Decisions by environment ministers spanning 15 years to either wave through projects or impose stricter conditions to protect threatened species made no actual difference to the amount of habitat destroyed, according to a new study.
More than half of habitat cleared to build infrastructure, mines, urban developments and for agriculture came after a minister had decided projects would have a “non-significant” impact on species and habitat, the study says.
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Under Australia’s law, projects are referred to the government minister who then deems it “non significant” in terms of environmental impact – meaning it can go ahead – or a controlled action, meaning it requires further assessment. The researchers said projects deemed “non significant” should have seen less habitat cleared than projects classified as having a larger impact on threatened species, but they found there was no difference in the impact.
Some species were disproportionately hit. Of the habitat lost by endangered tiger quolls from projects in the study, 82% was from projects the government decided were not significant enough to need further assessment. For vulnerable grey-headed flying foxes, 72% was lost from “non-significant” projects.
“The system designed to classify development projects according to their environmental impact is more or less worthless,” said Natalya Maitz, who led the study at the University of Queensland.
The Albanese government is working on reforms to environment laws to be introduced later this year after a 2021 independent review, led by former competition watchdog chairman Graeme Samuel, found they were failing to protect Australia’s threatened flora and fauna.
The government has promised to establish an environmental protection agency (EPA) with powers to refuse development applications, as well as create national environment standards that developments would need to comply with.
Maitz and colleagues, including former Queensland chief scientist Prof Hugh Possingham, looked at 517 projects referred under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to the government between 2000 and 2015.
About 365 were deemed “not significant” by the serving minister under the law, and 152 were judged to be a “controlled action”.
Maitz said they found there was no statistically significant difference between threatened habitat destroyed, regardless of the minister’s decision.
Published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice, the study looked at habitat lost for threatened species and migratory species, as well as damage to threatened ecological environments.
Under the law, proponents refer their own projects to the government having hired their own environment consultants to report on the species and habitats that might be affected.
The authors suggested three reasons for their findings.
The term “significant impact” was too vague and the criteria around it was ambiguous, leading to subjective decisions.
Developers intentionally minimise the potential impacts of a project and governments relied too much on reports from consultants paid by proponents.
Social and economic factors were too often placed above environmental risks when decisions are made.
More than 90% of habitat cleared in Australia – a global deforestation hotspot – is not referred at all under the current environment laws, a 2019 study concluded.
Brendan Sydes, national biodiversity policy adviser at the Australian Conservation Foundation, said studies and reviews had shown environment laws were failing, but it was “still shocking to see this set out in such a thorough analysis”.
“This makes it very clear we’ve been failing to protect threatened species. We’ve been doing the opposite and losing habitat at a great rate. We find ourselves in a precarious situation especially with climate change now being the amplifier [to threats] that it is.”
He said the act had allowed too much discretion for governments. Establishing a strong and independent EPA with enough funding to implement new national standards could make a significant difference.
Environment minister Tanya Plibersek said in a statement the research findings were “not surprising”.
“We’ve been saying for some time that Australia’s environment laws are broken,” she said.
“Nature is being destroyed. Businesses are waiting too long for decisions. That’s bad for everyone. Things have to change.
“We want a country and an economy that is nature positive – to halt decline and repair nature. To protect our threatened species. To repair habitats.
“Fixing our environment laws is a big job that takes cooperation, compromise, and common sense to make sure we get it right. We’ll be consulting with experts to ensure that we get the balance right.”
Tim Beshara, manager of policy and strategy at Australian non-profit the Wilderness Society, said the government needed to set a clear objective to reduce habitat loss but this was lacking in its response to Graeme Samuel’s review.
He said: “If you want to end species extinction, you need to stop deforestation. So without a clear zero deforestation objective, any reforms the government are considering are going to fall short of what is needed.”