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Pathways to Net Zero: Speeding up the planning and environmental assessment process

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Idea In Brief

Clear goals

Expediting Australia’s net-zero transition requires a planning and environmental assessment system that is streamlined, efficient and fit for purpose. It is made harder by multiple levels of government and their different approaches.

Need for balance

In measuring planning assessment against the demands of net zero, two themes emerge: large projects are vital to achieving a national public policy objective; and projects are currently assessed on an individual basis.

Key reforms

Five reforms will help to achieve change: Integrate net zero considerations into the assessment process; Encourage shorter, higher-quality applications; Better resource the planning system; Integrate decision-making; Measure the right KPIs.

The Pathways to Net Zero series offers context, insights and key questions on different aspects of Australia’s transition to net zero. It builds on the groundbreaking research of Net Zero Australia. You can read earlier editions in the series on our website.

Expediting Australia’s net-zero transition requires a planning and environmental assessment system that is streamlined, efficient and fit for purpose.

The planning assessment process helps assure the quality of projects that upscale electricity generation and transmission. It also ensures due consideration of economic, social, cultural and environmental impacts, as well as building social licence for change. Effective consultation with impacted stakeholders is essential. But the system must also allow shovels to hit the ground and accelerate development lead times that can last several years.

Substantial reform of Australia’s planning system must be a top-tier issue, as flagged in the Net Zero Australia Mobilisation report. However, it is a task made harder by multiple levels of government and their different approaches.

While the Australian Government manages key areas of environmental policy, including the signing of international agreements, its planning role is limited to matters of national significance. State and local governments are responsible for assessing and approving new transmission lines, as well as wind and solar farms. Issues considered as part of assessments often include farming disruption, visual amenity, and impacts on biodiversity and habitat loss.

Then there are renewable energy zones (REZs) – special locations where the government designates that electricity generation will happen. But proposing a project in a REZ does not necessarily produce a faster outcome. Application procedures vary widely by state, as does the level of support given to proponents to navigate complex requirements.

What comes next?

In measuring planning assessment processes against the demands of the net zero transition, two themes deserve emphasis:

  1. For arguably the first time since post-war reconstruction, large-scale development projects are vital to achieving an overriding national public policy objective, in this case the generation and transmission of renewable energy to dense population and industrial centres.
  2. Projects are currently assessed on an individual basis, with case-by-case consideration of economic, social and biodiversity impacts. However, this makes it harder to achieve the once-in-a-century transition in energy generation needed to maintain a liveable climate.

Given this challenge, we believe there are five key reforms that will help to achieve the substantial change required.

Integrate net zero considerations into the assessment process. Project assessment methodologies must start with a realisation of the imperative to reach net zero. This can be done while retaining due consideration for environmental and other impacts. However, we must recognise that Australia will not reach its objectives without accepting some biodiversity loss associated with individual renewable energy generation and transmission. To achieve both an overall net gain in biodiversity and net zero with speed and scale, impacts need to be managed at a regional scale through integrated planning processes and coordinated delivery across REZs.

Encourage shorter, higher-quality applications at the submission stage. Governments can speed up assessments by providing better pre-application services and information, as well as streamlining documentation requests. Currently, too much of this information is factual in nature (and already well known to assessment bodies) or not sufficiently relevant to project assessment. The result is that applications blow out to thousands of pages and there are unnecessary assessment delays.

Better resource the planning system and leverage new technology to release capacity. Staff numbers should be increased across all levels of government to support project assessments. Significant efforts will be required to address the national shortage of planning professionals, as demand for these roles will only grow in coming years. Workforce size should be based on analysis of how many applications are expected, how long assessments should take and the number of people needed to perform them.

Governments should also prioritise new capabilities such as artificial intelligence (AI). This can help to quickly triage and tabulate documents, increasing the sector’s productivity and allowing planning professionals to refocus on value-add activities. While human decision-making is still required to approve projects, technology can make the system run more efficiently.

Integrate decision-making and reduce bureaucratic pinch points. Reform is urgently needed to streamline the referral process under which agencies with specialist technical expertise (such as in biodiversity, transport or water) comment on project impacts. These agencies often take too long to provide advice or do not engage in ways that help expedite the overall assessment process. Developers cite this as one of the greatest challenges and causes of delays.

Measure the right KPIs. Improving planning system performance requires the right measurement. The proponent or stakeholder experience and length of the end-to-end assessment process are what matter. However, the most commonly tracked key performance indicators (KPIs), such as the time taken by governments to assess applications, only examine a subset of the process. KPIs should not be engineered to show that the government has done a good job – or worse, to give government perverse incentives to place the burden back on applicants.

The big questions for transition leaders

Federal government

  • What role can the federal government play to drive consistency and improvements in state assessment processes, recognising the mismatch between national imperatives and overwhelming state responsibility for assessments?
  • How can federal assessment process better integrate with state processes?
  • How can the federal government increase migration of skilled planners?

State governments

  • How does the assessment process need to be reconceptualised to reflect the fundamental and overriding imperative to reach net zero?
  • How can planning and environmental assessments be better integrated and centralised across relevant agencies to prevent gridlock?
  • What level of resources does the planning system truly need? How might state government incentivise people to upskill and join the planning profession?
  • What supports can be provided to enable proponents to develop higher quality applications from the outset?
  • What changes should be made to application requirements, reducing the burden on applicants and ensuring only relevant information is provided?
  • How can AI, machine learning and other new technologies be integrated to triage and streamline assessments?
  • What can be done to substantially expedite the assessment of projects in REZs?

Local governments

  • How can local governments work better and integrate with state governments to accelerate referrals on complex, large-scale planning matters?
  • As councils are closest to the communities they serve, how can they effectively support the process of public engagement and consultation on major projects?
  • What additional resources do councils need to effectively fulfil their role in the planning system?


  • How can project developers better share resources and get access to the independent advice they need to produce high-quality applications?
  • How can developers better engage local communities earlier in the planning process to create social license, integrating community needs and expectations within applications from the outset?
  • How can developers better assess the impacts of their applications early and develop effective responses and remediation strategies?

Get in touch to discuss how these issues impact your organisation.

Connect with Brenden Carriker and Simon Guttmann on LinkedIn.