Politics Opinion

Plibersek's plan poor on its promise of positivity

By | | comments |
Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek launched the Nature Positive Plan in response to a review of the EPBC Act (Screenshot via YouTube)

The Labor Government has released a new environmental plan that fails to truly grasp the real impact of the global climate crisis. Sue Arnold reports.

ENVIRONMENT MINISTER Tanya Plibersek has released her Nature Positive Plan. For critics and many environmentally concerned, the heading ‘better for the environment, better for business’ suggests an unavoidable conflict of interests.

Without any economic value being attributed to ecosystems, biodiversity and forests, the environment continues to take second place at a time the Earth is facing devastating consequences of climate change and biodiversity loss.

The only environmental economic value in Plibersek’s plan is expressed in the environmental offsets statements:

Where a proponent is unable to find or secure “like for like” offsets, the proponent will be able to make a conservation payment. 


Conservation payments will be sufficient to achieve a net positive environmental outcome. This will establish a clear price signal and give proponents an effective incentive to avoid and mitigate environmental impacts from their projects.

Offsets are a disaster. A 2018 Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) project referral by the Queensland Department of Education at Coomera valued non-juvenile koala feed trees on the site at $920 per tree. The number of trees impacted amounted to a financial offset of $1,685,440.  

A couple of million dollars in payments does nothing to ensure the survival of resident koalas. Loss of habitat leads to mortality. Translocation is hampered by exponentially shrinking habitat.

The logic of destroying irreplaceable habitat and species mortality by “saving” somewhere else defies explanation. A lack of transparency and auditing of existing offsets has not been addressed.

Given the legacy of the 2019-2020 catastrophic bushfires and the ongoing significant issues relevant to climate change impacts, the plan can best be described as an improvement on the Morrison Government's record of destruction.

According to the plan, the Government’s reform agenda will be guided by three essential principles:

  • Delivering better environmental protection and laws that are nature positive.
  • Speeding up decisions and making it easier for companies to do the right thing.
  • Restoring integrity and trust to systems and environmental laws.

Apparently, ‘nature positive’ is a term used to describe circumstances where nature – species and ecosystems – is being repaired and is regenerating rather than being in decline.

The reality of Australia’s environmental situation is a grim one. The loss of over 3 billion animals, birds and invertebrates has created a holocaust of crises. Issues that need to be dealt with on an emergency basis.

The losses were extraordinary. Professor Chris Dickman, lead author of a WWF report on the bushfire crisis, estimated the death toll:

  • 143 million mammals;
  • 2.46 billion reptiles;
  • 180 million birds; and
  • 51 billion frogs.

More recent reports by WWF estimate as many as 60,00 koalas died.

Recent research documented evidence of the collapse of 19 ecosystems. Impacts on riparian zones, freshwater fish, soil and invertebrates were significant and have not been adequately addressed. 

The plan indicates that legislation to be introduced will establish standards that ‘will need to be capable of amendment to provide for changing, unforeseen or emergency scenarios’.

The precautionary principle, enshrined in section 391 of the EPBC Act, is defined as:

‘If there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reasoning for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.’

Professor Graeme Samuel’s review also highlighted the importance of the principle. Yet there’s no mention in the plan. Clearly, there need to be emergency plans made for the kinds of disasters that floods, drought and catastrophic bushfires present.  

One of the most critical steps, which is not addressed in the plan, is to include a climate trigger in any development applications. The evidence of climate impacts on this ancient continent is now impossible to ignore. Developments that will create significant carbon emissions must be assessed and potentially denied approval.  

Globally, climate change and biodiversity loss are grave issues ensuring humanity’s ongoing survival or collective suicide as described by the recent UN Climate Conference in Egypt.

Then there are the forests. Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) which were signed off in 2018 with a 20-year approval contain an exemption from Part 3 of the EPBC Act, ‘Requirements relating to matters of national environmental significance’.

Under the plan, the Government will ‘work with stakeholders and relevant jurisdictions towards applying National Environmental Standards to Regional Forest Agreements
to support their ongoing operation together with stronger environmental protection’

There’s abundant evidence stakeholders have breached existing national and environmental standards, particularly in NSW and Victorian state forests. Native forests are being industrially logged, with no commitment from the Federal Government to ensure forests must not be burnt for “green” energy.  

What’s the economic worth of a native forest? A study by Frontier Economics in 2021 estimated that stopping native forestry in the southern and Eden RFA would produce a net economic benefit to the state of approximately $60 million, while reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by almost 1 million tonnes per year over the period of 2022-2041.

Surely, this research should be an injunction for the Albanese Government to undertake a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis estimating the benefits of ending native forest logging and carbon offset gains.

Let’s not forget the common assessment method (CAM) continues to rear its ugly head, with every indication that the Government intends to keep this memorandum of understanding between the Commonwealth and states in place. Developed by former Liberal Environment Minister Greg Hunt in 2015, the CAM provides for “harmonising” threatened species with one national listing.

The plan states:

‘New environmental laws will enable the Australian Government to recognise jurisdictional assessments and the listing of threatened species and ecological communities.’

If jurisdictional assessments are translated to mean state governments make the decision to list threatened species and ecological communities, there’s little hope given the current crop of state premiers. 

Environmental organisations and community groups need legislation that would provide an opportunity to challenge state governments’ failures to list the relevant species. The CAM does not provide for regional listings. Without the ability to list regionally threatened species, the CAM makes no ecological sense.

Bilateral agreements between the states and commonwealth are to be “streamlined” to allow states, territories and Commonwealth agencies to become accredited under national environmental law providing a single decision-maker for the project.  

An independent Environment Protection Agency (EPA) will be established but the complexities involved in the legal role versus bilateral agreements will need to be explored.

Existing bilateral agreements which allow a slightly weaker process demonstrate no evidence of state governments ensuring the protection of threatened species in making assessments in line with the EPBC Act requirements.  

Finally, we have a commitment to protect 30 per cent of lands and waters by 2030. Without any breakdown of who gets what, cutting this projection in half allows for 15 per cent of lands to be protected — a commitment that is essentially meaningless.

The plan is open for discussion and comments. Whether major changes, recognising and acting on the environmental crises besetting this ancient continent, are adopted remains to be seen. It is a big step forward to start funding the Environmental Defenders Offices once more. Ensuring public citizen challenges to all federal government decisions is critical.

Sue Arnold is an IA columnist and freelance investigative journalist. You can follow Sue on Twitter @koalacrisis.

Related Articles

Support independent journalism Subscribe to IA.

Recent articles by Sue Arnold
Media's censorship of major issue in pre-election NSW appalling

Mainstream media is censoring a major NSW election issue as industrial logging of ...  
Perrottet Government remains ignorant as NSW forests vanish

Despite grim assessments by environmental scientists, the NSW Government continues ...  
Population overload: Environment on brink for economic 'growth'

The battle over how many billion humans planet Earth can safely carry is growing ...  
Join the conversation
comments powered by Disqus

Support IAIndependent Australia

Subscribe to IA and investigate Australia today.

Close Subscribe Donate