Australian conservation groups have written to the UN’s peak environmental heritage body urging it to oppose the coalition government’s bid to devolve the approval process for projects to state and territory governments.
In a letter to UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay, the 13 groups warn of the “alarming moves … to weaken legal protection for Australia’s 20 world heritage listed properties” through changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.
In an interim report on the EPBC Act released in July, Graeme Samuels found the laws to protect unique species and habitats were ineffective.
Despite the findings, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government has proposed legislation to allow bilateral agreements with the states and territories to give them control over planning approvals as a means to cut approval times and spur economic growth.
The bill to streamline environmental approvals was rushed through the lower house of parliament on Thursday after debate was gagged, and despite concerns it does not contain promised environmental standards and could increase extinctions.
The letter, signed by groups including the Australian Conservation Foundation, Environmental Justice Australia, the Wilderness Society and WWF Australia, warns that Australia’s natural world heritage sites are “under more pressure from industrialization and climate change than ever before.”
It listed threats to world heritage areas including: the New South Wales government’s proposed flooding of 4,700 hectares of the Greater Blue Mountains for an enlarged Warragamba Dam; Tasmania’s “promotion of a pipeline of inappropriate private tourism projects in the Tasmanian wilderness;” threats to the Ningaloo Coast from oil and gas industrialization; damage to the Gondwana Rainforest WHA from bushfires; inappropriate development of the wet tropics; and the third mass coral bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef in the past five years.
The groups warn against handing national development approval powers to state and territory governments “without any safeguards in place.”
“This is of grave concern because state and territory governments are often the proponents of these threatening developments and activities or have policies that encourage and fast-track them,” the letter said.
The groups asked Azoulay to write to Australian Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley to “express alarm” about the bill and “seek clarification on how the Australian government will meet its international responsibilities under the world heritage convention.”
“The Australian government must not walk away from its responsibilities to protect and conserve world heritage,” they said.
Environmental Justice Australia co-chief executive Nicola Rivers said that weakening protections would send a “shocking message that one of the wealthiest nations can’t manage to safeguard its 20 world heritage sites.”
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