Press Release - February 22, 2024

Land clearing loopholes risk leaving nature exposed

Proposed reforms to Australia’s national environment law still include loopholes that must be closed if the reforms are to actually protect nature from mass deforestation, leading
environment groups said today.

Environmental Justice Australia, Environment Centre Northern Territory, and the Wilderness
Society say more iron-clad and clear protections are needed to stop the scourge of

The Albanese Government has promised to fix Australia’s environment law, but without bold
reforms, iconic animals such as koalas, Gouldian finches, and greater gliders will continue to
lose vital habitat to bulldozers and be at greater risk of extinction.

Research shows the equivalent of 567 MCG’s of land is cleared each day in Queensland
and almost 9000 MCG fields worth of savanna in the Northern Territory was destroyed in 2022 alone.

In 2021, Australia joined 123 other countries in committing to end deforestation by 2030 at
Glasgow COP23 climate summit, and reinforced its commitment at the recent COP28 summit
in December 2023.

Environmental lawyers are travelling to Canberra again this week to view the draft laws as part of the staged consultation process.

Concerns with the proposed draft laws include:

  • Australia needs a land-clearing trigger: Not only is Australia a global deforestation
    hotspot alongside Brazil and Borneo: almost no land clearing is even assessed, let
    alone approved, under our current national environment law. The draft laws currently
    have no clear solution to the land clearing crisis that is decimating forests, savannahs
    and woodlands across the country. Introducing a land-clearing trigger would help make
    sure that any plan to clear significant pieces of land is assessed by the Federal
  • Australia needs to protect critical habitat: The Government has promised to turn
    around the extinction crisis, but the draft laws remove legal protections available for
    critical habitat in favour of narrower, ambiguous new terms like “irreplaceable”. Instead
    the laws need to strengthen protection for critical habitat and make it mandatory, to
    ensure species like the koala don’t become extinct.
  • Australia needs to halt decline in numbers of threatened species: The draft laws
    currently don't mention halting the decline of threatened species. To deliver on its
    promise of no new extinctions, the Albanese Government must propose laws that rule
    out impacts that reduce the population numbers and critical habitat of species that are
    already on the path to extinction. There is substantial evidence that deforestation is
    driving threatened species to extinction, so the reformed laws must properly address
    this threat.
  • Too much Ministerial power: The draft legislation gives the Minister unchecked call-in
    powers, which risks major decisions on everything from land clearing to mining to renewable energy proposals being subject to the whim of the decision maker of the day.
    Decisions should be based on scientific evidence, rather than a subjective decision that
    “satisfies'' the Minister.
  • Australia needs an empowered and independent EPA: Environment groups have welcomed the establishment of a National Environment Protection Agency (EPA), but
    the draft laws leave too much space for political interference and arbitrary decisions
    that ignore community feedback. Currently, it is proposed that the decision about
    whether impacts are unacceptable will be a subjective decision that “satisfies'' the EPA;
    instead, this decision must reflect the science. To genuinely safeguard this powerful
    new position from political interference, the EPA CEO must be accountable to an
    independent board with qualified members.

    Environmental Justice Australia, Environment Centre Northern Territory and the Wilderness Society are calling on the Albanese Government to deliver bold reforms to protect nature from deforestation destruction, before introducing the laws to the Senate.

    A public “have your say” survey on the draft laws is open until 30 March 2024, although the drafts have not yet been shared with the public.

    Environment Centre Northern Territory Executive Director, Doctor Kirsty Howey said:

    “Ministers will continue to have wide personal discretion when deciding whether projects will harm thousands of plants, animals and places across Australia. It's giving the Minister God-like powers with little transparency or accountability.

    The Albanese Government has talked a big game when it comes to fixing the nature crisis, but as they currently stand, the new laws won’t fix the rampant land clearing happening across Australia.

    The Northern Territory’s savannah is a national treasure, but the bulldozers are destroying it for cotton, agriculture, and mining - often without proper oversight or scrutiny.

    We’re worried the new EPA will be forced to make hasty assessments relying on information provided by mining companies and developers, without having time to have projects independently evaluated.”

    Environmental Justice Australia Special Counsel, Danya Jacobs said:
    “One of our primary concerns is around the potential for important decisions to be influenced by political agendas rather than scientific evidence. For decades, Australia’s environment law has been undermined by political interference from the mining, logging, and agricultural sectors.

    There’s a real opportunity to transform our nature law and end the system of unchecked
    discretion that’s vulnerable to powerful influence, and instead create clear rules that actually protect threatened ecosystems and endangered wildlife.

    The draft laws are still silent about land clearing and it's just not good enough. We’re in an extinction crisis and Australia is a deforestation hotspot - we need new laws that address landclearing head-on, not keep avoiding it."

    Biodiversity Policy and Campaign Manager for the Wilderness Society, Sam Szoke-Burke said:

    “Australia’s world-class nature deserves laws that actually protect forests and stop
    extinctions. Following the “lost decade” under the Coalition, it is now more important than ever that our federal nature law actually works to protect nature, not facilitate deforestation.

    The draft laws, as currently written, are simply not strong enough to protect nature from needless destruction. Science demands, and the community expects, nature laws that work— including by stopping deforestation. And delivering these laws is well within Labor’s grasp.”