Observations from SEQ Division's LEAP Summit

Published 13 November 2015 by Claire Gronow FEIANZ CEnvP

One of the key things that day one of the LEAP forum brought home to me was the wide range of roles that environmental practitioners get involved in.  Environmental practitioners work in government, industry, as consultants, in academia and in education.  We're involved in development and implementation of regulatory and policy tools, approvals and legislative compliance.  We’re involved both in predicting impacts of future activities as well as managing the impacts of human activities on a day to day basis and resolving legacy issues.  Some of us are generalists, others specialise in particular areas.  Our backgrounds include all branches of science and social science, engineering, planning and law.  

The speakers reminded us that we work in a very complex area; which of course is what makes it interesting as well as challenging.  It’s complex because we deal with complex and interconnected systems.  

Elisa Nicholls (Director, Queensland Office of the Great Barrier Reef) gave us an example of this with the management of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), an amazing and complex geomorphological and ecological system.  It’s challenging enough managing what happens within the boundaries of the World Heritage area and Marine Park, but even more challenging when you consider that the two most significant threats to the health of the GBR, climate change and catchment runoff, come from outside these boundaries.  

Complexity also arises because we deal in contested matters.  There are widely divergent views regarding what is the appropriate balance between environment and development, and how resources should be allocated both within current generations and for future generations.  

These hotly debated areas are heavily influenced by ever changing social, economic and political contexts.  Deb Callister (Assistant Secretary, Department of the Environment) and Paul Wilson (Senior Associate, Ashurst) both gave perspectives on the challenges of setting and managing legislative and policy frameworks regarding these matters. 

Party politics and the influence of activists and lobby groups are all very important and we've seen some dramatic evidence of that in Queensland, both with rapid legislative and policy reform and “re-reform” of successive governments as well as the international spotlight that international lobbyists have thrown on activities in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.  Among other things, this change and unpredictability can make it hard for environmental practitioners to promote focus on longer term outcomes, but these sorts of issues may also be critical in terms of providing the impetus for change.  

It's often said that crisis is a vehicle for change, and both Graeme Newton (Crisis Management Leader, Deloittes) and Elisa Nichols highlighted this in two different ways.  Graeme’s presentation on the Queensland Reconstruction Authority showed that amazing results can be achieved when collective will is harnessed.  The newly established Office of the Great Barrier Reef is also in response to an apparent crisis and it is to be hoped that it can achieve similarly collaborative and impressive outcomes.  

It's no surprise that a many of the speakers focused on legislation and approvals.  Legislation and policy remains a critical lever for environmental protection, particularly in relation to environmental assessment; the idea that we should consider the environmental impacts of actions before decisions are made is now enshrined in legislation around the world.

Reading (or listening) between the lines, a number of the speakers reminded me that legislative approvals requirements also create a very adversarial space. For some, these requirements are a hurdle to economic growth, and the associated benefits, for others the legislative and policy requirements are considered inadequate to achieve the desired levels of environmental protection.  Others feel frustrated by the apparent lack of efficiency and effectiveness of legislative and policy regimes.  

I think it’s important to remember that while legislative and policy regimes that protect the environment are heavily influenced by politics, these regimes seek to maintain a balance between environment and development that is acceptable to most.  As practitioners, we need to remember that legislation and policy are there for a purpose; it is there to moderate and manage the effects of development on the environment.  

Deb Callister asked us to think about how much of an EIS is actually usable by regulators, and I often wonder this myself.   But I would also ask how the situation arises where proponents and assessors are not discussing the information needs, starting with the scoping phase, which appears to be sadly neglected in Australian practice.

James Mckenzie's (Manager, Department of Environment and Heritage Protection) nuts and bolts review of what should go in an environmental authority application was really helpful and highlights the frustration that assessors feel when the information is not provided.  But a conversation at lunchtime revolved around a proponent's frustration at a very inflexible and impenetrable approvals process, as did James McDermott’s (Practice Lead - Approvals, AECOM) presentation.

The approvals process has the potential to trigger examination of proposals from an environmental perspective, to avoid, minimise and mitigate environmental impacts.  This is a powerful opportunity but conflict and tension between assessment agencies, consultants and proponents can only be counterproductive and I urge all those involved to understand each other's needs and work cooperatively to get through these processes and make the most of the opportunities presented.  As environmental practitioners, we have a common goal; to allow development that has appropriate controls to protect environmental values.  Obviously there are barriers here.  James McDermott mentioned commercial sensitivities, what other issues are there? We need to get to the bottom of these.  I wonder how often each of us think about the roles and responsibilities of our counterparts in other sectors?  Certainly, the varied speakers and audience at LEAP provided an excellent opportunity to put ourselves in others’ shoes.

Complexity also arises because of the nature and scale of activities that humans are undertaking.  Hamish Manzi (Head of Environment and Sustainability, Adani) and James McDermott spoke of enormous, multi-component resource sector projects with infrastructure spanning hundreds of kilometres and global implications in terms of exports.  These sorts of projects place enormous pressures on our legal and administrative systems as well as our technical skills.  

So what does this mean for us as environmental practitioners?  

The speakers reminded us that we have developed a strong suite of the tools and techniques available to us to meet those challenges, however we, as environmental practitioners must maintain and expand our technical skills if we are to make the most of these tools and techniques.

This means staying abreast of industry trends but also pushing boundaries where this contributes to solutions.  We have to understand these complex environmental systems, policy systems and projects, and be able to predict the future, diagnose problems and propose solutions. 

We have to be translators as well, making sure that others understand and appreciate the complex and amazing natural systems that we exist in and are motivated to be part of the solution, not the problem.  

We have to have cooperation.  Graeme Newton spoke of what is possible if everyone gets behind something.  On the implementation side as well, political will and support and collaboration and buy in from stakeholders seems to be critical. International literature on environmental assessment shows us that the best ideas, plans and programs will not be effective if we cannot get this “buy-in”.

Environmental practitioners often have to be multi-taskers.  Our subject area is very complex in itself, and it sits within complex world of politics, policy, business and stakeholders.  In addition to our technical skills, we have to be really good communicators, we have to be passionate ourselves, be inspiring, be leaders, but also be accurate, design effective programs and responses.  So, in short, we have to know the tools that are available, know how to use them but also know their limitations, know how to develop good assessments, plans, processes, and also know how to communicate these.  

As we continue to deal with constant change and evolution, the support of organisations such as EIANZ is acknowledged as critical.