EMM’s ecologists joined over 300 delegates from across the country and New Zealand to attend the second National Biodiversity Offsets Conference in Canberra, hosted by the EIANZ
The keynote address by Professor Graeme Samuel on the EPBC Act review provided sobering warnings about what will happen to our biodiversity if we do not take action, but at the same time a practical and cautiously optimistic view of the reforms possible in the near future if governments, researchers and practitioners can work together.
A panel of state and Commonwealth regulators bravely addressed the conference delegates and graciously answered difficult questions regarding future decision-making and offset policy direction. Ken Henry AC opened up our minds to the possibilities of Australia-wide restoration through the Business Council of Australia’s commitment to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. The conference was concluded with an address by our Federal Minister for Environment and Water, the Honorable Tanya Plibersek MP, leaving conference delegates with a renewed sense of optimism and possibility about what governments and practitioners could collectively achieve for our unique biodiversity.
The EPBC Act review by Professor Graeme Samuel and an expert panel (the Samuel review) found that the Act requires substantial reform to protect the environment and address current and future environmental challenges. The review called for the development of National Environmental Standards (NES) focussed on achieving environmental outcomes as a priority, providing greater transparency for business and the community, and a robust framework for consistent decision-making.
Key reform recommendations included:
- the development of NES;
- a greater degree of engagement and involvement with Indigenous Australians to incorporate their environmental knowledge;
- increased transparency in decision-making;
- development of a monitoring and evaluation framework overseen by an independent compliance and enforcement regulator;
- and a renewed focus on restoration of the environment.
Professor Samuel will continue to seek feedback from government and key stakeholders with a view to progressing reform of the EPBC Act. The Commonwealth Government has committed to responding to the Samuel review by the end of 2022.
EMM believe that implementation of the above would provide for more robust assessment under the EPBC Act that focuses on avoidance and minimisation before offsets, and offsets that deliver on the desired outcomes through increased monitoring and enforcement.
Dr Ken Henry AC highlighted the significant opportunities for ecological restoration provided by the Business Council of Australia’s (BCA) commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Currently, Australian businesses emitting over 100,000 tonnes of carbon per annum are required under the Emissions Reduction Fund Safeguard Mechanism to reduce emissions from their activities below baseline levels or purchase Australian Carbon Credit Units to offset their emissions. The safeguard mechanism captures businesses including electricity generation, mining, oil and gas, manufacturing, transport, construction and waste, which collectively account for about half of Australia’s emissions.
The above provides an opportunity to not only conduct carbon abatement, but to also enhance and restore biodiversity. Dr Ken Henry AC put it best when he said,
“The somewhat revolutionary point here is that right now, this generation of Australians has the means of ending a dreadful 230-year war on the continent’s biodiversity, and of putting virtually all our most degraded ecosystems on a trajectory to recapture ecological function, rebuild habitat and create rewarding employment opportunities for land managers, including the indigenous custodians of traditional ecological knowledge. And we can achieve this remarkable thing because of the commitments made by Australian businesses to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.”
A key recommendation of the Samuel review and a recurring theme throughout the conference was the need for an industry-wide, renewed focus avoiding and minimising impacts. Under state and Commonwealth legislation, the following hierarchy must be considered when assessing biodiversity impacts on a project:
- Mitigate, and then
However, there are no hard and fast rules about where and when this should apply, and how much avoidance and minimisation is enough to reduce biodiversity impacts to an acceptable level. There are also inherent risks for project approval if the impact hierarchy is not sufficiently considered in the project design. Several legal precedents exist for projects that have been refused as they did not sufficiently consider the impact hierarchy or provide adequate justification for why it could not be implemented.
We think that there will be a renewed focus in the near future from decision-makers to adequately consider the impact hierarchy and require proponents to clearly outline the avoidance, minimisation and mitigation measures that have gone into the design and project environmental management plans, before offsetting will be considered.
“Our reform of environmental protection laws will look at improvements to offsetting arrangements. The Samuel Review made a number of recommendations about offsets – and we’ll take these as our starting point. We’ll make sure that offsets are used appropriately – after every effort has been made to avoid and mitigate the environmental impacts of the project. We want to make every effort to avoid environmental harm, before resorting to compensation for harm. And if offsets are required, we need absolute confidence that projects are delivering the intended biodiversity benefits – and will continue to do so in perpetuity, or for as long as required. A credible market for biodiversity can provide this confidence. As well as Graeme Samuel’s advice, we will closely follow the findings from Chris Bowen’s review of carbon credits, and the ACCC’s review of water markets. Because we know that markets are only as strong as the trust and integrity that underwrite them.”
Excerpt from National Biodiversity Offset Conference address, Minister for the Environment and Water, the Honorable Tanya Plibersek MP