Trust us? Well let’s look at your record.)

The government then introduced the Standards and Assurance Bill in February 2021. Environment minister Sussan Ley presented the Bill as a step in the reform process but, in the absence of a broader vision from the government, it’s hard not to see the Bill as an attempt to get the Streamlining Bill over the line by responding to cross bench concerns.

At first blush, the Standards and Assurance Bill does advance two key recommendations from Professor Samuel.

The problem is, that’s all it does. It’s very concerning that the government is resorting to a piecemeal approach to legislative reform.

With yet more horrific environmental news emerging in recent weeks (see ‘Existential threat to our survival’: see the 19 Australian ecosystems already collapsing), the government’s approach is mystifying: they just don’t seem to get how urgent the need for action is, or don’t want to.

When is a standard not a standard?

As to the Standards and Assurance Bill itself, it’s the provisions on the standards that worry me.

In fact, I don’t think the ‘standards’ are standards at all. If standards for decisions are set by law, you’d be forgiven for expecting that an environmental approval that failed to meet the standards would automatically be invalid and that an interested party could get a court decision to that effect.

Not so with these standards. Here, compliance with standards will be a subjective question for the decision-maker. And the question will not be about compliance, but inconsistency. In other words, the question for the federal environment minister, or an accredited state decision-maker, won’t be ‘have I complied with the standard?’ but ‘in my opinion, is this decision not inconsistent with the standards?’

Because the question of inconsistency is made a matter of opinion, the courts will tend to uphold any decision based on that opinion, provided there is a rationality of some sort to it, because the courts are extremely reluctant to substitute their opinion for that of a statutory decision-maker.

This is particularly the case when one reads on in the bill and discovers that, in forming her or his opinion about inconsistency, the decision-maker can have regard to federal or state policy, plans, programs or spending decisions, indeed anything that might conceivably be relevant.

Lowering the bar

This opens up a giant back door to ‘trade-off’ decisions, the very antithesis of meeting standards.

The explanatory memorandum tabled by the government gives the example of a decision-maker approving impacts on the values of a National Heritage place if those impacts are ‘balanced by mechanisms that promote those values (which may, for example, be delivered through funding of activities by a state relating to the promotion of those values)’.

I have my own examples, hypothetical of course.

The federal environment minister might decide that a decision to demolish part of the Australian War Memorial (a National Heritage place) is ‘balanced’ by a government decision to spend a lot of money on building a new exhibition hall. Thus a standard that says the fabric of heritage buildings should be conserved could be met by demolishing some of that fabric!

Or a state minister might decide that the loss of a population of a critically endangered species is ‘balanced’ by an investment in research on the species, even if the standard says that all populations of critically endangered species should be maintained.

Note that these ‘balancing’ decisions would not required to comply with federal offsets policy, even though they are offsets by another name. So the bill opens a possible reduction in standards.

And just in case a nervous state decision-maker thought they couldn’t come up with a ‘balancing’ state policy, plan, program or spending decision (hardly likely), they can apply to the federal minister for an exemption in the ‘public interest’! Perhaps states will resort to this if they want to approve a controversial development and shift the environmental blame to Canberra!

But wait, there’s more

As if this wasn’t enough, the minister said in her second reading speech that the initial set of standards would reflect the existing EPBC Act, ie she will ignore the standards recommended by Professor Samuel, even though she’s had them since 30 October last year. The problem with the existing standards is that they are all either process driven, or so broad that only the most extreme decision would contravene them.

Moreover, once the states are accredited under existing standards, they, and development interests, can be expected to push back hard against any proposals to tighten the standards, probably relying on arguments about moving the goal posts and costing jobs.

Standards in name only

It all boils down to this: if the Standards and Assurance Bill is passed, the standards we will get will be standards in name only. They won’t be a step forward, but backwards.

Cross-benchers looking to be satisfied that devolved approvals would protect the environment are surely facing disappointment.

Postscript: The Senate Environment and Communications Committee is conducting an Inquiry into the Standards and Assurance Bill. Submissions are due by 25 March. See: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Environment_and_Communications/Protectionandbiocon

Image by Alain Audet from Pixabay

How good is Australia?!!

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How deep have we stuck our head in the sand when it comes to the environment?

By David Salt

On May 19 2019 the Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, tweeted his now trademark catchcry following his ‘miracle’ election victory: “How good is Australia! How good are Australians!” (noting he was making a statement, not asking a question).

It’s now a standard part of his language of spin (how good is this, how good is that…) and it’s also much parodied. But in parodying ‘Scotty from Marketing’ I fear we often trivialise some of the damage his government is presiding over.

The opposition claims Australia is going backwards when it comes to productivity, equity, corruption, debt and trust; and have put forward numbers suggesting Australia is slipping back when compared with other nations.

However, for my money, the true problem with Australia’s performance is what we’re allowing to happen to the environment. We’re witnessing collapse after environmental collapse and our response it to talk up small victories (like our fight against plastic pollution) while ignoring the big picture. Our PM would have has pat ourselves on the back rather than focus on our withering natural heritage. We refuse to accept any form of responsible stewardship for our own environment while also shirking international effort to do better.

How good is Australia? How good are Australians? Consider these recent reports.

Australia the only developed nation on world list of deforestation hotspots
Australia remains one of the world’s hotspots for deforestation according to a new report by WWF, which finds an area six times the size of Tasmania has been cleared globally since 2004. The analysis identifies 24 “deforestation fronts” worldwide where a total of 43 million hectares of forest was destroyed in the period from 2004 until 2017.

Urgent action needed to save 19 ‘collapsing’ Australian ecosystemsA ‘confronting and sobering’ report details degradation of coral reefs, outback deserts, tropical savanna, Murray-Darling waterways, mangroves and forests.

Great Barrier Reef found to be in failing health as world heritage review loomsA government report card has found the marine environment along the Great Barrier Reef’s coastline remains in poor health, prompting conservationists to call for urgent action ahead of a world heritage committee meeting this year.

Implications of the 2019–2020 megafires for the conservation of Australian vegetation
More than 150 species of native vascular plants are estimated to have experienced fire across 90% or more of their ranges. More than three quarters of rainforest communities were burnt in parts of New South Wales. These contain many ancient Gondwanan plant lineages that are now only found in small, fragmented ranges.

The 2020 Threatened Species Index
Australia’s new Threatened Species Index (TSX) for birds, mammals and plants was released in December last year. According to the data released in the 2020 TSX, threatened plants have declined by 72% between 1995 and 2017 on average across all sites. At sites where conservation management actions were taken this decline is less pronounced, with a 60% average decline over the same time period. At sites with no known management, the average decline was 80%.

Australia confirms extinction of 13 more species, including first reptile since colonisationThis latest update cements Australia’s reputation as the mammal extinction capital of the world with 34 extinct mammal species. The next nearest nation is Haiti with 9 extinct mammal species.

These are all recent reports and they are all saying the same thing. Our environment is in severe decline.

How good is Australia? Well, in one respect we are world leaders. As Suzanne Milthorpe from the Wilderness Society puts it (following on from the announcement that 13 more species are now confirmed as extinct): “It’s official; 34 mammal species have been lost from Australia and as these species are found nowhere else, we’ve also lost them from the planet and from all of time. There’s not another country, rich or poor, that has anything like this record.”

Unaccountable, opaque and disingenuous

If that wasn’t bad enough, our national government is telling the world we’re doing a great job when it comes to reducing carbon emissions (something I discussed a year ago in Five lies that stain a nation’s soul) and we’re the world’s best coral reef managers (again, something the evidence categorically refutes, see ‘Best managed reef in the world’ down the drain).

The world is struggling with global change and climate disruption. In Australia, we’re doing our best to ignore what’s happening in our own backyard while denying we have any culpability.

To add injury to insult, our national government is attempting to shirk its responsibility to protect our national heritage by disabling key powers in our national environmental law (the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, EPBC Act); reducing accountability by cutting funds to the Auditor General; and reducing transparency by abusing Freedom of Information (FOI) provisions surrounding environmental decisions.

Just yesterday the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) filed a case at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal challenging Environment Minister Sussan Ley’s refusal to release documents requested under Freedom of Information laws about 15 ‘fast tracked’ environmental approvals. ACF’s case will challenge the Government’s use of ‘national cabinet’ exemptions to avoid FOI disclosures.

How good is Australia? How good are Australians? Given our sad record of environmental decline and wretched environmental stewardship, our repeated and growing failure to protect those natural values we told ourselves and the world we would look after, these questions/assertions border on the obscene; and yet they constantly go unchallenged.

Australia is doing an awful job of looking after its environmental heritage for today’s generation and generations to come. It’s time we stopped burying our head in the sand, for that is exactly what we are doing when we allow our national leaders to discount our common future. Consider Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister’s recent declaration (reported in The Guardian): “We are not worried, or I’m certainly not worried, about what might happen in 30 years’ time.”

How good is Australia?

Image: Image by smadalsl 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

World Wetlands Day & Ramsar– the good, the bad & the ugly

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Happy World Wetlands Day. On the whole, our wetlands are anything but happy.

By David Salt

Last week I wrote about the value of ‘days for the environment’ in general. That story was inspired by a story I wrote for the Global Water Forum for World Wetlands Day. Well, today (Tuesday, 2 February 2021) is World Wetlands Day. Given the parlous and declining state of the world’s wetlands, is this ‘day of celebration’ a help or a hindrance in getting appropriate action to save these vital waterscapes? The Ramsar Convention, which is tightly linked to World Wetlands Day, was enacted on the 2 February 1971. Fifty years on, how is it going, and how does it measure up to the looming challenges facing us in the coming half century? The post below originally appeared on the Global Water Forum.

The 2nd of February was chosen as the date for World Wetlands Day because it marks the day that the Convention on Wetlands, also known as the Ramsar Convention, was adopted back in 1971 – so named because the adoption ceremony took place in the Iranian city of Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

So that means that in 2021 the Ramsar Convention is 50 years old, making it the oldest international treaty for wetland and waterbird conservation, and one of the world’s most enduring and significant international environmental agreements. It’s been responsible for establishing the world’s largest network of protected areas, and has been used as a basis for other international conservation policies and national wetland laws.

And with the creation of World Wetlands Day, which kicked off in 1997 and is supported by the Ramsar Secretariat, it has served as a catalyst for many education programs, citizen science projects and community activities to raise awareness and help protect wetlands. Since 1997 the Ramsar website has posted reports from over 100 countries of their World Wetlands Day activities.

There was a time when a wetland was synonymous for ‘swamp’, a patch of water-soaked land ideal for reclamation and development; a place to be avoided. World Wetlands Day has played a significant role in alerting the broader community to the many values sustained in and around wetlands, and what is lost when they are transformed; which normally meant being drained, cultivated or built on. But is this annual celebration of wetland values actually contributing to saving them? There is much to celebrate but there is also so much more we need to do to secure the future of our precious wetlands as the planet moves into an increasingly uncertain future.

So, the question is: Fifty years on from the adoption of the Ramsar Treaty, is World Wetlands Day saving wetlands or providing governments with an opportunity to window-dress conservation efforts through tokenistic listings? Of course, it’s not a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. But consider the following.

The good

The Ramsar Convention has been going for 50 years and is widely respected. 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 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.

The first Outlook was released a couple of years ago. It reports that the accuracy of global wetland area data is increasing. Global inland and coastal wetlands cover over 12.1 million km2, an area larger than Canada, with 54% permanently inundated and 46% seasonally inundated.

And, as we get a clearer idea on their extent, we also are able to more accurately value the ecosystem services they provide. In 2019, Nick Davidson and colleagues recently updated our best estimates of the value of natural wetlands and found that the (2011) global monetary value of natural wetland ecosystem services as being a staggering $47.4 trillion per year.

In area, natural wetlands are only a small percentage of all natural biomes, around about 3%. And yet the ecosystem services they provide (for example, water purification, fish nurseries, carbon storage and storm protection) represent 43.5% of the total value of all natural biomes – small in area, big on services to humans.

Indeed, the ecosystem service of water provision is the theme of this year’s World Wetlands Day. Wetlands hold and provide most of our freshwater. They naturally filter pollutants, leaving water we can safely drink. (Each year World Wetlands Day focusses on a different part of the value provided by wetlands. In recent years the themes have been biodiversity, poverty alleviation and protection from natural disasters.)

In many places around the world efforts are now going into restoring and recreating urban wetlands to improve water quality and amenity. Such restoration efforts are expensive but underline just how valuable the ecosystem services provided by wetlands can be.

The bad

So, all this is good. Most of the world has signed up to the Ramsar Convention, and we’re really beginning to document the extent and the value of our natural wetland systems with growing precision (though we are still to incorporate this information into our national decision making systems in a meaningful way; environmental accounts would be a good start).

But the growth of the human population, the development of our coastal zones and river deltas, and our disruption of the Earth system (for example climate change) are exacting a horrible toll which is being disproportionately felt by our wetlands.

The following figures come from the Global Wetland Outlook (Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, 2018), and are worth reflecting on. Wetlands have been in steep decline for centuries as the human population has grown and spread. Up to 87% of the global wetland resource has been lost since 1700 in places where data exist.

Unfortunately this isn’t a case of ‘we didn’t know better’ because the losses have accelerated more recently. Approximately 35% of the world’s wetlands were lost between 1970-2015 with annual rates of loss accelerating from the year 2000.

As we lose our wetlands so we also lose the biodiversity that depends on them. More than 25% of all wetland plants and animals are at risk of extinction.

And it’s not just the declining extent of wetlands that’s the problem. It’s also about the degradation of the wetlands that remain. According to the UN, more than 80% of waste water is released into wetlands without adequate treatment. In catchments that feed these wetlands, fertilizer use in 2018 was estimated to be 25% higher than in 2008, exacerbating nutrification and levels of decomposition resulting in declining water quality with impacts for flora and fauna alike.

And the ugly

Our wetlands are important. They provide a range of ecosystem services that are extremely valuable to humans. Indeed, many scientists believe wetlands are critical to our very survival and central to our quest for sustainability. Wetlands contribute to 75 indicators contained in the Sustainable Development Goals.

Despite this, wetlands remain dangerously undervalued by policy and decision-makers in national plans. How can this be? Given the pivotal role wetlands play in delivering global commitments on climate change, sustainable development, biodiversity and disaster risk reduction, how is it they are given such low priority?

And if that wasn’t ugly enough, the spectre of climate change hangs over our (inadequate) efforts to save these vital ecosystems. Climate change promises to reconfigure our coasts and drown many of our low lying coastal systems, while drying out many of our inland wetlands through higher temperatures and changed precipitation. Then there’s the impact from the growing frequency of extreme events such as intense heatwaves and severe storms.

In my country, Australia, we have witnessed mass destruction of seagrass meadows and mass dieback of our extensive mangroves in recent years from elevated temperatures; and this is but a foretaste of what is to come.

Rising sea levels are even now visibly transforming the floodplains in and around Kakadu National Park in northern Australia, the jewel in the crown of my country’s National Reserve System. Kakadu is one of the best managed and resourced national parks in Australia and the world. It’s a World Heritage site and contains two Ramsar Sites. But good management on site and world recognition is not saving it from climate change and rising sea levels.

Talk less, do more

To underline the existential threat facing so many of the world’s remaining wetlands, consider the situation of the town of Ramsar, the place where the Wetlands Convention was adopted half a century ago and which now carries its name. The level of the Caspian Sea, on whose shore Ramsar sits, is dropping 7 cm every year due to evaporation, a trend expected to increase as temperatures rise with climate change. As the sea recedes, the town is becoming landlocked and the surrounding wetlands will be gone within decades. What does that say about the dire outlook for these vitally important waterscapes that wetlands around Ramsar itself will simply disappear in the coming years.

It’s steadily shrinking size combined with pollution and invasive species has many researchers believing the Caspian is headed for ecocide on a massive scale, with nature and people paying the cost. What stronger signal could there be that the Ramsar Convention in and of itself is not enough to protect our wetlands?

And what about World Wetlands Day, a celebration on the day the Ramsar Convention came to life? I’m not saying it doesn’t generate great activity and build valuable awareness. But since it’s running in 1997 we have only seen an acceleration in the loss and degradation of our wetlands. It’s hard to argue the convention is turning the situation around.

Governments around the world happily host World Wetlands Day events and put out glossy brochures describing how wonderful their wetlands are (consider this from the Australian Government). These same governments are signatories to the Ramsar Convention (and the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity) yet they are never held to account when they fail to live up to the commitments they have made to ensure that our precious wetlands are being protected for current and future generations.

The 2nd of February should be a day of celebration of wetlands. However, fifty years on from the adoption of the Ramsar Convention, it should also be a ‘call to arms’ that so much more needs to be done to protect these precious ecosystems.

As the Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (Rojas Urrego) says: “Without the world’s wetlands, we all hang in the balance.”

Banner image: The famous mangrove boardwalk in Cairns (Queensland, Australia). World Wetlands Day celebrates the many values of our precious wetlands. Unfortunately, wetlands are being lost and degraded at an accelerating rate. (Image by David Salt)

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)

We need a BIG win for the environment

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Something to make us proud again

By David Salt

When was the last time our government did something really big, something landmark in scale, for the Australian environment?

Putting a price on carbon in 2011 was pretty big. Unfortunately, thanks to the ideological malfeasance of the Abbott Coalition Government, this was aborted in 2014 just as it was starting to make a difference to our country’s carbon emissions, so this was more of a big loss than a win. (Also, that was more about our nation’s contribution to global sustainability than to Australia’s environment per se.)

BIG wins in our Nation’s history

No, for something ‘big’ I think you need to look further back. Maybe it was 2004 when the Howard Coalition Government established one of the world’s best marine national parks on the Great Barrier Reef by increasing no-take areas from 5% to 33% (using some of the world’s cutting edge conservation science – which happened to be Australian led!).

And, on the topic of the Great Barrier Reef, maybe you’d cite the disallowance of oil drilling on the Reef in 1975, or the Reef’s successful selection as a World Heritage site for its outstanding natural values in 1981.

These were all world-leading big wins for the Australian environment; actions that made us feel proud of our environmental stewardship. Unfortunately, though each action was internationally noteworthy, none of them are saving the Great Barrier Reef (or coral reefs anywhere) from climate change.

But big wins weren’t merely reserved for our beautiful and much loved coral reef (with the earning potential of billions of dollars each year). The nation also felt proud when conservationists (represented by the Australian Conservation Foundation) shook hands with farmers (represented by the National Farmers Federation) to launch the movement known as Landcare in 1989. The Hawke Labor Government threw in $360 million and proclaimed a Decade of Landcare.

So popular was Landcare that it paved the way for even bigger packages of funding in the form of the Natural Heritage Trust (NHT) in 1997. The Howard Coalition Government forked up over $1 billion dollars (generated by the sale of Telstra) to drive the NHT. Some claim it was a bribe to get the public to accept the sale of our public telecommunications company (a claim I’ve made myself on occasion) but the significance here is that the success of Landcare and our desire to heal the land was strong enough for us to take the money.

The fact that Landcare hasn’t reversed the pattern of environmental degradation being witnessed across Australia or that the Australian National Audit Office found the NHT was ineffectual because the money was spread too thinly and without any real strategy reflected the enormity of the challenges we were facing. However, their establishment signalled the government was serious about the environment and the effort gave the electorate at least some reason to hope.

Standing together on ‘No Dams’

For my money, one of the biggest environmental wins in Australia was back in 1983 when the Hawke Labor Government blocked the Tasmanian Government from building the Franklin Dam in south west Tasmania. The ‘No Dams’ campaign saw the will of the Australian people triumph over the vested interests of the Tasmanian Hydro Electric Commission. As a nation we stood up, through the national government, and defended the values of a World Heritage river that was destined to be drowned. Saving it made the nation proud.

I think it’s true that we have had big environmental wins in the past; symbolic and real. But the examples I cite (from 1983, 1989 and 2004) are now many years old. And, if ever there was a time we needed something to make us feel good and try harder, now is that time.

Now more than ever

Now, as we see climate-fuelled disasters rise and rise we need a signal that we still have a capacity for wise environmental stewardship.

Now, as we see our children throw up their hands in despair, we need to provide them something to believe in.

Now, as we see tribalalised politics and polarising partisanship tear asunder community trust, we need to provide examples of partnerships and alliances between traditional adversaries (farmers and conservationists for example) to demonstrate good faith and common purpose.

Now, as we see fake news, conspiracy and hate speak fill our media feeds, we need to see good governance, accountability and transparency in taking on the environmental challenges that beset us.

So, as we launch into a new decade, I call on environmentalists and nature lovers everywhere (individuals, NGOs, public servants, business people, farmers, researchers and decision makers): keep up your good fight for sustainability, call out injustice where you see it, but put some of your mental reserves into coming up with ideas for something BIG for the environment that has the potential to build hope, common purpose and pride.

Image by alicia3690 from Pixabay