Australia’s environmental laws failed to protect threatened species, study finds

With reforms slated for the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) this year, a new study has found that the current act has done nothing to protect Australia’s threatened species.

“The system designed to classify development projects according to their environmental impact is more or less worthless,” says University of Queensland conservation biologist Natalya Maitz.

“There’s no statistically significant difference between the amount of threatened habitat destroyed under projects deemed ‘significant’ or ‘not significant’ by the national biodiversity regulator.”

Under the EPBC Act, those looking to start projects with a potentially ‘significant impact’ on protected species must seek further federal review and approval.

Developments deemed unlikely to have a significant impact don’t require further Commonwealth intervention.

However, the researchers found that those ‘significant impact’ projects are clearing just as much habitat as the projects that are deemed ‘low risk’. In fact, the team found that 63 percent of all loss of habitat occurred under projects that were deemed ‘non-significant’.

“If the legislation were effectively protecting threatened habitats, we would expect less environmentally sensitive habitat cleared under the projects classified as unlikely to have a big impact,” said Maitz.

The researchers have highlighted the tiger quoll (Dasyurus maculatus maculatus) and grey-headed flying-fox (Pteropus poliocephalus) as two examples of this problem.

The tiger quoll lost 82% of it’s potential habitat under ‘non-significant’ projects, while the flying fox lost 72%.

“These species are well on their way to extinction, and the government will not achieve its zero extinctions goal unless these threats are stopped,” says UQ conservation biologist Dr Martin Taylor.

“Neither the Act itself, nor the regulator, have been able to provide clear, scientifically robust thresholds for what constitutes a significant impact.”

The government reforms to the act, which were announced by the environment minister Tanya Plibersek in December, proposed an independent Environmental Protection Agency to enforce conservation laws, as well as a ‘red line’ that would prohibit most development in environmentally sensitive areas.

However, previous reporting by Cosmos has highlighted that some scientists still have concerns, particularly with the lack of initial detail in the government’s response, and that the money allocated falls well short of what’s required.

“Unless you’ve got the systems in place to get that funding from business in a way that really is oriented towards conservation, it’s just going to lock in devastation,” University of Queensland conservation scientist, Professor James Watson told Cosmos in December.

“The science shows that we need about $2 billion to safeguard threatened species and start the process of species recovery, and yet the government can’t find that money.”

The new research has been published in Conservation Science and Practice.

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