A report into the recent Senate inquiry into environmental offsets has now been tabled – you can download the full report here.
The inquiry was set up earlier in the year by the Australian Greens with the support of the Labor Party, and generated a fair bit of media at the time (here, here and here). I’m particularly interested in this inquiry given it’s focus on evaluating the effectiveness of environmental offsets – which is a key part of my PhD research. You can read the terms of reference here.
The report’s overall message is that we have very little evidence to know whether environmental offsets are achieving their intended outcomes in Australia, as there is usually little to no data being collected to determine whether offsets are successful or not. Of course, it does take time to establish whether an offset is effective, and the new EPBC Act environmental offsets policy was only released in 2012. That said, there’s currently no infrastructure in place to collect and store such data (no centralised database), and the information that does exist is not publicly available – so it’s very difficult for the Australian public to know whether offsets are effective. Given that environmental offsetting is an increasingly popular policy which is often promised as an effective and efficient way of compensating for the environmental impacts from development, and it requires the loss of environmental values now for the promise of compensation in the future, I think it’s especially important that we have the ability to evaluate how effective it is – to be able to learn and improve policy into the future.
Myself and several colleagues from the Environmental Decisions Group made submissions to the inquiry, which, happily, were cited several times in the report. You can view all of the submissions here (mine is #26, EDG is #50).
(Side note: I seem to have written a lot of policy submissions lately – so I’ve made a list here.)
The report itself made 21 recommendations, all of which were quite sensible. The ones I particularly welcomed were:
6.34 The committee recommends that the Department of the Environment expedite the development of a publicly available nationally coordinated register of environmental offsets
6.53 The committee recommends that the Department of the Environment’s compliance audit program be extended to include an evaluation of the progress of offsets granted as conditions of approval under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 in achieving their intended environmental outcomes.
Solid recommendations, but to what extent it will be possible to act on them is not clear – given the current budget climate and staffing situation in the Australian public service.
Next month I will be heading to the United States for a few weeks – partly for a short course and a conference (subject of a future post), and partly to learn as much as I can about environmental offsetting in the US – conservation banking and wetland mitigation banking. From my research so far, I don’t think Australia is especially unique in it’s lack of understanding of how effectively offsets compensate for the original environmental impacts.