COVID-19 development strategy could be damaging to the environment

Western Australia’s plans to revitalise tourism may have unintended environmental consequences, writes Eleanor Beidatsch.

THE WESTERN AUSTRALIAN government have implemented a new streamline process for evaluating sustainable development sites that have the potential to boost the state’s economy and increase tourism.

The strategy, called a significant development assessment pathway, is a short-term amendment to the Planning and Development Act 2005, Planning and Development (Local Planning Scheme) Regulations 2015 and State planning policies, to assist with COVID-19 recovery. It grants temporary authority to the Western Australian Planning Commission (WAPC) to approve development projects equal to $20 million in metropolitan areas and $5 million for regional areas.

From a tourism and economic perspective, the amendment is beneficial, but there may be unforeseen issues for areas of environmental significance under consideration for development.

In the Great Southern region of Western Australia is the coastal city of Albany. Near one of Albany’s seaside suburbs, Goode Beach, lies an area of pristine wetland that is the site of a proposed 51-apartment luxury holiday resort.

The wetlands are positioned between the beach and the freshwater Lake Vancouver. This unusual environment is home to several rare and endangered species including Western ringtail possum, Carnaby’s Black-Cockatoo, and the Albany Sundew plant.

Torbay Beach in Albany (image supplied).

The project was developed by proponents Cherry Martin and Rolf Koch more than two years ago and was received with concern by the residents of Goode Beach, who fear the resort will threaten the rare species’ home.

While the proposal was endorsed by the Albany city council, it hadn’t been approved by WAPC.

A spokesperson for Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage (DPLH) explained that an initial application for Goode Beach site was submitted to the State Administrative Tribunal (SAT) in late 2019, prior to determination by WAPC.

Then in an unexpected turn of events, the residents of Goode Beach seemed to get what they wanted when the proponents withdraw the development application from consideration in September this year.

Doctor Catherine Macdonald, a long-term resident of Goode Beach said the residents were relieved when they heard the news.

She said:

But the withdrawal was short-lived as the proponents quickly began the process of submitting a pre-lodgement for consideration through the new significant assessment pathway.

The DPLH spokesperson explained:

The concerns of Goode Beach residents were reignited when they heard the news of the pre-lodgement and the significant development pathway.

If the new proposal is still for a 51 apartment resort, then the endangered species could still be at risk.

Dr Macdonald said the Albany Sundew was in most danger from the development as the bushland where it grows would have to be cleared to accommodate the resort’s access.

“The driveway into and out of this would dig up one of the few places the Albany Sundew exists, and that would be terrible,” she explained.

The proposed development site at Goode beach (image supplied).

The DPLH spokesperson said all potential environmental impacts will be evaluated if the new proposal is assessed through the alternative pathway.

But Dr Macdonald’s main issue with the proposal is that the scale has changed significantly since the first plan in 2018.

A smaller development would still threaten the local species, but the impact would be less severe.

Dr Macdonald also questioned the logic of using this site for a luxury resort as the proposed location is behind sand dunes that conceal the views Goode Beach is known for.

Dr Macdonald asked:

Dr Macdonald said there were safety issues to consider when building such a large complex near Goode Beach.

She said the resort posed a possible bushfire risk to the neighbourhood as there’s only one access road in and out. If the resort was operating at full capacity, it could cause congestion with a devastating outcome in a fire evacuation.

A more long-term concern is the risk of beach erosion.

Forests, logging and climate change

Logging has a serious effect on climate change, writes Frances Pike.

Erosion to beaches from rising sea-level and storm waves caused by climate change, is becoming a significant problem in coastal areas in Australia.

Albany coasts are no exception and erosion has occurred on several of the beaches including Goode Beach.

Albany’s risk of erosion was recently increased when the coastal city was struck by two unseasonably severe storms in May and August.

The May storm was the result of a local cold front mixing with a tropical cyclone which caused strong winds. The August event brought substantial rains and flooding.

Albany Mayor Dennis Wellington said the main impact of the storms was on the beaches.

Mayor Wellington said:

University of Western Australia PhD student Carly Portch studies coastal engineering and the effect of “wave run-up” on beaches. Her focus area is on Torbay beach in Albany.

Ms Portch said she saw signs of erosion at Torbay following both storms, but the May event caused more damage to the beach.

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But Ms Portch said the real concern is the likelihood of more severe storms.

She told IA:

Given Albany’s experience with storm surge and erosion, it’s an aspect of the Goode Beach development that should be considered.

But according to Stephen Hopper, University of Western Australia professor and Goode Beach resident, erosion was barely considered by the environmental consultant who evaluated the site for the first proposal.

Professor Hopper said:

Erosion at Goode Beach isn’t theoretical. Professor Hopper said their coastline was washed away by the August storm.

“We lost about a metre and a half of the forward edge of the primary dunes, right on the beach, right where the resort’s going,” he said.

The economics of climate change

While the rich get richer, not only do the poor get poorer but the environment continues to suffer, writes David Shearman.

Eleanor Beidatsch is a disability and environmental rights activist, and a science journalist.

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COVID has left Australia’s biomedical research sector gasping for air

While COVID-19 has highlighted the value of medical research, it has unfortunately also seriously disrupted it. Lack of funding is driving members of Australia’s once-vibrant virology research community out of the sector, and forcing early-career researchers to turn to fundraising or philanthropy amid intense competition for federal government grants.

This disruption disproportionately affects early- and mid-career researchers (EMCRs) and laboratory-based scientists, especially women (who typically also shoulder the bulk of caring and home-schooling responsibilities).

In Australia, national funding of medical research happens mainly via the National Health and Medical Research Council. Over the past ten years there has been near stagnant investment, leading to a decline in funding in real terms. In 2019, the average success rates across the main NHMRC Ideas and Investigator Grant schemes was just 11.9%.

Stagnant investment, plummeting morale

Morale in the sector has plummeted and we have lost talented researchers to the United States, Europe and Asia, prompting leading universities to warn of a brain drain.

Eureka Prize-winning cancer biologist Darren Saunders and clinical geneticist Luke Hesson are leaving science altogether. The full-time medical research workforce declined by 20% between 2012 and 2017.

How did we get here?

In 2018, following extensive consultation, the NHMRC funding scheme was overhauled with major objectives to encourage innovation across the sector, reduce the burden on applicants and reviewers, and improve success rates of EMCRs.

In the first two years of this new scheme, the success rates for EMCR Investigator Grants (EL1-2) was just 11.7% (250 of 2,133 applications).

Read more: The NHMRC program grant overhaul: will it change the medical research landscape in Australia?

Schemes specifically designed to develop emerging talent are also receiving dwindling support. In 2017 the NHMRC awarded 181 “early career and career development fellowships”; by 2020 that figure had fallen to 122.

The 2019 success rate for NHMRC Ideas Grants scheme (which sustains fundamental research, including on vaccines) in Australia was only 11.1%, despite almost three times as many applications being ranked as “fundable” by expert peer reviewers.

Onus on universities

With such low success rates, it has fallen to universities to prop up their research departments and laboratories.

If these trends continue, Australia stands to lose an entire generation of medical researchers. This prompted the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes in August to call for the government to fund 300 new fellowships for EMCRs through the federal budget.

AAMRI president Jonathan Carapetis said the lack of grants and fellowships has forced EMCRs to rely on philanthropy or fundraising to support their research, adding:

This call, however, was not heeded in the recent federal budget, which contained no new money for biomedical research.

Funding the future?

The federal government’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) was established in 2015 and began dispensing funds in 2017. As the MRFF website explains, the government uses some of the net interest from the A$20 billion fund to pay for medical research. This year it will disperse around A$650 million.

The MRFF represented a major and very welcome funding boost to Australia’s health and medical research sector.

But the combined NHMRC and MRFF budget still only represents 0.53% of the total health expenditure in the federal budget.

This is a fraction of the 3% of health expenditure that would bring Australia’s health and medical research spending into line with other OECD countries. An increase to 3% of health expenditure would generate A$58 billion in health and economic benefits, according to a Deloitte Access Economics report commissioned by the Australian Society for Medical Research.

The MRFF has recently come under scrutiny as it emerged during Senate estimates that up to 65% of funds were distributed without peer review.

What’s more, researchers who narrowly missed out on the incredibly competitive NHMRC Investigator funding cannot apply to the MRFF unless they are a clinical researcher, meaning fundamental biomedical researchers engaged in translational research, but without a medical degree, miss out.

Without investment, advances are not possible

In the post-COVID era, a robust health and medical research sector is essential to lead the discoveries and innovations that will fuel our long-term economic recovery.

The National Association of Research Fellows (a peak body representing biomedical researchers; the authors of this article are on the NARF Executive) is calling for:

This investment would position Australia as an international leader in health and medical research. Without better support for the sector, advances in patient treatment and care are simply not possible.

Read more: More than 10,000 job losses, billions in lost revenue: coronavirus will hit Australia’s research capacity harder than the GFC

Authors: Gina Ravenscroft – Research Fellow, University of Western Australia | Elizabeth E. Gardiner – Professor, John Curtin School of Medical Research, Australian National University The Conversation

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