A DESPERATELY thirsty koala reaching out to take a drink from a cyclist is one image many Australians will recall from last summer.
That particular koala was suffering through prolonged heat wave conditions in South Australia.
Koalas fleeing or rescued from catastrophic bushfires featured in other images that went viral at that time when tens of thousands of the animals died.
That was just one part of a season of grief for all Australians.
Being touched by the images of suffering koalas is a sign of how much the nation cares about them and other wildlife.
Wouldn’t it be cause for concern then that some environmental experts have suggested the koala is edging towards extinction?
Working to prevent such extinctions is the business of Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act which is under review for the first time in 10 years.
Professor Graeme Samuel, who is heading the review, has presented an interim report to the Federal Government and is due to release his final report by the end of October.
Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley has pre-empted the final report by tabling legislation to implement one of Prof Samuel’s interim recommendations.
The new laws would allow the Federal Government to establish bilateral agreements with states and territories to devolve approval powers under the EPBC Act.
Prof Samuel, in his interim report, said “new, legally enforceable National Environmental Standards should be the foundation” to any such changes.
He also recommended that an independent watchdog should be established to oversee the enforcement of the Act but Ms Ley has rejected that.
“The national cabinet agreed that all states and territories would move to single-touch environmental approvals, underpinned by national environmental standards,” Ms Ley said during Question Time in Parliament on August 26.
“We’re also fast-tracking assessments for 15 priority infrastructure projects, without reducing environmental protections.”
New national environmental standards were not part of the proposed legislation but Ms Ley said she would increase environmental protections.
Co-founder of the Global Catholic Climate Movement and former director of Catholic Earthcare Australia Jacqui Remond said when the interim report was released that it presented a great opportunity for reform but she cautioned against haste.
She said it should be “taken forward in a very thorough way and not raced into but to go slow and steady with it”.
Ms Remond said devolving decision-making to the states could result in greater destruction.
“I’m very, very cautious about devolving decision-making to the state level because in many cases this could seriously, on a regular basis, result in even greater destruction,” she said.
“We don’t need to fast-track approvals that would fast-track extinctions. That would be the exact opposite of what this regulation was set up to do.”
Prof Samuel’s report said: “Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat”.
“The current environmental trajectory is unsustainable,” he said.
“Fundamental reform of national environmental law is required, and new, legally enforceable National Environmental Standards should be the foundation.”
Prof Samuel said ecologically sustainable development (ESD) should be the overall outcome the Act sought to achieve.
“ESD means that development to meet today’s needs is undertaken in a way that ensures the environment, natural resources and heritage are maintained for the benefit of future generations,” he said.
Ms Ley’s tabling of new legislation that pre-empt’s Prof Samuel’s final report comes as Catholics are joining other Christians around the world to celebrate the 2020 Season of Creation marking the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home). “Every year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever,” the Pope said in the encyclical.
“The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity.
“Because of us , thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, not convey their message to us.
“We have no such right.”
Prof Samuel raised the issue of trust in his interim report. “The community and industry do not trust the EPBC Act and the regulatory system that underpins its implementation,” he said. Will Ms Ley’s pre-emptive move for the sake of “fast-tracking” development approvals do anything to build trust?