Court orders Canberra to specifically protect young people from the harm of climate change in landmark judicial decision
Eight Australian high-school students – backed by an octogenarian nun – are celebrating a partial legal victory after suing to block expansion of a coal mine, dealing a further blow to the beleaguered fossil fuel.
The group had asked a court to prevent Sussan Ley, Australia’s environment minister, from granting approvals for the Whitehaven coal project, expected to produce 10 million tonnes of coal a year for more than a quarter of a century.
That is enough to generate more than 350 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, the court heard.
Justice Mordecai Bromberg agreed that Ley had a duty to take “reasonable care” not to cause Australian children personal injury when exercising her powers to grant mine approvals.
While the judge rejected the group’s calls for an injunction to stop the project outright, he ruled the government must take into account the damage the project would do to the group’s health, wealth and well-being.
“The minister has a duty to take reasonable care to avoid causing personal injury to the children when deciding… to approve or not approve the extension project,” Bromberg found.
Legal experts said the ruling was significant because it was the first time a court had accepted expert testimony about the vast potential impact of climate change on younger generations and the government’s duty to consider that impact.
Despite the rapid growth of renewables, coal remained the dominant fuel in Australia’s national electricity market in 2020 with a 67% share.
“Coal is less important than it was a decade ago in 2011 when it had an 80% share,” Graeme Bethune, chief executive of EnergyQuest, a consultancy based in Adelaide, said.
“However, there are only four countries in the world more reliant on coal-fired generation than Australia: South Africa, Poland, India and Kazakhstan,” he added.
Bethune described the future for coal in Australia as “bleak”, adding: “The surge in renewables and low wholesale electricity prices accelerate the exit of coal plants.”
The students aged between 14 and 17 were assisted by Brigid Arthur, an 86-year-old nun who acted as their litigation guardian.
“I’m thrilled,” Ava Princi, 17, one of the litigants, told Agence France-Presse. “We understand this is the first time a court of law, anywhere in the world, has ordered a government to specifically protect young people from the catastrophic harms of climate change.”
With reporting by Agence France-Presse