Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Don’t bank on this phoney fix
THERE’S a new party game in Sydney. Players have to discuss government practice without using the word Orwellian. A planning act designed for random ministerial spot approvals; heritage and conservation legislation that is specifically waived for big development; and now the Threatened Species Conservation Amendment (Biodiversity Banking) Bill, so-called, customised to ease destruction of biodiversity, threatened species, pristine bush, coastal wetland, the lot.
The new bill, flicked through by Parliament last month, pretends to assist biodiversity by applying a carbon trading model. In fact, like carbon trading, it amounts to little more than a purchasable licence to destroy, without even an eco-assessment of the land in question.
The clearest exposition of the idea was given in Parliament by, ironically, Michael Richardson, the Opposition spokesman for the environment: “Landowner A owns 20 hectares of land at Castlereagh in the Sydney Basin, 16 hectares of which has been cleared.
“He applies to register the land as a biobank site on the basis that 10 hectares of land will be maintained and regenerated as Cumberland Plain Woodland, while 10 hectares will continue … as a house block and paddocks. The agreement generates 120 biobanking credits.
“Landowner B wants to develop his land at Rouse Hill, but requires approval to clear one hectare of Cumberland Plain Woodland. Under existing legislation he must obtain approval to chop down the trees. Under the biobanking legislation he buys the 120 credits from landowner A, which allows him to clear … without … a species impact statement. Part of the money … goes into a trust fund, which in turn pays landholder A an agreed sum each year for a fixed period to help pay for the maintenance of the four hectares of Cumberland Plain Woodland and the regeneration of six hectares of Cumberland Plain Woodland, that is, six hectares of cleared land.”
It’s an attractive idea. Attractive to politicians, since it cloaks developer appeasement in greenwrap. Attractive to developers, in allowing low-grade inland to be conserved while top-dollar coastal paradise is developed. And attractive to a concerned public, in trusting the market to conserve high-value environments even as it commodifies them.
Attractive also to the NSW Labor Right, being a pseudo-Catholic approach, where you can buy your way to redemption without renouncing sin. Same with carbon trading. You salve your personal or corporate carbon conscience by supporting one of the new global glut of carbon-reduction schemes. Tree planting in Brazil or Bega, eco-lightbulbs in Soweto or the Shire all help neutralise your carbon crimes. Carbon offsets are the new indulgences. Second car, overseas flight? Just make another donation, plant another tree, mumble another Hail Mary.
What a temptation. As with all having-your-cake-and-eating-it schemes, though, there’s a catch. Redemption may work for the sinner but out there on the planet, the sins live on un-neutralised. Which is why carbon trading is now reviled by green groups across the globe. It is flaky at best, being all but un-policeable.
And as carbon credits are a phoney fix for climate sin, biodiversity credits are a phony fix for habitat destruction.
But the temptation is real: the idea that the market can do the job of government. The Environment Minister, Bob Debus, described the bill as “an important new strategy that combines successful environmental banking experience in the US with the very best of Australian science”.
In fact, neither “successful” nor “science” really applies. The US model, known as “mitigation banking”, is commonly deployed in developer-friendly states such as Florida where wetland preservation is the big issue. The result, over years, has been increased wetland area but decreased biodiversity. Swapping quality, that is, for quantity. The pattern here will be the same, unless we lose quantity as well.
And science? Well, the science is still out. None of the crucial questions has been answered. How to measure and value site-specific biodiversity, for instance, translating species (by number, type or rarity?) into credits that are tradeable not just once but repeatedly.
How to ensure an outcome that, like regenerated forest, might be half a century off, or more. How to weigh 100 threatened eucalypts against, say, 10 endangered marsupials. How to value each in dollars – now, and decades hence. And what penalty for a breach? Demolish towns, replant forests? All this “detail” is left to regulations yet to be drafted by a select committee, chaired by recent climate convert Gordon Moyes, who in Parliament last week valued worldwide “ecosystem services” (read, the planet) at “$US32 trillion annually” ($42 trillion). That puts the eco into economy.
The Greens MLC Ian Cohen believes the bill “will facilitate and entrench the destruction of high conservation value vegetation in coastal and urban areas”. Like there’s not enough of that already. For Debus, though, “around Sydney and along the coast, biobanking will provide a structured way to ensure native plants and animals are protected, even as the population and the economy continue to grow”. Have cake, will eat.
The former prime minister Paul Keating called Frank Sartor the “mayor for Triguboff”. Here’s why. Biobanking is moulded to Harry Triguboff’s recent call for a south-east Queensland approach to NSW coastal development. Forget national parks; send the bush inland. Make all coast Gold Coast.
Triguboff calls it “sensible” city building. In fact, though, sensible cities protect wilderness by keeping humans corralled. He believes Sydney has “too many forests and parks … we should be building on this area”. Well, here’s his chance.
PHOTO: Moving the bush inland … the squeeze is on. Photo: Simon Schluter