Australian public calling for strong leadership on climate change
Professor Jacqueline Peel, Director, Melbourne Climate Futures, University of Melbourne
Australia has a sizeable carbon footprint, but its national policy has lagged international peers. Despite this, action by other sectors of Australian society, including through institutions like sub-national governments and courts, signals a turning of the tide and paves the way for increased climate ambition from Australia’s national government. Climate litigation has been a particular site of innovation in Australia, with a surge in novel cases since conclusion of the Paris Agreement seeking greater government and corporate accountability for climate harms.
Australia is one of the world’s largest per capita emitters. It has a sizeable carbon footprint, enhanced by its fossil fuel exports. Australia’s pathway to a low-carbon energy system and sustainable climate future is therefore of global significance.
Australia’s present Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement has been assessed as insufficiently ambitious and an inadequate contribution to the global goal of keeping temperature rises within safe limits. However, Australia is also the site of innovative climate mitigation actions through institutional forums, such as courts, and the actions of Australian sub-national governments.
Action in the courts to address climate change has been a particular site of innovation in Australia. Globally, Australia has the second highest number of climate cases, second only to the USA. Policy inaction has been a major driver. These cases have included litigation with a mitigation focus, targeting coal power and coal mining proposals, as well as many adaptation cases, considering the impacts of increased flood, bushfire and coastal risks for planning and development. While only a handful of Australian climate cases have stopped climate unfriendly development from proceeding, there have been important ‘indirect’ impacts on the public profile of the climate issue, government and corporate behaviour.
Since conclusion of the Paris Agreement there has been a surge in ‘next generation’ lawsuits in Australia, focused on the climate accountability of governments and private sector actors. These include cases against banks and superannuation (pension) funds, cases suing the Australian government for a failure to safeguard children and Indigenous Australians against climate impacts, and cases calling on state governments to implement climate policies under environmental laws.
- Australia makes an outsized contribution to climate change, particularly because of its exports of coal and natural gas. It is also at the forefront of climate change impacts, such as bushfires, floods, drought and sea level rise and coastal erosion.
- Australian national policy on climate change lags other developed countries, with a weak 2030 target and poorly specified pathways for reaching the recently announced goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050.
- Policy gaps at the national level have prompted action to address climate change across many other sectors of Australian society, including by sub-national governments and institutions such as the courts.
- This signals a turning of the tide, with the potential to lower the costs of, and pave the way for, Australia’s national government to commit to faster and more ambitious climate action.
- Strong action would accord with growing, high levels of public support for greater climate action in Australia.
- Peel et al, ‘Shaping the ‘Next Generation’ of Climate Change Litigation in Australia’ (2017) 41 Melb. Uni. L. Rev. 793
- Database of Australian climate cases
- Commentary on climate litigation in The Conversation: ‘Four seismic climate wins show big oil and gas are running out of places to hide’ and ‘A wake-up call: Why this student is suing the government over the financial risks of climate change’
- Peter Christoff & Robyn Eckersley, ‘Convergent Evolution: Framework Climate Legislation in Australia’ (2021), Climate Policy DOI: 10.1080/14693062.2021.1979927