Bushland will be “moved” from the ACT to neighbouring NSW.
This is one recommendation in the ACT government’s draft environmental offset policy, now being finalised in light of public submissions.
In an attempt to balance urban expansion with the ongoing loss of threatened species in the Bush Capital, the ACT government proposes that impacts from development on threatened species in the ACT must be offset by restoring equivalent biodiversity elsewhere, including in NSW.
This approach – biodiversity offsets – is becoming popular with governments around the world because it appears to provide a win-win: ongoing development without further loss of declining biodiversity.
However, biodiversity offsets have attracted criticism from scientists and public interest groups around the world as a “licence to trash” biodiversity.
For example, Britain's Environment Secretary suggested that biodiversity offsets would open national parks to development. None of the states in Australia that have adopted an environmental offsets policy can demonstrate it has improved or maintained biodiversity.
Unfortunately, the ACT government’s proposed environmental offset policy is unlikely to be any better.
The first problem with the proposed policy is that it will only work if the ACT says “no” to more developments. This is because we don’t know how to restore much of the ACT’s biodiversity once it is lost. For example, how do we replace a natural temperate grassland when we only have seed for a handful of the plant species that it supports?
How do we replace habitat provided by a 300-year-old eucalypt? When piloting a similar policy for the NSW government, I found that only 36 per cent of development proposals could be offset.
Yet, the ACT government heavily relies on revenue from land releases, so I cannot see our Treasurer accepting that a significant proportion of greenfield sites in the ACT are no longer available for development because the impacts on biodiversity of development on those sites cannot be effectively offset.
The second problem is that, for a biodiversity offset policy to work in the ACT, then houses built in areas that destroy threatened plants and animals must cost more money.
Our native plants and animals have suffered from market failure because they historically had no economic value. Biodiversity offsets intentionally place a price on biodiversity – a price equivalent to the cost of restoration elsewhere. The intention of this price signal is to reduce demand to build houses in areas that destroy biodiversity.
I suspect increasing the price of housing in the ACT is unlikely to be acceptable, since one of the ACT government’s policies is to improve housing affordability. Yet undermining this price signal undermines the environmental offset policy.
The third problem is, if the ACT must find land in NSW to offset its impacts on biodiversity, then doesn’t this suggest that development in the ACT is unsustainable? If we can’t offset our impacts within the ACT, then perhaps it is time to find ways to meet housing demand without continuing to destroy habitat for threatened species.
And the final problem I see is, by applying only to threatened species – and not all native plants and animals – this is the weakest environmental offset policy across Australia and therefore has the potential to act as a precedent that other states will follow to dilute their own regulations.
Public submissions on the ACT government’s proposed environmental offsets policy have closed, so we can expect a final draft soon. However, unless these issues – that fewer developments can be approved, that some houses will cost more, that we should offset our impacts within our borders and that this policy is weaker than other states – are acknowledged and accepted, then the policy won’t work.
And we will continue to lose biodiversity in the ACT.
Dr Philip Gibbons is a Senior Lecturer in the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University.