Wednesday, February 21, 2024

We could miss opportunity after Senate rejects ‘climate trigger’ bill

The debate over Australia’s climate legislation is heating up this week after a push to change the national environment law suffered a huge blow, despite broad public support for climate change to be considered under the legislation.

On Wednesday evening, a Senate committee handed down its final report rejecting the Greens’ “Climate Trigger” bill, which seeks to make climate change impacts a consideration under environment law. 

The Greens bill quickly followed the Albanese government’s new climate change laws in 2022 that mandated a 43% greenhouse gas emissions reduction by 2030, but it was deferred to the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee. 

The bill received supportive submissions from environmental organisations, community groups and researchers. However, the Business Council of Australia, the National Farmers’ Federation and the Minerals Council of Australia all spoke in opposition and cautioned against a “piecemeal approach” to legislative reform. 

The committee report commended the “objectives and intention” of the Greens bill and acknowledged the “significant and profound impact of climate change on the environment”. It ultimately recommended the bill should be rejected though, stating that the proposal could risk duplicating some of the outcomes already underway due to recent reforms to the safeguard mechanism, which will result in emissions reductions for both existing and new industrial facilities. 

However, Wednesday also saw the publication of national poll results commissioned by the Climate Council, which showed that 73% of Australians believe the national environmental laws should be designed to protect from the impacts of climate change. It also found that this support surges to 83% among Labor voters. 

In a dissenting report, the Greens stated that it is “entirely unacceptable that our national environment laws do not act upon the impact of greenhouse gases and global warming on our ecosystems and species”. It also said that, while the safeguard mechanism is one measure to address the threat of climate change, it does not “consider the impact of fossil fuels and global warming on our natural environment”. 

The Senate committee and Climate Council reports were also published on the same day that the European Union’s climate change service, Copernicus, announced that globally January 2024 was the warmest January on record — and that the 1.5 degree limit, as set out by the Paris Agreement, has been exceeded for close to 50% of days from February 2023 to January 2024. For the first time, two days in November were also more than 2 degrees warmer.

The Greens bill is part of a broader push to amend Australia’s national environment law, the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC), which does not directly mention climate change and doesn’t legally bind the federal environment minister to consider the climate impact of fossil fuel projects.

There has been acknowledgement from researchers, conservation groups and government that the EPBC is not fit for purpose, with a 2021 independent review calling the legislation “ineffective” and stating that it could not stand up to future challenges, such as climate change. 

While the government has committed to several significant reforms under its Nature Positive Plan, including the establishment of a national environmental protection agency, it has not committed to amending the EPBC to forefront issues of climate change. 

In a statement released following the report, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young asserted that the Greens bill closes a “loophole” in the EPBC and encouraged Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek to pass it. 

“Labor face a huge test this year — will they fix our broken environment law to stop new coal, gas and native forest logging projects or not?”

Climate Council CEO Amanda McKenzie noted that the statistics were proof that “Australians get it” and that national environmental law “should protect our precious natural places from climate change, as one of the biggest threats they face”. 

However, in a statement provided to Crikey, Plibersek asserted that the Albanese government has already changed the law to “deliver our strong new safeguard laws to get Australia to net zero emissions” and that the current laws “allow the minister for climate change and energy to stop coal and gas projects adding to Australia’s emissions”.

The government has not yet formally responded to the Senate report. 


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