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Out of alignment: how clashing policies make for terrible environmental outcomes

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Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Hanna Taniukevich/ShutterstockPolicy alignment sounds dry. But think of it like this: you want to make suburbs cooler and more liveable, so you plant large trees. But then you find the trees run afoul of fire and safety provisions, and they’re cut down. Such problems are all too common. Policies set by different government departments start with good intentions only to clash with other policies. At present, the Albanese government is working towards stronger environmental laws, following the scathing 2020 Samuel review of the current Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The review noted planning, funding and regulatory decisions are “not well integrated or clearly directed towards achieving long-term environmental sustainability”. Stronger laws are not a standalone answer. We must find ways to align government policies far better, so progress on one front doesn’t lead to a setback elsewhere. As the government prepares to announce once in a generation changes to our main environment laws, it must find ways to reduce these clashes. Nature vs cities All levels of government have policies aimed at increasing canopy cover and biodiversity in cities. How hard can it be to plant trees? The problems start when you look for places to actually plant street trees. It’s common to encounter a wall of obstacles, namely, other policies and regulations. Fire prevention, human safety, visibility for road traffic and provision of footpaths and carparks are often legally binding requirements that can stymie this seemingly simple goal. Most cities in Australia are now actually losing canopy cover rather than gaining more. On the biodiversity front, urban sprawl is pushing many species and ecosystems to the brink of extinction. What should we do when threatened species protection conflicts with new housing developments? Rusty Todaro/Shutterstock Last year, conservationists rediscovered the grassland earless dragon on Melbourne’s grassy western fringes, which we had believed was extinct. Now we had a second chance to save it, in line with the Australian government’s pledge to stop extinctions. The problem? The grasslands where the dragon was found near Bacchus Marsh, just outside Melbourne, are zoned for housing. Only 1% of the grasslands ecosystems suitable for these reptiles is still intact, and much of it has been earmarked for housing. From a housing point of view, the continued existence of the dragon now threatens plans for 310,000 homes. If we had better policy alignment, we would look to achieve both goals: protect the dragon and build more housing through methods such as building sustainable midrise developments in established urban areas. Read more: Victoria has rediscovered a dragon – how do we secure its future? Protecting the reef while exporting LNG Meanwhile, the Great Barrier Reef is bleaching again, the fifth bout in just eight years. Almost all the extra heat trapped by greenhouse gases goes into our oceans, triggering marine heatwaves and bleaching. If the world’s largest living structure bleaches too much, it will begin to die, threatening its rich biodiversity, cultural heritage and industries such as tourism. On the one hand, Australia wants to protect the reef and has funded efforts to boost water quality. A LNG carrier departs the port of Gladstone, on the southern Great Barrier Reef. The cargo it carries will, when burned, trap more heat and lead to more bleaching of the reef. Ivan Kuzkin/Shutterstock But on the other hand, supportive government policies contribute to our recent emergence as a top exporter of liquefied natural gas, which is 85–95% comprised of the potent greenhouse gas methane. Land clearing in the catchments of rivers which flow to the reef is ongoing due to policy loopholes, which adds more smothering sediment, nutrients and pollutants to the reef’s woes. The shipping sector only has to abide by a voluntary code to avoid invasive species arriving in the ship’s bilge water, even though they could be carrying the tissue loss disease devastating reefs in the Caribbean and Florida. Read more: Out of danger because the UN said so? Hardly – the Barrier Reef is still in hot water Renewables versus biodiversity Calls to fast-track clean energy projects and stop them being held up by environmental approvals are risky. We could tackle one crisis (climate change) by making another worse (biodiversity and extinction). Australia has destroyed nearly 40% of its forests since European colonisation, with much of the remaining native vegetation highly fragmented. Because this clearing has already happened, it should be entirely possible to build renewables without damaging the homes of native species. In fact, we can do better – we can take degraded farmland, build solar on it and restore low-lying native vegetation around it to actually boost biodiversity. Requiring new renewable projects to be nature positive would encourage creative approaches to delivering infrastructure while benefiting nature. Solar versus nature? Why not solar and nature. FenrisWolf/Shutterstock Policy clashes abound There is, sadly, no shortage of examples of clashing policies: Victoria’s “wild dog” bounty pays landowners to kill the dingo, a listed threatened native species relaxing new emissions rules for utes and vans conflicts with government climate efforts to rapidly reduce emissions exotic plant species such as buffel grass are still routinely used and promoted for use in agriculture, despite the damage they do to biodiversity and their ability to fuel more severe fires, more often. Read more: 'Existential threat to our survival': see the 19 Australian ecosystems already collapsing Why the lack of alignment? For politicians, the environment ministry is often seen as a poisoned chalice. Within government, departments often pull in different directions. When resource and agriculture plans conflict with environmental concerns, it’s not hard to guess which side tends to win. Case in point: the recent plans to remove gas project oversight from environment minister Tanya Plibersek in favour of resources minister Madeleine King. How can we make policies work together better for the environment? Governments should sift through all relevant policies and regulations to make sure nature-positive approaches are embedded. Requiring development proposals to benefit nature would go a long way to reducing environment-economy conflict. After all, most businesses are now looking into ways of becoming nature-positive. Too often, environment policies are seen as opposed to those promoting the economy, jobs and industry. But they don’t have to clash. Tremendous opportunities exist for a safer, more sustainable future, if we address current causes of friction and take a big picture approach to how we develop our policies. Read more: 5 things we need to see in Australia's new nature laws Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council and the Department of Energy, Environment, and Climate Action. Euan is a Councillor within the Biodiversity Council, and a member of the Ecological Society of Australia and the Australian Mammal Society.Catherine Lovelock receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is affiliated with the Biodiversity Council and the Independent Expert Panel for the Great Barrier Reef. Sarah Bekessy receives funding from the Australian Research Council, the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Ian Potter Foundation and the European Commission. She is a lead councillor of the Biodiversity Council, a board member of Bush Heritage Australia, a member of WWF's Eminent Scientists Group and a member of the Advisory Group for Wood for Good

Even with the best intentions, policies from different government departments can clash.

Hanna Taniukevich/Shutterstock

Policy alignment sounds dry. But think of it like this: you want to make suburbs cooler and more liveable, so you plant large trees. But then you find the trees run afoul of fire and safety provisions, and they’re cut down.

Such problems are all too common. Policies set by different government departments start with good intentions only to clash with other policies.

At present, the Albanese government is working towards stronger environmental laws, following the scathing 2020 Samuel review of the current Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The review noted planning, funding and regulatory decisions are “not well integrated or clearly directed towards achieving long-term environmental sustainability”.

Stronger laws are not a standalone answer. We must find ways to align government policies far better, so progress on one front doesn’t lead to a setback elsewhere. As the government prepares to announce once in a generation changes to our main environment laws, it must find ways to reduce these clashes.

Nature vs cities

All levels of government have policies aimed at increasing canopy cover and biodiversity in cities. How hard can it be to plant trees?

The problems start when you look for places to actually plant street trees. It’s common to encounter a wall of obstacles, namely, other policies and regulations. Fire prevention, human safety, visibility for road traffic and provision of footpaths and carparks are often legally binding requirements that can stymie this seemingly simple goal.

Most cities in Australia are now actually losing canopy cover rather than gaining more.

On the biodiversity front, urban sprawl is pushing many species and ecosystems to the brink of extinction.

grassland and creeping suburbia
What should we do when threatened species protection conflicts with new housing developments? Rusty Todaro/Shutterstock

Last year, conservationists rediscovered the grassland earless dragon on Melbourne’s grassy western fringes, which we had believed was extinct. Now we had a second chance to save it, in line with the Australian government’s pledge to stop extinctions.

The problem? The grasslands where the dragon was found near Bacchus Marsh, just outside Melbourne, are zoned for housing. Only 1% of the grasslands ecosystems suitable for these reptiles is still intact, and much of it has been earmarked for housing.

From a housing point of view, the continued existence of the dragon now threatens plans for 310,000 homes.

If we had better policy alignment, we would look to achieve both goals: protect the dragon and build more housing through methods such as building sustainable midrise developments in established urban areas.


Read more: Victoria has rediscovered a dragon – how do we secure its future?


Protecting the reef while exporting LNG

Meanwhile, the Great Barrier Reef is bleaching again, the fifth bout in just eight years.

Almost all the extra heat trapped by greenhouse gases goes into our oceans, triggering marine heatwaves and bleaching. If the world’s largest living structure bleaches too much, it will begin to die, threatening its rich biodiversity, cultural heritage and industries such as tourism.

On the one hand, Australia wants to protect the reef and has funded efforts to boost water quality.

LNG carrier queensland
A LNG carrier departs the port of Gladstone, on the southern Great Barrier Reef. The cargo it carries will, when burned, trap more heat and lead to more bleaching of the reef. Ivan Kuzkin/Shutterstock

But on the other hand, supportive government policies contribute to our recent emergence as a top exporter of liquefied natural gas, which is 85–95% comprised of the potent greenhouse gas methane. Land clearing in the catchments of rivers which flow to the reef is ongoing due to policy loopholes, which adds more smothering sediment, nutrients and pollutants to the reef’s woes.

The shipping sector only has to abide by a voluntary code to avoid invasive species arriving in the ship’s bilge water, even though they could be carrying the tissue loss disease devastating reefs in the Caribbean and Florida.


Read more: Out of danger because the UN said so? Hardly – the Barrier Reef is still in hot water


Renewables versus biodiversity

Calls to fast-track clean energy projects and stop them being held up by environmental approvals are risky. We could tackle one crisis (climate change) by making another worse (biodiversity and extinction).

Australia has destroyed nearly 40% of its forests since European colonisation, with much of the remaining native vegetation highly fragmented. Because this clearing has already happened, it should be entirely possible to build renewables without damaging the homes of native species.

In fact, we can do better – we can take degraded farmland, build solar on it and restore low-lying native vegetation around it to actually boost biodiversity. Requiring new renewable projects to be nature positive would encourage creative approaches to delivering infrastructure while benefiting nature.

solar panels and wildflowers
Solar versus nature? Why not solar and nature. FenrisWolf/Shutterstock

Policy clashes abound

There is, sadly, no shortage of examples of clashing policies:


Read more: 'Existential threat to our survival': see the 19 Australian ecosystems already collapsing


Why the lack of alignment?

For politicians, the environment ministry is often seen as a poisoned chalice.

Within government, departments often pull in different directions. When resource and agriculture plans conflict with environmental concerns, it’s not hard to guess which side tends to win. Case in point: the recent plans to remove gas project oversight from environment minister Tanya Plibersek in favour of resources minister Madeleine King.

How can we make policies work together better for the environment? Governments should sift through all relevant policies and regulations to make sure nature-positive approaches are embedded. Requiring development proposals to benefit nature would go a long way to reducing environment-economy conflict. After all, most businesses are now looking into ways of becoming nature-positive.

Too often, environment policies are seen as opposed to those promoting the economy, jobs and industry. But they don’t have to clash.

Tremendous opportunities exist for a safer, more sustainable future, if we address current causes of friction and take a big picture approach to how we develop our policies.


Read more: 5 things we need to see in Australia's new nature laws


The Conversation

Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council and the Department of Energy, Environment, and Climate Action. Euan is a Councillor within the Biodiversity Council, and a member of the Ecological Society of Australia and the Australian Mammal Society.

Catherine Lovelock receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is affiliated with the Biodiversity Council and the Independent Expert Panel for the Great Barrier Reef.

Sarah Bekessy receives funding from the Australian Research Council, the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Ian Potter Foundation and the European Commission. She is a lead councillor of the Biodiversity Council, a board member of Bush Heritage Australia, a member of WWF's Eminent Scientists Group and a member of the Advisory Group for Wood for Good

Read the full story here.
Photos courtesy of

Guatemala Cancels Environmental License for Canadian Mine

The government of Guatemala revoked an environmental license on Friday due to “anomalies” for an open-pit mine with Canadian capital, located near the border with El Salvador and opposed by environmentalists, according to official sources. “The Ministry of Environment has decided that the procedure for obtaining an environmental license must be amended,” said Patricia Orantes, […] The post Guatemala Cancels Environmental License for Canadian Mine appeared first on The Tico Times | Costa Rica News | Travel | Real Estate.

The government of Guatemala revoked an environmental license on Friday due to “anomalies” for an open-pit mine with Canadian capital, located near the border with El Salvador and opposed by environmentalists, according to official sources. “The Ministry of Environment has decided that the procedure for obtaining an environmental license must be amended,” said Patricia Orantes, the head of the department, at a press conference. The mine, which is not yet in operation, is owned by the Canadian company Bluestone Resources. The company wants to extract more than 250 million cubic meters of soil and subsoil from a gold and silver deposit in the municipality of Asunción Mita, east of the Guatemalan capital. The license to operate the mine was issued on January 9, five days before the end of the term of right-wing President Alejandro Giammattei. This license allowed the change from underground mining to open-pit mining. However, Orantes emphasized that this modification implies “an entirely new and different project from the original one.” According to the minister, they also detected forged signatures in the authorization of the new license and the loss of more than 900 pages of the project documentation. Open-pit mining “is highly impactful in potential terms” for water pollution, “loss of fertile soil, flora and fauna, and geomorphological alterations due to the extraction” of millions of materials from the soil and subsoil, Orantes stated. Local leaders and environmental organizations warn that the mine will pollute Lake Güija, shared by Guatemala and El Salvador, and the Lempa River, which originates in Guatemala and is the main water source for the Salvadoran capital. In 2022, the Giammattei administration disregarded a popular consultation by the residents of Asunción Mita who rejected this mine. Due to the detected anomalies, “the license for open-pit mining cannot be granted to this company, they will have to conduct a new environmental impact study,” said the Minister of Energy and Mines, Víctor Hugo Ventura. The post Guatemala Cancels Environmental License for Canadian Mine appeared first on The Tico Times | Costa Rica News | Travel | Real Estate.

Children near Amsterdam airport use inhalers more, study finds

Results show increase in symptoms such as wheeziness in presence of high aviation-related ultrafine particlesAs the public hearings for London Gatwick airport’s northern runway resume, researchers from the Netherlands have found greater inhaler use in children living near Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.Stand close to a large airport and, if the wind is in the wrong direction, each cubic centimetre of air that you breathe will contain tens of thousands of ultrafine particles (UFP). Continue reading...

As the public hearings for London Gatwick airport’s northern runway resume, researchers from the Netherlands have found greater inhaler use in children living near Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.Stand close to a large airport and, if the wind is in the wrong direction, each cubic centimetre of air that you breathe will contain tens of thousands of ultrafine particles (UFP).Air pollution measurement equipment was installed in three primary schools, each about a kilometre from the airport fence. The researchers took weekly measurements of the lung function of 161 children at the schools and 19 asthmatic children living near the airport. With schools to the north and south of the airport, the children experienced airport UFP at different times.The children were also taught how to take their own lung measurements at home in the mornings and evening. It was these records that revealed the most significant finding from the study.Prof Gerard Hoek of Utrecht University, who led the study, said: “On days with high aviation-related UFP, children experienced substantially more respiratory symptoms and used more symptom-relieving medication.” These symptoms included coughing, wheeziness and phlegm. Wind direction alone was not a good predictor of exposure to airport UFP so it is unlikely that parents or children will have known their day-to-day exposure. UFP and soot from traffic was also associated with symptoms and changes in morning lung tests.In 2021, the Dutch Health Council and the World Health Organization (WHO) highlighted the growing evidence that UFP are damaging our health. This included 75 studies, but technical differences between the studies meant that the WHO could not set a standard at that time.In 2020, a study of four European capitals found aviation UFP in the city centres that came from airports on the outskirts. In the UK, UFP from Heathrow can be measured in central London nearly 20km away and all across the west of the city. UFP has also been measured under the flight paths of airports in the US, including Boston’s Logan international airport, but these measurements do not capture what it feels like to live close to an airport.During 2018 and 2019, I led a team of researchers that measured UFP around Gatwick including in Horley, a town of 23,000 people next to the airport. We found that UFP 500 metres downwind of the airport was greater than that at the kerb of London’s busiest roads.Victoria Chester, a Green party local councillor, described living close to Gatwick: “I live very close to where airport expansion will most heavily impact Horley. Living near the airport you become used to the noise and smell but on some days it’s so bad you can taste the pollution in the air and when the wind blows in your direction it really stinks.”skip past newsletter promotionThe planet's most important stories. Get all the week's environment news - the good, the bad and the essentialPrivacy Notice: Newsletters may contain info about charities, online ads, and content funded by outside parties. For more information see our Privacy Policy. We use Google reCaptcha to protect our website and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.after newsletter promotionA Gatwick spokesperson said: “The health impact assessment within the northern runway project environmental statement includes an appropriate assessment of UFP. London Gatwick is committed to participating in national aviation industry body studies of UFP emissions at airports, including those reviewing how monitoring could be undertaken. We have put forward a voluntary contribution to fund work should the government introduce standards.”

Protect Windermere from sewage, campaigners urge UK party leaders

Open letter signed by naturalist Chris Packham and comedian Paul Whitehouse says pollution from United Utilities treatment plants is degrading lakeThe next government must give Windermere greater protection from sewage pollution, campaigners including the naturalist Chris Packham and the comedian Paul Whitehouse have urged in an open letter to all party leaders.The campaign group Save Windermere, which organised the letter, says the lake has huge ecological significance, is home to rare and protected species and brings in about £750m to the economy. But the signatories, who include the Wildlife Trust, the countryside charity the CPRE and WildFish, say it is being degraded by sewage pollution from United Utilities treatment plants. Continue reading...

The next government must give Windermere greater protection from sewage pollution, campaigners including the naturalist Chris Packham and the comedian Paul Whitehouse have urged in an open letter to all party leaders.The campaign group Save Windermere, which organised the letter, says the lake has huge ecological significance, is home to rare and protected species and brings in about £750m to the economy. But the signatories, who include the Wildlife Trust, the countryside charity the CPRE and WildFish, say it is being degraded by sewage pollution from United Utilities treatment plants.As party leaders prepare to publish their manifestos this week, Matt Staniek, the founder of Save Windermere, said greater protection for the lake was urgently needed to make sure it was looked after for future generations forever. “This is not ideological, it’s non-contentious, and it is absolutely necessary to save Windermere whilst also setting an example for the treatment of our freshwater and our natural world on a national level,” he said in the letter.The protections for the lake are contained in the EU-derived water framework directive, but Staniek said the system failed to address the ecological, cultural and economic stability of the lake and the surrounding area despite its national significance.The letter says: “We urge you to commit with haste to granting greater environmental protection for England’s largest lake. The mechanism used to achieve this must have legal underpinning, whilst current legislation must also be enforced. Success will be defined as the long-term recovery of the lake, with it returning to, or as close as possible to, its natural oligotrophic state.”Last month it emerged that millions of litres of raw sewage had been illegally pumped into Windermere in February, and that United Utilities had failed to stop the pollution of it for 10 hours. It did not report the incident to the Environment Agency until 13 hours after it started.Suspected illegal sewage dumping into the lake also took place more than 70 times in 2022, according to analysis by the academic Prof Peter Hammond, and in June that year a serious pollution incident in a beck feeding the lake left hundreds of fish dead.The letter says Windermere has been victim to decades of pollution and exploitation resulting from inadequate investment and substandard regulation, leaving the lake unadaptable to our changing climate.“Over the last year alone, we have seen unprecedented rainfall which has increased sewage discharging into the lake,” it says. “This, combined with the threat of drought in the summer months, leaves our lake in a precarious position and at risk of extensive algal blooms which, at worse, can cause mass fish kills and leave its waters potentially toxic to the general public.”skip past newsletter promotionThe planet's most important stories. Get all the week's environment news - the good, the bad and the essentialPrivacy Notice: Newsletters may contain info about charities, online ads, and content funded by outside parties. For more information see our Privacy Policy. We use Google reCaptcha to protect our website and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.after newsletter promotionA United Utilities spokesperson said that phosphorus levels in the lake had been steadily declining since the early 1990s, while the lake’s four bathing waters all consistently achieved the highest “Excellent” status. “Since 2020 United Utilities has halved the amount of phosphorus that is now entering the lake from our own processes. However, the factors affecting water quality in Windermere are complex and, without targeted action by multiple sectors, we will not see the changes we all want.”The company said it did not recognise the Hammond figures. Regarding the February pollution, it said: “This incident was caused by an unexpected fault on the third party telecoms cable network in the area, which United Utilities was not notified about and which affected both the primary system and United Utilities’ backup. As soon as we discovered this fault was affecting the Glebe Road pumping station, our engineers took urgent steps to resolve the situation and we informed the Environment Agency within an hour of the pollution being confirmed.”

Flags in Atkinson, Neb., wave for America — and for my father

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In Atkinson, Neb., a town I’ve never visited, flags fly at schools because of my father. I’ve never seen these flags, and until last month, I’d never heard of Atkinson. But it comforts me to know they are there, a little part of the big legacy of Francis Xavier McArdle, who died in May at age 82.My sister and I learned about them after we started going through the mountains of papers in Dad’s home office near Boston and came across a folder labeled “Atkinson, Nebraska.” I opened it, and out fell bunches of letters written by children at the West Holt elementary school.An hour of Googling revealed the full story: After 9/11, when he and I were both working with one of the disaster-recovery firms at Ground Zero, he had been handed a care package that the children of Atkinson had assembled for the rescue workers. Touched, he had sent a check, and then others, totaling $6,000 over the years. The money was used to fund, among other things, new flagpoles at the elementary school and junior high.“Use the enclosed to help your students remember that we all worked together to rebuild a better America,” he told the school in a note. He told his children nothing about this, because while Dad was a talkative man, he was also a private one. He expressed his love through ideas and action, not confessions or reminiscences about his frequent acts of impulsive generosity.I grew up on fact-filled tours of New York City and debates over the Sunday political shows, in which he graciously humored a teenager’s passionately garbled ideas about the world. After I left home, there were marathon phone calls, during which he taught me most of what I know about infrastructure and urban policy, and the way that government actually works.You see, the supreme irony of my life as a libertarian columnist is that Dad was a lobbyist. He spent a decade working for the New York City government at various levels, eventually becoming commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection. After that, he spent most of the next three decades running a trade association for the heavy contractors who built most of the infrastructure in the tri-state area. Whenever I wrote something particularly salty about lobbyists, I usually got a humorous note: “You do know what paid for college, right? — Love, Me.”He was not cynical about his profession, because he believed his members were, as his note said, building a better America. We would drive around the cities he knew well — New York, Boston, D.C. — and he would narrate their histories as told by their roads, bridges and famous buildings, their water treatment plants and sewers. Of course, we also talked of much else, because his interests were wide and his mind, like his office, overflowed with information neatly labeled and filed away.I still remember the time when I, a college student fresh from learning T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” opened our front door and said, “Let us go then, you and I … .”Not missing a beat, my father continued:“When the evening is spread out against the skyLike a patient etherized upon a table;Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels.”I don’t know why I was surprised; he was inordinately fond of wordplay and puns, and also of that particular era of poetry, which included his favorite poet, William Butler Yeats. And what he liked, he remembered.When people reached out to commiserate on his passing, they all said the same thing: “He was a brilliant man. I learned so much from him.” As a young child, I got into the habit of using him as a kind of walking encyclopedia, and I still recall my shock the first time my father didn’t know the answer to something I asked. I don’t remember my question. I do remember that I was in my 20s.Luckily, he had endless patience with my questions, because he liked questions, and answers, above all things. And also because he was a girl dad before girl dads were spoken of, a shameless booster of anything and everything my sister and I did. He made a point of coming to many of my basketball games, even though in the 1980s, parents usually didn’t (and even though I was frankly terrible at every part of the game except “being tall.”) When I went to camp or college, there were daily cards carrying tidbits of news from home, followed by the eternal signature: “Love, Me” — illustrated by a stick figure in a top hat.I wish I’d saved those cards, but, at the time, I didn’t understand their real message: that no matter where I went, he would be right behind me, thinking about me, watching out for me, cheering me on. He feigned enthusiasm even for my wildest schemes, such as using a ruinously expensive MBA to take a very modestly paid job in journalism. Though, admittedly in that last case, he couldn’t quite hide the terror in his eyes.(See, Dad? I told you it would work out.)I don’t quite yet believe that there will never be another card, another phone call, another impromptu tour of a city’s bones. But I am glad to think how rich the world is with the things he left behind, with the people he loved and the infrastructure he helped build, including two flagpoles in Atkinson, Neb.

Australia’s ‘learning by doing’ approach to managing large mines is failing the environment

Conflict between coal giant Adani, the Queensland government and traditional owners over harm to groundwater ecosystems stems from a flawed interpretation of the ‘adaptive management’ approach.

Matthew CurrellHigh-profile legal disputes, such as the current case between coal giant Adani and the Queensland government, show Australia’s approach to managing large mining projects is flawed. Many projects are allowed to go ahead even though the environmental impacts are uncertain. The idea is any damage to the environment can be managed along the way. This has been the norm for large coal mines and gas developments in Australia since 2013. That’s when legislation known as the Water Trigger came into effect – ironically, to protect water resources from these industries. But our research shows this approach – known as “adaptive management” – often creates more problems than it solves. This is particularly true when it comes to groundwater, where impacts are difficult to predict in advance, and monitoring may only detect problems when it is too late to act. These problems include depleting or contaminating groundwater, drying up springs of major cultural and ecological significance, altering river flows and reducing water quality. There are worrying signs the Adani mine is putting the Doongmabulla springs at risk. What is adaptive management? Adaptive management seeks to address uncertainty in environmental impact assessments. The approach can be broadly summarised as “learning by doing”. The original intention was to allow decisions to be made about development proposals without full certainty about the environmental impacts. Ongoing monitoring and continuously updated modelling is then supposed to improve the knowledge base over time. This should help identify new or improved management strategies. Environmental objectives are supposed to be clearly outlined at the outset. Objectives may include the protection of a key habitat, water resource or region of high ecological significance. Establishing these objectives is a lengthy process of consultation with groups who have a stake in the project, such as people who live nearby and Traditional Owners with deep connections to the land. These discussions are meant to continue throughout the project as new data and knowledge come to light. However our research shows adaptive management is often poorly suited to managing impacts on groundwater. This is especially true in cases where: there are long lag times between project activity (such as groundwater extraction lowering the water table before pit excavation) and the full effects on the groundwater system the impacts could be irreversible, meaning actions taken to address a change in the condition of the environment may come too late to stop permanent damage. Drone footage of Doongmabulla Springs, December 2014. Protecting Doongmabulla Springs The Adani coal mine was embroiled in many years of controversy about potential impacts on water, climate and endangered animals. When it began operating, scientists warned it was too close to the sacred Doongabulla Springs and risked permanently drying them up. Our analysis published in 2020 found problems with the miner’s reported understanding of the groundwater system supporting the Doongmabulla Springs. Little effort was made to plan specific actions to protect the springs if monitoring later showed such action was required. We argue Adani’s use of adaptive management, which the environment minister accepted in approving the mine, was not fit for the agreed purpose of protecting the springs. The Queensland Department of Environment, Science and Innovation appeared to echo these views in the Supreme Court last month. The legal action was brought by Adani in 2023, after the Department refused to accept updated groundwater modelling the company had to submit within two years of opening the mine. Instead, the Department issued an Environment Protection Order, which prevents any underground mining until the company: can demonstrate to the satisfaction of the department that the activity can be conducted in a way that does not exceed the approved impacts This followed a review by CSIRO and Geoscience Australia. The review found the company’s groundwater model was “unable to support a robust uncertainty analysis and therefore confidence in the range of predicted impacts is low”. In court, Department staff testified that deficiencies in modelling and gaps in groundwater monitoring mean the “risk of potential impacts (which are potentially irreversible) to the [Doongmabulla] springs is increased while [mining] continues”. This echoes similar warnings by groundwater researchers prior to the initial approval of the mine. These springs are vital to the cultural life of the Wangan and Jagalingou people, who testified to the United Nations that the loss of these springs would decimate their culture. A way forward Protracted reform of Australia’s environmental laws provides an opportunity to establish clear criteria for when adaptive management can be used. We argue alternative, more precautionary approaches should be adopted when there is a long interval between the mining activity and potentially irreversible damage. For example, limits should be placed on the mine’s location, size and water extraction rates. This should be informed by detailed upfront research into the site’s water systems, geology and the ecosystem’s tolerance for changes in water levels and quality. If adaptive management is to be used in mining projects, there must be a reasonable prospect (and a clear mechanism) to detect and prevent environmental harm. There must also be clarity around when project activities must cease. In line with best practice adaptive management, guidance should be provided to ensure miners clearly outline: how monitoring data will be used, in an ongoing process of revising both impact predictions and management strategies what specific actions will be taken, and at what point in time if data show unpredicted greater than expected impacts how stakeholders will be involved throughout the process of setting and reviewing environmental objectives and monitoring criteria. Unless these issues are urgently addressed, the “learning by doing” approach will continue to put Australian ecosystems and water resources at risk. Matthew Currell receives funding from the Australian Research Council through its Linkage Projects scheme to conduct groundwater research with industry partners including the registered charity Coast and Country, Inc.Adrian Werner receives funding from the Australian Research Council through its Linkage Projects program to conduct groundwater research on the Doongmabulla Springs, including with industry partner Coast and Country, Inc. Adrian was also an expert witness in the Queensland Land Court Case: Adani Mining Pty Ltd v Land Services of Coast and Country Inc & Ors (2015) QLC 48.

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