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Australia's flagship environmental fail

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, Australia's flagship legislation to combat species extinction, came into force in 2000, yet new research suggests the law has done little to hinder habitat loss. The study demonstrated that 7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat were cleared between 2000 and 2017. While the Act mandates that any proposed land‐use change that could have national environmental consequences must be referred to the federal government for assessment, over 93% of the cleared land was not, according to a study (Conserv Sci Pract 2019;

“The law is simply not being enforced”, says Michelle Ward, an ecologist at the University of Queensland (Brisbane) and the study's lead author. “Australia is one of the world's leaders in modern‐day extinctions. Without fundamental changes in how this environmental law is written, used, and enforced, the crisis will only get worse.”

Results showed that 1390 species lost potential habitat, with the iconic koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) alone losing roughly 1 million hectares. The forest‐dwelling Mount Cooper striped skink (Lerista vittata) and Keighery's macarthuria (Macarthuria keigheryi), an endangered shrub, had the highest proportional habitat losses, at 25% and 23% of their known habitats, respectively.

The most extensive land clearance occurred in Queensland, which was responsible for 35% of all land‐use change referrals – the largest proportion among all the states. Nationwide, just four of the 3058 referred actions were rejected as “clearly unacceptable”. Not only did authorities rarely reject an action, they provided little oversight of actions not referred to the government for assessment as required by the Act. Only 18 cases resulted in judgments against non‐referred actions, which yielded AU$3.9 million in fines from the clearing of 340 hectares.

“The findings are simply shocking. For a wealthy, developed country to have such low compliance with environmental laws is an indictment”, notes Dale Nimmo, wildlife ecologist at Charles Sturt University (Albury). Further, he continues, the paper “smashes the narrative that ‘green tape’ and green ‘lawfare’ are a great hindrance to industry in Australia”.

Clearing land to create pasture for livestock was particularly destructive, yet agriculture was also the industrial sector found to have referred the smallest number of land conversions to the Act. “Cumulative impacts are as destructive as broad‐scale clearing”, says Ward.

Beginning in October 2019, the EPBC Act will undergo a mandatory 10‐year review. Ward and colleagues plan to submit several recommendations, including the need to map and explicitly protect all critical habitat for species, develop guidelines to measure impact quantitatively, and establish robust enforcement of the Act.

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