ABC Melbourne interview with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

19 July 2022

SUBJECTS: State of the Environment Report, Climate Change, Murray-Darling Basin, Great Barrier Reef  

RAFAEL EPSTEIN, HOST: Every five years, experts assess the state of our environment, and it is not good news. Australia has lost more mammal species than any other continent. We are losing mammal species faster than any other continent. We have more introduced plant species than we actually have native plant species and there’s lots of other bad news besides, not the least of which is that six million hectares of mature forest have been cleared since 1990. That’s an area about six times the size of suburban Melbourne. The report was released today by Tanya Plibersek. She is, of course, the newly appointed Minister for Environment and Water in Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s Government. Good afternoon.


EPSTEIN: Just reading this report, Minister, I don’t actually know if any government can fix this. Is this a reversible situation?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: It is certainly a situation we can improve. It is quite dire, as you described. I mean, this is a report with thousands of pages of content. It’s the result of the work of dozens of scientists, including three key lead authors. It’s produced every five years. The previous Government got this months ago. They got it before Christmas, and they sat on the report. And when you read what’s in it, it’s no wonder they didn’t want people knowing. But it tells a very dire story about the Australian environment. But it doesn’t – you know, it doesn’t make me feel helpless. There’s great things that we can and should be doing. We know a lot of the things that we should be doing; we just need to get on and do them.

EPSTEIN: Is climate change the biggest cause of the problems? 

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yes, it is. Climate change is absolutely – it’s there on every page of the report. I mean, climate change is obviously, you know, drying our rivers, making our oceans more acidic. It’s causing bleaching events in the Great Barrier Reef. It’s affecting the giant kelp forest in the southern oceans. It’s obviously affecting Antarctica. It’s making extreme weather events more frequent and more severe, which means, of course, that ecological communities can just be smashed by those fires, in particular, but other events as well. So, climate change exacerbates every problem we have.

EPSTEIN: You are going to redo what’s known as the EPBC. It’s the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. It’s our major bit of environmental law. Right now, that legislation doesn’t even mention climate change. Does climate change need to be in the new legislation?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we need to take account of climate change if we want to protect our environment. And one of the first things our government will do is legislate for higher ambition on climate change. In fact, that’s something that we’re hoping to do in the first week of Parliament – 

EPSTEIN: Sure, that’s the targets that people would have been aware of, your 43 per cent. But that’s not the legislation that you control as Minister. Does the new version of our environmental laws need to also include just the phrase “climate change” and the impacts of climate change?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I’m not going to start drafting the laws now because there will be an enormous amount of consultation, but where we’ll start is with the recommendations that were made by Professor Graeme Samuel a couple of years ago, along with this five-yearly annual report, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act that you mentioned also requires regular reviews of the laws themselves. Professor Samuel made a bunch of recommendations that environmental groups and business broadly supported. The previous government didn’t act on them at all. Some people have talked about what’s called a climate trigger in new laws. Professor Samuel didn’t recommend that. He said that climate change is dealt with in other laws that the Government already has ambition on …

EPSTEIN: Well, if we get time to get to climate triggers, but if you – and I appreciate you’ve only been the Minister for six weeks, but if climate change is the biggest problem and it’s on every page of the report, doesn’t that mean you then commit to making climate change part of the laws that you are responsible for as Minister?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yep. It means that we absolutely take climate change into account when we’re working out how we best protect the environment. There’s no question of that. But like I say, Raf, I’m not going to start drafting the laws before I’ve spoken to stakeholders. What we’ll do is respond to the Samuel Review before the end of the year. We’ll release exposure drafts of legislation so people will have plenty of opportunity to comment, and then we’ll reform these laws so they do two important things: better protect our environment but also give faster, clearer decisions when people are proposing to build new things, build new homes, build new suburbs, build new roads, build new solar or wind farms. One of the real problems with the laws we’ve got at the moment is they don’t protect the environment, but they also slow down and complicate development proposals as well.

EPSTEIN: You mentioned Graeme Samuel’s review. You’ll know as Environment Minister one of the things he wanted to abolish was an effective exemption. If you’re a State Government corporation like VicForests, you’re exempted from national environmental law when it comes to logging. Graham Samuel wanted to get rid of that, that exemption around those forestry agreements. Do you want to get rid of them? 

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well again, Raf, six weeks into the job, I’m really not going to start making pronouncements like that. But we do need to start protecting our oceans and more of our land. And one of the other announcements I made today is that we will be signing up to the international target of protecting 30 per cent of our oceans and 30 per cent of our land by 2030. Protecting more of our land is important, but also having higher standards when we’re looking after land. We’ve still got national parks, even World Heritage–listed areas that are overrun with introduced species of plants and animals, so we’re even seeing within national parks, the degradation, the continuing degradation of the environment. 
So, we need to look after more of our landscape and we need to do a better job of looking after that landscape. So, we’ve already announced a doubling of the number of Indigenous rangers. We’ve announced extra investment in expanding Indigenous protected areas and we’ll look at where we can work with State and Territory Governments on new national parks or World Heritage–listed sites. All of this is part of better protecting our environment.

EPSTEIN: If I can return to the forestry agreements and I really do appreciate you’ve been there effectively for five minutes, but one of the first things you did do as Minister was list the largest gliding mammal, the Greater Glider, as endangered. That’s the species that’s endangered by the forestry agreements that are exempt from our current National Environment Standards. To have more than empty rhetoric and to do more than list something as endangered, don’t you have to get rid of those forestry agreements and stop logging? 

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I think any Minister that six weeks into a job starts ruling in and ruling out things as significant as you’re describing is not doing their job properly. This is protecting more of our land and protecting it better is something that we have to do cooperatively with State and Territory governments, with landowners, with people who have got a job on that land, with people who have got an environmental interest in that land. This a big task that actually requires us to work as cooperatively and collaboratively as possible. I’m not going to start ruling things in and out six weeks into the job.

EPSTEIN: Tanya Plibersek is the new Environment and Water Minister. 1300 222 774. I’ll get to your calls in a moment. I’m going to ask you another question that you might not want to rule in or rule out, but it’s clearly a priority. Climate change is written all over every page of that report. You are also the Minister that gets to approve from an environmental legislation point of view new gas and coal projects. Do we have to consider the emissions from new gas and coal projects in our revamped environmental approvals? Shouldn’t emissions be a part of the things that you approve?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, because I am the Minister that has to approve new projects, I have to be very careful not to be seen to be prejudiced in that decision-making.

EPSTEIN: You can talk about the principles behind them.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, and on the principles of this, I think it’s really important that Australia reduces its carbon pollution, absolutely, and that’s why I’m so pleased that one of our first acts as a new government will be to seek to legislate to reduce our carbon pollution. We are absolutely responsible for what we’re doing domestically to do that. We need to reduce carbon pollution and other greenhouse gases right here in Australia. Other countries that are burning Australian coal are responsible for reducing the pollution when they’re burning that Australian coal. That is how the global accounting for carbon pollution reduction works.

EPSTEIN: So, if I can go back to something you said to me much earlier, we know a lot of the things that we should be doing; we just need to get on and do them. Is this government actually going to do the things we know we should be doing?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Absolutely. For example, we’ve set aside $1.2 billion to restore and repair the Great Barrier Reef. We’ve set aside a quarter of a billion dollars for threatened species. We’ve committed to acting on the previous government’s absolutely hopeless progress on the Murray–Darling Basin Plan to make sure that we’re restoring environmental flows to the Murray–Darling Basin; that we’re actually delivering on the $40 million of Indigenous water that the previous Government promised in 2018 and never delivered. We’ll work on recycling and a circular economy – 

EPSTEIN: They’re symptoms not cause, aren’t they? Don’t we have to start with emissions and impacted everything we do. 

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: And that’s why one of our first acts as a new government is to seek to reduce Australia’s domestic carbon pollution and to make sure that we are doing our share as a good global citizen because, when we do our share, we also have the ability to work with other nations that are in the same way Australia was previously, not meeting their share of the global ambition that we need. We get a bit more moral sway with countries that are not acting as we are. We 100 per cent are committed to meeting the targets that we took to the last election. And I don’t see this as a terrible burden that Australia has to face. This is an incredible opportunity for Australia. 
I’ll just give you one example of what a great opportunity this is for the environment. When we are thinking about carbon credits schemes, if we’re thinking about regenerating land, planting forest, for example, we can do that in one of two ways. You can plant any old trees and you get a carbon pollution reduction, you get a carbon benefit, credit, for that. If you make sure that you are properly restoring land, you also got a phenomenal biodiversity benefit. 
Look at blue carbon. We’re committed to investing in more blue carbon projects. That means restoring mangroves, restoring coastal marshes, restoring seagrass beds. That is really effective for carbon pollution reduction. They suck carbon pollution out of the atmosphere really effectively. In fact, mangroves are five times more effective at capturing carbon than tropical rainforests. They store that carbon for thousands of years, but you are also restoring habitat for migratory birds, for fish and for other species. So, our action to do what we have promised on climate change, of course, has a sort of global benefit in improving the environment globally, but it gives us domestic opportunities for biodiversity, for regeneration, for land restoration, for protecting and providing additional habitat for threatened species.

EPSTEIN: Tanya Plibersek is the ALP member for the seat of Sydney, of course, but she is the new Minister for Environment and Water. Thanks so much for your time.