Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, August 2011
A healthy environment is essential for a sustainable Australia. The Australian Government’s reform of national environment law—the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999—will ensure better and smarter environmental protection into the future.
Looking at the big picture
Currently, national environment law is more reactive, and most projects are assessed individually, rather than on a regional scale. This makes it hard to properly consider cumulative impacts on the environment, and to identify and avoid potential environmental risks upfront.
The Australian Government wants to ensure national environment law is more strategic, focusing on matters of national environmental significance, and operating in a way that complements state and territory regulatory systems.
This will be done through greater use of strategic approaches, such as regional environment plans, strategic assessments, and regional recovery plans.
Rather than dealing with individual projects in isolation, strategic approaches look at linkages and cumulative environmental impacts across whole regions, while also considering social and economic issues.
They allow all levels of government, industry and the community to work together to look at short–term and long–term environmental planning issues in the context of ecologically sustainable development.
Strategic approaches will more effectively protect habitats and the animals that depend on them. Identifying and avoiding likely environmental impacts early in the process is much more effective and economical than trying to fix damage after it has occurred.
Better protection of our most important environmental assets
In consultation with states and territories, nationally significant ecosystems will be added as a trigger to national environment law, to ensure our healthiest and most important environmental assets are protected in the long term. This will complement existing protection for threatened ecological communities and iconic heritage places such as the Great Barrier Reef.
An ecosystem is a whole environmental system, including all its natural features—plants, animals, micro–organisms, soil and water—and how they interact with each other. Ecosystems of national significance will be listed because their high natural values are important for our long–term future, rather than because they are threatened.
Listing of these ecosystems will only be done as part of a comprehensive assessment under a strategic approach—such as a strategic assessment, regional environment plan or conservation agreement—and will take into account economic, social and environmental considerations. Once an ecosystem is listed, any activity likely to have a significant impact will need federal approval. But in most cases, approval will be straightforward if it complies with the plan endorsed by the Minister.
Clearer policy and expectations
The Australian Government is releasing a biodiversity policy for public consultation; this is another major step in protecting Australia's environment on a large scale. Once finalised, this policy will provide a framework that will guide future actions to protect our biodiversity.
The Government is also releasing for public consultation its proposed environmental offsets policy, which will ensure a clear and principles–based approach to securing valuable habitats as an offset for the unavoidable impact of development.
The Government has also initiated a national discussion with state and territory governments to develop national consistency in approaches to environmental offsets, including biodiversity banking schemes.
Where impacts are unavoidable, developers will either have to secure appropriate replacement habitat, or fund improved management of existing protected areas. This provides an opportunity for landholders to gain an income for protecting and restoring valuable areas of biodiversity.
Putting a value on biodiversity recognises its importance to the future of our nation, and ensures we don't take the crucial services it provides for granted.