The Albanese government will face internal pressure to include climate change in its promised revamp of national conservation laws, with the Labor Environment Action Network (Lean) saying greenhouse gas emissions must be considered when development proposals are assessed.
The warning from the grassroots of the ALP follows the release of the latest state of the environment report, which found Australia’s natural heritage was in poor and deteriorating health due to the combined impact of climate change, habitat destruction for development and logging, invasive species, pollution and mining.
Environment minister Tanya Plibersek described the report as a “shocking document” that showed “accelerating environmental destruction”. She promised to introduce new environment laws next year, preceded by a draft proposal for a national environment protection agency later this year.
Plibersek did not rule out including a “climate trigger” in the new legislation that would require a development’s emissions to be considered when it was assessed, but signalled the government would probably follow a blueprint set out by the former competition watchdog Graeme Samuel in a 2020 review of the act. Samuel argued climate impacts could be addressed in other ways.
But Felicity Wade, Lean’s national co-convener, told Guardian Australia environmentally motivated Labor party members expected the government to go further and deliver what she called Samuel “plus”.
“Samuel’s report is very good but it was written in the political context in which he wrote it,” Wade said in an interview with the Australian Politics podcast. “We need to think about climate change. Climate change isn’t in the current laws, and it needs to be.”
Wade said things might have been different if the carbon price scheme legislated by the Gillard government had not been repealed by Tony Abbott, but “we don’t have that any more so we have to put climate into how we do approvals and how we look after the place”.
She said Samuel’s failure to recommend a climate trigger wasn’t “an intellectually defensible position” and given the “very, very grim” nature of the state of the environment report, Labor would need to marry climate risk and environmental regulation in this term of government.
“I don’t think [that] is avoidable. There will be a big debate about how pointy that climate consideration is, of course, but it has to be done,” she said.
She said the government should emulate the Hawke government – which significantly lifted recognition of the environment, including by protecting the Franklin River, the Daintree, Kakadu and Antarctica – with “big picture thinking”.
Wade said part of that needed to address the pace of land-clearing, which scientists say is pushing species towards extinction. The number of documented threatened species jumped 8% over the five years covered by the state of the environment report, and is expected to increase substantially again as the toll of the catastrophic summer bushfires of 2019-20 becomes clearer.
The report said 7.7m hectares of land used by threatened species, an area larger than Tasmania, was cleared of vegetation or substantially degraded between 2000 and 2017. Nearly all of it – 93% – was for developments or logging that were not referred to the federal minister for consideration under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Native forest logging is exempt from national environment laws under regional forestry agreements between the states and Canberra.
“Until we can get under control the fact that we still see our native vegetation as something to be logged, burned and shipped off we will continue to see the disintegration of our native animals,” Wade said.
Wade called for the creation of an independent environment commission, in addition to an Environment Protection Authority, to generate new ideas and solutions. “The department does a lot of great things, but it does not innovate and it does not drive new ideas and it does not tell the truth to the public. The state of the environment report … is a once-in-five year opportunity to do that, but we should entrench that capacity for building a better environmental approach,” she said.
“Unless we do serious reform, [unless] it’s root and branch, we will continue to lose.”
She also backed the need for a serious review of carbon markets, including to ensure biodiversity was protected. The new climate change minister, Chris Bowen, has commissioned a review of the carbon credit system to be headed by the former chief scientist, Prof Ian Chubb.
“The market is a key tool in what is a bigger policy challenge, which is how are we going to build a carbon sink at scale that also acts as a biodiversity arc,” Wade said. “We have to wrestle the markets into that public policy task, not the other way around.”