By Peter Burnett
In 2020 I was a member of a consultative group established by Professor Graham Samuel in his review of Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.
At several points in our discussions, Professor Samuel, a highly experienced and well-regarded former regulator, cautioned against ‘weasel words’: that is, hollow or ambiguous words that create a false sense of certainty or clarity.
I agreed with Professor Samuel whole-heartedly: one of the secrets of good regulation is to use simple and clear words that leave no scope for confusion or manoeuvre.
Say what you mean and mean only what you say. No legal fudges. It gives everyone certainty and increases trust in a regulatory system.
The Morrison government’s new Agriculture Biodiversity Stewardship Market Bill 2022 (Biodiversity Credits Bill), was introduced last month (February) with very little fanfare. It fails the weasel-words test by including words copied from a similar law on carbon credits, the Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Act 2011 (‘Carbon Credits Act’).
Creating biodiversity credits
Governments in Australia have experimented over the years with biodiversity stewardship schemes (for example, see Learning from agri-environmental schemes in Australia). Typically, these schemes pay farmers to protect or restore native vegetation on their land. The Morrison government is the latest to trial such a scheme.
One difference this time around is that the government is going further than before, using the scheme to lay foundations for wider biodiversity markets. A key to doing this is to create ‘biodiversity credits’ as a new form of property readily bought and sold.
This requires legislation and hence the Biodiversity Credits Bill. The Bill is modelled on the Carbon Credits Act.
In principle, this is a good thing.
The problem is that the part of the Carbon Credits Act that deals with the integrity of carbon credits was watered down by the Abbott government in 2014 as part of its policy of replacing a carbon price with a (much more limited) purchasing of emission reductions by government.
At the time the government called this watering-down ‘streamlining’ and ‘simplification’, using its now-standard justification that the changes would ‘provide greater flexibility … while retaining the same high standards …’
Integrity is essential to ensuring that carbon or biodiversity credits represent a real gain for the environment at full face value. To achieve this, the credits must be both additional to business as usual and achieved in full compliance with a scientifically robust methodology (renamed ‘protocol’ in the new bill).
The methodology requirements for carbon credits, which are set by the minister, were watered down by the following changes:
The Biodiversity Credits Bill adopts this same watered-down system from the Carbon Credits Act.
It also lowers the bar on the integrity standards, dropping a requirement in the Carbon Credits Act that any necessary assumptions in an approved methodology be ‘conservative’ and replacing it with a requirement that any such assumptions be ‘reasonably certain’.
Superficially, the changes look minor, even trivial. In substance, they are very significant.
Their net effect was and is to weaken the benchmark for, and rigour of, the expert advice; to allow the minister to disregard the advice once given; and to allow more use of CSIRO scientists who, as government employees, can be subject to greater pressures from within government, subtle or otherwise.
In addition, the weaker and more subjective the language, the more difficult it becomes to mount a court challenge on the ground of failing to meet statutory requirements.
Rumour has it that the government is pushing for a quick passage of the Bill in the few days remaining before the Parliament is prorogued for a May election — presumably on the expectation of bipartisan support.
Such support would deliver another blow to the environment by opening the new biodiversity credits to political influence, compromising their integrity. As the market for credits grows, there will pressures from suppliers to make it easier to have approaches accredited, and from buyers to increase the supply of credits to meet demand and lower prices.
The 2014 carbon credit integrity model should not be adopted for biodiversity credits.
But more than that, biodiversity credits are like a currency. Just as the integrity of our currency has been entrusted to the Reserve Bank board, an independent and expert body, so too should the integrity of biodiversity (and carbon) credits be entrusted to an independent expert body.
I hope the Senate will not support the Biodiversity Credits Bill in its current form.
Act in haste, repent at leisure.
Banner image by monicore @ Pixabay