Curse of the cumulative impacts

Oct 6, 2023
Sustainable development goals.

There are many actions taken by individuals, corporations, and governments that by themselves might be considered minor but when taken together can substantially cause harm to environmental values. Revision of the federal EPBC Act provides an opportunity to include provisions that will help mitigate adverse effects of these “cumulative impacts” on areas containing threatened species and ecological communities. 

The phrase “death by a thousand cuts” resonates with all those who have witnessed environmental degradation in its various forms. This is especially apparent in coastal regions where rampant development has destroyed many ecosystems and allowed for waterways and coastlines to be modified beyond repair. For many this is the price of “progress’, of lifestyle choices to own and use property as they wish, and to create new landscapes that provide for livelihoods and thus enhance economic growth. All quite understandable but at what cost if allowed to go on and on indefinitely.

Years ago I chaired the second national State of Environment Committee that reported to the Australian Government in 2001. It followed the pioneering efforts of the first SOE report under the guidance of Professor Ian Lowe. Messages from these and subsequent reports, the latest in 2021, tell a familiar sad story, that as a nation we are experiencing continued aggregated loss of biodiversity. Driving much of this loss, this failure to protect the extinction of species, this destruction of ecological communities and habitats, and the reduction in the health of waterways, are the multiple of actions that cumulatively adversely impact on environmental conditions. Here we are distinguishing such “cumulative actions” from “individual actions” that arise from say a specific development. The challenge we face as a nation is to find ways to mitigate these losses.

To a large extent mechanisms are available to state and territory government (and local governments) to manage cumulative impacts. For instance, WA, Victoria and NT have provisions in legislation that recognise the need to address harm arising from activities combined with harm generated from other activities. The NSW “Resilience and Hazards” State Environmental Planning Policy section on coasts (Chapter 2) gives a quite specific provision in relation to a development likely to adversely impact on water quality in a “coastal environment area”, “in particular the cumulative impacts of the proposed development on any sensitive coastal lake as listed in Schedule 1” (s 2.10 (1) (c)). Just how effective are all these state laws and regulations and just how do they mesh with Commonwealth law under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act)?

Associate Professor Rebecca Nelson (University of Melbourne), a specialist in legal studies of cumulative impacts, has recently noted the Commonwealth lags behind the states and nearly all other developed countries in currently lacking reference to cumulative impacts in generally applicable environmental impact assessment legislation. She has kindly offered advice to the Wentworth Group in its advocacy for change in the EBPC Act. Our Group has long been concerned with governance of environmental matters that are of national concern. But it was the Samuel review of the Act (2020) that has driven us to bring forward concrete proposals for consideration in any revision of the Act.

Samuel Review found that cumulative impacts are currently not well managed under the federal EPBC Act. He noted that “Individually developments may have minimal impact on the natural environment, but their combined impact can result in significant longterm damage…project level decisions fail to fully factor in other pressures on the environment, resulting in an underestimation of the broadscale cumulative impacts on a species, ecosystem or region”. These are powerful words and led to Recommendation 25 of the Samuel Review which proposed a number of amendments to the EPBC Act “ to support more effective planning that accounts for cumulative impacts and past and future threats”.

The EPBC Act focuses on the protection and restoration of narrowly defined Matters of National Environmental Significance (MNES). There are a range of other environmental values that are out of scope and must be covered through state legislation. Nevertheless we should reasonably expect that those MNES that are or will be adversely affected by cumulative impacts will always be protected and restored through Commonwealth law, policies, recovery plans and funded programs. Responsibilities cannot be abrogated or simply devolved without effective support and compliance with state and local governments.

We expect our federal government to do something to address environmental degradation issues including adverse effects of climate change; but what can it do? The Wentworth Group is adamant that amongst other things certain steps must be taken consistent with federal powers to ensure MNES are better protected. For this to happen the revised Act MUST include strong provisions related to cumulative impacts. Our recommendations include insertion into the EPBC Act an object and definitions of cumulative impacts relevant to any consideration in environmental assessment and approvals processes. A clear distinction should be made between individual actions which on their own should be referred for assessment from all those actions that will impact adversely on a MNES but in isolation do not meet a significance threshold.

One of our recommendations focuses on the importance of having a National Environmental Standard for Regional Planning. Where there are MNES a robust process should be installed that recognises precautionary thresholds for each MNES which when met would trigger a halt to actions within or external actions that would adversely impact on areas in the region mapped as containing a MNES. To really be robust it would also involve identification of desirable future states for the MNES (and other matters of value within a region) that would guide consideration of landuse zoning and permissible activities within zones. Functions of the new Environment Information Australia (EIA) and Environment Protection Australia (EPA) would include establishing an ongoing register of cumulative impacts drawing on monitoring information (EIA) and assessing/monitoring of cumulative impacts at both project and strategic level impacting on MNES (national EPA).

There is a range of substantial activities often considered minor that are recognised in different regions of Australia to be the cause of harm to matters of environmental value (species, ecological communities, waterway health, heritage, etc.). Most prominent are land clearing and over extraction of water. But residential construction and various types of pollution or disturbance to water quality occur in ways that have been documented as harmful. I see this in coastal areas where there are Ramsar wetlands with consequent declines in migratory and local bird populations. Such wetlands by international agreements are a responsibility of the Australian Government. Those well placed to know and speak for the degradation of such areas are the 54 regional environmental (National Resource Management) bodies spread across the nation. I see value in their empowerment to assist both the EIA and EPA in collecting information, monitoring impacts, and reporting on adverse effects that require mitigation. State and territories (and local) governments also have a role; however, their interest may not be as focused on what is happening at a regional scale on landscapes as those of the NRM regional entities. The EIA and EPA must seek assistance from all public authorities and communities in driving change to better protect biodiversity and land and water health. Climate change and other forces will not make their task any easier, but the Australian Government should at the very least make provision in law for them to address cumulative impacts wherever possible.

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