Last month, an Australian Federal Court delivered its landmark ruling on a case brought forward by Australian teenagers. The court found that the environment minister has a duty of care to protect young people from the effects of climate change.
Launched in September 2020, the class action includes eight teenagers associated with the School Strike 4 Climate movement. As a result, the federal court of Australia found that environment minister Sussan Ley has a common law duty of care to protect youths from the damaging effects of climate change. Climate litigator David Barndon referred to the outcome as a historic and “amazing decision” with significant consequences,
“The court has found that the minister owes a duty of care to younger children, to vulnerable people, and that duty says that the minister must not act in a way that causes harm – future harm – from climate change to younger people,” he said outside court. “It is the first time in the world that such a duty of care has been recognised, especially in a common law country.”
Source: The Guardian
The Mine in Question
The mine under the microscope is the Vickery coal mine, north of Gunnedah in NSW.
Whitehaven Coal is the top Australian producer of premium-quality coal and operates four mines in the Gunnedah Coal Basin. In August of 2020, operators Whitehaven Coal received approval to expand via the Independent Planning Commission (IPC). A public hearing, held in July of 2020, resulted in a ruling that the expansion is in the public’s interest. The approval follows a NSW Resources Regulator announcement that it was taking Whitehaven to court for breaching mining approvals at another site.
The class action targets a proposal to extend Vickery Coal Mine. The area forms a large open-cut coal mine in North Western New South Wales, owned by Whitehaven Coal.
This extension will be responsible for 100-million tonnes of carbon emissions over the next 25 years. The teens asked the court to grant an injunction, preventing the environmental minister, Sussan Ley, from approving the mining project. The court did not approve the injunction, but it was ruled that Ley also has a legal obligation to protect young people from climate change. This decision is a global first and marks the beginning of a new legal precedent for climate change litigation in Australia.
Anjali Sharma is one of eight teenagers who led the class action. Sharma is a 17-year-old student and climate-change activist from Melbourne.
Anjali Sharma is one of eight teenagers taking the Australian government to court in a landmark class action over climate change. https://t.co/S7M716N2mo
— The Age (@theage) February 28, 2021
Sharma has no doubt that the minister owed the youth and future generations a duty of care. To the teens’ delight, the Federal Court agreed.
“Accordingly, the court has determined the minister has a duty to take reasonable care not to cause the Children personal injury when exercising her power under s 130 and s 133 of the EPBC Act to approve or not to approve the Extension Project”, Justice M. Bromberg of the Federal Court said.
Sharma warned that the project could be responsible for roughly three hundred and seventy billion tonnes of carbon emissions over its lifetime if it went ahead.
The teens involved in the court’s landmark decision are Anjali Sharma, Ambrose Malachi Hayes, Tomas Webster Arbizu, Bella Paige Burgemeister, Laura Fleck Kirwan, Ava Princi, Luca Gwyther Saunders and Isolde Shanti Raj-Seppings. In addition to the class movement, Isolde a.k.a Izzy, made headlines in 2020 after police issued a move-along order whilst she protested at a climate rally. The protest took place outside of the prime minister’s Kirribilli residence.
Year 12 student Veronica Hester is also part of the class action. She also hopes that it will set the standard for future coal mines. Her concern is with both the health and economic impacts of climate change.
“I am worried about job security, high food prices from lower food supply, worsening recessions and lower quality of life. I want to live in a country that prioritises long-term economic growth and securing my generation’s future,”
“By allowing the Vickery Extension Project and other projects like it that cause climate change, the government is acting immorally and being economically short-sighted”
The included teens form an all-Australian applicant group.
The proceeding was brought forward by an 86-year-old nun named Sister Marie Brigid Arthur. Arthur is a Sister of the Brigidine Order of Victoria and former teacher. Arthur volunteered to be the children’s litigation guardian.
The landmark ruling serves as a constant reminder of the realities that we face regarding climate change.
“I wake up every day and sometimes it just hits me in the face that I’ve completely changed climate litigation in this country,” said Sharma.
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