Most informed people have long accepted the science that says human use of fossil fuels is destabilising Earth’s climate. Many who once said this was rubbish now seem to have caught on too.
The question now is not whether we should act, but how. Given science’s warning about the urgency of the situation and vanishing opportunities to stop dangerous warming, the spotlight has shifted to politicians, public servants and lawyers: those who create, administer and interpret the law of the land.
The defeat of a climate-aware federal government in 2013 left concerned citizens with no political support for reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. So they turned instead to the courts.
There have been moments of hope, most notably a year ago when federal court justice Mordecai Bromberg found in favour of Anjali Sharma and seven other Melbourne children that the federal government owed future generations a duty of care over the natural environment we pass on to them.
Without climate mitigation, he said, “Australia will be lost… The physical environment will be … devastatingly brutal… Lives will be cut short. Trauma will be far more common and good health harder to hold and maintain. None of this will be the fault of nature itself [but]… the inaction of this generation of adults, in what might fairly be described as the greatest inter-generational injustice ever inflicted by one generation of humans upon the next.”
None of the three appeal judges who overturned Bromberg’s finding last March questioned his description of climate impact, but they broadly concluded that the matter in question was one of policy, to be determined by elected governments, not courts.
It’s clear that the legislation under scrutiny in all these cases, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, doesn’t fully address climate concerns. Other Australian cases are still in train and may yet yield some sanctions on coal, oil and gas extraction, but they can’t fix deficiencies of the Act.
The Sharma case was about a NSW coal project which may be abandoned anyway from want of financial support. Now the focus is on natural gas, specifically Woodside’s $16.5 billion Scarborough project whereby undersea gas is to be extracted and processed at a plant already built on the Pilbara coast.
Scarborough won approval early in the 2022 election campaign. Under caretaker convention the Morrison government’s environment minister Sussan Ley could not have approved it, but because it was offshore it could legally be approved by a joint Commonwealth-Western Australian authority, which is what happened.
If global gas prices remain high for a few more years, and if Woodside can begin shipping on schedule in 2026, its prospects look very rosy indeed. But standing in its way is the not insignificant matter of climate change.
The Scarborough gasfield contains over 350 billion cubic metres of methane, equal to two-thirds of all the methane emitted globally from human activities in 2019. And Woodside has an even bigger gas field, off Broome, in its longer-term plans.
Seeking a court injunction to halt the scheme, the Australian Conservation Foundation says tapping Scarborough is equivalent to 15 new coal-fired power stations. Last year the International Energy Agency warned that to avoid a climate catastrophe we must from now stop extracting and using oil, coal and gas, and prohibit any new extraction.
Both the WA government and WA-based resources minister Madeleine King are firmly behind Scarborough. That, plus Woodside’s massive financial commitment in a multi-decade scheme, is what new environment minister Tanya Plibersek is up against if she were to pursue a new Scarborough investigation.
But that is what needs to happen. The Albanese government has just signed up to a strengthened 2030 carbon reduction target of 43 per cent, while also indicating it may agree to cut methane emissions by 30 per cent over the same time frame. Both positions are starkly at odds with Woodside’s plans.
The government has already shown its support for Graeme Samuel’s 2019-20 root-and-branch review of the EPBC Act. In the wake of the failure of the Sharma case, it needs to go even further, spelling out responsibility to consider future climate impact and to cover all territory under Australian jurisdiction, including offshore gas basins.
A government as short of cash as this one might be tempted to let the venture go ahead and slap a windfall tax on its exported product, as many are advocating for existing gas operations. But revenue gained would be dwarfed by the damage Scarborough could do to the planet. Somehow, this government must find a way to stop it.