Re-designing institutions for better environmental management

Environmental degradation happens across private and public land, over catchments, forests, ecologies, aquifers, fisheries and rangelands.  These are the commons in which we are all stakeholders.  To manage these requires identifying specific environmental pressures at the local and regional scale and effective planning for restoration.  The latter requires collective action at the scale between private interests and government.  Private interests have resources to put to reducing pressures on the environment – government can support the process on a policy level.  Successful collective action is based on open and informed communication engendering trust and commitment.  To effectively manage landscapes and reverse the ongoing loss of species requires a range of necessary skills incorporating ecology, engineering, archaeological and other skills including local knowledge.  Individuals lack the range of skills needed to solve environmental problems. Governments have too narrow a focus based on inflexible legislative arrangements.  Groups acting and interacting on a variety of scales form the basis of an institutional design for managing commons on the principles of Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom’s polycentric governance.    The most effective way to govern the global commons is by local and regional stakeholder groups with technical and policy support from government.  Design of polycentric governance institutions should emerge organically from existing systems of environmental management as a matter of a change in emphasis.  The redesign of institutions in Queensland is discussed as an example in a western world setting.

Our current approaches are failing the objective test of conservation of biological diversity.  Environmental decline has not been reversed over more than thirty years of effort.  The Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment found that riparian zones are declining over 73% of Australia.  There has been a massive decline in the ranges of indigenous mammals over more than 100 years.  In the past 200 years, 22 Australian mammals have become extinct – a third of the world’s recent extinctions.  Further decline in ranges is still occurring and is likely to result in more extinctions.  Mammals are declining in 174 of 384 subregions in Australia and rapidly declining in 20.  The threats to vascular plants are increasing over much of Australia.  Threatened birds are declining across 45% of the country with extinctions in arid parts of Western Australia.  Reptiles are declining across 30% of the country. Threatened amphibians are in decline in south-eastern Australia and are rapidly declining in the South East Queensland, Brigalow Belt South and Wet Tropics bioregions.

Our rivers are still carrying huge excesses of sand and mud.  The mud washes out onto coastlines destroying seagrass and corals.  The sand chokes up pools and riffles and fills billabongs putting intense pressure on inland, aquatic ecologies.  In 1992, the Mary River in south east Queensland flooded carrying millions of tonnes of mud into Hervey Bay.  A thousand square kilometres of seagrass died off decimating dugongs, turtles and fisheries.  The seagrass has grown back but the problems of the Mary River have not been fixed.  The banks have not been stabilised and the seagrass could be lost again at any time.  A huge excess of sand working its way down the river is driving to extinction the Mary River cod and the Mary River turtle.  The situation in the Mary River is mirrored in catchments right across the country.  Nationally, 50% of our seagrasses have been lost and it has been this way for at least twenty years.

It is well known what the problems are.  The causes of the declines in biodiversity are land clearing, land salinisation, land degradation, habitat fragmentation, overgrazing, exotic weeds, feral animals, rivers that have been pushed past their points of equilibrium and changed fire regimes.  The individual solutions are often fairly simple and only in aggregate do they become daunting.  One of the problems is that the issues are reviewed at a distance.  Looking at issues from a National or State perspective is too complex.  Even if problems are identified broadly, it is difficult to establish local priorities.  Looking at issues from a distance means that a focus on the immediate and fundamental causes of problems is lost.  There are rafts of administration, reports, computer models, guidelines and plans but the only on ground restoration and conservation is done by volunteers and farmers.  Volunteers are valiantly struggling but it is too little too late.  Farmers tend to look at their own properties, understandably, and not at integrated landscape function.

There are solutions to some or all of these problems,  scientifically based sustainable grazing and agriculture, replanting and stabilizing riparian zones, restoring fragmented habitat, applying appropriate fire regimes and controlling feral species. It first of all needs political will and a financial commitment.  The Australian conservation Foundation and the Farmers’ Federation estimated that $6 billion a year for twenty years is required to restore Australian landscapes – about half of that from private sources.  Significant resources are currently expended and may be directed to better meet community goals and priorities.

A necessary prerequisite is to get environmental science operating on local and regional scales. Environmental science is a new type of science. It is team based incorporating a range of skills – ecology, archaeology, sociology, engineering, economics, accountancy, legal and others.  It focuses on specific issues and problems and has all the skills and knowledge needed to assess and, above all, fix problems.  There are already thousands of talented and dedicated public servants working in isolation on environmental issues.  Put them in balanced teams and get them working in local and regional areas.  They need to see, smell, touch and taste environmental problems.  They need to get out of the cities and work with local organizations, businesses and individuals.  They need to live with and be part of local and rural communities.

The existing command and control model for environmental management is inherently incapable of reversing declining Australian environmental trends. Environmental problems are not necessarily technically difficult but they tend to have political, economic and social dimensions that aren’t amenable to legislated controls.  Our systems are rules oriented and therefore inflexible.  They cannot respond quickly to changes in technology or emerging problems, local or regional variations or changing environments.  A move to local, flexible, efficient, autonomous and voluntary systems must occur if we are to hope for success.

In Queensland, the central organising environmental legislation is the Sustainable Planning Act.  It specifies a number of activities that trigger assessment under other environmental legislation.  The associated environmental legislation is the Environmental Protection Act, the Fisheries Act, the Vegetation Management Act, the Coastal Protection and Management Act and the Water Act.

One of the problems of the system is complexity, with thousands of pages of legislation and associated policy and regulation.  The Sustainable Planning Act is possibly a perfectly adequate vehicle for town planning, roads, water, building and structural certification, sewerage, storage of flammable materials and a host of other traditional activities.  The Environmental Protection Act applies to industry and development.  Its main concern is noise, air and water pollution.  The main outcome is a host of end of the pipe limits on emissions.  The Fisheries Act protects marine vegetation and approves structures in marine waters.  The Vegetation Management Act rules on clearing of native vegetation.  The Coastal Protection and Management Act at least theoretically addresses sustainable development of the coastline.  In practice, it approves development in the coastal zone.  It applies to very limited areas of the coastline with the bulk left to weeds, 4WD’s, goats, pigs and cats.  The Water Act applies to diversion of water resources.

The Productivity Commission reported on regulatory regimes in respect of vegetation but the findings apply equally well to other environmental legislation.  The Commission found that there are “several key underlying factors limiting their efficiency and effectiveness in promoting the delivery of the community’s native vegetation and biodiversity goals on private land.

  1. Regulation of native vegetation clearing prescribes the means of achieving a range of environmental goals across different regions. However:

(a) there are likely to be other means of achieving at least some desired environmental outcomes at less cost (for example, well-managed pastures may also reduce soil erosion).  Moreover, because the costs of regulation are largely borne by landholders, the cost benefit trade-off is obscured.

(b) environmental problems are complex, dynamic and geographically heterogeneous and will require innovative and adaptive solutions drawing on local as well as scientific knowledge.  Across-the-board requirements for retention of native vegetation are rigid and preclude innovation.  Indeed, retention of native vegetation in some areas perversely appears to be exacerbating some environmental problems; and

(c) ongoing management of native vegetation is essential to ensure its health and regeneration, but regulation of clearing focuses only on preventing its deliberate removal.”

In addition to point (a) above, there are likely to be ways of producing better environmental outcomes in more flexible and cooperative regimes.  The Commission recommended empowering regional bodies to pursue integrated environmental, social and economic outcomes.

Laudable as the goals of any single piece of environmental legislation may be, the larger picture is not addressed in a manner that integrates science, society and the economy and at the same time provides for conservation and restoration of our landscapes.  The legislation applies to part of the problem but leaves huge gaps where the decline of ecological systems continues unabated.  Next generation environmental approvals are needed to save money and to redirect those resources into achieving better environmental outcomes.  In Queensland, the way forward must be to exclude the environmental legislation from the Sustainable Planning Act. Reassign staff from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Primary Industries, the Department of Natural Resources and Mines and Parks and Wildlife into interacting teams of environmental scientists working at local, regional, State and even National levels.  Keep the environmental triggers in the Sustainable Planning Act, by all means, by making them notifiable activities.  Subject activities to integrated assessment but make compliance voluntary and enforced by contract.  This would streamline processes tremendously and allow people to get on with higher priority and broader environmental conservation goals.  If agreement can’t be reached, refer it to the political sphere where the responsibility ultimately lies.  Provide for statutory timeframes. Keep criminal sanctions for proved environmental harm.

An alternative to the present systems of hierarchical, compartmentalized, over legalized and failing approaches is proposed.  The environmental science teams would be comprised of biologists, engineers, lawyers and even non-professionals – farmers and greens, anyone who can work cooperatively to solve problems.  Above all, they must have a brief to assess and solve problems of air and water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, land clearing, land degradation, salinisation, habitat fragmentation, weeds, feral animals and fires across the entire landscape but focusing on the local and specific solutions.  Their role would be to plan, tender out to contractors and farmers and monitor solutions working, necessarily, transparently and accountably.

There are three elements to sustainability, the welfare of current and future generations and the conservation of biodiversity on which all life ultimately depends.  For one objective measure of sustainability, the unfortunate truth is that the trend to declining biological diversity has not yet been reversed.

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