Doing Business in Australia 2013: Environmental Law

“In Australia regulation of the environment occurs at national, state/territory and local levels of government.”

The Federal government focuses on matters of national environmental significance and the implementation of international obligations. It has a comparatively limited role in environmental protection as it has no direct legislative powers in relation to the environment.

Pollution and development control are largely regulated at state/territory and local government levels.

National government level

International obligations and EPBC Act

The Federal government can enact legislation to implement international treaties, which is generally complemented by legislation in the States. A key example is the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), which was introduced to implement the Convention on the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.

The EPBC Act addresses matters of national environmental significance. 

Actions that would or would be likely to have significant impacts on matters of national environmental significance, or upon Federal land, or that are undertaken by the Federal government and its agencies, are prohibited unless otherwise approved by the Minister or exempted from needing approval. 

National environment protection measures

The Environment Protection and Heritage Council aims to ensure the consistency of environmental regulation throughout Australia and New Zealand. The Council works in tandem with the National Environment Protection Council to produce National Environment Protection Measures (NEPMs), and to implement and monitor their effectiveness. 

NEPMs can take the form of standards (which are mandatory), or goals, guidelines and protocols (which are not). They address matters including ambient air quality, marine pollution, noise emissions and environmental impacts associated with hazardous waste. 

Climate Change

The Clean Energy Act 2011 established a system for reducing carbon pollution in Australia. 

On 1 July 2012, a fixed carbon price was introduced, starting at $23 a tonne. From 1 July 2015, the system will transition to an emissions trading scheme, with the carbon price to be set by the market. 

The carbon price applies to businesses emitting carbon pollution above a threshold, and directly affects approximately 500 of the biggest polluters in Australia. While it does not directly affect households or small businesses, the act imposes severe civil and criminal penalties on organisations that breach its provisions. 

States and territories government level

Pollution law

At varying levels of complexity, each of the states has laws regulating discharges of pollutants to air, water and land, waste management and the emission of noise. Each state has its own Environment Protection Authority or similar authority to administer and enforce its environmental laws.

Planning law

Development control and planning legislation is regulated at both state and territory levels as well 
as at the local government level.

The general scheme of development control requires potential proponents to apply to the local planning authorities, or sometimes a state agency, for permission to undertake that development. Some activities will 
also require consent from other government agencies on certain aspects of the development (for example, where separate licences are required to clear native vegetation or carry out a polluting activity).

Local government level

Local governments also have regulatory functions including for building and development approval, pollution control, wetland management and waste disposal.