Environment to-do list: five ministerial priorities for Tanya Plibersek | Environment

There was surprise last week when Tanya Plibersek was announced as Australia’s new environment and water minister. The portfolio, which had been held by Terri Butler in opposition before she lost her seat, comes with a long list of unaddressed challenges.

Here are five that Plibersek will face as she gets up to speed in her new role.

Fixing environment laws

Not many things are universally accepted in Australian public life, but there is wide agreement that the national environment laws are failing to protect the country’s unique natural heritage.

An official review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act by Graeme Samuel, the former consumer watchdog chief, found the laws were failing and the environment was in unsustainable decline. The auditor general has twice come to similar conclusions.

The framework of the act, which leaves decisions on what qualifies as a minimum level of protection almost entirely to the environment minister of the day, was questionable when the legislation was introduced in 1999 and makes less sense in 2022. Australia is the global leader in mammal extinction, and the number of at-risk species has grown significantly while the law has been in place.

The new minister has no shortage of advice to draw on when she decides how to respond. First and foremost, there are 38 recommendations from Samuel that the previous government did not respond to, including introducing national environmental standards against which major developments must be assessed..

Labor went to the election with a minimal position on the EPBC Act, promising only to respond in full to the Samuel review. That response will be the best early indication of Plibersek’s plans.

It will be measured alongside the findings of the five-yearly state of the environment report, a major assessment of nature across the country. The Coalition sat on the report before the election, refusing to release it despite having received it in December. Releasing it should be one of Plibersek’s first actions as minister.

Forest destruction and the extinction crisis

The recent listing of the koala as endangered is a high-profile example of the combined impact of forest destruction and bushfires on Australia’s native wildlife. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Past environment ministers often spoke about the need to strike the right balance between protecting the environment and permitting sustainable development, but the evidence shows governments have rarely made nature a priority.

Changing that would require taking a national view on land clearing and working with the states, which have most responsibility for approving agricultural and urban expansion and native forest logging, to reduce the impact. The recent listing of the koala as endangered is just one high-profile example of the combined impact of forest destruction and bushfires on Australia’s native wildlife.

There are several steps Plibersek could take quickly. They include reversing a decision by her predecessor, Sussan Ley, to abolish recovery plans for 176 threatened species and habitats, restoring lost funding and cultural status to the environment department and its programs after years of it being devalued, and tackling the threat posed by invasive species.

Scientists and environment groups estimate between $1.5bn and $2bn a year, a relatively small commitment in terms of the overall budget, could help endangered wildlife recover. For some of the most imperilled animals, the extra conservation work required would not amount to much at all.

Factoring in the climate crisis

Approval of coal and gas mines will almost certainly receive renewed attention in this term of parliament. Photograph: David Gray/Reuters

Climate change policy is not Plibersek’s responsibility – it sits with Chris Bowen – but there is an urgent challenge to help species and ecosystems deal with the changes they are already experiencing.

In terms of development approvals, there is no climate test – no “greenhouse trigger” – in the EPBC Act. It means the minister does not have to consider the contribution a coal or gas development will make to increasing global heating before approving it.

This became a point of focus last year when, in a landmark ruling, the federal court found the minister had a common law duty of care to protect young people against future harm from the climate crisis when she considered a proposed coalmine expansion.

The judgment was short-lived – Ley appealed and it was overturned by the court’s full bench – but scientists, lawyers and activists said it highlighted a gaping hole in the national environmental architecture.

Approval of coal and gas mines will almost certainly receive renewed attention in this term of parliament, as the Greens will hold the balance of power in the Senate and have made stopping new coal and gas developments their main priority.

Questions for Plibersek will include whether she will approve fossil fuel projects that come across her desk, how she will justify them if she does – including to her inner-city Sydney electorate – and whether any changes to the act will be meaningful if they do not include a test of a development’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Creating an EPA

In one of its last commitments before election day, Labor promised to establish an independent environment protection agency to enforce national conservation laws and collect data on the health of wildlife.

Plibersek will have the job of working out how the new agency will work.

The idea isn’t new. Conservation groups have long called for an independent regulator, legal scholars have released a proposed model, and Labor pledged before the 2019 election to create an EPA that would “make sure we are no longer the extinction capital of the world and make sure when projects need an answer they get one”.

Its commitment this time appears based on Samuel’s recommendation that an office be created with independent oversight of compliance and a “custodian” be appointed to address major gaps in information and monitoring.

An early question for Plibersek will be whether an EPA will be independent in name only, or be created as a stand-alone statutory authority protected under law. There will also be questions about funding and the extent of its powers.

At the moment, the default policy is to approve projects using environmental offsetting, meaning developers must compensate for the habitat destruction they cause.

In practice, offsets have been poorly monitored. An investigation by Guardian Australia uncovered several cases where offsets were never implemented or were carried out on land that was already protected.

It would be reasonable to expect an EPA would be empowered to address this. A key related question is whether it will be asked to consider if the heavy reliance on offsets is delivering what the country needs or, as the auditor general found, their management is worsening the plight of threatened species.

The Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef
The world will be watching to see if the new government, as the reef’s custodian, can advocate more forcefully for its future in international forums. Photograph: J Sumerling/AP

The Albanese government will need to show it has a plan to protect Australia’s “iconic” natural places, including the Great Barrier Reef.

The Coalition took an aggressive approach to stop the United Nations putting the reef on its world heritage status “in danger” list. Labor has said it will continue Australia’s stance against such a move. What this means in practice could become clear in the next few weeks.

Australia is no longer on Unesco’s world heritage committee that makes the decision, so some leverage has been lost.

Later this month Unesco is expected to release a report from a UN monitoring mission to the reef that took place in March. The mission was carried out during the fourth mass coral bleaching on the reef in seven years. Its report will not make recommendations about the reef’s status, but will assess its health and the measures in place to protect it.

A question for the Albanese government is whether it will accept that Australia’s climate policies should be considered when the world heritage committee makes a decision on any future “in danger” recommendation.

Unesco will make draft recommendations to the world heritage committee on the reef before the next meeting – a date has not yet been set for it.

The reef is one of Australia’s most recognizable natural wonders, known the world over. The world will be watching to see if the new government, as the reef’s custodian, can advocate more forcefully for its future in international forums.

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