Big, polluting fossil fuel projects are flying under the radar without proper oversight because Australia’s environmental laws are not up to scratch, a new legal review has revealed.
Currently, there are no considerations given to the impact that a project might have on greenhouse gas emissions and rising temperatures causing climate change. Environmental and Climate Law Professor Jaqueline Peel, who undertook the review of existing laws, has said that they do not reflect the urgency of the environmental situation.
“Our national environmental law does not currently require the Federal Environment Minister to protect a safe and liveable climate, or even to consider the impact of more greenhouse gas pollution on the threatened species, habitats and wildlife this law was set up to protect,” Professor Peel said.
“There is no other federal law which assesses and approves new coal, oil and onshore gas projects to proceed. This means the damage they could do to the climate and environment isn’t being properly looked at anywhere, showing a major gap in our legal framework for tackling climate change.”
In support of Peel’s conclusions, an open letter has been penned to the Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek, that has been signed by more than 35 of the country’s leading environmental law experts.
Dr Jennifer Rayner, Head of Advocacy at the Climate Council, has said that Australia needs a national environment law that “helps Australia deal with the climate crisis that is already battering our environment, and communities, right around the country”.
“This means setting the law up so that it can say a quick yes to responsible renewable energy and clean industry projects, which will help us drive down emissions while delivering good new jobs. And so it can provide a decisive no to big polluting projects that are going to pile on more climate harm”.
Australia’s environmental framework, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC), was found to be outdated and ineffective after an independent review in 2020. Last year, the Labor government pledged a complete overhaul of the framework but that process is currently months behind schedule.
At the end of last year, the Government’s nature-positive plan was revealed as a response to the 2020 review, with promises that new laws would be in effect by the end of this year. In September, Plibersek revealed that only a draft motion would be ready by the end of this year, with legislation now planned for February or March 2024.
The first consultation drafts of those reforms were released to stakeholders earlier this week. The Climate Council have described them as a “huge missed opportunity” as they once again completely ignore rising emissions.
“There is simply nothing there for climate, despite the loud and growing calls from communities and experts around the country to deal with this major environmental threat,” Rayner said.
While the Government has undertaken dozens of consultations with key stakeholders, actual reform, according to the Peel review, needs to take climate change into account.
Specifically, the review calls on the government to address the fact that their proposed reforms only cover direct emissions from fossil fuel facilities and not ‘Scope 3’ emissions created by the use of fossil fuel products.
It also says that emissions disclosure laws coming into effect next year, whereby businesses will need to reveal their emissions to shareholders, aren’t similarly applied in environmental law planning. This means scenarios could arise where investors know more about a company’s emissions than environmental protection authorities do.
The Labor government has been roundly criticised by environmental groups since taking office last year for appearing to fail to deliver key climate protections called upon by voters at the election.
Since taking office, Plibersek has approved four new coal projects while Labor has categorically ruled out blocking any more coal and gas projects from going ahead. This is in spite of the fact that Australia is one of the world’s largest exporters of coal and natural gas and has one of the highest emissions per capita.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said, famously, that the Paris Agreement target of 1.5C or less of global temperature increase is incompatible with more fossil fuel projects.
This renewal of Australia’s environmental laws is a major opportunity to address some of the serious problems the country has when it comes to leaky climate policy, the Climate Council have said.
“The Albanese Government should put climate at the heart of this law so that it properly protects our environment, and the precious natural places we all rely on for healthy, safe and prosperous lives,” said Rayner.