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Why Australia Should Strengthen Environmental Protections: Considering the Indo-Pacific

As Australia balances economic recovery post-COVID and our obligations to policy areas such as healthcare, welfare and education, many policies and programs have been caught in the crossfire. Environmental policy is no exception. While many economies struggle due to COVID-19, discussion of regional collaboration to protect our environment becomes increasingly important.

On 3 September 2020, the federal government drew criticism from opposition parties and environmental advocacy groups for rushing the passage of proposed deregulatory amendments to the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act through the lower house of parliament, thereby kickstarting another national conversation regarding Australia’s role in environmental protection. This concern is certainly warranted, given the findings of the EPBC interim report released in July. The report found that Australia’s natural landscape has become increasingly degraded, putting several species of wildlife at risk, and that protective action taken by the federal government is insufficient. The government’s justification for the amendment, arguing that deregulating closely monitored bilateral approval agreements with states and territories for the economy to recover post-COVID, has provided little reassurance.

Yet, as national attention shifts once again towards the role of environmentalism in Australia, I believe this is a valuable moment to reflect on what environmental damage and climate change means, not just for Australia, but for the Indo-Pacific as a whole.

While we will all feel the effects of climate change, these effects will not be distributed evenly. Under these circumstances, we have an obligation to consider how climate change will impact all members of our regional community.

One impact of climate change Australia has become all too familiar with is the intensification of natural disasters. Our 2019/20 fire season, exacerbated by months of severe drought, was the worst on record according to the NSW Rural Fire Service. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), disasters will become fiercer by the year if the climate continues to change at its current rate.

Bushfires at the Tambo Complex, Queensland, Australia. Photograph by: Clay Stephens, BLM. Available at Flickr.com

Since the middle of the 20th century, natural disasters have cost Indo-Pacific countries more than US$3.2 billion in damage. The intensification of disasters will have massive consequences on all aspects of human life in the very near future – many countries in the Indo-Pacific will find themselves at higher risk of flooding, cyclones, fires, droughts and more.

As a country well-experienced with the devastation of fire and drought, increasingly intimately so, Australia has a keen motivation not just to prevent further disasters in our own country. Of course, intensified natural disasters are only one aspect of climate change. Rising sea levels, ocean acidification and water scarcity all threaten the lives of people across the Indo-Pacific, not to mention the livelihoods of many in the agricultural and fishing industries. Less developed countries are more vulnerable to these particular events than Australia; and as a country developed on fossil fuels we have an obligation to support our less developed neighbours.

These issues bring with them concerns regarding “disaster displacement”, defined by the Nansen Initiative as “situations where people are forced or obligated to leave their homes…as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of disasters triggered by natural hazards.” The ‘environmental refugee’ is becoming more relevant, and will continue to do so as impacts worsen.

Climate change is the most significant long-term issue facing our collective governments of the day. However, the problem is paradoxical – while we cannot deny our impact on the climate, it is also our action that can slow its progression. Opportunities to act in this space, especially collaboratively, are valuable.

Coming back to the government’s proposed amendments to environmental protections – no, they should not be passed. In fact, COVID-19 may pose an opportunity to diversify our economy and privilege environmentalism in our policy.

In recent weeks, many politicians from across party lines have called for renewed interest into Australia’s potential for a green energy industry. On 9 September 2020, Labor leader Anthony Albanese spoke regarding a NSW Government report highlighting the potential for a domestic hydrogen industry, securing 17,000 jobs and A$26 billion to our annual GDP. Interest in Australia’s green energy potential is surging, especially as Australia works to meet its emissions reduction targets.

However, a purely domestic approach is not enough to tackle an international issue. Further dialogue between Indo-Pacific nations should centre discussion around how the Indo-Pacific is contributing to environmental damage regionally, where within the region is most vulnerable, and what we can do through trade and policy to reduce damage. Existing targets are helpful, but a renewed focus on our goals as a region will encourage a collaborative approach towards environmentalism, rather than struggling individually to balance the economic shifts that come with it.

We are all in this together. The meaning of this is twofold – we must realize that our environmental policy can impact our neighbours just as much as it does us, and that we are a valuable region united. We do not have to walk the path of damage reduction alone.

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