Australia's extinction crisis announcement labelled a 'major disappointment'

Close to 2,000 plants and animals are facing extinction in Australia, and conservationists don't believe today's announcement will be enough to save them.

As Australia’s list of animals and plants threatened with extinction grows and climate change threatens the nation’s forests and reefs, new environmental reforms have been announced by the Albanese government.

The reaction to the three new changes which are designed to benefit business and the environment has been mixed.

The government's decision to fund two new national environment agencies has been welcomed, so too has an investment of $100 million to deliver faster approval decisions on projects that threaten native species.

But Tuesday’s Stage 2 Nature Positive Plan announced by environment minister Tanya Plibersek was just a portion of the promised comprehensive reform needed to save the country’s list of roughly 2,000 plants and animals on its threatened species list.

Left - a colour image of a thylacine. Right - a turtle in a bleached reef
Australia has already lost a record 39 species of mammal, and today more than 580 are also under threat. Source: AAP/NFSA

“Our Government is doing more than ever to protect our country’s natural treasures, native plants and animals, so Australians can continue to enjoy our lifestyle in the great outdoors,” Plibersek said in Canberra on Tuesday.

Related: Silent extinctions occurring unreported across Australia

Focusing on the impact on business, Plibersek said the reforms would deliver greater certainty, and “help drive investment in nation-building projects”.

“When I first announced the Nature Positive Plan, I said it would take a bit of cooperation, compromise and common sense to deliver. That’s exactly how we’re approaching the rollout,” she said.

Tanya Plibersek in parliament
Environment minister Tanya Plibersek announced stage 2 Nature Positive Plan on Tuesday. Source: AAM

What are the new environmental reforms?

New laws will be introduced into parliament in the coming weeks to establish the following three reforms:

  • The creation of Australia's first national independent Environment Protection Agency. It will be equipped with new powers and penalties.

  • The establishment of a new Environment Information Australia aimed at giving businesses easier access to the latest environmental data.

  • A $100 million investment designed to deliver faster decisions for projects that will harm Australia’s native species.

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Is protecting the environment from big business possible?

Australia has the worst mammalian extinction record in the world and one of the highest levels of deforestation in the developed world. The nation is also one of the world's biggest exporters of fossil fuels, and the Albanese government has continued to approve new projects despite the world facing increasing numbers of deadly extreme weather events.

Some conservationists have privately called the environment minister role a "poison chalice", suggesting that balancing much needed nature reforms with pressure from big business is an impossible task.

In 2022, Plibersek warned “the need for action has never been greater”, and promised her government wouldn’t “shy away from difficult problems” as they worked to reform broken environment protection laws that were independently assessed as “ineffective”, “weak” and “tokenistic”.

Why conservationists aren’t happy with the new nature protection laws

In a joint statement, Australia’s nature conservation councils, called Tuesday's announcement a “major disappointment”.

“It’s just not good enough, and we are urging Minister Plibersek to clarify how and when the plan to ‘turn the tide from nature destruction to nature repair’ that she announced in December 2022 will be delivered,” Conservation Council of South Australia president David Bacon said.

A close up of a brown nursery frogs
Nursery frogs like Cophixalus neglectus face extinction due to climate change. Source: Professor Conrad Hoskin

James Trezis who took up the director’s position at Biodiversity Council this year said delaying the reforms is a “significant step back” from delivering what was promised when the Albanese government came to power. “Nature in Australia is in crisis and can’t afford delays in the comprehensive reforms needed to fix our weak and broken environmental laws,” he said.

Similar sentiments were expressed by the Australian Conservation Foundation CEO Kelly O’Shanassy who called on the government to deliver the full package it had promised. “A total of 144 animals, plants and ecological communities were added to the threatened species list in 2023 – that’s nearly three species a week – and hundreds of thousands of hectares of precious habitat were destroyed. Every day and every decision matters for our wildlife. Further delays to nature law reform risk more extinction,” she said.

Humane Society International campaigner Nicola Beynon said the new measures would not be enough to reverse the country’s extinction crisis. The Wilderness Society’s Sam Szoke-Burke said “improved enforcement” alone will not be enough and urged the government to actively police illegal land clearing and make “an example of environmental vandals”.

It remains unclear as to when the government will introduce Stage 3 environment reforms.

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