2 July 2020
Q&A: WHAT IS THE EPBC ACT AND WHAT’S IT MEANT TO PROTECT?
Australia's nature laws are currently undergoing a once-in-10 year review.
We've already lost so much in the fires - help us advocate for stronger nature laws before it's too late.
There’s so much to cherish when it comes to Australia’s environment. Our continent is blessed with a diversity of natural landscapes, including ancient rainforests, majestic coasts, vibrant reefs, sweeping plains, magnificent mountains and so much more.
Our natural landscapes are also home to a diverse range of wildlife found nowhere else in the world. Before travel restrictions, people all over the planet would visit Australia to meet our iconic animals, like koalas, wallabies, colourful birds and possums the size of your finger.
Unfortunately, Australia also has a terrible track record in protecting our wildlife and our wild places. We have the worst mammal extinction rate of any country in the world and in the last decade, three of our native species were lost to extinction.
With the recent catastrophic bushfires impacting nearly 3 billion animals and destroying over 12 million hectares of habitat, many more of our precious wildlife species are being pushed further to the brink of extinction.
Right now, our national nature laws (known as the EPBC Act) are under review by the Australian Government. But what exactly is the EPBC Act? What’s it meant to protect? And will the review actually help end Australia’s extinction crisis?
What is the EPBC Act?
The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 is Australia’s national environmental legislation. It’s the main law which focuses on protecting and conserving the country’s important environmental ecosystems, including significant wildlife, plants, habitats and places.
These laws came into force on 16 July 2000 and every ten years the act undergoes a statutory, independent review.
What should the EPBC Act do?
The EPBC Act is tasked with environmental and heritage protection, and the conservation and sustainable use of Australia’s natural resources.
The act exists as a legal framework to balance the protection of our environment with society’s economic and social needs. Using this framework, the Australian Government can decide what requires listing for national protection, for example:
- assess whether a species or ecosystem has declined to the point where it requires protection.
- fulfil its international obligations, including to protect World Heritage Sites and Wetlands of International Importance which conserve biodiversity (including habitat for migratory birds that may fly 13,000 km to get there).
It also considers the impacts of any new developments and changes in land use, including destroying habitat for agricultural development, urban expansions and mining. The act provides a framework for determining whether these projects should be approved, based on an assessment of whether they constitute a significant impact on what the act protects.
What does the EPBC Act cover?
The EPBC Act currently covers nine matters of national environmental significance. These are:
- World Heritage Sites i.e. Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu, Macquarie Island etc.
- National Heritage Sites
- Wetlands of international importance
- Nationally threatened species and ecological communities
- Migratory species
- Commonwealth marine areas
- The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
- Nuclear actions
- A water resource relating to coal seam gas development and large coal mining development
How many species are listed under the EPBC Act?
There are more than 1,700 species of plants, animals and ecological communities listed as threatened under the EPBC Act. This includes 518 species of wildlife. These species are categorised under conservation dependent, vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered, extinct in the wild and extinct.
Some of Australia’s most iconic species are on the list, including koalas, black-flanked rock-wallabies and greater gliders. Rare birds like the regent honeyeater and swift parrot also appear on the list as they too are on the brink.
Is the EPBC Act working?
The EPBC Act has a lot of potential, but it has not been realised. In the last 20 years since the laws passed there have been countless reports of how the EPBC Act has failed to protect the environment.
For example, in the last two decades, more than 7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat has been destroyed.
The law requires that any new projects that may impact on Australia’s natural environment or heritage or involve Commonwealth land require approval from the federal, state or territory governments before proceeding. This includes mining and property development. Yet in NSW and Qld alone, more than 1 million hectares were cleared for agriculture without EPBC Act authorisation, showing how little compliance there is, despite the laws.
The act also includes exemptions, like Regional Forest Agreements for the logging industry, that are supposed to provide equivalent protection, but don’t as the recent Australian Federal Court decision proved in the case of VicForests destroying critical habitat for greater gliders and leadbeater’s possums.
On top of this, environment funding has been slashed by nearly a third since the Coalition won the election in 2013. The areas worst hit are those set out to protect declining animal populations.
Recently, the EPBC Act’s administration received a seriously bad report card in the independent Australian National Audit Office’s report - being found as neither effective nor efficient.
The environmental laws that were put in place to protect Australia’s wildlife and our wild places have failed them.
What is recommended in the EPBC Act Interim report?
The EPBC Act interim report was released on 20 July 2020 and led by Professor Graeme Samuel AC and supported by a panel of experts.
The report outlines the review’s preliminary recommendations, which include establishing a new independent compliance and enforcement regulator to combat major enforcement issues with the act.
However, the Australian Federal Government swiftly rejected this proposal. The rejection of this key recommendation is alarming news and puts Australian wildlife at risk. An ‘independent cop’ is needed to strengthen our environmental laws and ensure these laws are actually enforced. Without this, we could accelerate Australia’s worsening extinction crisis, especially after the devastating bushfires that impacted nearly 3 billion native animals.
The interim report also called for clearer national environmental standards to support faster and lower-cost assessments and approvals and ensure everyone understands their legal requirements under the EPBC Act.
The final report is due in October 2020.
Why is it so important now, more than ever, to strengthen our environmental laws?
Australia experienced one of its most catastrophic bushfire seasons in the country’s history. The bushfires during the summer of 2019-20 destroyed more than 12 million hectares of forest and bushland and nearly 3 billion animals were affected. So much was lost, and the impacts will be felt for years to come.
As our forests begin to recover, there has never been a more important time to ensure our environmental laws are strengthened so we can restore what’s been lost and protect what’s left.
Australia already has the worst rate of mammal extinction than any other country in the world. We’ve already lost three native species in the last ten years, and the latest bushfire catastrophe has pushed many more to the brink and are at risk of disappearing forever.
What can we do to protect Australia’s threatened wildlife and their habitat?
Everyone has a part to play to ensure Australia’s natural environment is protected for generations to come. Every action makes a huge difference.
Some things you can do to help:
- Write a letter to your local MP demanding stronger laws and compliance and better funding to ensure our laws do what they are meant to do - protect Australia’s threatened wildlife and special places.
- Learn more about what the EPBC Act protects in and around your area by using the Protected Matters Tool.
- Plant native trees to help create a wildlife-friendly oasis as we work towards Two Billion Trees.
- Share stories! There are so many unique Australian wildlife and beautiful places that people might not know about but need protecting. By sharing stories and personal experiences of what nature means to you, you’re helping to give a voice to those that have none.
The EPBC Act review only happens once every ten years so this is our opportunity to make sure our nature laws do what they’re supposed to do - protect and conserve our natural environment. The situation will only change with the political will to do so.
Will you send a message to your local politician, asking for stronger laws and stronger compliance to protect our vulnerable wildlife?