National and international agreements and policy

Governments at local, regional, state, territory and national levels – in collaboration with partners – implement a broad range of policies and programs designed to tackle major threats to biodiversity, arrest the decline in threatened species and ecological communities, and promote their longer-term recovery (see the Management approaches section in the Land chapter), (see the National and international policy and frameworks section in the Marine chapter) and (see the Coastal governance and policy section in the Coasts chapter). Biodiversity management on the ground is also undertaken by thousands of landholders, Indigenous communities, nongovernment organisations, industry and volunteers.


Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010–2030 and Australia’s Strategy for Nature 2019–2030

Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010–2030 was endorsed by all Australian governments in 2010 as the guiding framework for conserving the nation’s biodiversity. The strategy set the vision that Australia’s biodiversity is healthy and resilient to threats and valued both in its own right and for its essential contribution to human existence.

The strategy set 3 priorities for action: engaging all Australians, building ecosystem resilience in a changing climate and getting measurable results. Interim national targets that supported the 3 priorities for action were established before the adoption of the first strategic plan for the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in 2010. These targets, while not fully aligned with the global targets (see International), represented Australia’s agreed approach to coordinate efforts at the national and subnational level, and across all sectors.

A review of the Biodiversity Conservation Strategy in 2015–16 found that it had not effectively influenced biodiversity conservation activities, it was not possible to report achievement against its targets, and it did not engage, guide or communicate its objectives in a useful way (Meeting of Environment Ministers Biodiversity Working Group 2016). The review report recommended that the strategy be revised, and, following extensive consultation, a new strategy was endorsed in 2019 by all Australian governments and the Australian Local Government Association: Australia’s Strategy for Nature 2019–2030.

The new strategy functions as a policy umbrella over other national, state, territory and local government strategies, policies, programs and regulations. The strategy also provides the main instrument for Australia to implement its obligations under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and a range of other international agreements, including the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat, the World Heritage Convention, and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals.

Australia’s Strategy for Nature 2019–2030 aims to:

  • better align Australia’s National Biodiversity Strategy with international obligations and allow flexibility to adapt to changing environments
  • improve implementation and coordination of biodiversity conservation activities
  • better communicate with and engage broader audiences
  • include all landscapes and seascapes, including marine, aquatic, production and urban environments.

The strategy has 3 priority goals underpinned by 12 objectives, and each objective has several progress measures:

  • Goal 1 – Connect all Australians with nature
    • Objective 1: Encourage Australians to get out into nature
    • Objective 2: Empower Australians to be active stewards of nature
    • Objective 3: Increase Australians’ understanding of the value of nature
    • Objective 4: Respect and maintain traditional ecological knowledge and stewardship of nature
  • Goal 2 – Care for nature in all its diversity
    • Objective 5: Improve conservation management of Australia’s landscapes, waterways, wetlands and seascapes
    • Objective 6: Maximise the number of species secured in nature
    • Objective 7: Reduce threats and risks to nature and build resilience
    • Objective 8: Use and develop natural resources in an ecologically sustainable way
    • Objective 9: Enrich cities and towns with nature
  • Goal 3 – Share and build knowledge
    • Objective 10: Increase knowledge about nature to make better decisions
    • Objective 11: Share and use information effectively
    • Objective 12: Measure collective efforts to demonstrate our progress.

The new strategy addresses some of the reported issues hindering effectiveness of the previous strategy. It is shorter, less technical, focused on communicating objectives to a broad audience, and connects people with nature more directly. It also attempts to capture and report on the suite of activities contributing to the objectives and targets of the strategy through its associated website, Australia’s Nature Hub. The strategy also strives to incorporate adaptation, resilience and sustainable natural resource management in its scope.

However, the new strategy has been met with some criticism, mainly because progress measures lack detail and specific measurable targets. Various monitoring tools associated with aligned programs (such as the Threatened Species Strategy) are implicit in the strategy; however, without measurable targets and coordinated monitoring of outcomes, it is difficult to envisage how progress against the strategy will be assessed, how the strategy will support reporting against international targets, or how it will guide and drive actions to improve the state and trend of biodiversity in Australia.

Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) is Australia’s primary national environmental legislation. It provides for the protection of Australia’s environment, especially aspects of the environment that are matters of national environmental significance.

The complete list of matters of national environmental significance are:

  • nationally threatened species and ecological communities
  • migratory species
  • World Heritage properties
  • National Heritage places
  • wetlands of international importance (often called ‘Ramsar’ wetlands after the international treaty under which such wetlands are listed)
  • Commonwealth marine areas
  • the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
  • nuclear actions (including uranium mining)
  • a water resource, in relation to coal-seam gas development and large coalmining development.

The EPBC Act provides protection to Indigenous heritage through National Heritage or World Heritage listing. At the national level, Indigenous cultural heritage is protected under numerous other Commonwealth laws, including the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 (ATSIHP Act). However, the ATSIHP Act does not align with the development assessment and approval processes of the EPBC Act (see the Indigenous chapter).

The EPBC Act has undergone considerable scrutiny in the past 5 years:

  • A 10-year statutory independent review commenced in 2019, and the final report was delivered in October 2020 (Samuel 2020).
  • An independent review of interactions between the EPBC Act and the agriculture sector was delivered in 2018 (Craik 2018).
  • The Australian National Audit Office assessed the effectiveness of the process for approval of controlled actions (ANAO 2020) and funding models for threatened species management (ANAO 2018).
  • Several inquiries were conducted by parliament into aspects of environmental regulation under the EPBC Act, including an inquiry into Australia’s faunal extinction crisis, the effect of red tape on environmental assessment and approvals, the construction of the Perth Freight Link in the face of significant environmental breaches, and the destruction of Indigenous heritage sites at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia (see case study: Juukan Gorge Rockshelter – Highlighting the poor protections for Indigenous heritage under current Australian Indigenous heritage legislation, in the Juukan Gorge section in the Heritage chapter).

2020 independent review of the EPBC Act

The overall finding of the 2020 review was that the EPBC Act does not enable the Australian Government to effectively protect significant and important environmental matters. Key conclusions of the review include the following:

  • Good outcomes for the environment cannot be achieved under the current laws.
  • Significant efforts are made to assess and list threatened species; however, once listed, not enough is done to deliver improved outcomes for them.
  • Decisions that determine environmental outcomes are usually made on a project-by-project basis, and only when impacts exceed a certain size. This means that cumulative impacts on the environment are not systematically considered, and the overall result is net environmental decline, rather than protection and conservation measures.
  • The EPBC Act does not facilitate the restoration of the environment, and needs to shift from permitting gradual decline to halting decline and restoring the environment; this would allow development to continue in a sustainable way.
  • Key threats to the environment are not effectively addressed under the EPBC Act. There is very limited use of comprehensive plans to adaptively manage the environment on a landscape or regional scale. Coordinated national action to address key threats – such as feral animals – are ad hoc, rather than a key national priority. Addressing the challenge of adapting to climate change is an implied, rather than a central consideration.
  • Western science is heavily prioritised in the way the EPBC Act operates. Indigenous knowledge and views are diluted in the formal provision of advice to decision-makers. This reflects an overall culture of tokenism and symbolism, rather than one of genuine inclusion of Indigenous Australians.
  • Fundamental reform of national environmental laws is required.

The review noted that the EPBC Act is not fulfilling its objectives as they relate to the roles of Indigenous Australians in protecting and conserving biodiversity and promoting the respectful inclusion of their knowledge, and the Act does not meet the aspirations of Traditional Owners for managing their land. In particular, the review noted that the operation of the EPBC Act Indigenous Advisory Committee (IAC) exemplifies the culture of tokenism in terms of the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge and views of Indigenous people in environmental and heritage management decisions. The Act does not require the IAC to provide decision-makers with advice. The IAC relies on the Minister for the Environment inviting its views. This is in contrast to other statutory committees, which have clearly defined and formal roles at key points in statutory processes.

Recommendations of the review include establishing legally enforceable national environmental standards that would set clear requirements for those that interact with the EPBC Act and clear bounds for decisions-makers. The review developed detailed recommended standards for:

  • matters of national environmental significance
  • Indigenous engagement and participation in decision-making
  • compliance and enforcement
  • data and information.

Approvals of controlled actions under the EPBC Act

Under the EPBC Act, an action requires approval from the minister if the action has, will have or is likely to have, a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significance (defined as ‘controlled actions’). The approval is received through an assessment process comprising a referral stage, an assessment stage and an approval stage (Figure 39). The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment is responsible for enforcing compliance with conditions attached to approvals and with the requirement not to undertake controlled actions without approval from the minister.

Figure 39 Outcomes for all referrals received under the EPBC Act to 30 June 2019

EPBC Act = Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999

  1. Cases where no decision has been made may be due to the referral lapsing or being withdrawn, assessment ceasing while waiting for information from the proponent, or the assessment still being undertaken.

Source: ANAO (2020)

A recent Auditor-General report (ANAO 2020) assessed the effectiveness of the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s administration of referrals, assessments and approvals of controlled actions under the EPBC Act. The report specifically assessed whether governance arrangements were sound, whether the administration of referrals and assessments was effective and efficient, and whether conditions of approval were appropriate and assessed with rigour.

Since commencement of the Act on 30 June 2019, 6,253 proposed actions have been referred to the minister, with 5,088 of those actions approved, including 4,038 deemed not to be a controlled action, 1,034 controlled actions approved with conditions, and 16 controlled actions approved without conditions.

The Auditor-General reported the following conclusions:

  • The administration of referrals, assessments and approvals of controlled actions under the EPBC Act is not effective.
  • The department’s regulatory approach is not proportionate to environmental risk.
  • The administration of referrals and assessments is not effective or efficient. Regulation is not supported by appropriate systems and processes, and there are no arrangements in place to measure or improve efficiency.
  • Conditions of approval are not assessed with rigour. Of the approvals examined, 79% contained conditions that were noncompliant with procedural guidance or contained clerical or administrative errors.
  • Appropriate monitoring, evaluation and reporting arrangements have not been established. The department is not well positioned to measure its contribution to the objectives of the EPBC Act.

Eight recommendations were made to strengthen governance arrangements and support the effective administration of referrals, assessments and approvals, all of which were agreed to by the department.

Interactions between the EPBC Act and the agriculture sector

An independent review of interactions between the EPBC Act and the agriculture sector was completed in 2018. Key findings of the review include the following:

  • There is a lack of clarity around the overarching objectives of regulation of agricultural activity and a view that it did not efficiently meet its regulatory objectives in relation to the agriculture sector.
  • Many in the agriculture sector are not sufficiently aware of their obligations under the Act or how to access and interpret relevant information.
  • Environmental impact assessment processes are widely viewed as unclear and complicated, insufficiently transparent, time consuming and costly.
  • There is a lack of appropriate incentives and strategic approaches to assist the agriculture sector to grow while maintaining environmental standards.

The review found that, compared with other sectors of the Australian economy, the number of referrals under the EPBC Act received from the agriculture sector has remained consistently low since 2000. Several recommendations were made, focused on reducing the burden of the regulatory obligations created by the EPBC Act on farmers without reducing environmental standards.


Australia is a signatory to many international agreements and conventions responding to biodiversity conservation. These agreements impose obligations on Australia and require a range of actions to be undertaken to deal with matters of concern to the international community. Key among these agreements are:

  • Antarctic Treaty (see the Antarctica chapter)
  • Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (see the Antarctica chapter)
  • International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (see the Marine chapter)
  • Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
  • United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity
  • United Nations Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals
  • United Nations Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (see the Heritage chapter)
  • Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat.

One of the most significant multilateral agreements is the Convention on Biological Diversity, to which Australia has been a Contracting Party since 1993. The convention is a comprehensive, binding agreement covering the use and conservation of biodiversity. It obliges all parties to develop and implement national biodiversity strategies and action plans, and for parties to report on national implementation of the convention (Latch 2018b). Australia agreed with other countries in 2010 to implement the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020, including its 20 measurable, time-bound Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

Australia submitted its Sixth National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity (2014–18) in March 2020. The report detailed a range of measures, activities and investments contributing to Australia’s national targets and the global Aichi targets. During the reporting period, Australia pursued 10 interim national targets as guided by the strategic plan. Good progress was reported across targets related to protection in the terrestrial and marine National Reserve System, increased engagement with Indigenous peoples in the management of land and sea Country, increased transboundary feral animal control, and better alignment of national and subnational measures for addressing key threats to Australia’s biodiversity. However, other than an increase in the coverage of the National Reserve System, progress against most measures was, at best, partial. The report also noted that the performance assessments were largely subjective, because quantitative performance data were not available across all targets (see National).

The Convention on Biological Diversity’s Strategic Plan and its Aichi targets expired in 2020. Negotiations are now underway to develop the Convention on Biological Diversity’s post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF). The GBF will set international targets for environmental action for the next decade.

The draft GBF cuts across a diverse array of policy areas, including agriculture, health, trade, education and climate change. Targets are currently being designed. Four goals corresponding to the 2050 Vision on Biodiversity are proposed, together with 21 action-oriented targets with a time horizon of 2030, many of which can be mapped onto the existing targets (Arneth et al. 2020).

Of particular importance to the state and trend of species and ecosystems is Goal A of the post-2020 GBF, which has 3 milestones to be reached by 2030:

Goal A for 2050: The integrity of all ecosystems is enhanced, with an increase of at least 15 per cent in the area, connectivity and integrity of natural ecosystems, supporting healthy and resilient populations of all species, the rate of extinctions has been reduced at least tenfold, and the risk of species extinctions across all taxonomic and functional groups, is halved, and genetic diversity of wild and domesticated species is safeguarded, with at least 90 per cent of genetic diversity within all species maintained.

The following are the 2030 milestones for Goal A:

  • Milestone A.1. Net gain in the area, connectivity and integrity of natural systems of at least 5%.
  • Milestone A.2. The increase in the extinction rate is halted or reversed, and the extinction risk is reduced by at least 10%, with a decrease in the proportion of species that are threatened, and the abundance and distribution of populations of species is enhanced or at least maintained.
  • Milestone A.3. Genetic diversity of wild and domesticated species is safeguarded, with an increase in the proportion of species that have at least 90% of their genetic diversity maintained.

Australia is focusing on several high-priority areas in the new GBF:

  • greater representation of marine and coastal biodiversity
  • effective protected area management
  • control and eradication of invasive alien species
  • effective targets to promote sustainable production and consumption and the circular economy, and to improve waste management
  • promoting full and effective participation of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities in the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.
  • Meeting the 2030 milestones of Goal A will require enormous management and monitoring effort and investment. It is unclear how Australia will measure progress against these milestones, given the lack of national-scale data available to assess the state and trend of the vast majority of Australian species, as we have identified throughout this report.

A significant development in international policy since the 2016 state of the environment report is Australia’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a universal, global approach to reduce poverty, promote sustainable development, and ensure peace and prosperity.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is consistent with the Aichi Biodiversity Targets developed under the Convention on Biological Diversity. The agenda comprises 17 SDGs and 169 targets. The most explicit consideration of biodiversity is contained in SDG 14 (Life below water) and SDG 15 (Life on land). However, biodiversity directly supports the achievement of at least 13 SDGs, rising to all 17 SDGs after indirect interactions are considered (Blicharska et al. 2019). For example, species and ecosystems contribute to physical and mental health and wellbeing (SDG 3), reduce poverty (SDG 1) and hunger (SDG 2), and can provide regulating functions relevant to climate action (SDG 13), water management (SDG 6), infrastructure (SDG 9) and energy (SDG 7).