A specific Tasmanian-focused state of the environment report is overdue

by Eloise Carr in The Mercury
Originally published in The Mercury on July 20, 2022

Following the national state of the environment assessment release, Tasmanians deserve to know when a report on our state will occur, writes Eloise Carr.

In Tasmania, we haven’t had an official report on the state of our environment for 13 years. Now in its third term, with its third premier, the current Tasmanian government continues to ignore its responsibility to monitor, assess and address adverse effects of activities on the environment. The last Tasmanian State of the Environment Report was published in 2009. Since then, our environment has endured three high impact bushfire seasons, a more than doubling of the salmon industry and our East Coast waters are warming four times faster than the global average.

The latest Australian State of the Environment Report, released on Tuesday, paints a grim picture of why these reports matter. The national report tells an alarming story of the decline of natural and cultural heritage, increasing rates of extinction and impacts of climate change. The course we are on is unsustainable.

The report briefly covers some Tasmanian issues, including declining kelp forests and land clearing as a chief culprit in the escalating threat to wildlife and habitats. However, the report does not cover the level of detail needed, which is usually addressed by a state-focused report.

So, where is Tasmania’s state of the environment report? It’s more than 10 years overdue. The Tasmanian government seems to think Tasmania’s environmental problems can be made invisible – no state of the environment report, no record of environmental problems.

But that’s not how it works.

Such reports are important for two reasons. Firstly, monitoring, assessing and reporting on the condition of ecosystems tells us how well we are managing human impacts on the environment.

There is also a critical need to monitor climate change impacts, both to adapt now, and to inform modelling of future impacts. Individual, site specific assessments aimed at regulating specific projects only provide data about specific areas and do not inform us about the health of Tasmania’s environment more broadly.

Secondly, such reports provide evidence on whether solutions are really working and can make recommendations for action to address it if things are getting worse. We know the environment is continuing to deteriorate and biodiversity is declining. We need to be able to have a conversation about how we can respond.

Australia Institute research on Tasmania’s coastal waters has found fish stocks have been depleted, ecosystem flow-on effects have been ignored, more threatened species, paltry habitat protection and that the community is too often locked out of planning and management decisions. This, alongside increasing pressure from rising temperatures and extreme heat, pollution from aquaculture, agricultural runoff, urban development, and population growth, requires fundamentally improved management. Our polling found more than six in ten Tasmanians (64 per cent) were concerned that the health of Tasmania’s coastal waters are declining. More than half (56.3 per cent) of Tasmanians agreed the government was not doing enough to protect the health of our ocean.

So what is the ‘official state’ of the environment under the current government?

The 2021 Australian State of the Environment Report was due to be released in early-2021. It was handed to the former federal government in December 2021, but its public release was delayed amid accusations of avoiding ‘more bad news’ ahead of the election. At least at the federal level, although late, statutory obligations have now been met.

In Tasmania, the State Policies and Projects Act 1993 requires a State of the Environment Report to be produced every 5 years. The Tasmanian government has missed two reporting cycles since 2009, with the next report due in 2024.

In 2020, an independent review of the responsible agency, the Tasmanian Planning Commission found significant value in these reports and an urgent need for an update. However, it also found that the Planning Commission was not the appropriate body to prepare the report, lacking relevant expertise and resources. The review recommended the Tasmanian government confirm the intended purpose of the reports and assign responsibility for preparation and responsibility should reside, let alone any action being taken to deliver a report.

There is now a risk that the 2024 State of the Environment Report deadline will also be missed.

Whether it is the Environment Protection Agency, or another based on this.

According to the latest Budget Estimates hearing in June, there has been an almost complete lack of progress. No decision has been made as to where the reporting function independent body, the government should urgently commission the next state of the environment report through a body that is adequately resourced to do it.

It is not only reasonable for Tasmanians to expect this information about our environment, but also a statutory requirement. The Tasmanian government isn’t doing its job and our wildlife, forests, coastlines and oceans will pay the price.

Eloise Carr is director of The Australia Institute Tasmania.

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