Environmental offset schemes are at best ineffective and at worst actively facilitate the decline of threatened species, irreplaceable native habitat and biodiversity, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) warns in a submission to a NSW parliamentary inquiry.
Environmental offsets are supposed to compensate for the destruction of habitat by a commercial project, such as a mine, an airport extension or a new housing estate.
They are meant to be a last resort after a project proponent has made all attempts to avoid and reduce impacts on the environment, but they have become the default approach.
Investigations show environmental offsets promised by several NSW coal mines have been delayed for years because governments allow companies to push back deadlines to secure permanent protection of habitat.
ACF’s submission to the inquiry into the NSW offsets scheme says “the embrace of biodiversity offsetting in NSW and other Australian jurisdictions has not been accompanied by sufficient critical scrutiny of the effectiveness and integrity of these schemes.”
“Excessive reliance on environmental offsets undermines biodiversity protection,” said ACF’s Biodiversity Policy Adviser, Brendan Sydes.
“At best offsets are ineffective at protecting biodiversity, at worst they facilitate the destruction of irreplaceable habitat.
“There is an inherent problem is the fact that demand for environmental offsets is driven by environmental destruction.”
ACF’s submission recommends environmental offsets be available only in strictly limited circumstances to make sure they are an option of last resort.
The submission also calls for governments to tighten offset rules and improve the transparency and oversight of the schemes to lessen integrity issues.
The submission also calls for the NSW government to back National Environmental Standards recommended by an independent review of national environmental laws that would require a more rigorous approach to environmental offsetting across the country.
Professor Graeme Samuel’s recent review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act said the offsets policy “contributes to environmental decline rather than active restoration” and “The EPBC Act environmental offsets policy has major shortcomings in both its design and implementation”.
The federal government has refused to adopt the Samuel review’s recommended standards.