Australia’s efforts to increase renewable energy sources should not harm biodiversity. A thoughtful approach is necessary. | Hugh Possingham
The recent choice made by Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek to reject the construction of a “green energy hub” at Port of Hastings in the Western Port wetland near Melbourne highlights the growing conflict between two priorities of the Australian government – addressing the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis. It is imperative that we find swift resolutions to this dilemma in order to prevent missed chances, costly errors, and further extinctions.
There are two major threats to humanity that we must address. The first is the well-known climate crisis, but the second, which is biodiversity loss, is often overlooked. We are just starting to understand the impact of this threat on our economy, agriculture, health, and culture.
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Rewording: In most cases, activities that promote biodiversity, such as restoring habitats and implementing First Nations-led fire management, also have positive effects on the climate. Scientific research shows that “nature-based” solutions can contribute to at least one third of the expected reduction in global emissions. Simply halting land clearing and deterioration of habitats is the most crucial action for mitigating biodiversity loss and significantly increasing CO2 storage.
Conservation efforts are typically beneficial in mitigating climate change and aiding in adapting to environmental shifts. However, the development of renewable energy sources is quickly becoming an exception to this rule. Australia, which aspires to be a leader in renewable energy, may face a significant impact on its land as more than 5% of the country’s territory could be taken up by necessary infrastructure. This could have detrimental effects on ecosystems by causing fragmentation and disruption.
Unfortunately, solar farms may ironically become the primary cause of destruction for native plants in certain states. While wind farms have already been recognized as a danger to flying creatures, particularly migratory and larger species such as the critically endangered orange-bellied parrot, the iconic brolga, and essential pollinators and seed dispersers like flying foxes. The development of associated infrastructure like roads and power lines, as well as new mines for critical minerals, will also contribute to the loss and fragmentation of habitats.
The development of renewable energy initiatives may have consequences for the cultural significance of land and sea areas owned by Indigenous Australians. Collaborating with First Nations communities is crucial to avoid potential harm to their territories.
Is there a resolution to this impending disagreement? Can we swiftly switch to renewable energy and also preserve our biodiversity?
The federal Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act was enacted in 1999 with a request for regional biodiversity plans. Despite efforts from federal, state, and local governments, such as the Cumberland Plain conservation plan, none have fully achieved their goal of reducing the risk of extinction.
How can we create an effective regional plan? This plan should incorporate red zones, which are crucial areas for endangered species, unique habitats, Ramsar sites, and world heritage sites. These areas should never be considered for development, let alone approved for it.
We require areas of greenery as well – locations where sustainable infrastructure is financially feasible and has minimal impact on biodiversity, such as previously cleared and degraded land, and areas without large concentrations of migrating species. Approvals for development in these green zones should be sped up to facilitate the fast and efficient implementation of projects.
Areas marked in yellow indicate where development is not certain, but could potentially occur. Proposals for projects in these yellow zones will require further evaluation to identify potential risks and develop plans to prevent negative effects on biodiversity whenever feasible. Efforts will also need to be made to reduce any unavoidable impacts, and biodiversity must be enhanced in other locations to compensate for the remaining impacts.
Instead of constantly going back and forth between proposals and rejections for the Port of Hastings terminal and other renewable infrastructure projects, a more efficient solution could be implementing a regional biodiversity planning system with a red-yellow-green traffic light system.
Organizing land beforehand in this manner will offer a straightforward route for developers, allowing them to avoid unnecessary investments in surveying projects for sites that may not be suitable. Additionally, it would expedite the implementation of renewable energy infrastructure and reduce the impact on biodiversity.
Governments have a crucial role in offering strategic direction to ensure that development benefits all Australians and preserves our treasured natural values in the long run. Without this guidance, developers may view each project as a gamble.
Instead of trying to revise the plan or advocate more strongly, the next course of action for the Port of Hastings terminal should be to locate a different location that is not within the Ramsar wetland and can still fulfill the industry’s requirements while minimizing environmental harm.
Is it foolish to believe that using a strategic method will prompt swift collaboration among government, industry, traditional owners, and other stakeholders in identifying economically efficient locations for renewable infrastructure that result in mutually beneficial results?
Hugh Possingham is the leader of the Biodiversity Council and holds a position as a professor of the environment at the University of Queensland.