Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 (Theme Report)
Prepared by: Dr Jann Williams, RMIT University, Authors
Published by CSIRO on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06749 3
The Meaning, Significance and Implications of Biodiversity (continued)
In seeking to reconcile economic political and legal systems with the natural systems on which they depend, several core 'attributes' are encountered and these very much shape the way in which policy management and scientific responses might be framed.
First, ESD issues need to be considered over different space and time scales from those of many other policy issues. Ecosystems and ecological processes rarely concur with political boundaries, national borders, election cycles or the timing of government budgets. Second, there are significant knowledge gaps concerning biodiversity: its component parts, the role of taxa in ecosystems, and both the actual and possible future values of biodiversity. Third, ESD problems often involve cumulative effects (e.g. diffuse pollution sources affecting an ecosystem over time, and dryland salinity) and irreversible effects (e.g. species extinction). Fourth, many environmental issues cut across industry and government portfolio sectors, which means that responses must be integrated and coordinated. Finally, there is the sheer novelty of many ESD issues - their relatively recent arrival on the policy agenda means that there is a lack of defined policy and property rights and responsibilities and a lack of agreed management approaches and policy instruments. These attributes characterise the challenge of biodiversity conservation.
Several elements are involved in trying to improve the information and knowledge base on the state of Australia's biodiversity. These include the tasks of improving taxonomic knowledge of Australia's biodiversity; improving our ecological knowledge across populations, species and ecosystems; describing the abundance, status, life histories of these and the threats to them; and the more recently defined area of increasing our understanding of genetic diversity within species and populations. All these require collaboration between scientific and government institutions as well as the important role of the private sector in research and development.
If our understanding of biodiversity is to inform policy and management, then an historical dimension is needed to provide the baselines against which judgments can be made which brings in a wider range of research disciplines (i.e. history) as well as members of the community and Indigenous groups who have strong links with specific places.
Information regarding the success or otherwise of past and present policy interventions and management practices is important if we are to know whether and how well these are working. Although governments are central in monitoring policy and management, the community, science, relevant professions and industry also need to be involved.
Gathering and storing information on the protection and sustainable use of Australia's biodiversity is pointless without its communication to those who need to use it. This includes the spread of research findings to decision makers, other researchers and the broader community. The media, schools, university and various training curriculums are also important.
Managing biodiversity across the Australian landscape requires:
- management of protected areas such as national parks and nature reserves
- management of biodiversity outside the reserve system
- control of harvesting and use of biota.
Although reservation of land is a government responsibility, many reserves are established following community pressure. Community involvement in the management of reserves has increased through boards and committees that include community representatives, as in the case of those co-managed by Indigenous land owners and park services (e.g. Kakadu Board of Management and Parks Australia 1998; Uluru-Kata Tjuta Board of Management and Parks Australia 2000). The off-reserve task involves a mix of legislation, regulation, incentive measures and voluntary efforts across farmland, in production forests, in industries such as tourism and mining, on Indigenous lands and in the marine realm. The control of harvesting and other uses of native plants and animals applies to both public and private land and waters within a regulatory framework that involves close interaction with individuals, communities, firms, governments and industry.
An important aspect of managing biodiversity is the increasing attempts to restore habitats to some previous or more desirable condition and to encourage the recovery of diminished or threatened species or populations. As well as government agency staff and scientists, community groups, private landholders and firms have an important role in many such attempts. While in situ conservation is the preferred option, in some instances it is not always feasible.
Protection of biodiversity is primarily the responsibility of governments. The broader community, however, has input in various ways into policy formulation, the design or reform of laws and on-the-ground implementation of policies.
In the case of biodiversity and most other environmental issues, legislation (i.e. statute law) rather than common law has overwhelmingly been the predominant source of power and responsibility. Legislation does or can serve many purposes, such as: setting out government objectives and the structure of agencies; establishing opportunities for public participation; enabling financial incentives; defining procedures for development approval; impact assessment; strategic planning processes; and ensuring transparency of decision making.
Australia's federal system of government is important to understanding how biodiversity is or can be managed. Under Australia's constitutional arrangements, the great bulk of responsibility for environmental management, including biodiversity, resides with the states. The Commonwealth, however, has considerable potential and actual power via the trade, external affairs, corporations, finance and taxation and race powers in s51 of the Australian Constitution (Bates 1995). These powers were confirmed in court cases over the 1970s and 1980s. Over the past decade, however, there has been a trend toward less confrontational and more cooperative approaches to the environment. The Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment, the National Environment Protection Council and the development of national policies such as the NSCABD reflect this.
A major role of the Commonwealth, recognised in the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment, is in the implementation of international agreements (e.g. the Convention on Biodiversity, CBD). Some international obligations have become triggers in the EPBC Act, which can lead to environmental assessment and regulation of project proposals by the Commonwealth. The triggers of relevance to biodiversity are significant effects on Ramsar wetlands, World Heritage areas, migratory species, nationally threatened species and ecological communities and Commonwealth marine areas. In early 2001, the Environment Minister, following advice from the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, listed land clearing as a key threatening process to biodiversity.
The role and relevance of law in biodiversity conservation is becoming increasingly important (see Law in biodiversity conservation).
The following examples demonstrate the increasing relevance and role of law in biodiversity conservation:
- very different approaches taken in the different States to biodiversity management and the tensions which this causes (e.g. Queensland's vegetation clearance legislation proposes to offer compensation for land use restrictions but this has been strenuously resisted in New South Wales)
- movement away from ad hoc regulation of individual project proposals towards strategic planning (e.g. bioregional planning)
- law's role in setting up decision-making procedures relating to biodiversity management rather than setting out absolute standards (which would guarantee the protection of threatened species)
- lack of integration between older law focusing on the management of particular resources (e.g. water) and more recent law based on a holistic view of the environment
- lack of integration between the functions of elected local councils and appointed community resource management committees (e.g. catchment committees)
- perceived failure of command and control regulation specifically in the private land context and an attempt to develop economic instruments and community driven mechanisms (e.g. catchment committees)
- increased recognition that biodiversity conservation is as much about active management as land use restriction
- difficulties posed by planning law's traditional respect for existing land uses.