An Action Plan with no action

During 2011 my state government (South Australia) conducted broad community consultation in preparing a climate change adaptation framework. I presented a detailed submission and made a key focus the revegetation of 10% of agricultural land to restore a small proportion of the 11 million hectares that have been cleared. 

For some time I have been writing about, discussing, and presenting submissions on, the ONE CRITICAL FACTOR that South Australia has to address in the very near future.

Read the series of articles A Proposition For Change to understand what this factor is.

One of the main ideas presented in that series was to sequester a small proportion of the carbon that was released when scrubland and grasslands were burnt and ecosystems destroyed during the land clearing years of the pioneers in the 19th and 20th centuries. 

This unregulated land clearing resulted from the big land grab from about the 1860’s onwards. It was an ecological disaster in the making, but nobody at the time had any idea of the havoc that was being wreaked on the landscape. It continues to this day.

For a historical perspective, “Nature’s Line - George Goyder” by Janis Sheldrick is a fascinating read on one of South Australia’s great pioneers of the second half of the 19th century. 


The idea in the series of articles was also about creating a new agri-economy with all the benefits that go with landscape restoration.

As part of the state government's final Climate Change Adaptation Framework document, it also created a Government Action Plan (GAP). It was good stuff. That was in August 2012. 

Today, more than 2 years since the publication of the framework and the GAP, almost nothing has commenced. 

It is as though the government has either given up, or has deferred the implementation phase to focus on Adelaide-centric investment, debt reduction, or has decided not to honour its side of the bargain. 

This is dangerous.

This reneging on reports of the government's making, is now common in my state. At the time of writing this article (November 2014), I am part way into preparing a report on the extent of government retreat from recommendations, strategies, and actions in a number of recent reports.

Nevertheless, environmental expenditure in the 2014 state budget has been slashed to about 40% of what it was just 3 or 4 years ago. It seems that whenever there's a state budget crisis (as there is right now), the axe falls first on the environment allocation. 

The concern is that by defunding - because that fundamentally is what has happened - broad environment programs, this could be a breach of 2 Acts of parliament (the Environment Protection Act and the Natural Resources Management Act). 

Before we get to these Acts, let’s see what is in the GAP.

The Government Action Plan

This short report describes clearly the roles and responsibilities of the state government  in terms of the Climate Change Adaptation Framework. I have selected just a few parts in the GAP to illustrate the highly risky path that the state government has taken in not adhering to its own plan of action. This point will become clearer later.

Here are several specific roles at pg. 5;

  • managing risks and impacts to public assets (including natural assets) and infrastructure owned and managed by the Government
  • managing risks from climate change impacts to services provided by the Government in such areas as emergency management, transport, land use planning, environment, health services and public housing
  • undertaking actions that will not be initiated by the private or community sectors because of market failure (for example, strengthening the resilience and adaptive capacity of natural systems)

Here are general actions at pg.8;

Some of the early actions the South Australia Government and its agencies will need to undertake in order to successfully implement the Adaptation Framework include:

  • The establishment of regional committees through agreements between key regional leaders and the Government under the Climate Change and Greenhouse Emissions Reduction Act 2007
  • Recognise the interconnections between social, environmental and economic systems

The Climate Change and Greenhouse Emissions Reduction Act 2007 is an interesting piece of legislation. A review is required to be conducted every 4 years, and this occurred in 2011.
This is another topic for a future article. 

The GAP consists of 

  • 4 key Objectives
  • 15 main Strategies
  • 49 Actions

In a future article I will review the plan and investigate the progress of the government in meeting all the objectives, strategies, and actions.

The closest the GAP comes in support of natural systems and the landscape is Objective 3, which has 3 strategies and 10 actions. Here are parts of the preamble;

Objective 3      Resilient, well functioning natural systems and sustainable, productive landscapes

Many natural systems in South Australia are already degraded. To increase their resilience we will need to adjust our management objectives for biodiversity conservation to deal with the complexities created by climate change. We will need to increase ecosystem resilience and connectivity across the landscape through restoration and rehabilitation; manage major threats to biodiversity, many of which are likely to worsen under climate change; and ensure that formal protected areas conserve as many different ecosystems and habitats as possible.

Farm management systems will need to be altered to incorporate measures that will increase resilience, and integrated approaches will be needed to address the impacts of fire, pests, weeds and diseases, which are expected to increase under climate change.

Note that “natural systems … are … degraded”, “major threats to biodiversity … are likely to worsen under climate change”, and “farm management systems will need to be altered”.

These and similar statements have been made on numerous occasions in various government reports, and yet none of these articulate HOW these critical issues can be ameliorated.

Here’s what they are not prepared to face up to … A New Direction For Farming

Another example of “inaction"

Consider another government strategy Tackling Climate Change - South Australia’s Greenhouse Strategy 2007-2020.

Rather than go into detail about the document, here’s what is stated on pg. 51;

Objective 8.4

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the natural resources sector and increase carbon sinks

Government actions

Priorities for government in reducing emissions and sequestering carbon will be to:
> establish a voluntary offset scheme as part of the climate change legislation
> develop and implement a series of pilot projects for adopting commercial and
   noncommercial perennial vegetation options in the NRM regions of South Australia 
> to promote and achieve biosequestration and deliver multiple NRM benefits.

Support can be provided for these actions by investigating perennial vegetation options for biosequestration.

To my knowledge, no action has been taken. And what is just as concerning, the Strategy (like many others) lists the government departments that will undertake the action. 

Which departments are they?

  • Department of Premier and Cabinet
  • Department of Water, Land, and Biodiversity Conservation (now renamed)
  • Primary Industries and Resources SA
  • Department of Environment and Heritage

Who is making these organisations accountable for actions under the Greenhouse Strategy 2007-2020?

Carbon sequestration is a huge opportunity that is just not being seized on. It could provide an economic uplift to the agricultural sector that could not be contemplated under present dryland cropping arrangements. It could mean an additional $1 billion annually in farm income if the following CSIRO report is to be believed - and why wouldn’t it?

Opportunities and Threats for South Australia’s Agricultural Landscapes from Reforestation under a Carbon Market

… adoption of carbon plantings and sale of permits could see a boost in income to the State’s agricultural sector in the order of 20%, or $1billion annually. This growth includes any economic losses from the conversion of traditional dryland agriculture to permanent reforestation. 

20% conversion of agricultural land is not unrealistic, and it is the figure that I described in this article in 2011 About Landscape Change.

The big question

We’re now nearing the end of 2014, and there’s little sign that progress has been made on;

  • the Government Action Plan
  • the Greenhouse Strategy 2007-2020
  • the Climate Change Adaptation Framework
  • the State of Environment 2013 report
  • No Species Loss report
  • and many other reports and plans

The cleared agricultural landscape, ecosystems, and biodiversity are all continuing on their path of decline. It will get worse when, as predicted by Bureau of Meteorology, and as described in the Climate Change Adaptation Framework and State of the Environment 2013 report, rainfall will decline in the coming decades.

Farming communities will be hit very hard.

It can be avoided, but the deep concern is the continual depletion of funding of anything environmental in the state. The 2014 state budget has revealed this fact.

So, if the state government is not appropriating sufficient and adequate resources to satisfy legislated requirements and strategy plans, is it abrogating its roles and responsibilities to the detriment of its people, the environment, and the economy?

If you think this is a gloomy picture, there’s more to come.

What the legislation says

Environment Protection Act 1993

Let’s make an interpretation of Clause 5 in the South Australian Environment Protection Act 1993.   

5—Environmental harm

(1) For the purposes of this Act, environmental harm is any harm, or potential harm, to the environment (of whatever degree or duration) and includes—
          (a) an environmental nuisance; and
          (b) anything declared by regulation (after consultation under section 5A) or by an 
                environment protection policy to be environmental harm.
(2) For the purposes of this Act, potential harm includes risk of harm and future harm.

(3) For the purposes of this Act, the following provisions are to be applied in determining 
whether environmental harm is material environmental harm or serious environmental harm:  
          (a) environmental harm is to be treated as material environmental harm if—
                    (i) it consists of an environmental nuisance of a high impact or on a wide scale;
                    (ii) it involves actual or potential harm to the health or safety of human beings
                          that is not trivial, or other actual or potential environmental harm (not being
                          merely an environmental nuisance) that is not trivial; or
                    (iii) it results in actual or potential loss or property damage of an amount, or
                           amounts in aggregate, exceeding $5 000;
           (b) environmental harm is to be treated as serious environmental harm if—
                    (i) it involves actual or potential harm to the health or safety of human beings
                         that is of a high impact or on a wide scale, or other actual or potential
                         environmental harm (not being merely an environmental nuisance) that is of
                         a high impact or on a wide scale; or
                   (ii) it results in actual or potential loss or property damage of an amount, or
                         amounts in aggregate, exceeding $50 000.

(4) For the purposes of subsection (3), loss includes the reasonable costs and expenses that would be incurred in taking all reasonable and practicable measures to prevent or mitigate the environmental harm and to make good resulting environmental damage.

If you read the words carefully again, it is clear that a contemporary interpretation about the degraded landscape condition and impending climate change impacts could be asserted.

Could it not be interpreted that environmental harm (whether material or serious) could be caused, or made worse, by the state government (and for that matter, the federal government) not making appropriate resources allocations to ameliorate the consequential effects of climate change? 

Could it not be interpreted that the lack of action, and lack of implementation, of strategic plans and objectives in various government documents are contrary to the role and responsibilities in mitigating environmental harm?

In this sense I am referring to the predicted rainfall decline and the ensuing impacts, the predicted harm to the health of people from heat waves, the risk of loss of biodiversity, the potential stress on rural communities, the deleterious effects on social cohesion … and many more.

Natural Resources Management Act 2004

A brief examination reveals the following.

Clause 6 states -

6—Act binds Crown

(1) This Act binds the Crown in right of this State and also, so far as the legislative power of the State extends, the Crown in all its other capacities, but not so as to impose any criminal liability on the Crown.

(2) Without limiting or derogating from subsection (1), all agencies and instrumentalities of the Crown must endeavour, as far as practicable, to act consistently with the State NRM Plan and other relevant NRM plans under this Act.

Not sure what the “Crown" means? Here’s a good description.

So, the state government, as representative of the Crown, is responsible under the NRM Act.

Let’s look at some of the Objects of, and who is required to administer, the Act.

7 - Objects

(2) For the purposes of subsection (1), ecologically sustainable development comprises the use, conservation, development and enhancement of natural resources in a way, and at a rate, that will enable people and communities to provide for their economic, social and physical well-being while
     (a) sustaining the potential of natural resources to meet the reasonably foreseeable needs of future generations; and
     (b) safeguarding the life-supporting capacities of natural resources; and
     (c) avoiding, remedying or mitigating any adverse effects of activities on natural resources.

(3) The following principles should be taken into account in connection with achieving ecologically sustainable development for the purposes of this Act:
     (a) decision-making processes should effectively integrate both long term and short term
           economic, environmental, social and equity considerations;
     (b) if there are threats of serious or irreversible damage to natural resources, lack of full  
           scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent
           environmental degradation;
     (c) decision-making processes should be guided by the need to evaluate carefully the risks of
          any situation or proposal that may adversely affect the environment and to avoid, wherever
          practicable, causing any serious or irreversible damage to the environment;

     (e) a consideration should be the conservation of biological diversity and ecological integrity;

     (g) if the management of natural resources requires the taking of remedial action, the first step
          should, insofar as is reasonably practicable and appropriate, be to encourage those
          responsible to take such action before resorting to more formal processes and procedures;

8—Administration of Act to achieve objects

The Minister, the Court and all other persons or bodies involved in the administration of this Act, or performing, exercising or discharging a function, power or duty under this Act, must have regard to, and seek to further, the objects of this Act.

"The Minister ... must have regard to, and seek to further, the objects of the Act."

There it is, in black and white. 

Natural resources condition in South Australia is declining, and continues to decline. The State of Environment 2013 report and the Climate Change Adaptation report say so.

When the state government withdraws funding and resources that would ordinarily be needed to carry out the Objects of the Act, is this not in contravention of the Act?

The decisions embedded by the state government in the 2014 budget will accelerate “threats of serious or irreversible damage to natural resources”, and are contrary to ecologically sustainable development. Why? Because the government knows the degraded condition of natural resources, it knows the impacts of climate change, it knows the threats to biodiversity.

Will the state government be sued for its inaction?

What I have presented in this article is a rationale for a possible course of action that could be followed by any person, organisation, or interest group.

For the requirements of the Environment Protection Act and the Natural Resources Management Act to be executed in full means that adequate human and capital resources must be allocated. It is clear.

To not do so would surely expose the state government to potential litigation. 

There is a case currently proceeding in the US where the federal government is being sued about their disregard for climate change action and the harm that is, or is likely to, cause humans. Although there are examples of contrary decisions about suing national governments about greenhouse gas emissions and the like, the fact that some people are trying this approach implies that governments have become dismissive of their environmental roles and responsibilities.

This is an issue about the PUBLIC TRUST DOCTRINE, a little used concept in Australia, but one that if tested, could have profound influence over future decisions by governments.

If rural folk became wiser to the decisions of the state government, and the potential “harm” that they are exposed to by lack of action on not only climate change but also re-framing a new agri-economy, then perhaps they would demand a greater say in framing the state budget, because that is where lies a fundamental problem.

Have your say.  What are your thoughts about the South Australian government?

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