Australia court overturns landmark climate ruling

Court finds in favour of environment minister in appeal against earlier decision that she had a ‘duty of care’ to children when considering fossil fuel projects.

Smoke billows from the cooling towers of a coal fired power station in australia
The Federal Court overturned an earlier ruling that the environment minister had a "duty of care" to younger generations when considering fossil fuel projects [File: Saeed Khan/AFP]

An Australian court has overturned a groundbreaking ruling that required the country’s environment minister to consider the potential harm to children from climate change when approving new fossil fuel projects.

A judge in July 2020 found that the environment minister must “avoid causing personal injury or death” to under 18s due to “emissions of carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere” when considering such projects, following a case brought to court by a group of secondary school students.

But the environment minister Sussan Ley appealed the decision, and on Tuesday the full Federal Court decided in her favour.

“The Court orders that: the appeal be allowed,” the three judges ruled.

The Court said the decision partly reflected the “tiny increase in risk” from the project at the centre of the case, Whitehaven’s Vickery coal mine in the eastern state of New South Wales.

Some of those who brought the original case to court gathered outside the court in Sydney to await the ruling and were left in tears when the decision was announced.

Anjali Sharma, 17, said the decision had left them “devastated”.

“Two years ago, Australia was on fire; today, it’s underwater. Burning coal makes bushfires and floods more catastrophic and more deadly. Something needs to change,” she said in a statement.

There are growing calls in Australia for the government to do more to address climate change with parts of the country’s east deluged by floods this month, and fires in the southern hemisphere summer of 2019-2020 that burned through millions of hectares of agricultural land and forest.

“There is no doubt the climate crisis is causing increased risk to the lives of our kids,” David Ritter, chief executive of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, wrote on Twitter. “Over just the past month, Australia has experienced devastating floods & catastrophic fires, fuelled by climate change. In bringing this appeal, Australia’s Federal Environment Minister has shown the vested interests of the fossil fuel industry are a higher priority for our government than our kids’ future.”

Chief Justice James Allsop said the duty of care should not be imposed because of the “indeterminacy of liability and the lack of proportionality between the tiny increase in risk and lack of control and liability for all damage by heatwaves, bushfires and rising sea levels to all Australians under the age of 18, ongoing into the future.”

Izzy Raj-Seppings, 15, said there was “still much to celebrate” in the judgement.

“The court accepted that young people will bear the brunt of the impacts of the climate crisis,” she said, arguing that represented an important step in climate litigation.

The students’ lawyers will consider whether to appeal the case to Australia’s highest court.

The Australian government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies