Is an industrial project’s contribution to climate change via greenhouse gas emissions a reason to refuse its implementation? Yes, according to the Land and Environmental Court of New South Wales, Australia. In a judgment rendered on 8 February, the court rejected a coal mine project based on local impact studies and secondary repercussions related to global warming from the use of coal.
"All-natural resources do not have to be exploited"
The Rocky Hill open-pit coal mine project in Gloucester (just north of Sydney), is operating "in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Judge Brian Preston. “Wrong place because an open cut coal mine in this scenic and cultural landscape…will cause significant planning, amenity, visual and social impacts”.
"Wrong time because the GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions of the coal mine and its coal product will increase global total concentrations of GHGs at a time when what is now urgently needed, in order to meet generally agreed climate targets, is a rapid and deep decrease in GHG emissions. These dire consequences should be avoided. The project should be refused,” he added. "All-natural resources do not have to be exploited. "
The decision repeatedly references the Paris Agreement, which Australia ratified in 2016, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Climatologists were also called to testify, such as Will Steffen, chemist and climate specialist. He explained that the average surface temperature had increased in Australia by one degree over the last century.
The birth of climate litigation
Environmental organisations have made the Rocky Hill mine a "benchmark" for Australian law, hoping it sets a precedent. "This is a decision of enormous importance," said solicitor David Morris, counsel for the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), an NGO that represents residents fighting the mining project. "It heralds the arrival of climate litigation in Australia, the first-time climate change has featured as a ground for refusal of a fossil fuel project in this country and, as far as I'm aware, anywhere," he told AFP.
The court was seized by Gloucester Resources after its mining project was rejected by New South Wales authorities. The unlisted mining group hoped to extract 21 million tonnes of coal over 16 years and promised to create 170 jobs. The group still has the right to appeal the decision.
A potentially significant impact for the mining industry
The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) has deemed the court decision as "important". If it were confirmed, it could have serious consequences for the mining industry, which is a very strong sector in Australia. This case bears striking similarities to the massive Carmichael project by Indian giant Adani, which was confronted, like many other mining projects, with much legal recourse due to their environmental impact.
Australia is one of the largest coal producers in the world, and is the world’s largest exporter, feeding power plants in China, India, South Korea and Japan. Because of its massive dependence on coal and its relatively small population, Australia is also a country that generates the most per capita greenhouse gases.
The conservative Australian government is dragging its feet on the fight against global warming, making economic development a priority at the expense of emission reduction targets. It recognised in December 2018 that the country was not in a good position to meet the 2030 greenhouse gas reduction targets set by the Paris Agreement.
Béatrice Héraud with AFP