Environmental laws under the new federal government – Climate change

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The federal election ushered in a new federal government for Australia and signaled an electoral mandate to improve federal environmental frameworks and legislate for climate action.

The Australian Labor Party has provided guidance on how it intends to change the existing legal framework for environmental management and protection, including the establishment of a federal environmental protection agency, the restoration of National Water Commission, providing additional funding for reef protection programs and decarbonising the economy under the Powering Australia plan. If implemented, the commitments of the new federal government present a significant change in environmental and climate regulation in Australia.

We look at some of the most important proposed policies below.

Feed Australia

The government’s decarbonisation target of net zero by 2050 is supported by the Powering Australia plan. The most important aspects of the plan are the funding commitments, including:

  • $20 billion to modernize the electricity grid

  • $3 billion from the National Labor Reconstruction Fund to support renewable energy manufacturing and deployment of low-emission technologies

  • $100 million co-invested for 85 community solar banks across the country

  • $200 million for 400 community batteries

  • $10 million for a new energy skills program for 10,000 new apprentices in the renewable energy sector.

The plan focuses on expanding renewable energy in Australia and reducing emissions across all industries. Other aspects of the plan include a new National Electric Vehicle Strategy to manage electric vehicle infrastructure, the restoration of the Climate Change Authority to review Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions and report on the national carbon budget and policies to encourage private investment in reducing emissions.

A new national environmental protection agency

In 2020, an independent review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) by Professor Graeme Samuel identified that –

“There has been limited activity to enforce the EPBC Act over the 20-year period it has been in effect and a lack of transparency about what has been done. The Department has improved its compliance and enforcement in recent years. However, it still relies on a collaborative approach to compliance and enforcement, which is too weak.”

In response to this and other concerns, the new government is proposing an independent Environmental Protection Agency. The new agency will have two divisions, one for compliance and another for environmental data. The new agency’s aim is to support new legally enforceable national environmental standards under the EPBC Act that would outline the environmental outcomes it seeks to achieve and ensure that decisions are made in a way that contributes to them.

The exact form of the new agency has yet to be defined, with interesting questions regarding the extent of any agency’s powers with respect to enforcement and the appropriate forum for review of agency decisions.

Map of water for Australia

The Water for Australia plan is a broad policy aimed at ensuring water security in Australia, primarily by restoring investment and authority within the existing framework of water legislation, namely:

  • the creation of a National Water Commission to lead a coherent and long-term water reform and policy

  • increase investment under the National Water Supply Network Investment Policy to supply water to regional and remote communities and agricultural projects

  • backup of the Murray-Darling basin plan (To plan) ensuring the Inspector General for Water Compliance has the power to crack down on water theft, improving metering and measurement, and investing up to $8.5 million to instruct CSIRO to re-run the Sustainable Yield Study (which will inform how much water withdrawn can be allowed under the Plan to be sustainable).

Other reforms promised for the plan include reinstating the Sustainable Rivers Audit to assess the ecological health of the basin, requiring a unique common identifier for all water traders and providing $40 million worth of cultural water to Indigenous Australians. In addition, 450 GL of additional water committed to the environment will be delivered.

The ambitious commitments made by the new government already mark a major turning point in the national environmental and climate framework.

This publication does not address all major topics or changes in law and is not intended to be relied upon as a substitute for legal or other advice which may be relevant to the specific circumstances of the reader. If you found this publication interesting and would like to know more or would like legal advice relevant to your situation, please contact one of the people named on the list.

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