Queensland is considering establishing an independent Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and this gives us the opportunity to take an important step to repair our environment.
Such a step is needed as our environment is in decline and we have managed it poorly. The number of threatened species is growing and legislation affecting the environment is confusing and poorly administered.
An effective EPA could enhance the environment both for its own sake and for future generations.
Below I briefly discuss the state of Queensland’s environment and the important step we should now take. I have focused on biodiversity recognising there are other urgent environmental issues.
Background: Commitment to a possible EPA
Prior to its re-election in 2020 the Queensland Labor Party committed to “Investigate and consult on the establishment of an independent Environmental Protection Agency which other states have to protect our environment, create jobs, and support economic growth.”
This election commitment speaks to our dilemma; that there are many Queenslanders who are concerned about the long-term health and resilience of our environment. It also suggests that we, as a community, value the short term benefits of exploiting that very same environment.
Getting it right for the long term is a challenge. Consultation around establishing an EPA in Queensland was conducted in 2022 and although it was perhaps too constrained, 193 survey responses and 23 submissions were received.
A resultant business case is being developed for the Queensland Government and its’ becoming public is eagerly awaited.
Where are we at? – Environmental Values
Much of Australia’s environment is in decline. This was clearly articulated in the recently-released Federal State of the Environment report. The report makes repeated reference to the potential demise of two Queensland icons, the Great Barrier Reef and the Koala.
Threats to biodiversity are not limited to the iconic ones. As at 30 April 2021, there were 1020 threatened species listed in Queensland (236 animal species and 784 plant species), with 216 of these species being added since 2016. We now have more introduced plants in our country than native ones.
A key database used to inform the status of Queensland biodiversity is “WildNet”. Unfortunately, the database appears to be under-resourced and its inconsistent use is hampering our understanding of the state’s true biodiversity status. Furthermore, it is generally accepted that the threatening processes adversely affecting native species, are not under control. Sound long term management is required.
For some years Queensland has embraced a target of 17% of its area to be protected (through National Park and similar tenures). It is presently around half of that and the 2022 UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) in Montreal, in which Australia was an active participant, called for 30% of the planet’s surface to be protected. Queensland needs to revise its target upwards.
Federal Environment Minister Plibersek recently committed to the following in her response to the Samuel’s review of the EPBC Act:
- Establish an Independent Federal Environment Protection Agency
- Reform the biodiversity offsets regime
- Establish a regional planning regime, and
- Develop national environmental standards.
These are global and national commitments, and recognise the perilous situation we are in. And yet they can also give us hope.
Where are we at? – Legislation
Queensland is subject to a plethora of legislation and associated regulations and policies which address environmental management. This legislation is across federal, state and local government jurisdictions but I believe it is administered inadequately. I also believe the legislation focuses on process not outcomes.
The website of the Queensland Department of State Development, Infrastructure, Local Government and Planning indicates that of over 70 projects assessed since 2000, only 2 have been refused. The typical path for a development application is for it to be approved with conditions (often a juggle between Environment protection and short term economic benefit) and this again indicates a focus on process not outcome.
The Appendix below provides the objects and purposes of some of Queensland’s legislation that has a bearing on our environment. These objects are far from co-ordinated and fail to give a clear priority for our environment.
Thoughts from others
EO Wilson* (possibly the greatest biologist of recent times) said, “Blinded by ignorance and self absorption, humanity is destroying the creation. There is still time to assume the stewardship of the natural world that we owe to future generations.”
“The Creation, An Appeal to save Life on Earth.” Norton Paperback, 2006.
Ken Henry (a former Federal Treasury Secretary was reported by ABC journalist Gareth Hutchens on the 28 November 2022) said, “After all, almost all of human activity on earth rests one way or another upon the condition of the natural environment, and if we don’t address the deterioration of the natural environment sometime pretty damn soon, the rest of it’s going to come crashing down.”
He and others have been espousing natural accounting as a way of truly valuing nature and bringing it into our economic framework. The environmental audit of the Burnet Mary Region is seen as a significant step in developing commercial opportunities that could enhance and repair nature.
Big thinkers such as these are telling us it is time for action!
Conclusion: Where to from Here
As a community, we now have an important decision to make about what priority we will give to our environment. Do we align with broader national and global initiatives by introducing an independent, effective EPA in Queensland, or do we find a new way to “kick a recycled can a little further down the track?”
This is a real opportunity and Queensland must be prepared to make the necessary adjustments. For success the following is required.
Queensland should align with the commitments recently made by the Federal government and introduce an EPA that is genuinely independent and has the power to guide the state to meet long term environmental goals in a co-ordinated way. Clear long term goals for our Environment are a necessity. Goals for Environmental values eg biodiversity, air quality, water quality, erosion control and beyond can and should be established in an open democratic way.
An effective EPA would need independence and the authority to guide achieving long term environmental goals. An EPA would need some primacy in decision making powers. It would need the power to be able to influence government decisions where there is a likelihood of affecting state-wide long term environmental goals.
Given the complexity of Queensland Environmental Legislation the EPA must be given a right to intervene/be part of decision making across jurisdictions. Some clever parliamentary drafting is required here.
It is not suggested that this is easy or cost free, simply, that it and resultant adjustments are necessary.
Appendix and reference materials available here: https://npaq.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/QLD-Independent-EPA-Protected-article-Appendices.pdf