June 17, 2024

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Labor has adopted its own ‘nature positive’ approach to the environment. But is it just a ‘snazzy slogan’? | Environment

The term “nature positive” has been adopted by the Australian government as a catch-all title and slogan for its promise to address failing national environment laws and the country’s poor and deteriorating environmental health.

But what does it actually mean? Last week we got an answer – or at least the first part of one – from the government’s perspective.

The environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, said the Albanese government had created a “world first” by introducing a bill that defined the term.

It was included with legislation to create two agencies – Environment Protection Australia (a national EPA, responsible for improving nature protection) and Environment Information Australia (EIA, to provide data on environmental health).

The government has also said it will host a global nature positive summit in Sydney in October, though little has been said about who is coming or what it might achieve.

What is nature positive?

Internationally, nature positive has been popular since 2019, when people concerned about a global decline in biodiversity sought a phrase that might do for nature what “net zero” does for the climate crisis – set a measurable (and controversial) standard against which improvements can be tested.

A paper by environmentalists and scientists defined nature positive as halting and reversing nature loss by 2030 measured against a 2020 baseline and achieving “full recovery” by 2050. It would require retaining existing natural ecosystems – both areas that are highly intact and remnant fragments – and starting immediate restoration work on damaged and lost nature areas.

“Full recovery” will come when there are enough functioning ecosystems “to safeguard the stability and resilience of the Earth system, and support all life on Earth”.

The Nature Positive Initiative, a collection of 28 organisations, says nature positive means “increasing the health, abundance, diversity and resilience of species, populations and ecosystems so that by 2030 nature is visibly and measurably on the path of recovery”.

The trajectory of nature positive by 2030 identifies the goal of net improvement to a nature positive condition by 2030 (from a 2020 baseline) and full recovery by 2050. Photograph: A Nature-Positive World: The Global Goal for Nature report

The term nature positive was not officially adopted in the text of a global biodiversity framework agreed at a global summit in Montreal in 2022, but it was agreed nature loss needed to stop by 2030.

What does the Australian government say?

The government released what it described as a “nature positive plan” in 2022, saying it would be “better for the environment, better for business”. Plibersek also suggested that Australia could become a “green Wall Street”, attracting global investment in conservation.

The new legislation defines nature positive as “an improvement in the diversity, abundance, resilience and integrity of ecosystems from a baseline”, and says “regard is to be had” about whether there is an improvement in the species that form ecosystems.

But the legislation does not include a baseline or timeframe by which nature should improve. It says these will be determined by the head of the EIA.

What has the reaction been?

It’s been mixed. Environmentalists have largely welcomed the new agencies, but there has been sharp criticism of what is missing – a promised rewrite of the national environment laws, which are widely acknowledged to be failing. New laws have been delayed indefinitely while – according to evidence at Senate estimates – the government seeks “some level of agreement” with business and environment organisations.

Scientists and conservationists are also critical of the government’s definition of nature positive – particularly the decision to leave out a baseline year against which improvement can be measured.

They say the government has not explained why it has not adopted the 2020 baseline year used internationally. An alternative may be 2021, when a national state of the environment report was completed.

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Megan Evans, a senior lecturer in environmental policy at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, says it is “absolutely greenwashing” to say there must be an improvement without specifying how it would be measured.

It’s a pathetic definition,” she says. “It has no explicit link to the global biodiversity framework at all.

“They’re setting themselves up on this because they love the term nature positive, but that means you have to be accountable for what the term means.”

The director of the Biodiversity Council, James Trezise, says the creation of the EIA is an important step to measure progress in protecting and restoring nature. But he says the council, an expert group backed by 11 universities, believes the definition should be changed so it is closer aligned with the international definition.

How has Plibersek responded?

The minister says the government’s definition reflects “extensive consultation with Australian scientists, environmentalists and other experts”. She says the baseline data is yet to be identified because there is “no one dataset that gives the full picture”.

She says that will change. “The head of Environment Information Australia is an environmental data specialist who can decide what data can be used to set a baseline and measure the trajectory going forward,” Plibersek says.

What do experts say is necessary?

Scientists say the natural world is “humanity’s life-support system”. Research has found we have seriously compromised its ability to do that job.

The biggest threats in Australia are forest and habitat destruction – sometimes described as land clearing – and invasive species. Bushfires (see: the black summer of 2019-20) and the climate crisis are increasingly having an impact.

Trezise stresses that Australia’s biodiversity has been declining at an alarming rate. There have been three extinctions since 2009, the national threatened species index set up by the government is declining year-on-year and more than 7m hectares of threatened species habitat has been destroyed in 20 years.

He says addressing this means a nature positive definition must be far more ambitious than simply relying on contentious biodiversity offsets.

A group of scientists led by Prof Martine Maron, a University of Queensland ecologist and member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, wrote in The Conversation that being nature positive means organisations must follow a mitigation hierarchy so they avoid biodiversity loss wherever possible.

They will also need to consider the full impact of their operations on the environment – including what happens in their supply chains – and contribute to ecological restoration that goes well beyond making up for any direct and indirect damage they do.

Maron says if the government is serious about achieving this it will need more than an EPA that is a “tough cop on the beat”. “They will need to ensure that every decision made under national environmental law improves outcomes for threatened species, ecological communities and protected places,” she says.

What happens now?

The legislation is scheduled to be debated this week in the House of Representatives. Several cross-benchers are expected to introduce amendments.

The independent MP for Goldstein, Zoe Daniel, says they will attempt to change the definition of nature positive to halting and reversing the decline of ecosystems by 2030 against a 2021 baseline, with recovery to be achieved by 2050.

Once the legislation gets to the upper house it will require the support of the Greens to pass. That party’s environment spokesperson, Sarah Hanson-Young, says the test of whether laws are nature positive will be whether they “actually protect nature from destruction”.

“Mother Nature doesn’t buy the spin of snazzy slogans,” she says. “She needs genuine, positive protection.”