CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — An appeals court on Tuesday overturned a groundbreaking ruling that Australia’s environment minister had a duty to protect younger people against climate change.
Three Federal Court judges ruled for a variety of reasons that the court should not impose on Environment Minister Sussan Ley a duty of care.
Eight Australian teenagers took Ley to court in 2020 in a bid to prevent her from approving the expansion of a coal mine.
They lost their attempt to stop the Vickery mine’s expansion in New South Wales state, but their lawyers claimed victory from the judge’s ruling last year that Ley had a duty to prevent future climate harm.
In the ruling, Justice Mordy Bromberg noted that the expansion of the Whitehaven Coal-owned mine would lead to an additional 33 million metric tons (36 million U.S. tons) of coal being extracted over 25 years and 100 million metric tons (110 million U.S. tons) of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere.
Chief Justice James Allsop and Justices Jonathan Beach and Michael Wheelahan, in siding with Ley's appeal, ruled for a variety of reasons that the court should not impose on Ley a duty of care in considering the mine’s extension.
Ley argued that some of Bromberg’s findings were incorrect and “reached beyond the evidence,” the appeals judges wrote. “The Court is unanimously of the view that these complaints are unfounded."
Allsop said the plaintiffs’ evidence was not challenged by Ley. “The threat of climate change and global warming was and is not in dispute between the parties in this litigation,” Allsop wrote in the first line of his judgment.
One of the activists, Anjali Sharma, said floods described as a one-in-500-year event that have devastated communities in northern New South Wales in recent weeks were proof that the government needed to act on climate change.
"The Federal Court today may have accepted the minister’s legal arguments over ours, but that does not change the minister’s moral obligation to take action on climate change and to protect young people from the harms that will bring,” Sharma said outside the Sydney court.
“It does not change the science. It does not put out the fires or drain the floodwaters,” Sharma added.
The lawyers for the plaintiffs could appeal to the High Court.
Ley welcomed Tuesday's ruling and said in a statement her government “remains committed to protecting our environment for current and future generations.”
Australia, which is one of the world’s largest exporters of coal and liquid natural gas, is under mounting international pressure to take tougher action on climate change.
Last year, Australia garnered enough international support to defer an attempt by UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural organization, to downgrade the Great Barrier Reef’s World Heritage status to “in danger“ because of damage caused by climate change.
The reef off Australia’s northeast coast has suffered significantly from coral bleaching caused by unusually warm ocean temperatures in 2016, 2017 and 2020. The bleaching damaged two-thirds of the coral.
But the question will be back on the World Heritage Committee’s agenda at its next annual meeting in June.
The opposition center-left Labor Party says Australia would set a more ambitious target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 43% by the end of the decade if the government changes hands in elections due by May.
Ley’s conservative government was widely criticized at a U.N. climate summit in Scotland in November over his government’s target of reducing Australia’s emissions by only 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2030.