In pursuit of economic growth, Australia still clears equivalent to 170,000 Sydney Cricket Grounds (or 150,000 Melbourne Cricket Grounds) of native forest every year.
Impacts from clearing native vegetation are well documented.
Habitat loss is the single greatest threat to biodiversity in Australia, promotes dryland salinity, contributes to soil loss and deterioration of water quality and represents approximately 7% of our carbon emissions.
The main driver for land clearing in Australia is agriculture.
However, policy development within this space in Australia looks something like this: Labor Governments periodically introduce reforms to curb land clearing; and these are subsequently relaxed by Coalition governments.
This cycle is currently playing out in New South Wales: biodiversity law reforms introduced by the Carr Government in 2005 are about to be repealed by the Baird Government.
I recently led the Ecological Society of Australia’s submission on the draft biodiversity law reforms in NSW. Here, I summarise the key issues.
Key issues with the NSW reforms
There is a perception that farmers are overly hamstrung in their ability to clear native vegetation in NSW under current laws. The proposed reforms seek to redress this in several ways, such as reducing the amount of clearing that requires formal approval.
However, using formal statistical analysis, I found that land clearing rates have not significantly changed in NSW since 1989-90 (Figure 1), suggesting the argument that the existing laws have gone too far in protecting native vegetation is without foundation.
Further, 87% of all clearing for rural land that occurs in NSW (as detected by satellite imagery) does not appear in the public register of clearing approvals, which means that the vast majority of clearing has been permitted without formal approval. This suggests that further relaxing the requirement for formal approval to clear native vegetation is also not a well-targeted reform.
“87% of all clearing for rural land that occurs in NSW has been permitted without formal approval”
There is also an argument that the current regulatory regime impedes productivity in the agricultural sector in NSW. Farmers’ terms of trade has been falling nationally in Australia for several decades despite periods when changes to land clearing laws in other states, such as Queensland, allowed large areas of native vegetation to be cleared (Figure 2). That is, the profitability of agriculture in this country is not linked to the amount of land that is cleared—a pattern seen in developed countries generally.
However, there is evidence to justify why land clearing should be reduced in NSW. Habitat loss is associated with the majority of threatened species in Australia and is listed as a key threatening process in NSW and Commonwealth threatened species legislation. Preventing broadscale clearing is one of the most cost-effective way to protect biodiversity, while restoration of threatened species habitat is costly and unreliable.
The proposed reforms in NSW are contradictory in this respect. On one hand considerable tax payer money is allocated to conserve threatened species and their habitats (e.g., $240 million for conservation of priority areas on private land and $100 million for the Saving our Species Program). On the other hand, threatened species habitat can be cleared under the same reforms.
Another issue for biodiversity is that impacts of land clearing on native species begins to rapidly accelerate once a landscape has less than 30% native vegetation remaining. Approximately one quarter of the landscapes in NSW are now below this threshold, which means that every new hectare of native vegetation that is cleared in these landscapes will affect more species than it did in the past. The reforms are likely to accelerate clearing in these already over-cleared landscapes and thus accelerate the loss of biodiversity.
Thus, we predict that the proposed biodiversity law reforms in NSW will not meet the stated objectives: they will not provide a boost for agricultural profitability and they will have a negative impact on biodiversity.
What does genuine reform look like in this space?
In Australia’s National Food Plan it is argued that improving the profitability of Australian agriculture requires a focus on research and development to support productivity growth, innovation and adoption of new technology across the supply chain and value adding. A reform package that seeks to improve the profitability of agriculture needs to invest in these areas rather than spending resources to stimulate further land clearing.
Preventing broadscale clearing is a more cost-effective way to protect biodiversity than trying to reintroduce species to areas where their habitats have been previously cleared. The rate of biodiversity loss is greatest in already over-cleared landscapes. Thus, policies that stop broadscale clearing in threatened species habitats and over-cleared landscapes and increase the representation of these areas in the existing reserve system will improve outcomes for biodiversity.
Unfortunately the Baird Government appears to be charging ahead with its biodiversity law reforms, which neither offers a pathway for growth of the agricultural sector nor improvements for biodiversity conservation.