Australia ups environmental spending and protections

For the second year running the Australian Government has provided more than AU$1 billion (US$500 million) to the environment and has introduced strict new protections for the world's largest coral reef and native and foreign wildlife.

Federal Environment and Heritage Minister Senator Robert Hill announced an environment budget of AU$ 1.62 billion (US$ 830 million), an increase of more than AU$ 95 million (US$ 49 million) on last year. Hill referred to the new spending plans as “the largest environmental funding commitment in Australia’s history. The environmental priorities defined in the Budget will further improve the management and protection of our natural resources and wildlife, reduce the impacts of pollutants on the environment as well as ensure the continued protection of the Great Barrier Reef,” he said.

The 2001-2 budget has provided funding for a raft of environmental initiatives, including:

  • AU$ 1 billion (US$ 500 million) over five years to extend the Natural Heritage Trust, which helps communities protect and repair their local environments;
  • AU$ 218 million (US$ 112 million) to meet the challenge of climate change, which includes funds for international policy and reporting and initiatives concerning carbon ‘sinks’, the effectiveness of which has recently been thrown into doubt;
  • AU$ 101 million (US$ 52 million) to continue protection of the environment of Australia’s Antarctic territory, funding ice, air and marine studies and environmental management projects;
  • AU$18 million (US$ 9 million) over four years to reduce environmental pollutants, including improving fuel quality and cutting vehicle emissions and tackling dioxins and dioxin-like substances; and
  • AU$ 26 million (US$ 13 million) to ensure the continued health of the Great Barrier Reef, including upgrading visitor facilities.

The new National Heritage Trust funding is supplementary to AU$700 million (US$ 359 million) provided for the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality and an additional AU$ 275 million (US$ 141 million) for particular Natural Heritage Trust projects.

“The Howard Government has also honoured its commitment of 700 million dollars over seven years to tackle salinity and water quality issues,” Hill said. “This funding will be matched by the states, resulting in a total funding package of $1.4 billion. In 2001-02, spending on the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality will be $65 million for the development of integrated catchment/regional management plans. This initial funding will lay the foundations for the maintenance and improvement of natural resources within priority catchments, particularly in relation to salinity, water quality and biodiversity.” Salinity is a huge and growing problem in parts of Australia, particularly Queensland).

The Australian senate has also passed tough new legislation protecting the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, with dramatically increased fines for polluters in the World Heritage area. Senator Hill said the changes would enhance protection for the marine park from negligent navigation and oil spills. Recently a Philippine oil tanker ran aground in the park causing major destruction of reef life.

Now a maximum penalty of AU$ 1.1 million (US$ 560,000) has been introduced for the offence of any vessel operating in the marine park in a manner that results in environmental damage, a ten-fold increase on the previous maximum fine. The fines will cover the discharge of oil or other hazardous substances and pirate fishing. Illegal fishing has been included in the legislation following a recent report that revealed that 40-50 pirate trawlers were fishing in protected zones in the park.

Also in the same week, Hill introduced into the Senate new wildlife trade laws to increase protection for native species and species in other countries threatened by trade. “The Bill will ensure Australia continues to have the toughest wildlife trade laws in the world,” he said. “On a global scale, the illegal trade in wildlife is second only to the illicit drugs trade. The new laws will strengthen Australia’s contribution to international efforts to protect species from this trade – species such as the African elephant, the Black Rhino and lesser known species such as the Chiru (a Tibetan antelope).”

The laws also enhance protection for Australian species targeted by wildlife smugglers, such as Palm Cockatoos and the rough knob-tailed gecko. The minister said new legislation was needed as the existing wildlife trade laws were enacted nearly twenty years ago and were outdated. The new laws will deliver a range of benefits, including:

  • impacts on the ecosystem as a whole, not just impacts on the species being harvested, will now be properly considered;
  • stronger enforcement will be possible through a new offence for possession of illegally imported species or wildlife products, so that a person caught in possession of an animal listed under the convention on international trade in endangered species must produce evidence that it was legally imported;
  • the rules are simplified for zoos and permits will not be required for trivial cases such as the export of a moulted feather; and
  • maintaining the ban on the commercial export of live native mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

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