The pace at which the Australian government approves destruction of habitat on which endangered species rely has accelerated in recent years, despite scientists warning of an escalating extinction crisis, according to an analysis by an environmental group.
The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) collected publicly available information on federal decisions that gave the green light to developments related to clearing forests and other areas on which endangered species rely.
It found that the leveling of more than 200,000 hectares of endangered species habitat – an area larger than Fraser Island (K’gari) in Queensland), or more than 100,000 Melbourne Cricket Grounds – was approved over the decade until the end of 2021. More than half of that total (120,000 hectares) had been approved in the five years since 2016.
ACF found that nearly three-quarters of the clearing approved under national environmental laws was for new and expanded mining developments. The most affected species was the koala, which was listed as endangered in New South Wales, Queensland and the ACT in February.
The foundation found that more than 25,000 acres of koala habitat had been approved for clearance. One-fifth of that was to make way for one mine, the Olive Downs metallurgical colliery in central Queensland, which last year received a $175 million loan from the federal government to support its construction.
Other critically affected endangered species included the critically endangered swift parrot, the greater glider (7,400 acres), the forest red-tailed cockatoo (1,800 acres), and the spot-tailed quoll (1,200 acres).
Jess Abrahams, a national wildlife activist with ACF, said the investigation revealed the cumulative impact of isolated federal government decisions. It showed that the commonwealth was “exacerbating extinctions” rather than protecting vulnerable native animals, she said.
Abrahams said federal data provided only a partial picture of land clearing across the country, as two major industries — agriculture and native forest clearing — were rarely assessed under state law. Logging is in fact exempt from the Federal Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Protection Act under forestry agreements between Canberra and the states.
“If we appreciate Australia’s unique flora and fauna, we need to do more to protect them,” Abrahams said. “That means tougher environmental laws to stop the rampant habitat destruction highlighted by this study, increased funding, and specific plans for the recovery of endangered species.”
A spokesman for the federal environment minister, Susan Ley, said the ACF analysis looked at only one aspect of the environmental approval process and did not consider compensation requirements to protect endangered species or how much approved clearance had ultimately occurred.
The spokesperson said $128.5 million in funding announced last week to “advance environmental reform” would lead to better management of the cumulative impacts of developments in some areas by moving from project-specific to regional assessment. It would also pay for a review of national compensation strategies and improvements in endangered species data, they said.
Opposition environmental spokesman Terri Butler said that, if elected later this year, Labor would consider reviewing last year’s EPBC law led by former competition watchdog head Graeme Samuel, including his advice on the importance of to take into account the cumulative effects of developments.
“We will also address delays in recovery plans, including those for the koala, which is seven years late,” she said.
dr. Megan Evans, a lecturer and researcher at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, said the results of the study were not surprising.
Evans said the federal government didn’t have a centralized view of how many endangered habitat types remained and officials relied almost entirely on information from developers when reviewing proposals. Developments were routinely approved with the promise that offsets to limit their environmental impact would be decided later, she said.
“There is no centralized database of protected habitat data and offsets. The system is not transparent and it will only get worse,” she said.
Australia is the world’s capital for mammal extinction, with 34 species known to have gone extinct since European colonization. The Samuel review found that Australia’s natural environment is deteriorating and the EPBC law is failing.
A report from the auditor general last week found that the federal government was unable to demonstrate that it was protecting Australia’s endangered wildlife as it failed to monitor most species, habitats or threats. Meanwhile, a study by 38 scientists working in Australia and Antarctica last year found that 19 ecosystems collapsed as a result of the impact of humans and warned that urgent action was needed to prevent their complete loss.