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Key environment policy still unknown in the NSW election

NSW Labor has promised a Great Koala National Park to protect koalas, but what about more insidious threats to the environment? Nicki Mannix/Flickr, CC BY

With less than a week to go until the New South Wales state election, there are still major concerns about what the election holds for the state’s wildlife and ecosystems.

NSW has nearly 300 threatened animal species – including koalas, pygmy-possums, and a number of lesser known species such as Corroborree Frogs and Regent Honeyeaters – and more than 600 species of threatened plants.

Both major parties have made promises to save threatened species through more funding, and the creation of new national parks. And Labor has released a policy document promising to “review and replace the Liberal government’s watered down biodiversity offsetting rules”. However, the government has said little on one policy reform that could pose a serious threat to NSW’s wildlife.

In December 2014, the Independent Biodiversity Legislation Review Panel released their final report on biodiversity legislation in NSW. Recommendations include cutting regulation and increasing the use of offsets that make it easier to clear native vegetation.

The trouble is, we don’t yet know what the government thinks of the review’s recommendations, and what they would do if re-elected.

While there are many good proposals in the review, there are also many that are controversial, and the government should put its cards on the table before the election.

Critically endangered Mountain Pygmy Possums are found in the Australian Alps. Australian Alps/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

A step to the right

Some of the positive and relatively uncontroversial recommendations of the review include additional public investment in conservation, establishing a state-wide conservation prioritisation mechanism, improving the public’s knowledge of wildlife conservation, and improving plant community type classification.

However, the recommendations take a significant jump to the right of the political spectrum and many can be deemed quite controversial.

Taken as a whole, the review panel suggests reducing regulation governing land clearance, moving the approval process for land clearance on farms from the state to the local government level, and committing more broadly and deeply to market-based solutions for conservation issues.

More specifically, the review recommends repealing the Native Vegetation Act 2003 and removing the “improve and maintain” standard for clearing native vegetation. Under the Act, clearing native vegetation can only be approved if it improves or maintains environmental outcomes at the site level.

The review panel suggests that this leads to little flexibility for farmers who often complain that the act is getting in the way of their business.

The suggested approach is to broaden the use of biodiversity offsets and apply offsets at the regional level. That is, a site could be cleared (or “degraded”) if this degradation is offset by improvements elsewhere in the region.

The problem with offsets

Offsets are themselves very controversial in conservation and derive from a particular economic and ideological paradigm that favours market-based solutions.

A biodiversity offset scheme, such as the NSW BioBanking scheme, creates a price for the use of wildlife, plants and ecosystems.

Developers, after first trying to avoid and then minimise impacts on wildlife, can offset the remaining impacts by purchasing credits on an open market. These credits have been created when someone else has preserved wildlife.

Theoretically, offset schemes make sense. However, the theory makes a number of economic assumptions that don’t exist in the real world, including perfect information, zero transaction costs, an absence of market and political power, and regulators who are at arms-length.

And for the scheme to make environmental sense, the site being cleared and the offset site need to be identical, which is impossible. That’s why the Native Vegetation Act includes the condition that vegetation can only be cleared if it improves or maintains the standard of a site, rather than offsetting the damage elsewhere.

Who makes the decisions?

With the act repealed, decisions regarding land clearance would come under the jurisdiction of two local bodies.

First, local councils would be responsible for approving land clearance on previously uncleared land.

Second, “local land services” – local regulatory bodies made up of farmers and planning bureaucrats – would approve the existing management of native vegetation.

With many local councillors in regional areas being farmers themselves, both of these suggestions create a major conflict of interest.

Pushing the ideology of the market

Thus, the report, while undoubtedly consisting of many positive proposals, pushes a particular ideological line. This is the line that believes that market-based solutions can be applied to everything and that regulation of the more direct kind is simply stifling to business and therefore bad.

When applied to biodiversity conservation, this ideology increases risks. If the assumptions underlying the theory are not correct, wildlife, plants and ecosystems will suffer.

As an electorate, we deserve to know whether the government approves of the recommendations in the report. Only then can we make informed choices about our preferred government.

The government has said it would provide an official response before the March election. With only a few days left before the March 28 poll, time is running out.

Read more of The Conversation’s coverage of the 2015 NSW election.

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