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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Adam Morton Climate and environment editor

New Australian environment laws would not stop widespread deforestation, organisations say

Australian Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek
The concerns are consistent with some of those raised by nine environment groups in a letter to the environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, in September. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

New national environment laws being developed by the Albanese government fail to address systemic flaws in the existing system and would continue to allow widespread deforestation, according to three organisations familiar with the plans.

Officials representing the environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, have been sharing sections of draft conservation laws to be introduced this year in consultation meetings with conservation, business and other groups.

Three organisations involved in the meetings said the draft legislation did not go far enough to stop large-scale deforestation for agriculture and mining developments, or explicitly reference the need to halt the decline in threatened species, which has accelerated.

In a statement ahead of the latest consultation meeting on Thursday, Environmental Justice Australia, the Wilderness Society and Environment Centre Northern Territory called for the introduction of a “land-clearing trigger” so developments that planned to bulldoze significant pieces of land had to be assessed by federal authorities, and not left to the states and territories.

The organisations welcomed the government’s commitment to establish Environment Protection Australia – a national EPA – but said they were concerned after seeing the drafts that the environment minister of the day had discretion to “call in” decisions that should be left to independent experts at the EPA.

Danya Jacobs, a lawyer with Environmental Justice Australia, said the proposed legislation risked continuing a decades-long practice of environment being “undermined by political interference from the mining, logging, and agricultural sectors”.

“One of our primary concerns is around the potential for important decisions to be influenced by political agendas rather than scientific evidence,” she said.

Jacobs said the draft laws were silent on land-clearing. “It’s just not good enough. We’re in an extinction crisis and Australia is a deforestation hotspot,” she said.

The executive director of the Environment Centre NT, Kristy Howey, said a lack of federal oversight over land-clearing had resulted in NT’s savannah being bulldozed for cotton farming, other agriculture and mining. “The Albanese government has talked a big game when it comes to fixing the nature crisis, but as they currently stand the new laws won’t fix the rampant land clearing happening across Australia.”

A spokesperson for Plibersek said the government was undertaking a thorough consultation on what would be “strong new environment laws”, and that feedback from environment and business groups would be considered.

The three organisations’ concerns are consistent with some of those raised by nine environment groups in a letter to Plibersek in September. Community groups including Lock the Gate have previously called for the inclusion of a “climate lever” – wording that would allow the minister to consider a development’s impact on greenhouse gas emissions – and criticised a proposal that could allow projects to go ahead in return for proponents making “restoration payments”. The groups described this as a “pay to destroy” scheme.

The new laws are intended to replace the 25-year-old Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. Plibersek promised sweeping law reform shortly after taking on the environment ministry in 2022. She released a five-yearly national state of the environment report that found Australia’s environment was in poor and deteriorating health, with at least 19 ecosystems showing signs of collapse or near collapse.

Environment department officials told a public webinar in November that the new laws would be “outcomes focused” and guided by new environmental standards. The introduction of standards against which developments can be benchmarked was recommended in a highly critical official review of the EPBC Act by Graeme Samuel, a former head of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

The officials told the webinar the national EPA would be responsible for decisions on whether a development could proceed and for enforcing the law, and that the environment minister would be able to issue a statement of expectations but could not specifically direct the agency.

Appearing on 10 News on Wednesday, Plibersek was asked about the arrest of the former Greens leader Bob Brown for trespass in a logging areas near the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area this week. She said federal environment laws could protect native forests and confirmed the new laws be applied to regional forestry agreements between the federal and state governments – a change from the EPBC Act.

Plibersek said about 90% of Australian timber came from plantations but the government was “not talking about banning native forest logging altogether”. “We’re talking about making sure that we are careful and thoughtful about the timber industry that we have in Australia,” she said.

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