National Environmental Standards – Part 2 – Offsets

Let’s talk about offsets.

On the bright side, the interim report does contain some wisdom, albeit in the form of some belated observations about the bleeding obvious. The Reviewers interim conclusion confirms what we already know, namely:

Offsets do not currently offset the impact of development. Proponents are allowed to clear or otherwise impact habitat by purchasing and improving other land with the same habitat and protecting it from future development

URL: https://epbcactreview.environment.gov.au/resources/interim-report/chapter-8-restoration

This is, unfortunately, stated in such general terms that the true subject matter is difficult to discern. It appears to be saying, for example, that hacking down a forest and putting some of the animals in another forest is, in fact, a net reduction in the extent of natural ecosystems; a reduction in our national heritage. Had this been written out as a formula for the scientists to perceive, more clearly, and so be in a position to advise the politicians and the public, more clearly, then we would have been denied this opportunity for self-serving revelation.

So what should we do about these crazy offset schemes now? Pack them up?. No, there is definitely some reluctance to do so. It seems we’re being encouraged to know that finding somewhere else to put animals, or trying to regrow a forest in a week, should be a last resort:

requiring offsets to be considered only when options to avoid and then mitigate impacts have been actively considered, and demonstrably exhausted

URL: https://epbcactreview.environment.gov.au/resources/interim-report/chapter-8-restoration

The trouble is, that’s pretty much already the case. As soon as a project is going to decimate a forest, and wipe out half the remaining population of endangered animals then the project proponents say to their consultants – ‘well, we’ve run out of options that we like, so please consider offsets’.

So far, these recommendations do not reveal much of a change. The Reviewers add another idea that steps the reality checking up a notch by saying that we have to stop using pretend offsets and start using real ones:

requiring offsets, where they are applied, to deliver protection and restoration that genuinely offsets the impacts of the development, avoiding a net loss of habitat

URL: https://epbcactreview.environment.gov.au/resources/interim-report/chapter-8-restoration

Should I be impressed? No. This is not really a legislative reform. This is just an admission of a failure, dressed up as a reform proposal. The real sentiment is hidden at the bottom, where the Reviewers reveal their hand and the old ‘let the market fix it’ trick is rolled out yet again:

incentivising investment in restoration, by requiring decision-makers to accept robust restoration offsets, and create the market mechanisms to underpin the supply of restoration offsets.

URL: https://epbcactreview.environment.gov.au/resources/interim-report/chapter-8-restoration

The first part of this recommendation is a direction to decision-makers to ‘accept robust restoration offsets’. Were they not robust before? Were they only partially accepted? And is the idea of a ‘restoration offset’ an offset of the proposal to restore something, so that it gets watered down? Such vague language for such an important subject.

Moving on to the market ‘solution’: now we’re talking about the supply of these ‘restoration offsets’. Where do they come from? Why is it so hard to find them? Are these offsets new and improved forests that we can deliver to a site, and thereby enhance the environment? And how will the miraculous mechanism of a market supply chain suddenly deliver them?

Will a sea-container full of fully grown eucalypts suddenly appear, ready to be planted in neat lines using a technologically-advanced fence-pole driving mechanism? And if tree hollows are needed, then you better get started a 100 years or more in advance. A whole new set of technologies may need to emerge that can grow mature trees in just a matter of weeks, for just-in-time delivery.

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