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Remove shark nets, introduce mining bans: green groups' wish list for NSW

The Coalition governments under Barry O’Farrell and Mike Baird have “declared war on the environment” since taking office in 2011, according to nine leading green groups in the state.

In the run-up to next year’s election, the groups - which include the Nature Conservation Council, the Wilderness Society and the Total Environment Centre - say there’s still time for the government to improve its record.

Here are seven of the top priorities the groups say the government and rival parties should address, according to their report Our Environment, Our Future: Policies for the 2015 NSW Election and Beyond, released on Thursday:

  • Overhaul planning

The government weakened the mining State Environmental Planning Policy after Rio Tinto lost its case in the Land and Environment Court against the town of Bulga to expand its inappropriate Warkworth open-cut coal mine. The economic significance of a project has been given greater weighting than local communities and the environment, “fundamentally biasing the decision-making system”, the groups say.

Recent findings by the Independent Commission Against Corruption have underscored the need for increased transparency and accountability in environment and planning decisions. “Mandatory requirements for genuine and meaningful public participation in decision-making” are needed, as are the requirements for independent environmental consultants, the groups say.

  • Banning CSG and coal mining in sensitive areas

Productive farmland and special wild places, water resources and communities should be spared from coal and coal seam gas mining, the groups say.

“The rapid expansion of coal seam gas exploration across NSW threatens inland and coastal groundwater systems, and the full impacts of these activities are not known,” the groups say.

  • Land clearing and wildlife protection

Since the introduction of the Native Vegetation Act 2003, land clearing has dropped from an average of about 80,000 hectares a year - or about 30 times the size of the City of Sydney - to 911 hectares a year, sparing some 53,000 native mammals from being killed annually, the groups say.

Native vegetation regulations are now under attack, “which will result in an increase in the amount of native vegetation clearing that is exempt from scientific assessment, property planning and effective environmental controls,” they say, in their call to retain or bolster existing laws.

The overturning of a long-standing ban on burning of native forests for electricity with the intention of maintaining the woodchip industry and encouraging mass clearing of regenerating native bush, must also be reversed, they say.

  • Marine protection

Sydney should finally get a protected marine park to preserve remaining eco-systems of value, the groups say.

Fishing in protected marine sanctuaries, introduced as part of a trial “amnesty” program, should cease, as should trawling in marine parks.

“Despite being only seven years old, science shows that within no-take marine sanctuaries of the Batemans Marine Park there are 38 per cent more fish compared to fished areas,” the report said, adding that one poll showed 93 per cent of NSW residents support no-take marine sanctuaries to protect our marine environment.

Sharks and rays need particular protection, and shark nets should be removed from NSW beaches, the groups say.

  • Climate change

NSW has gone from an international leader on climate change action, with the world’s first mandatory carbon emissions trading scheme starting in 2003, to a laggard, the groups say.

“The current government claims to accept the science of climate change, but has failed to take meaningful action to reduce carbon emissions since it was elected in 2011,” the report says, noting NSW continues to rely on coal-fired power plants for 90 per cent of its electricity.

The government needs to scale up investment in “proven energy efficiency programs” and mandate energy efficiency programs for industry and the electricity transmission sector.

  • Container deposit scheme

More than 84 per cent of residents support a container deposit scheme, according to a poll last year, and it’s time the state government acted, the report says - possibly in sync with Victoria.

“With a national scheme unlikely to eventuate, the two most populous states with the greatest amount of wasted and littered drink containers can effectively introduce the system,” it said.

Recycling rates would exceed 80 per cent, create jobs and reduce waste in the environment, the groups say.

  • More parks

Among the many areas to protect, the government should declare the following wilderness areas: Murruin wilderness in the Blue Mountains; the coastal wilderness areas of the Moors (Myall Lakes), Sandon and Wooli catchments (Yuraygir NP); the Deua Valley in the Southern Escarpment Forests, the Pilliga in the Brigalow, Tabletop and the Main Range in Kosciuszko National Park, and Coolangubra and Tantawangalo in the South East Forests.

The government should also establish a reserve system for koalas, including the Coffs Harbour-Guy Fawkes and the Bellinger-Nambucca-Macleay koala meta-populations, the groups say.

The Nature Conservation Council’s chief executive, Kate Smolski, said the aim of the report is to focus attention on the state’s most pressing environmental problems.

“It also gives the government the chance to get some runs on the board before next March, and reverse its currently very poor record,” Ms Smolski said.

Environment Minister Rob Stokes said the government welcomed the report “as an important contribution to the debate towards ecologically sustainable development in NSW”.

“Following an independent scientific audit of Marine Parks, the government announced a commitment to an evidence-based approach to marine management,” he said. “Examination of the environmental values of Sydney’s marine bio-region is an important piece of work that is already under way.”

Mr Stokes also said an independent panel is continuing its work on the biodiversity legislation review. “The government remains committed to a modern regime that more effectively protects biodiversity while facilitating sustainable development,” he said.