One of the challenges with the silent destruction of Victoria’s flora is how to make it part of the Victorian community’s consciousness.
In a world where there are so many problems competing for attention, flora struggles for attention. Three nudges are proposed that are simple, immediately actionable that can drive long term investment to protect and restore Victoria’s flora.
Environmental cops on the beat
Victoria has a planning regime in place that is designed to protect native vegetation. To remove native vegetation, landholders must apply for a planning permit from their local council. If a permit is granted, a native vegetation offset must be secured before the native vegetation is removed.1
The problem is that the policy is not working. According to the Victorian Auditor General, Victoria is not achieving its objective of no net biodiversity loss from native vegetation clearing on private land.2 A key reason identified by the Victorian Auditor General is the extent of unauthorised land clearing. The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) estimates that Victoria loses some 10,380 Ha of native vegetation on private land every year.2
Victoria is not alone in establishing a policy for offsetting environmental destruction. Environmental offset schemes were first developed in Germany in the 1970s and California in the 1980s as a mechanism to address the mitigation and compensation of impacts stemming from developments and projects.
The foundation of any environmental offset scheme is a mitigation hierarchy, defined as ‘avoid – mitigate – offset’, where environmental offsetting is the last resort. For an environmental offset scheme to be effective, it is essential that the ‘avoid’ component is enforced. In Victoria it is not.
A best practice example of enforcement is France. The French Office Français de la Biodiversité (OFB) is a statutory body with powers to protect and restore biodiversity in Metropolitan France and its Overseas Territories. In 2021, the OFB had 2,800 agents, whose functions include environmental inspections.3
To stop the silent destruction of Victoria’s flora there is a need to urgently stamp out unauthorised land clearing. A combination of environmental cops on the ground, aerial and satellite images, together with legal actions that send a signal that destruction of the environment will result in prosecution, can enforce the laws that are already in place.
Nature-positive learning for executives and school kids
One of the challenges with any area which is technically complex is that a gulf can emerge between those that have knowledge and the rest of the community. The more technical the subject, the greater likelihood that it is ‘left to the experts’. The question is, how can the expertise that exists be harnessed?
A commitment to broad based learning is required. France again provides a best practice case study.
France trains senior civil servants in the ‘challenges of the ecological transition’. By the first half of 2023, around 200 Directors-General of Ministries and members of ministerial cabinets will be trained on biodiversity and climate.4 Training includes a theoretical component coupled with field visits.
The Australian Government has committed to hosting a Global Nature Positive Summit.5 Whilst global summits are important to build consensus, there is an opportunity to build broad based understanding of Victoria’s flora through nature-positive learning programs. Requiring all government executives – local, state, and federal – to participate in nature-positive learning programs is not expensive in comparison to hosting global summits.
Beyond government officials, there is an opportunity to take learning into the classroom. When I was in primary school, my grade 4 teacher, Mr Miller, had Gould League posters across the classroom.6 He turned naming Victoria’s birds into a game, something that I still remember today. One wet and soggy Melbourne afternoon, he took us out to the oval to watch a pair of Spur Winged Plovers that were nesting. Football was banned for the time being. Mr Miller taught us about nature because he was passionate about it. How much better would it be if our teachers had more support.
Supporting teachers to provide Victorian children with an understanding of nature can easily complement educating government officials. Both are easy to achieve with the benefit that the depth of knowledge that exists in Victoria is translated to those that need it to make decisions.
Disclose nature on property sales
There is a global discussion on disclosing the financial risks of nature through the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures.7 The idea is that corporates, banks, and investors will begin making harmonised disclosures around the way they are managing nature risks. This is a positive development, but like most international initiatives the pace of progress is slow, and it will take time to flow through the system.
Rather than wait, Victoria can demonstrate leadership by integrating nature into property sales. A simple nudge is to require that a property sale over a certain size, say $5 million, is required to include a standardised disclosure on nature.
What would a nature property disclosure look like? There are plenty of models around what should be disclosed, with TNFD providing a framework for disclosure metrics. At its simplest, a property sale should include a statement on the environment attributes of the property.
The reason disclosure is important is because it creates the data that ultimately underpins the lending decisions of banks and investment decisions of institutional investors. If nature is integrated into finance, then the incentive that a landholder has to land clear will reduce. Importantly it will open opportunities to value nature.
Hope for the future
The final chapter of CSIRO’s Australia’s Megafires ends on a positive note.8 The authors argue that the 2019–20 wildfires “showed us that the rate of change is now so rapid we can recognise the fragility of the future, and that it is within our hands to shape it – or to do too little and allow that future to wither”. Our future can be one of “continually mopping up after natural disasters of our making” or investing for a better future. Change will require big and small commitments. Some of the easiest nudges can be made today without huge financial costs.
This piece appears in the September 2023 edition of Science Victoria magazine. All issues can be read online for free at rsv.org.au/Science-Victoria.
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