ANALYSIS ABC Science
By environment reporter Nick Kilvert 16 Feb. 20
Koalas are predicted to be extinct across New South Wales and Queensland by 2050 according to conservation groups (Supplied: Centre for Fortean Zoology Australia)
In a previous life, I obtained an environmental science degree and worked as a fauna ecologist for an environmental consultancy.
On an environmental impact study (EIS) in the rocky jump-up country out of Winton a few years ago, my colleagues and I recorded a healthy population of rock wallabies living in the caves and cliffs where a proposed coal mine was to be built.
Despite being listed as vulnerable under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, the presence of the animals wasn’t a barrier to the project going ahead.
The developers’ planned to catch and remove the wallabies they could, and those they couldn’t catch were going to be fenced inside the tailings dam where they would most likely die.
This wasn’t an unusual scenario.
Every EIS I worked on — for coal, coal-seam gas, gas refinery, bauxite, housing estates, and airport expansion projects — during a three-and-a-bit year period found species listed as vulnerable or endangered.
One happy customer
These species included koalas, ornamental snakes, water mice, rock wallabies, and countless non-listed species like sugar gliders, dunnarts and bettongs.
They were going to be killed during the development phase, or by starvation or displacement.
The presence of these animals or plants did not stop any project going ahead.
Ongoing degradation of ecosystems, and the fragmenting of wildlife into smaller and smaller patches of habitat, has left our ecosystems vulnerable.
This summer, bushfires have wiped out an estimated one billion animals (and that’s a cautious estimate).
But devastating losses of wildlife and wilderness were already happening before the season began.
Australia has one of the highest rates of extinction of any country in the world.
And the key policy that is supposed to minimise the harm — environmental offsets — isn’t working, experts warn.
What are offsets?
Since 2011, the impacts from significant environmentally damaging activities in Australia have been required to be offset.
The Federal Government defines an offset as:
“An activity undertaken to counterbalance a significant residual impact of a prescribed activity on a prescribed environmental matter.”
What that means in plain terms is that when you destroy the habitat of a threatened plant or animal, you need to compensate somewhere else.
Take for example, the Adani-owned Carmichael coal mine in central Queensland.
That’s expected to wipe out around 9,400 hectares of high-quality, endangered black-throated finch habitat.
Adani’s offsets include purchasing and maintaining a nearby property at Moray Downs West, which they say has a bit over 20,000 hectares of black-throated finch habitat.
The first issue here, as in almost all cases where offsets are required, is that overall there will still be a loss to the total number of black-throated finches and their habitat.
But that is acceptable under the offset guidelines, according to biodiversity conservation expert Martine Maron from the University of Queensland.
“The individual animals at the place that are lost, they’re not the thing that is being offset. In a lot of cases they just get killed, or they die,” Professor Maron said.
“Most of these offsets build in an assumption that there would otherwise be a decline [in species numbers].”
Offsets don’t actually require a like-for-like replacement of suitable habitat.
In the instance of say, the clearing of 5,000 hectares of eucalyptus forest that might contain around 50 koalas, the offset land may not necessarily contain any koalas at all.
But it might be land that could be regenerated in order to be suitable for koalas at some stage in the future.
Weak regulation lays groundwork for bushfire devastation
The problem is that animals and plants have to be on the brink of extinction before their presence can stop a development, according to environmental scientist Bill Laurance of James Cook University.
“It would have to be the last population of an animal on the planet to stop one of these projects,” Professor Laurance said.
“Nature is dying a death of a thousand cuts and the level of evidence [to stop a project] is that that individual project is going to be the final, fatal cut.”
Historically, if fires devastated populations in parts of the country, those areas could be repopulated by wildlife from other parts.
But weak regulation, including failing offsets, has allowed the habitat of many species to contract to only a few regions.
The black-throated finch was once common from Inverell in New South Wales to the Atherton Tableland, but now it is only found around central Queensland in the region where the Adani mine will be built.
And there are fears that koalas are going down the same path.
WWF estimate that the koala population down the entire east coast is declining by 21 per cent every decade, and that they will be extinct in New South Wales by 2050.
If we get to a point where koalas are restricted to parts of Victoria and South Australia, a big bushfire event like the one we’ve just seen could threaten the survival of the species.
Scientists fear that is exactly what has happened to between 20 and 100 species in the last few months, including the long-footed potoroo and Kangaroo Island’s glossy black cockatoo.
If we include invertebrates, it’s estimated that up to 700 species will be pushed to extinction by this season’s bushfires.
Our environmental protection laws, including offsets, have allowed this situation to develop Professor Laurance said.
“If you beat up an ecosystem for a long period of time, it’s going to be even more vulnerable to a punch,” Professor Laurance said.
“That’s exactly what’s happening with this incredible proliferation of fires.”
‘A developer can just pay money’
WWF predicts koalas will be extinct in NSW by 2050. (ABC Open contributor Peter Crinion)
The key principle of offsetting is that there is “no net loss” of biodiversity.
In theory, that means if a developer can’t produce an offset that will result in no net loss, then the project is not supposed to be approved.
But in practice, regulators haven’t been sticking to that principle, according to offsets expert Phil Gibbons of the Australian National University.
He was a witness at a senate inquiry where the environment department admitted to approving mining projects under the condition they’d look for an offset down the track.
“The policy can’t work when this occurs,” Professor Gibbons said.
“The policy works on the premise that if you can’t find a suitable offset then the impact on biodiversity cannot be offset and therefore you should not approve the development.”
Rock wallaby habitat was going to be turned into a tailings dam. (ABC Science: Nick Kilvert)
Companies that couldn’t find any offsets for their developments, in New South Wales at least, have still been allowed to proceed.
“In New South Wales a developer can just pay money to compensate for any biodiversity they destroy,” he said.
And there are myriad other reasons why offsets are failing.
Many offset lands aren’t under threat of development, so the gain by a company setting them aside is negligible.
On the other hand, offset land isn’t off limits to being disturbed down the track, Professor Maron said.
“We’ve already gone through and mined offsets even a few years after they were designated,” she said.
“Unfortunately being an offset doesn’t confer any great protection, especially against any high-value land uses like mining.”
But while offsets are a flawed policy, an even greater problem is that all too often developers and agriculturalists are getting around the legislation altogether.
7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat cleared since 1999
Regulators need to say no to projects that can’t be offset, researchers say. (Supplied: Rio Tinto)
For a development to get to the offset stage, it first has to pass state regulations — things like the Native Vegetation Act in New South Wales, and the Environmental Protection Act in Queensland.
A review of 10 years of land clearing in New South Wales, conducted by Professor Gibbons and colleagues, found that barely any of the land clearing in that state had been offset, even poorly.
“Basically the policy had no effect on land clearing. It was supposed to end broadscale clearing, but land clearing didn’t change significantly in New South Wales,” he said.
“Through time, more and more exemptions snuck into the policy. So in the end, only 13 per cent of clearing under the [Native Vegetation] Act was offset.”
And it was a similar story in Queensland after Campbell Newman’s government relaxed clearing laws in 2013, Professor Maron said.
“You’re talking about figures of 300,000 hectares a year being bowled over in Queensland. Lots of that is threatened species habitat. Lots of that is threatened ecosystems.”
Offsets are meant to be triggered when species listed as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable under the federal EPBC Act are found within a proposed development site.
But 7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat has been cleared since the EPBC Act was introduced in 1999, and only 7 per cent of that was referred for government scrutiny, according to research published last year.
In late 2019, the Federal Government launched a review into the EPBC Act.
While the stated purpose of the review is to look at “any changes needed for Australia to support ecologically sustainable development into the future”, critics are worried it’s an attempt to weaken environmental protections and free up development.
The report is expected to be finalised in October 2020.
If we want to give our wilderness some resilience to future natural disasters and avoid the extinction of some of our most iconic species, our environmental protection laws need to be strengthened, not weakened, Professor Gibbons said.
“Don’t get me wrong, biodiversity offsets are a step in the right direction compared with where we were, but we are kidding ourselves if we think they are delivering no-net-loss of biodiversity.”
“To achieve no-net-loss we would have a lot more rejections of development applications in Australia, but regulators aren’t prepared to do that in this country.”