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Australian legislation governing the environment is enshrined in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. It is committed to conserving and protecting national environmental issues, including threatened species, world heritage sites, the Great Barrier Reef marine park, and wetlands of international significance.
The laws were adopted by the Howard government in 2000 and are subject to a statutory, independent review every ten years. This creates an overarching framework for protecting the environment.
States and territories also have environmental laws that protect ecosystems and species that are important across the state.
A national species and habitat assessment system is incorporated into the law to protect the environment and important cultural sites.
“A species or ecosystem is deemed vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered when its population declines to the point that it requires protection. In order to ensure the survival of species in danger of extinction, the legislation must identify and protect threats to the species’ survival. Also, the laws govern whether mining, urban expansion, and agricultural clearing are permitted. If a project is considered to have a significant impact on matters of national environmental significance, the developer must submit it for assessment. If a project requires an assessment under federal law, the environment department will make that determination, with the environment minister making the final decision on whether to approve or deny the project.”, ~ Mr Grégory THUAN DIT DIEUDONNÉ – Founder of Avocat International Thuan
Official reports indicate that the EPBC Act has failed to meet its key objective of protecting and conserving the environment. According to the government’s five-yearly state of the environment report, threats are increasing and ecosystems are in decline. Australia has the highest mammal extinction rate in the world.
An Australian National Audit Office review of the government’s administration of the act concluded that it was inefficient and ineffective and that environmental risks were not adequately managed.
Additionally, the department’s funding cuts from 2014-15 had slowed the assessment and approval processes.
Conservationists argue that the current system is failing to stem an extinction crisis. Their primary concern is that the act gives too much discretion to ministers in implementing laws – such as recovery plans. According to them, environmental protection has been overshadowed by decisions under the Act. Meanwhile, developers are concerned that the federal laws may duplicate or conflict with those at the state level.
Between 2000 and June 2019, the national audit office reported that 6,253 proposed actions were sent to the environment minister for review. Of those, 5,088 were approved and just 21 were deemed unacceptable.
As part of its economic response to the Covid-19 outbreak, the government has signalled it wishes to streamline environmental approvals. The report may recommend stricter protections for the environment.