Australia's environmental protection regime is broken and needs an urgent overhaul to prevent devastating biodiversity loss, a group of experts has warned.
Biodiversity offsets, which allow developers to destroy habitat in one area if they promise to protect or restore habitats of similar value elsewhere, must be changed to ensure they do not enable a net negative effect on the environment, the Biodiversity Council says.
The independent expert group's calls come as the federal government begins consulting on proposed reforms to environmental laws on Wednesday.
“We know that the existing system has relied heavily on biodiversity offsets, and that this has failed to stem the destruction of nature in Australia," said University of Queensland environmental management expert Martine Maron.
"Australia’s approach to offsets and how the government protects threatened species needs an overhaul."
Professor Maron says offsets should only be used as a last resort and governments must be prepared to say 'no' to developments that damage crucial environments.
More than 2000 species and ecosystems are listed as endangered in Australia, necessitating "transformational change" to the country's environmental protection laws, a report by the council states.
The report lists 10 essential elements to environmental legislation that must be adhered to for the system to be effective, including setting nature-positive targets, legally binding environmental standards, strong protections for critically important areas for threatened species and rigorous rules about the use of biodiversity offsets.
It also calls for greater involvement of Indigenous peoples in the protection of culturally significant species and environments.
“Current policies make it difficult for traditional custodians to fulfil their cultural obligations to care for country,” Biodiversity Council member and University of Melbourne researcher Jack Pascoe said.
Dr Pascoe, who has Yuin ancestry, says current legislation leaves many culturally significant species unprotected if they are not at imminent threat of extinction, like the humpback whale.
"If we wait for things to reach imminent risk of extinction before we conserve them we will have very little left," he said.
“This is of importance to every Australian and especially to First Peoples custodians who are culturally connected to particular species and places and have deep cultural obligations to care for them."