Jennifer Rayner
Put climate at the heart of environment law

The first fossil fuel project approved under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act was given the green light with almost absurd haste. In January 2001, less than six months after Australia’s new environmental protection law came into effect, then environment minister Robert Hill approved the oil and gas giant Woodside to drill new wells in the Echo-Yodel Field off the coast of Western Australia. The wells were part of the vast North West Shelf project, which today produces about 17 million tonnes of polluting fossil gas each year.

Since then, under that same environment protection law, successive ministers have waved through a total of 740 coal, oil and gas projects. Of these, 555 projects were given the green light without any detailed assessment of their environmental impact. Collectively, these projects are already responsible for pumping billions of tonnes of climate-wrecking carbon pollution into our atmosphere. Many of them will continue to do so for decades to come.

The most recent fossil fuel project approved under this law got the tick just over two months ago, when the Albanese government authorised an extension of the Gregory Crinum coalmine in Queensland’s Bowen Basin. The approval certificate, signed by Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, is valid until 2073. As Greenpeace astutely observed on the day the approval became public, this mine will outlive many of us.

While 2023 shapes up to be the hottest year ever recorded globally, there are almost certainly going to be more approvals coming. More than two dozen other fossil fuel projects are currently in the assessment process, waiting for the inevitable rubber stamp. Existing fossil fuel supplies are already enough to tip the world well over the 1.5 degree warming threshold that has been set as our shared goal to avoid catastrophic climate impacts. Approving more polluting coal, oil and gas at this point is a disastrous, stupid and unnecessary act of self-sabotage.

Climate change is a tremendous bulldozer tearing through the ecosystems that we and all other species depend on for our health, wellbeing and safety. The most recent national State of the Environment Report called it out as a key driving force behind unprecedented environmental decline and rising species extinction risks around Australia. That’s because a warming climate aggravates all other environmental risks – from habitat loss and invasive species to land clearing and pollution – to put our natural life support systems under extreme stress.

And yet, our national environment law does not deal with greenhouse gas emissions or the dangerous global warming they produce. To be blunt: the law that is meant to protect our environment offers no protection whatsoever against the biggest threat it faces now.

Lob in an application under the law for a new coalmine or gas field and you’ll be asked to explain its impacts on water, threatened plant and animal species, world heritage and a long list of other protected environmental matters. The impact of its emissions on heating the planet and wrecking a liveable climate is simply not considered.

Recently, a group of Queensland conservationists took the environment minister to court to try to prove preventing more climate change was on her to-do list somewhere in the law. They argued the massive harm a hotter climate would have on environmental matters under the law’s protection should mean emissions got a look in when deciding whether to approve expansions of the huge Mount Pleasant and Narrabri coalmines. Both mines produce thermal coal, the fuel that makes the single largest contribution to greenhouse gas emissions globally.

It took the Federal Court just a matter of weeks to reject this argument. It ruled the minister wasn’t obliged to consider the emissions from these two coalmines at all, let alone knock back the projects because of them. Now under appeal, this case is the latest in a long line of quixotic legal attempts to argue that our national environment law must be able to capture climate change somewhere, somehow. Its failure, like those before it, underlines that the only real way forward now is for the parliament to fix this law.

The Albanese government knows all this. The prime minister himself introduced a private member’s bill way back in 2005 that sought to make climate change a matter of national environmental significance and ensure big-emitting projects would be assessed for the impact of their harmful emissions. But to borrow from L. P. Hartley: government is another country and they do things differently there. Today, Labor is trying to argue climate change doesn’t belong in our national environment law.

It says emissions in Australia from coal, oil and gas projects have been sorted out through improvements to the safeguard mechanism delivered earlier this year. It also says emissions produced when Australian fossil fuels are burned overseas aren’t our problem to solve, so there’s no need to cover these in our law. Both arguments are simply wrong.

Getting Australia’s biggest polluters to cut their emissions year on year through the safeguard mechanism is undoubtedly a good thing. Those reforms are the first proper climate policy Australia has made in a decade. We may well look back on their passage through the parliament as the moment this country finally turned a corner on climate action.

Yet the safeguard mechanism does not assess and authorise projects. It regulates the emissions from polluting facilities once these exist. The mechanism has no hand at all in deciding whether they should go ahead in the first place. Our national environment law is currently the one and only place where the federal government actually assesses new coal, oil and onshore gas projects and decides if they should be allowed to proceed. This obviously makes it the most sensible place to examine how much harmful carbon pollution these projects will spew out and what this will do to our environment at a time of climate crisis.

The idea our environment law shouldn’t look at all emissions from fossil fuels mined here because some of them are produced overseas rests on even shakier foundations. Sure, emissions from burning our exported fossil fuels in places such as Japan and South Korea aren’t allocated to Australia in the carbon accounting fine print of the Paris Agreement. That’s entirely beside the point, however. The environment minister’s job under our national environment law is to make decisions that protect our environment. Carbon pollution from Australia’s fossil fuels causes climate change and environmental harm no matter where they are burned in the world. So our environment law should be set up to avoid that harm, regardless of whose national carbon inventory those emissions will ultimately get logged in. We can stop this pollution at its source by ending the approval of the projects that create it.

From the northern hemisphere’s horrific summer of fires to the recent ruinous floods across Asia and North Africa, the effects of climate harm are being felt more often and much more severely. In Australia, we are collectively eyeing the forecasts for the coming hot, dry and dangerous summer. Property losses from fires burning in Queensland in recent days have already surpassed those of Black Summer and we’re still a month away from the start of what was once thought of as the fire season. These climate consequences should be a clear call to action for doing everything we can to prevent even more global heating and environmental harm.

Our national environment law could be a key tool for this urgent task. The Albanese government should fix the current model and properly embed climate change into the law now. That means setting it up to say a quick “yes” to responsible renewable energy and clean industry projects that will help us drive down emissions. Most importantly, it means giving decision-makers the power to properly consider the climate impact of big polluting projects and knock back those that are going to pile on more climate harm.

Nobody who has followed their political careers would believe Tanya Plibersek or Anthony Albanese went into government to approve coalmines and gas fields. They know full well the harm these will do because they understand and believe in the science. Our broken national environment law is a barrier to doing the right thing, but that is within their power to change. To genuinely protect our environment now, climate change needs to be at the heart of our national environment law. It’s time the Albanese government put it there.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 11, 2023 as "Put climate at heart of environment law".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription