National Biodiversity Conference address, Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

27 July 2022

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Acknowledgments omitted.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: You’ve picked the perfect location for a biodiversity dinner, here at the National Arboretum.  

The National Arboretum was established after the devastating bushfires of 2003 ripped through this area.  

It stands here today, overlooking Canberra, as proof of our ability to heal the landscape – even in the most extreme circumstances.  

I want to also begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet tonight – the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people – and pay my respects to their Elders past and present. 

First Nations people have managed land and sea country for 65,000 years.

They are the world’s oldest continuous culture, and the most successful environmental custodians on earth. 

It’s a remarkable example for all of us, and one I’ve been reflecting on this week, since our Government released the latest State of the Environment Report.

For those of us who cherish Australian biodiversity …

For those of us fighting to protect native species from the slow grind of extinction …

… The report was a deeply disturbing read. 

On nearly every measure of biodiversity, Australia is in poor shape and going backwards. 

We’re now the mammal extinction capital of the world, having lost more species than any other continent. 

In the past five years, the number of threatened ecological communities has grown by another twenty per cent.

The number of threatened species has grown by almost ten percent. 

And for the first time, we have more foreign plant species than native ones in this country.

These are the headlines from the report.

But there’s another, more immediate story beneath these headlines. 

A story told in real habitats being destroyed, in protected species losing their homes, and in our desperate efforts on the ground to revive these populations.

One of my first acts as Minister was to move the Greater Glider from vulnerable to endangered protection status. 

We’re talking about the biggest gliding mammal in Australia here … a nocturnal mammal that can float across the treetops like a furry eagle.

If you ever see a photo of a Greater Glider, peering out of their little hollow tree houses, you’ll fall in love with this unique product of Australian evolution. 

But as things currently stand, they’re not getting the protection they need – and they’re living on the edge of extinction. 

I have two more species listing decisions on my desk – both victims of bushfire, habitat loss and climate change …

… And I’m expecting to make a further six decisions in the coming weeks. 

When you read the State of the Environment Report; when you track the health of native species like the Greater Glider; you’re left with one conclusion: we can’t go on like this.

If we want to bring species back from the precipice, we need to change. 

In that spirit, I want to acknowledge Graeme Samuel, who opened the conference yesterday with his keynote address.

Two years ago, Professor Samuel reviewed our national environmental laws, and found that they ‘do not enable the Commonwealth to effectively protect environmental matters that are important for the nation. They are not fit to address current or future environmental challenges’.

Professor Samuel concluded that:

‘To shy away from the fundamental reforms recommended by this review is to accept the continued decline of our iconic places and the extinction of or most threatened plants, animals and ecosystems’. 

I promise you: this is not a government that is going to shy away from difficult problems; or accept decline and extinction as inevitable.

Which is why, last week, we announced that we will formally respond to the Samuel Review by the end of this year. 

We will then develop new environmental legislation for 2023 – to build protection, integrity and efficiency into the system.  

Because you can’t support biodiversity if your legal system doesn’t effectively protect the environment in the first place. 

But biodiversity reform has to go beyond protection – as vital as it is. 

As I said last week, we need to protect, restore and manage our natural environment. 

I’m very interested in the ideas being explored at this conference – particularly in the ways we can value and encourage essential restoration work.  

I was fortunate enough to get a sneak peak at Ken Henry’s address earlier this week – on accounting for nature and biodiversity credits. 

I think it’s a really exciting area of policy. 

There is growing international effort to measure and account for nature – and Australia is a leader in this field. 

If we can measure and describe improvements in biodiversity. 

If we can formally credit a landholder’s efforts to enhance an area’s biodiversity.

Markets can put a price on that work. 

Businesses can invest in it their credits. 

And landholders can then profit from their services to nature …  

… Creating a clear financial incentive for high quality restoration work. 

This is similar to what we’ve done with carbon credits. 

The transition to net zero provides a once in a lifetime opportunity. 

Carbon revenues are creating incentives for tree planting across Australia. 

But if we also put a value on biodiversity, we do can do more than plant trees. 

We can restore our ecosystems. 

Biodiversity credits could reward the planting of vegetation along a hillside – to stop erosion and to protect the local soil.

It could reward the creation of connectivity between different habitats – providing corridors for survival for threatened species. 

It could reward plantings along a creek or re-establishment of reed beds – protecting local waterways and reducing evaporation. 

It could support blue carbon projects – reviving wetlands, re-establishing mangroves and sea grass, and absorbing carbon at five times the rate of tropical rainforests. 

A biodiversity credit could acknowledge this work and certify its authenticity. 

The reality is: the scale of Australia’s biodiversity challenge means that governments can’t do the job alone. 

The Australian Land Conservation Alliance estimates that we need to spend over $1 billion a year to restore and prevent further landscape degradation. 

Which means that we need to work with industry and philanthropic partners. 

Many of the organisations represented here tonight are looking for ways to invest in high quality environmental outcomes. 

And they’re not the only potential buyers in a biodiversity market. 

Companies with offset obligations under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act are also potential investors in high quality biodiversity protection and restoration projects. 

Our reform of environmental protection laws will look at improvements to offsetting arrangements. 

The Samuel Review made a number of recommendations about offsets – and we’ll take these as our starting point. 

We’ll make sure that offsets are used appropriately – after every effort has been made to avoid and mitigate the environmental impacts of the project. 

We want to make every effort to avoid environmental harm, before resorting to compensation for harm. 

And if offsets are required, we need absolute confidence that projects are delivering the intended biodiversity benefits – and will continue to do so in perpetuity, or for as long as required. 

A credible market for biodiversity can provide this confidence. 

As well as Graeme Samuel’s advice, we will closely follow the findings from Chris Bowen’s review of carbon credits, and the ACCC’s review of water markets. 

Because we know that markets are only as strong as the trust and integrity that underwrite them. 

In 2011, Labor introduced legislation to create the voluntary carbon market – and today millions of dollars are invested to reduce and store carbon every year. 

Complex and seemingly radical at the time, it’s now an established market – with prices reported by Alan Kohler at the end of the nightly news. 

My prediction is the voluntary market for biodiversity will one day be the same.

So thank you for all the work you’ve been doing to support Australian biodiversity. 

Because we need reports like the State of the Environment, which set out the problems we face – with clear eyes and deep research. 

But we also need solutions … workable, effective, intelligent policy solutions.  

That’s what this conference is all about. 

And that’s what I’m determined to deliver as Minister for the Environment and Water.
 
Thank you.