Like Barry Jones, many people are also noting that the “Comparison of Australian Government’s approach to tackling coronavirus and its failure to act decisively to mitigate the nation’s contribution to climate change has been very striking”.
The government accepts the medical evidence on Covid-19, but not on climate change, the biggest global health threat of the 21st century, causing about 300,000 deaths annually with vast health, environmental and economic harms.
While the government is struggling to understand how climate change can exist, children have marched in the hundreds of thousands demanding a liveable future.
However a ten year review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC) is taking place, providing some hope for new laws to disable the upward trajectory of fossil fuel projects and the demise of our natural environment.
The EPBC Act
The current EPBC Act provides a legal framework seeking to protect and manage nationally and internationally important flora, fauna, ecological communities and heritage places—defined as nine matters of national environmental significance.
There is compelling evidence that the Act has failed as exemplified most recently by the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science at University of Queensland estimating that 93% of over 7.7 million hectares of potential habitat and ecological communities were cleared by the states between 2000 and 2017 with minimal EPBC scrutiny.
Only one of the nine matters has apparent relevance to fossil fuel developments, namely “a water resource, in relation to coal seam gas development and large coal mining development”.
Under the division of powers within the Australian Constitution, states have primary responsibility for environmental protection.
The federal minister cannot intervene in a proposal if it is deemed to have no significant impact on any of the nine matters, even if there are other undesirable environmental impacts.
Nor can the minister regulate a proposal that will impact on air quality, noise, pollution or water, unless it falls into the purview of the Independent Expert Scientific Committee.
The EPBC has failed to address climate change as the main driver of loss of biodiversity for it has not constrained massively expanding gas and coal exports and emissions driving an unsustainable Australia and world. These emissions are driven by state approvals of resource projects which in many cases are conflicted by their need for revenue.
The EPBC Act is also health legislation
The EPBC Act fails to recognize that its decisions directly impact on human health and the ecosystem services that our health, safety and wellbeing depend on. These include a stable climate, clean air, and a safe and sufficient supply of water and healthy food.
Throughout Australia many already vulnerable communities are suffering pollution, noise and water quality and security issues which avoid national standards, because of inadequate laws and assessment.
The opening statement of “The Health Factor: ignored by industry, overlooked by government” (Doctors for the Environment Australia, 2013) paints a picture that continues today.
…..”The rapid expansion of the coal and unconventional gas industries has not only created widespread community concern over health and environmental issues but it has exposed the inadequate processes whereby governments impose developments which in their view are in the interest of economic development”…..
The Report documented a litany of failures in approval processes of major projects and their monitoring often causing potential and realized environmental and human health problems for example those at the Acland coal mine in Queensland which still continue with requests for expansion.
Frequent documentation of malfeasances continues, this week with regulatory failures in the prevention of water pollution from mining, approval of gas exploration rights in the Lake Eyre Basin against expert advice and logging of bushfire burned forest in New South Wales.
That the EPBC has overseen environmental decline for 10 years under several governments indicates that environmental protection remains a low priority.
The current review of the EPBC Act led by Professor Graeme Samuel takes place during recurrent cries by governments to reduce ‘green tape’ and grow fossil fuels.
The Review Discussion Paper poses unsettling givens:
“What the future looks like”
“it is important that this review ensures its recommendations are fit for the future”.
While we certainly agree, no mention of the biodiversity and climate crises follows.
“Pressure on the environment will increase”
“While the full extent of climate change impacts on the environment is difficult to determine, CSIRO and BOM indicate that these changes can have a very significant impact on ecosystems, and that widespread ecological change is likely unavoidable”
“The economy will continue to grow”
This section includes the statement “These global economic trends are likely to create opportunities for the Australian economy, and increase the pressure on our environment”.
We have deep concerns that the Government’s message to Professor Samuel is clear- steady as she goes please – this is a growth economy and it must be powered by more fossil fuels.
We need New Environmental laws
The government has followed a medical and scientific consensus prescription to successfully control the Covid -19 crisis.
The lesson must be learned- that in our increasingly complex world, governments must govern using independent scientific opinion. This requires national institutions to be protected from Trump-like ideological destruction as is the case with the USEPA.
One such option is a Blueprint for the next generation of Australian environmental laws (2017) developed by the Australian Panel of Experts on Environmental Law “with the aim of ensuring a healthy, functioning and resilient environment for generations to come”.
“A truly national approach to environmental protection would build on the Federal Government’s capacity to bring constitutional authority and substantial resources to environmental governance and would better enable Australia to arrest its environmental demise and meet its international responsibilities on climate change”.
This call for national strategic leadership by the Commonwealth on environmental matters, would establish:
(1) an independent National Sustainability Commission to set national environmental standards, undertake strategic regional planning and report on national environmental performance, and
(2) an independent National Environmental Protection Authority that operates at arm’s-length from Government to conduct transparent environmental assessments and inquiries as well as to undertake monitoring, compliance and enforcement actions.
These new laws should have a statutory basis as we must have security for our environment and health.
Dr David Shearman AM FRACP is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University
Dr Melissa Haswell is Professor of Environmental Wellbeing at Sydney University (from 5 May) and Professor of Health, Safety and Environment at Queensland University of Technology