Unesco urged to oppose 'alarming' changes to Australian environment laws

Paul Karp
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Roy Vandervegt/AAP</span>
Photograph: Roy Vandervegt/AAP

Australian conservation groups have written to the UN’s peak environmental heritage body urging it to oppose the Coalition’s bid to devolve the approval process for projects to state and territory governments.

In a letter to the director general of Unesco, the 13 groups warn of the “alarming moves … to weaken legal protection for Australia’s 20 world heritage listed properties” through changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

In an interim report on the EPBC Act released in July, Graeme Samuels found the laws to protect unique species and habitats were ineffective.

Related: 'Recipe for extinction': why Australia's rush to change environment laws is sparking widespread concern

Despite the findings, the Morrison government has proposed legislation to allow bilateral agreements with the states and territories to give them control over planning approvals as a means to cut approval times and spur economic growth.

The bill to streamline environmental approvals was rushed through the lower house on Thursday after debate was gagged, and despite concerns it does not contain promised environmental standards and could increase extinctions.

The letter, signed by groups including the Australian Conservation Foundation, Environmental Justice Australia, the Wilderness Society and WWF Australia, warns that Australia’s natural world heritage sites are “under more pressure from industrialisation and climate change than ever before”.

It listed threats to world heritage areas including:

  • the New South Wales government’s proposed flooding of 4,700 hectares of the Greater Blue Mountains for an enlarged Warragamba Dam

  • Tasmania’s “promotion of a pipeline of inappropriate private tourism projects in the Tasmanian wilderness”

  • threats to the Ningaloo Coast from oil and gas industrialisation

  • damage to the Gondwana Rainforest WHA from bushfires

  • inappropriate development of the wet tropics

  • the third mass coral bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef in the past five years.

The groups warn against handing national development approval powers to state and territory governments “without any safeguards in place”.

“This is of grave concern because state and territory governments are often the proponents of these threatening developments and activities or have policies that encourage and fast-track them.”

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The groups asked the director general, Audrey Azoulay, to write to the federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, to “express alarm” about the bill and “seek clarification on how the Australian government will meet its international responsibilities under the world heritage convention”.

“The Australian government must not walk away from its responsibilities to protect and conserve world heritage.”

Australia’s responsibilities under the convention are to identify, protect, conserve and transmit to future generations its world heritage sites.

Labor has resolved to oppose the EPBC Act changes, the Greens have pushed to refer them to an inquiry, and independent MP Zali Steggall attempted to amend the bill to require state deals to conform with national environmental standards to be drawn up by the minister.

ACF’s chief executive, Kelly O’Shanassy, said Australia’s world heritage areas were home to “threatened wildlife like the koala, the cassowary and the grey-headed flying fox, but the plan to hand environmental powers to states and territories would make these species and their habitats more vulnerable than ever”.

The Environmental Justice Australia co-chief executive, Nicola Rivers, said weakening protections would send a “shocking message that one of the wealthiest nations can’t manage to safeguard its 20 world heritage sites”.

Suzanne Milthorpe, national laws campaign manager at the Wilderness Society, said: “It’s clear protections for Australia’s globally unique natural and cultural heritage are sorely lacking and we’re looking to the Morrison government to demonstrate that it is willing and able to address these shortcomings.”

The other signatories to the letter were the Australian Marine Conservation Society, Birdlife Australia, the Bob Brown Foundation, the Colong Foundation for Wilderness, Fight For Our Reef, Humane Society International Australia, Protect Ningaloo, Queensland Conservation Council and the Tasmanian Conservation Trust.