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Towards zero extinctions: Updated environmental policy in Australia

11 October 2022

5 min read

#Planning, Environment & Sustainability, #Property, Planning & Development

Published by:

Christopher Watt, Jacob Atkinson

Towards zero extinctions: Updated environmental policy in Australia

Changes to biodiversity policy have the potential to significantly affect projects proposed in environmentally and ecologically sensitive areas. In this short article, we describe the changes and discuss their implications.

More than 100 species of Australian flora and fauna are known to be extinct, including the extinction of more than 10 per cent of land mammals known to have lived in Australia before colonisation (more mammal extinctions than any other continent). The first mammal extinction attributable to climate change also occurred in Australia.

The key federal legislation for managing threatened species is the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) (EPBC Act). The EPBC Act identifies and lists threatened species. In 2021, 1,918 species were listed under the EPBC Act as threatened species. This figure and Australia’s extinction rate suggests the EPBC Act‘s stated purpose to protect biodiversity is not being achieved.

The federal government has released the Threatened Species Action Plan: Towards Zero Extinctions 2022-2032 (Action Plan), which replaces the previous federal government’s commitments to improve the recovery of threatened species. The Action Plan is not a binding document but seeks to set out a clear policy framework for preventing any further extinctions in Australia.

The Action Plan will be implemented by the Threatened Species Commissioner, a role within the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water.

The Action Plan has four (4) objectives:

  1. reduce extinction risk for all ‘priority species’
  2. improve the condition of all ‘priority places’
  3. prevent new extinctions
  4. conserve and protect at least 30 per cent of Australia’s land.

These objectives will be actioned via the 22 listed targets and will be achieved by giving effect to the listed “actions”. A summary of the targets is below.

Targets 1 to 3: Species targets

The Action Plan does not seek to protect all species, but has used “Prioritisation Principles” to select 110 species that will be focused on under the Action Plan. These are deemed “Priority Species”. Ten new species were added as Priority Species by the Action Plan, along with the 100 species identified in the superseded plan.

One of the principles informing which species are Priority Species is “importance to people”. This acknowledges that the Action Plan is a holistic document with considerations beyond ecology and conservation. Another principle is “multiple benefits”, where the protection of one species will benefit other species within the same ecosystem and have positive flow-on effects. Notably, objective 3 for no new extinctions is the first zero extinctions target set by an Australian government.

Targets 4 to 6: Places and habitat targets

The Action Plan also identifies 20 “Priority Places” to focus recovery action for threatened species and ecological communities. The aim of a regional approach follows the “multiple benefits” principle by seeking to protect entire ecosystems which contain both threatened and non-threatened species.

The Priority Places were selected based on how many threatened species exist within that ecological community and sought to represent a variety of biomes and jurisdictions. Value to First Nations peoples was also considered. Places such as French Island in Victoria, the Australian Alps and MacDonnell Ranges in the Northern Territory were identified as Priority Places. Targets 4 and 5 seek for all Priority Places to be improving in condition and for actions to be implemented and tracked in those places.

Other targets

According to the State of the Environment Report 2021 released in July this year, nearly 20 per cent of Australia’s land area is protected and 36.1 per cent of all Australian waters (growing from 9.4 per cent in 2010) are protected. The Action Plan’s objective for protecting 30 per cent of Australia’s land mass is covered by Target 6 to increase conservation areas by 50 million hectares by 2027 (61 million hectares is required to meet 30 per cent conservation area). The Action Plan states that 45 million hectares will be delivered through Indigenous Protected Areas.

Target 12 seeks to expand the safe haven network established under the Threatened Species Strategy by creating five mainland enclosures or islands which act as arks of safety for our threatened flora and fauna. Similarly, Target 13 seeks to secure at least 80 per cent of nationally listed threatened plant species in insurance collections. Currently, 67 per cent of threatened plant species are represented in seed banks.

Targets 15 and 16 seek to incorporate Indigenous knowledge into conservation efforts and increase First Nations-led recovery activities. Other targets focus on improving planning and response to ecological hazards (targets 17 and 18), improving understanding of the environment and ecological protection (targets 19 and 20) and engagement targets to incorporate industry and communities in conservation (targets 21 and 22).

The Action Plan supports recommendations made in 2020 to improve environmental protection in Australia. A progress report reviewing the Action Plan will be published in 2025.

What this means for you

The changes are significant, especially for project proponents in any of the Priority Places, whose proposed environmental approvals under the EPBC Act may become challenging to obtain and whose existing approvals may require reconsideration in the context of the newly listed Priority Species.

Already 43 per cent of the National Reserve System is currently under management through Indigenous Protected Areas. The Action Plan signals further use of these commonwealth agreements with First Nations peoples with Indigenous Protected Areas noted as the primary mechanism for protecting 30 per cent of Australia’s land.

If you have any questions about how these changes may affect you, please contact us or send us your enquiry here.

Authors: Joseph Monaghan, Christopher Watt & Jacob Atkinson

The information in this article is of a general nature and is not intended to address the circumstances of any particular individual or entity. Although we endeavour to provide accurate and timely information, we do not guarantee that the information in this article is accurate at the date it is received or that it will continue to be accurate in the future.

Published by:

Christopher Watt, Jacob Atkinson

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