Australia is one of the most ancient, naturally beautiful and biodiverse places on Earth. It has nineteen World Heritage properties, sixty-five Ramsar wetlands and more than one million species of plants and animals, many of which are found nowhere else. Australia is rich in many natural and cultural resources, but some, such as water, are scarce. All Australians benefit from at least 60,000 years of caring for Country by Indigenous Australians.
It is vital that we retain and protect this unique environment. It is also essential to recognise and repair the extensive modification and damage done to our natural ecosystems since colonisation. These tasks are essential to our social, economic, spiritual and personal wellbeing. Our human existence is essentially and intimately connected with the environment and its condition. That connection can be conceived in various ways. Natural environments are important to humans for their intrinsic value, and their protection and restoration might be considered a fundamental human obligation. More recently, this imperative has also been viewed in terms of the need to protect the ecosystem services provided by nature, upon which humanity depends for its survival.
Unfortunately, the Australian environment is suffering significant degradation. This was demonstrated in the national State of the Environment Report 2016, which identified persistent problems such as a decline in biodiversity, the degradation of productive rural land, intensification of development along coastlines and in sprawling cities, and the emerging impacts of climate change. These problems come on top of much past environmental damage that needs to be repaired.
Some current problems are cumulative and complex, resisting earlier types of legal solutions: for example, invasive and feral species, land degradation, depletion of water resources, marine plastic debris and, most difficult of all, climate change.
There is a limit to what laws can achieve, but they are an essential part of any robust system of environmental governance. Environmental laws should effectively enable the protection, conservation, management and, where needed, restoration of our natural heritage. The effectiveness of our environmental laws must be founded on the values of integrity, transparency and accountability, in both their formulation and enforcement. These laws also must be kept up to date, so that they continue to reflect our ever-changing environmental, social and political conditions.
Our current environmental laws fall short of these standards.