Review of environment laws calls for urgent reform

The Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) has described the final review of national environment laws as a brutally honest assessment of the failure of the law to act to protect our oceans
Australia’s environment law is meant to protect unique World Heritage listed sites, such as the Great Barrier Reef and Ningaloo – Photo by Stuart Hamilton

The Final Report by Professor Graeme Samuel is part of a 10-year statutory review of Australia’s environment law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999. The final report was provided to the Morrison Government in October 2020 and has just been released publicly.

“The conclusions and recommendations made by Professor Samuel read like a call to arms if we are to turn the tide for Australia’s unique and internationally significant oceans and lands,” said Tooni Mahto, Campaign Manager at AMCS.

“The Morrison Government has a unique opportunity and an urgent responsibility to heed the warnings in the report and take the necessary actions to reform our environment law to stem the extinction and climate crises.”

The law is meant to protect unique World Heritage listed sites, such as the Great Barrier Reef and Ningaloo, the Commonwealth marine environment, as well as protect, rebuild and recover species threatened by extinction.

“Our laws are failing the species and ecosystems they are designed to protect. The Final Report doesn’t shy away from the starkness of the choice at hand: the government either fundamentally reforms our laws to actually work, or we will continue to witness the decline of our precious and valuable wildlife and wild places,” said Mahto.

The foundation of the recommendations in the Final Report are a draft set of legally enforceable National Environmental Standards. The report also provides welcome recommendations for an assurance framework to support implementation of the standards, such as improved monitoring of compliance with the Act, greater deterrents for compliance breaches and improved independence in decision making.

“The Morrison Government remains set on progressing with devolving environmental decisions to the states and territories that currently have weaker environmental laws than the Commonwealth. Professor Samuel puts front and centre the need for the right, strong and independent frameworks and standards to be in place to ensure decision making is about environmental protection and does not facilitate a rushing through of harmful developments,” said Mahto.

While the report does not recommend climate action be addressed in the EPBC Act, the Final Report does recommend the full emissions profile of developments be transparent, as well as considering the effectiveness of emissions mitigation measures on matters protected under the EPBC Act, such as the Great Barrier Reef.

“Warming waters as a result of climate change is the single biggest threat to our oceans, as harshly evidenced by three mass bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef in 5 years. We support the need for the public to be given the full picture of the damaging emissions of new developments, as part of the decision-making process about whether those developments should proceed.”

“Professor Samuel has set out a road map with clear details as to how we can change the course of environmental protection. The question now is whether the Morrison Government will heed yet more stark warnings on the state of the environment and take the steps necessary to protect our oceans and lands for the sake of the environment and future generations.

“Australians cherish our natural environment and expect Australia to be a beacon of environmental custodianship,” said Mahto.

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