Late last month, the Federal Government released the long-awaited national State of Environment Report, exposing the stark reality that the majority of Australia’s natural environment is in a “poor” condition. Habitat destruction, mining, climate change, and invasive species are spearheading this crisis. The ACT faces its own challenges, and the alarm bells raised by the State of Environment report must be heeded here as well.
One of the biggest threats to our natural environment in the ACT is the loss of habitat due to urban expansion. The undulating Natural Temperate Grasslands and Yellow Box-Blakeley’s Red Gum Woodlands that previously existed across this landscape have taken a significant hit as the city’s urban form has been extended. With that comes a loss of connectivity that allows species to move across the landscape to breed, nest and feed as they need. Add to this, we are already witnessing the impacts of global climate change – higher temperatures, more extreme rainfall events, storms and bushfires. Now more than ever we need to lift the profile of the environment we live in, and depend upon.
The ACT Government is currently rewriting the Territory’s planning laws. Earlier this year, the Government released the draft Planning Bill that was intended to simplify the system and allow for more “outcomes-focussed” planning. As it stands, the Draft Planning Bill is written in a way that promotes development for humans, rather than a region where humans can live sustainably, and where other species can also thrive, both in harmony with the environment.
As the impacts of climate change and a loss of nature and biodiversity start to bite over coming decades, our planning system provides a valuable opportunity to respond early and prepare for the environmental challenges we are facing. Planning laws must have a stronger emphasis on preventing carbon emissions, preparing our city for the impacts of climate change over the next decades, and the protection of nature in and around our urban areas. The promotion of built form for human wellbeing ignores the reality that human wellbeing is built upon a foundation of environmental wellbeing.
Introducing the concept of environmental stewardship throughout the Bill would be an important step to enshrine the relationship we want to have with nature as our city grows. It would help integrate the lessons that First Nations Peoples impart about Caring for Country, and nurturing the land on which we live. Stewardship implies that we, in this generation, have a responsibility to care for our environment – to both conserve and regenerate – in order to ensure we can pass on a healthy environment to those who live here after us.
There are a number of practical ways that these principles can be carried forward through the planning laws. Newly developed District Plans are expected to highlight areas for development within each region, but they must also identify and protect areas that have biodiversity values across the urban landscape so they can be properly managed. They should also establish areas for local food production. Rules for residential development set in the Territory Plan must be strengthened to mitigate climate change and make the city more resilient in the face of extreme weather events and water shortages.
Delayed changes in the planning rules demonstrate that ACT’s action on climate change is not living up to their 2019 Declaration of a “Climate Emergency”. The ACT must move quickly to fast-track stronger energy efficiency standards, mandate electric vehicle charging points in new developments, restrict new developments being built with gas, and implement new rules to allow more space for planting trees on blocks.
The State of Environment Report is our warning of a biodiversity emergency. The climate emergency is an all too familiar refrain. We ignore both at our peril. Now is the time to ensure that our new planning system prioritises responding to both, to ensure an equitable, livable and sustainable city for the whole community now, and future generations of Canberrans who will face challenges that many of us haven’t even yet imagined.
The Conservation Council ACT Region made a submission to the ACT Government on the Planning Bill – you can read it here.