By Elaine Johnson, Principal Lawyer Sydney, and Rachel Walmsley, Director of Policy and Law Reform, Sydney
Update 9 January 2020: The events of this summer have inflicted devastation on people, places, culture and wildlife on a level that, before now, would have been scarcely imaginable. Frighteningly, the science tells us that without urgent action on climate change, this summer could become the new normal.
Across the country many have been directly affected or seen family and friends impacted. And we know that this fire season has a long way to run. Further north, the cyclone season is just beginning. Despite the heroic efforts of many, our country’s preparedness has been found wanting.
For those of you who have lost homes or loved ones, EDO expresses our condolences. To the firefighters and wildlife protectors, our thanks.
In the many weeks, now months, since this summer’s devastating fires began, our offices have been flooded by calls and emails from people looking for legal solutions. On 20 December before the holiday break, we noted our approach to the State of Emergency – the response is below and remains accurate.
We return to work in 2020 with a heightened sense of urgency – how can we not? Yet while people understandably want immediate redress for this summer’s devastation, our work must be done with objectivity and clear eyes.
Some of that work is already public – for example, we are representing the Bimblebox Alliance in relation to Clive Palmer’s proposed mega-coal mine in the Galilee Basin. Our current work on fossil fuel projects spans the country, with active files in the Northern Territory, Western Australia, South Australia, NSW and Queensland. We encourage you to sign up to our mailing list [scroll to the bottom of this page] to hear more about our work as we can discuss it.
20 December 2019: This week, while we should all be preparing for a relaxing break reconnecting with family and friends, fires rage across the country, smoke envelops towns and major cities and extreme drought and heatwaves continue.
The NSW Government has just declared a State of Emergency in preparation for continuing catastrophic fire conditions expected over Christmas.
The sense of concern and anxiety about worsening climate impacts is palpable. Yet governments in Australia continue on, business as usual, fundamentally failing to address the connection between climate impacts and our expansion of fossil fuels. There is a gaping void in the government and corporate response to climate mitigation and risk, which is being filled by civil society organisations like ours.
EDO has been receiving calls across the country from frustrated and distressed clients and communities calling out for action and help. We hear you and want to let you know what we’re doing. We all face a massive challenge, but we know the solutions exist.
Last month, we announced that our eight offices have merged into a new national non-profit community legal service. This move created a powerful Australia-wide team of expert environmental lawyers ready to take on the big issues, while continuing our grassroots support for communities.
Here’s a snapshot of some of the work EDO is doing as we move into 2020:
- Taking government and fossil fuel companies to court on behalf of communities and indigenous clients in pursuit of climate justice
- Investigating government duties to mitigate and plan for climate risk and legal opportunities to challenge the failure to act on the science
- Advising on an immediate moratorium on logging in State Forests, and other areas, until the massive loss of threatened species habitat to the bushfires is known
- Investigating the powers of the Environment Protection Authorities (EPAs) across the country to regulate greenhouse gas emissions
- Advising on the immediate up-listing of threatened species and ecological communities affected by the bushfires, including koalas, bats and a number of bird species for increased protections as a result of habitat loss
- Investigating legal mechanisms to pause biodiversity offset decisions until there has been a reassessment of what has been lost to fires
- Continuing to work with drought affected riverine clients and advocate for climate change to be properly factored into water management laws.
EDO has long recognised the risk that bushfires, heat and drought pose to communities, wildlife and natural and cultural landscapes across Australia, and that the risk is exacerbated by climate change. The climate impacts include longer, more intense bushfire periods, extended drought and extreme heatwaves.
Through our policy and law reform work we have been highlighting the deficiencies in the laws across the country and calling for strong action on climate change and protections for wildlife and natural landscapes that are fit for purpose.
In the last 12 months alone, we have:
- Provided input into the Climate Change Authority’s advice on policies to meet the Paris Agreement;
- Continued to call for a ‘greenhouse gas trigger’ in the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999;
- Released a new report and recommendations for making NSW planning laws climate-ready;
- Continued to call for a Northern Territory Climate Change Act as part of our recommendations to the Northern Territory Government’s climate change response;
- Engaged in the development of a draft strategy on koala conservation for south-east Queensland
- Continued to call for revisions to the NSW State Environmental Planning Policy – Koala Habitat (Koala SEPP) to be finalised, including that the Koala SEPP be strengthened to identify and protect habitat and corridors that will support koalas’ resilience to more extreme heat and natural disasters;
- Engaged in the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry on koala habitats and populations, highlighting that climate change and extreme weather conditions pose looming threats to koala populations and recommended that climate change considerations be better incorporated into Regional Forest Agreements and Integrated Forestry Operations Approvals; and for laws to require the identification and protection of koala habitat needed as climate refugia for koalas;
- Objected to proposed changes to NSW planning laws that would weaken the ability to regulate downstream (scope 3) greenhouse gas emissions in planning decisions;
- Responded to the Western Australian Government’s Issues Paper on Climate Change.
We are also currently engaged in the review of the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, which provides an opportunity for much needed leadership on the issue of climate change to ensure that our Federal environmental laws include clear, mandatory obligations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the impacts of climate change.
Building on decades of public interest environmental law work, the national EDO will be pushing the boundaries even further in 2020, to create law and policy that not only protects people and the planet, but maintains and restores nature. We are privileged to be able to work with so many dedicated clients and communities in pursuing a safer climate for everyone.
-  See Environmental Defenders Office , Submission on the Climate Change Authority’s consultation paper about updating advice on policies to meet the Paris Agreement
-  Ibid.
-  See Environmental Defenders Office, Climate-ready planning laws for NSW – Rocky Hill and beyond
-  See https://www.edont.org.au/climate-change-act-nt
-  See Environmental Defenders Office Submission to the NSW Upper House Inquiry into koala populations and habitat in NSW
-  Ibid
-  See Inquiry into the Environmental Planning and Assessment Amendment (Territorial Limits) Bill 2019 (NSW)
-  See our overview of the EPBC Act review