April 13, 2024

How Conflicting Policies Generate Terrible Environmental Outcomes

Policy alignment appears dry. But think of it this way: you want to make the suburbs cooler and more livable, so you plant big trees. But then you discover that the trees conflict with fire and safety measures and are cut down.

These problems are very common. Policies set by different government departments start out with good intentions only to conflict with other policies.

The Albanian government is currently working towards stronger environmental laws, following Samuel’s hard-hitting 2020 review of the current Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Law. The review noted that planning, financing and regulatory decisions “are not well integrated or clearly targeted towards achieving long-term environmental sustainability”.

Stronger laws are not a stand-alone answer. We must find ways to align government policies much better, so that progress on one front does not lead to setbacks on another. As the government prepares to announce once-in-a-generation changes to our key environmental laws, it must find ways to reduce these conflicts.

Nature vs cities

All levels of government have policies aimed at increasing forest cover and biodiversity in cities. How difficult can it be to plant trees?

The problems start when you look for places to actually plant street trees. It is common to encounter a wall of obstacles, namely other policies and regulations. Fire prevention, human safety, visibility of road traffic and the provision of pedestrian paths and parking are often legally binding requirements that can impede this seemingly simple objective.

Most cities in Australia are now losing cup coverage rather than gaining more.

When it comes to biodiversity, urban expansion is pushing many species and ecosystems to the brink of extinction.

What should we do when endangered species protection conflicts with new housing developments?
Rusty Todaro/Shutterstock

Last year, conservationists rediscovered the earless grassland dragon on Melbourne’s western grassy edge, which we believed to be extinct. Now we had a second opportunity to save it, in line with the Australian government’s commitment to ending extinctions.

The problem? The grasslands where the dragon was found near Bacchus Marsh, on the outskirts of Melbourne, are zoned for habitation. Only 1% of grassland ecosystems suitable for these reptiles is still intact and much of it has been designated for housing.

From a housing perspective, the dragon’s continued existence now threatens plans for 310,000 homes.

If we had better political alignment, we would seek to achieve both goals: protecting the dragon and building more housing through methods such as building sustainable downtown developments in established urban areas.

Read more: Victoria rediscovered a dragon – how can we secure its future?

Protecting the reef during LNG export

Meanwhile, the Great Barrier Reef is whitening again, the fifth attack in just eight years.

Almost all of the extra heat trapped by greenhouse gases goes into our oceans, triggering marine heatwaves and bleaching. If the world’s largest living structure bleaches too much, it will begin to die, threatening its rich biodiversity, cultural heritage and industries such as tourism.

On the one hand, Australia wants to protect the reef and has funded efforts to improve water quality.

LNG Carrier Queensland
An LNG carrier departs from the port of Gladstone on the southern Great Barrier Reef. The cargo it carries will, when burned, retain more heat and cause more bleaching of the reef.
Ivan Kuzkin/Shutterstock

But on the other hand, supportive government policies contribute to our recent emergence as a leading exporter of liquefied natural gas, which is 85-95% made up of the potent greenhouse gas methane. Deforestation in the watersheds of rivers flowing into the reef is ongoing due to policy gaps, which adds more sediment, nutrients and choking pollutants to the reef’s problems.

The maritime sector only has to comply with a voluntary code to prevent invasive species from reaching the waters of the ship’s hold, even if they may carry the tissue wasting disease that devastates the reefs of the Caribbean and Florida.

Read more: Out of danger because the UN said so? Hardly – ​​the Barrier Reef is still in hot water

Renewables versus biodiversity

Calls to speed up clean energy projects and stop them from being delayed by environmental approvals are risky. We could face one crisis (climate change) by worsening another (biodiversity and extinction).

Australia has destroyed almost 40% of its forests since European colonization, with much of the remaining native vegetation highly fragmented. Since this cleanup has already happened, it should be entirely possible to build renewable energy without damaging the homes of native species.

In fact, we can do better – we can take degraded farmland, build solar on it, and restore the low-lying native vegetation around it to really increase biodiversity. Requiring new renewable projects to be nature-positive would encourage creative approaches to providing infrastructure while benefiting nature.

solar panels and wildflowers
Solar versus nature? Why not solar and nature.

Political conflicts abound

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of examples of conflicting policies:

Read more: ‘Existential threat to our survival’: see the 19 Australian ecosystems already collapsing

Why the lack of alignment?

For politicians, the Ministry of the Environment is often seen as a poisoned chalice.

Within government, departments often go in different directions. When agricultural and resource plans conflict with environmental concerns, it’s not hard to guess which side is likely to win. Case in point: recent plans to remove oversight of the gas project from Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek in favor of Resources Minister Madeleine King.

How can we make policies work better together for the environment? Governments must examine all relevant policies and regulations to ensure that nature-positive approaches are incorporated. Demanding development proposals that benefit nature would go a long way toward reducing the environment-economy conflict. After all, most companies are now looking for ways to become nature positive.

Too often, environmental policies are seen as opposed to those that promote the economy, employment and industry. But they don’t need to conflict.

There are huge opportunities for a safer, more sustainable future if we address the current causes of friction and take a global approach to how we develop our policies.

Read more: 5 things we need to see in Australia’s new natural laws

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