By Brendan Wintle (This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of Decision Point, The Monthly Magazine of the Environmental Decisions Group)
NERP Environmental Decisions (NERP ED) is working closely with the Strategic Approaches Branch (Department of the Environment) to apply state-of-the-art decision analysis to guard against cumulative impacts on threatened species and ecological communities (as listed under the EPBC Act).
The idea of strategic assessment, supported by regional sustainability planning (RSP), is to move away from case-by-case approvals of actions under the EPBC Act towards a plan for sustainable development and conservation of biodiversity in a region or State. Case-by-case approval can lead to the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ whereby the cumulative impacts of many small actions may lead to serious biodiversity declines (and ultimately extinction).
In addition to creating better regional outcomes, strategic approaches can also reduce the administrative burden on governments, companies and individuals by assessing the appropriateness of actions and mitigation responses (e.g., offsets) in a pro-active and strategic way. Regional sustainability planning improves clarity and certainty around conservation and development by identifying which places are appropriate for particular types of development and how biodiversity values will be maintained in the face of potential impacts. Regional sustainability plans can provide a strategic context in which to organize restoration efforts and other forms of impact offsets in a way that maximizes net biodiversity benefits for the least cost.
NERP ED is contributing to regional sustainability planning in several places around Australia including Perth and the Pilbara in WA, the Upper Spencer Gulf in SA, the Hunter Valley in NSW, and Greater Melbourne in Victoria. NERP ED provides support to RSP and strategic assessments by (1) mapping the distribution of suitable habitat for EPBC Act species throughout their range in an assessment area, (2) quantifying impacts of competing development and offsetting scenarios being considered (as a whole) on individual species and ecosystems in the regional planning process, (3) helping to identify mitigation and offsetting options using state- of-the-art spatial prioritisation software, and (4) analyzing the degree to which the best planning options contribute to the long-term persistence of a subset of threatened and priority species compared with a status quo scenario (e.g., Carnaby’s cockatoo).
“The key challenge is to ensure that the very best approaches to strategic assessments have been rigorously tested and are ready, practical and available to be utilized in policy”
NERP ED researchers actively engage with the Department of the Environment and other researchers and stakeholders in the RSP process. For example, Amy Whitehead, Heini Kujala and I (Brendan Wintle) have been actively engaged with the WA State Government and other biodiversity and planning researchers in their assessment of planning options for the Perth-Peel growth corridor in WA.
Strategic approaches are likely to have a much broader role in environmental legislation, policy and planning over the next few years because of the capacity to assist with streamlining environmental regulation. The key challenge is to ensure that the very best approaches to strategic assessments have been rigorously tested and are ready, practical and available to be utilized in policy and planning processes. This is where NERP ED hopes to play a pivotal role.
History of an outcome
Collaboration on strategic approaches between NERP ED researchers and the Department of the Environment began early in the Commonwealth Environment Research Facility (CERF) program, the program which preceded NERP. Early research on conservation planning in urban environments by Sarah Bekessy and Ascelin Gordon at RMIT preceded a submission by CERF researchers (led by Kirsten Parris) to the Hawke Review of the EPBC Act and involvement of Brendan Wintle in the Australian Government’s regional sustainability planning advisory committee. Strategic approaches became a key recommendation of the Hawke review and the Strategic Approaches Unit was formed. This Unit then approached NERP ED to undertake the targeted research work described here.
It is hoped that NERP ED research on strategic approaches will continue through a variety of mechanisms including ongoing collaborations with State agencies and private companies seeded by the NERP research. The future of regional sustainability planning research will see a much closer integration of biodiversity conservation and planning research, leading to more timely inclusion of biodiversity in regional planning processes and better conservation outcomes.