Environment and Biodiversity Offsets

by Elizabeth Morison

The 2022-23 Budget is largely tokenistic in what it will deliver to nature and wildlife conservation, despite the constant and increasing threat of biodiversity decline, invasive species, and weakening ecosystem resilience to natural disasters and climate change. Compared with fossil fuel commitments and subsidies, the Budget invests just a fraction into the environment. Spending is limited and targeted narrowly at popular items such as the Great Barrier Reef ($1 billion) or koala conservation ($50 million) rather than systemic ecological protection measures. There is also $128.5 million set aside for “environmental law reform” to cut through red tape and fast-track approvals for industrial and commercial developments. This is despite a scathing independent review into the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 exposing Australia’s inadequate wildlife protection.

This budget builds on the November announcement of a Voluntary Agriculture Biodiversity Stewardship Market in November 2021 – a scheme nominally designed to “incentivise the preservation and improvement of diverse ecosystems” through a market-based mechanism.

$13.2 million over 2 years was allocated to establish the market in the December MYEFO. In this budget, the Voluntary Biodiversity Stewardship Market appears as part of a $274.1 million bucket of money for energy and emissions reductions over 5 years that includes low emissions hydrogen and a hydrogen Guarantee of Origin scheme. However, just how much is allocated to the Voluntary Biodiversity Stewardship Market is not clear, beyond the fact that the Clean Energy Regulator will be receiving around $5.6 million over four years to administer the scheme.

There is currently not a huge amount of information on the scheme, and the final Agriculture Biodiversity Stewardship Market Bill 2022 is yet to be passed. However, what remains a concern is that the establishment of such a scheme opens the door to a biodiversity ‘offset’ market in Australia. The loopholes, delays, lack of transparency and failures of state-based biodiversity offsets have already been widely publicised. One particularly troubling loophole that the scheme may facilitate ‘double-dipping’ of both biodiversity and carbon offsets. The explanatory statement of the bill itself concedes that “most biodiversity projects are likely to also be registered as eligible offsets projects under the CFI Act 2011”.

Australia’s market mechanism for reducing emissions, the Emissions Reduction Fund, is already failing. Australia Institute research has shown that 25% of Australian carbon credits are hot air. Recent allegations suggest that the real number could be as high as 80% of all credits.  This is coupled with inadequate emissions regulation in Australia, and carbon credits being used as a fig leaf by big emitters to justify increased fossil fuel production. There is little to provide assurance that a biodiversity conservation market won’t have equally damaging outcomes.

It is important to note that while direct funding to nature and wildlife is largely absent, significant funding has been given to Indigenous land and sea management in this year’s budget with a $636.4 million allocation over six years to the Indigenous Rangers program, and a further $59.4 million to support economic security and leadership initiatives for native title holders. However, it remains unclear whether this latter figure is earmarked to flow right back into the Biodiversity Stewardship Market.

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