When my children are my age they will be living in a country with an economy that’s three times larger, and a population that’s twice as large as today.
And, on current trends, my children will be living in a country with around 10 million hectares less of native bushland.
So, how can we stem the loss of our distinctive natural heritage in the face of continuing economic growth?
The Federal Government is currently seeking public comment on a controversial solution to this problem.
Their plan is to nationalise “biodiversity offsets” to halt the loss of our significant biodiversity. Biodiversity offsets are actions at one site that compensate for losses at another.
For example, a company might destroy native habitat to create an open cut mine and offset this impact by planting vegetation in another area.
On face value this seems to be a win-win outcome, which probably explains why governments around the world are embracing biodiversity offsets.
But will biodiversity offsets halt the loss of biodiversity?
Not according to most ecologists.
The key criticism of biodiversity offsets is that there is only a narrow range of circumstances in which impacts on biodiversity can be offset with any kind of certainty.
An ecologist named Keith Bradby put it nicely in a documentary called “A Million Acres a Year” when he said, while looking over a piece of Western Australian bushland: “We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t recreate that.”
Another problem with the policy proposed by the Australian Government is that biodiversity offsets are not established before the impacts occur.
It can take 200 years before an offset will replace a nest tree for Carnaby’s Black-Cockatoo, a species threatened by urban development. We should be establishing offsets well in advance of impacts on our biodiversity.
The fault with many offset programs, including the Australian Government’s recent offering, is they promote the protection of high quality habitats as suitable offsets. If you think about it, a site that is already in good condition has little scope for improvement. So, this strategy actually results in a net loss of bushland.
Despite these issues, I offer guarded support for biodiversity offsets for the same reason I believe we should place a price on carbon to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Biodiversity offsets effectively place an economic value on biodiversity, thus discouraging its destruction in the first place. This is because offsets represent an economic impost to developers: it takes considerable resources to identify, establish and manage an offset.
This was demonstrated in New South Wales where the number of approvals to clear native vegetation dropped by about 80% after the introduction of offsets.
So, while offsets will not stop the loss of biodiversity, they might reduce the rate of loss.
That said, the Australian Government’s proposed policy will subvert this market effect. This is because the policy is riddled with exemptions. “Minor” losses, “non-signficant impacts”, and “economic and social factors” are all reasons a project can proceed without offsets under the current proposal.
At at time when mining industries have significant clout, when governments are doing everything in their power to maintain economic growth and when we have a rapidly growing population coupled with a housing shortage, you can bet these exemptions will be like cracks in a dam wall.
This was demonstrated recently in New South Wales. While the number of approvals to clear native vegetation dropped by about 80% after the introduction of biodiversity offsets, the area of clearing only decreased by 30%.
Exemptions in the legislation discouraged developers from finding alternatives to clearing.
And this takes us to the nub of the problem with land clearing policy. The current proposal from the Australian Government, like others before it, seeks to minimise the impacts of development on biodiversity, while making no attempt to address the causes.
We keep trying to plug the cracks in the dam rather than drain the water.
If we really want to stem the erosion of our natural heritage we must divorce economic growth from its attendant impacts on biodiversity.
That is, we need to de-couple food security from land clearing, achieve population growth without urban expansion, find transport solutions without widening roads and supply utilities without clearing easements.
Only then can we pursue economic growth without continuing to erode Australia’s distinctive natural heritage.
And only then are our children likely to enjoy the same natural heritage that we did.