Bank finance helps clear swathes of threatened species habitat

Australian banks are helping to finance the majority of deforestation that is taking place across hundreds of thousands of hectares of crucial habitat for koalas, gliders and other endangered animals, contradicting the sentiment of the banks’ environmental sustainability claims.

The findings, which have been made public to coincide with World Environment Day on Monday, were revealed in a new study by the Australian Conservation Foundation of state government data and have sparked calls for banks to stop supporting the destruction of native forests.

Australian banks are helping to finance the deforestation taking place across hundreds of thousands of hectares of crucial habitat for endangered animals. 

Wolter Peeters/Dominic Lorrimer

The ACF study, , found at least 364,000 hectares of forest that is a high likelihood of being habitat for protected native wildlife was cut down in Queensland between 2018 and 2020.

This clearing occurred across 4442 properties, but more than half of the deforestation happened on just 267 properties. Nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of the 267 properties where the clearing took place are linked to an Australian bank, typically via a mortgage.

ACF’s business and nature campaigner Nathaniel Pelle said the Queensland government had the best data collection, and it was not possible to say with as much confidence how much land had been cleared elsewhere in Australia.

He said Australian banks should follow international best practice by setting a target to phase out the financing of land clearing by 2025.

“Deforestation should have been stopped decades ago, so there’s no excuse to continue financing deforestation,” Pelle said.

The federal government is responsible for assessing the impact of development, including land clearing, on threatened species, but federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said Australia’s environment laws were failing and has promised to reform them.

None of the 364,000 hectares of threatened species habitat that has been cleared on the 267 Queensland properties, hosting cumulatively more than 217 identified threatened species, had applied to the federal government for assessment.

“I want to halt the decline of our environment and begin the process of repairing and restoring our precious places for our kids and grandkids,” Plibersek said.

“We’ve set a goal to protect 30 per cent of our land by 2030, and we’re reforming Australia’s environment laws. These laws are broken. They don’t protect our environment, and they don’t work for business.”

Ecologists list land clearing as a top cause of wildlife loss, and the 2022 State of the Environment report says that between 2000 and 2017, 7.7 million hectares of land was cleared across Australia – 93 per cent of the vegetation was felled without federal approvals for threatened species habitats.

ACF said banks were exposed to risks associated with potentially illegal clearing activity.

Roughly a quarter of the 267 properties had a financial security held by National Australia Bank; the other main lenders were Rabobank, CommBank, ANZ, Suncorp and Westpac, which have all made commitments to reducing greenhouse emissions and reaching net-zero by at least 2050. The loss of forests and woodland, which are important carbon sinks, contributes to global warming.

A Rabobank spokesperson said the bank was committed to environmental sustainability and was assessing with its clients if land clearing had taken place and whether the necessary legal permits had been obtained.

An NAB spokesperson said it was reviewing ACF’s report and acknowledged the importance of protecting biodiversity.

“We recognise the important role we can play in supporting the protection of biodiversity and natural capital, and we have numerous projects and partnerships under way to support this,” they said.

A Suncorp spokesperson said understanding the impact of land clearing and deforestation in its portfolio would be important in meeting its climate commitments.

ANZ said it was unable to comment on the report. Westpac and CBA were contacted for comment.

On Monday, Plibersek will announce a final design to expand the Macquarie Island Marine Park, which is set to triple in size with an extra 385,000 square kilometres of oceans under environmental protection. Macquarie Island is halfway from Hobart to Antarctica, and the expanded protected area must be proclaimed by the Governor-General.

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