Senior Environmental Consultant
For any infrastructure, power, mining or oil and gas development, managing biodiversity and environmental values effectively is essential to getting the project over the line. It’s also a major factor affecting reputation and social licence. But beyond this narrow perspective, we need to recognise that our local approach to biodiversity matters in a global context – and that, in Australia, there’s room to lift our game.
A global crisis
Today across the globe, one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction within decades. The loss of biodiversity is escalating worldwide, and the impacts reach much further than many of us imagine.
Biodiversity is not solely an ‘environmental’ issue. When we lose biodiversity, the natural processes that provide us with safe food, breathable air and clean water are threatened. This has serious economic, developmental, social and security implications, as well as moral and ethical complexities.
This breadth of impact is clear in the 2019 Global Biodiversity Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which anticipates that the continuing decline of biodiversity and ecosystems will undermine progress towards 80% of the assessed targets of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals relating to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans and land.
This makes managing and conserving biodiversity one of our greatest and most urgent global challenges. We will need transformative change across our economies, politics, technologies and culture to get anywhere near to slowing the decline.
Given the urgency, seriousness and scale of the challenge, Australia needs to prepare to make a bigger contribution toward a solution. We have a role to play, yet regulators, environmental specialists and local communities across Australia agree that we’re not doing it well enough yet.
As the rate of vegetation clearing accelerates, biodiversity continues to decline. In most states, we don’t have enough data to understand our current biodiversity values. If there is no comprehensive evidence benchmarking the current quality and extent of native vegetation, the community is not able to understand whether current laws have been effective or whether conservation measures on public or private land are contributing to better biodiversity outcomes.
Existing frameworks for biodiversity management are complex and difficult for the community to navigate and are not always implemented widely enough. In some cases, the information and knowledge needed to evaluate the effectiveness of the legislative framework and supporting mechanisms is poor.
Because the level of regulation and scrutiny is set to increase, we’re going to need to step up. In New South Wales, tighter environmental management expectations have already been legislated (in the form of the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016) and are likely to be a harbinger of things to come in other jurisdictions. Upcoming changes will transform project management, so it is time to build your awareness of how best to manage biodiversity impacts.
New South Wales in the lead
All Australian states and territories have a range of legislation designed to require or encourage landholders and developers to conserve biodiversity by ensuring that new developments avoid or minimise impacts on biodiversity. Where that isn’t possible, proponents may be required to offset the impacts through various conservation measures. That isn’t new. What we see in NSW, however, is a significant strengthening of the requirements.
The NSW framework emphasises that best practice comes from a hierarchy of avoiding, minimising, mitigating or managing impacts rather than offsetting. Biodiversity offsetting, where negative impacts for one location are offset by positive impacts elsewhere, is sometimes the only option, but it needs to be done well, and only as a last resort.
The best way to approach the ‘avoid-minimise-offset’ hierarchy is to involve specialist biodiversity expertise in the project right from the start, so that the ideal environmental approach can be built into the design from its earliest stages. Incorporating biodiversity considerations into the early project planning and design stage is something that still only happens sporadically.
An important introduction in the NSW legislation is the concept of ‘serious and irreversible impacts. If such impacts are expected, consent cannot be granted to proceed with the project. It is therefore critical to identify these potential impacts as early as possible, so proponents can modify the project design to avoid refusal from regulators.
Another change in NSW is an expansion of the types of projects that trigger assessment and, potentially, offsetting. In most Australian jurisdictions, the types of projects that require offsets are generally those deemed major or significant, whereas small-scale development is generally exempt. Now, in NSW, if any development is likely to significantly affect threatened species, it must be assessed by an accredited person and could potentially require offsetting. This dramatically expands the number and types of projects that must assess biodiversity impact and may potentially require offsets – up to an additional 6000 projects per year. It is likely that the time and cost associated with meeting these requirements will motivate proponents to modify or reconsider their project footprint.
Many aspects of the NSW framework could be applied in other jurisdictions to achieve more effective biodiversity outcomes – and that’s likely to be simply a matter of time. If other jurisdictions move to adopt some or all of these features, it is expected to lead to more effective biodiversity outcomes across the nation.
Ways to manage project risks
Poor management of risks and impacts to biodiversity can result in delays and additional costs for projects and could tarnish a company’s reputation in the community. To avoid such risks, consider some of these strategies:
- Include biodiversity considerations as early as possible in project planning and design.
- Avoid and minimise biodiversity impacts wherever possible.
- Develop appropriate systems and tools to manage biodiversity impacts throughout the project lifecycle.
- Build awareness with internal stakeholders of the importance of biodiversity management.
Incorporating these strategies into your operations can help mitigate the risks to your projects and improve your organisation’s biodiversity footprint – and you’ll be taking the crucial positive local action that all adds up to a far more substantial national contribution to this pressing global challenge.