Net-zero extinctions: New EPA to play “tough cop” on emissions – but not all of them

tanya plibersek nature plan
Plibersek announces the government’s response to the review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (AAP Image/Russell Freeman)

New fossil fuel projects will have to run their Scope 1 and 2 emissions past a “tough new cop on the beat,” with the establishment of a new federal Environment Protection Agency announced by the Albanese government.

Federal environment minister Tanya Plibersek on Thursday launched the government’s Nature Positive Plan, in response to the findings of Graeme Samuel’s review into the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Plibersek says the review found that Australia’s environment laws are “broken,” thanks to an EPBC Act that is outdated and requires fundamental reform.

Quoting Samuel’s report, the minister said “nature’s being destroyed, businesses are waiting too long for decisions. That’s bad for everyone, and it has to change.”

In answer to Samuel’s findings, Plibersek says Labor will introduce a set of National Environment Standards and a new Environmental Protection Agency to enforce them.

“These changes, baked into law will be a net improvement in nature, not just the defense of the status quo,” Plibersek said at the launch of the new plan.

“That’s our vision for Australia. Net Zero and nature positive. It’s our commitment to net zero carbon pollution by 2050. And zero new extinctions.”

A big part of the job of the new EPA will be to enforce the transparent disclosure of Scope 1 and 2 emissions from projects, which will have to fit into the safeguards mechanism currently being finalised by energy minister Chris Bowen.

As the Climate Council notes, this is “the first time harmful greenhouse gases must be explicitly considered under Federal environmental law,” so it’s a big step forwards.

But not all emissions are taken into account. In what the Climate Council describes as “a major oversight,” the new rules won’t account for the impact of Australian fossil fuels burned overseas, or Scope 3 emissions.

“Any new coal and gas projects opened in Australia will contribute to even more severe disasters and ultimately increase the burden communities and ecosystems are already facing as they get slammed time and time again,” says Climate Council director of research Simon Bradshaw.

“The test for this term is how the Albanese government ensures harmful emissions are fully assessed and regulated for major project proposals.

“For coal and gas which are fuelling the climate crisis, that means assessing emissions at every point from their extraction through to use,” Bradshaw says.

“Australia needs to throw everything we’ve got at tackling the climate crisis. That means we cannot leave this major gap for new fossil fuel projects to waltz on through.”

The absence of any mention of a “climate trigger” being part of the new standards has also been criticised, as a free pass to coal and gas projects to keep polluting.

“We are disappointed that we don’t see today, reflected today a climate trigger in what’s proposed,” said Paul Sinclair, the Australian Conservation Foundation’s director of campaigns.

“A climate trigger would assess the damage that’s been done by burning coal and gas on the amazing places of Australia, from the Great Barrier Reef in the east to the Ningaloo Reef in the west, to the seagrass meadows in the south, and to the wetlands of the north.

“Australia’s environmental law is busted and mistrusted,” Sinclair added. “Having a Minister willing to fix a broken system is a great thing, and we are appreciative of that endeavour.

“There’s a heap more detail to work through over the next six months. We’re really excited and optimistic … that we can work together to create a strong, positive national environmental law, the best that this country has ever had.”

Sinclair also stresses the importance of incorporating all sectors in the new standards,  including the native forest logging sector, which he said has been excluded from national environment laws “at great expense to species and some of the world’s greatest forests.”

The Australian Greens say the Albanese government is moving in the right direction, but lacks the sense of urgency needed to match the reforms called for by Samuel.

“The Greens will not be rubber stamping this legislative reform and will be pushing the Albanese government to go harder and faster to protect our environment,” said Greens environment spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young.

“There is nothing in this package to save our iconic koala. There is nothing in this package to protect our native forests.

“There is no climate trigger, indeed there is very little to address the impact of the climate crisis on the environment at all. The Minister also retains far too much power to influence environmental approvals with no truly independent cop-on-the-beat.”

Independent Senator David Pocock says that, without having all of the details of Labor’s plan, “it’s a great thing to have an environment minister that is committed to turning things around.

“Clearly our environmental laws are not working and minister Plibersek has committed to no new extinctions, which is a huge commitment and is going to take reforming environmental law, having an independent agency but then crucially, having the kind of investment in nature, investment in conservation it is necessary to actually deliver on that promise,” Pocock said.

“I will wait for the details – this is a really big piece of work and as the minister said earlier, there isn’t the fine details yet, that will happen over next year – but we have to ensure that we look back on 2023 as a year that we did turn things around,” he said.

Plibersek says the details of the design of the standards are something the government will “continue to work through” with stakeholders over coming months.

The goal is to have draft legislation prepared by the middle of 2023, and introduced to parliament before the end of that year.

“This is an exciting Australia first, and it delivers on an important promise that we made during the election to have a strong independent EPA, a tough cop on the beat, that is operating at arm’s length from government,” Plibersek said.

Get up to 3 quotes from pre-vetted solar (and battery) installers.