On September 14, 2022, the Climate Change Act 2022 (Cth) came into effect in Australia. The act, which sets out Australia’s emissions reduction ambitions, was passed in conjunction with the Climate Change (Consequential Amendments) Act 2022 (Cth). The minister for climate change and energy explained that the acts lay the foundation on which Australia’s policies and measures can be built to facilitate Australia’s “transition to net zero.” More specifically, the acts formalize Australia’s obligations under the Paris Agreement, which Australia ratified on December 9, 2016.
Key Provisions of the Acts
Section 10 of the Climate Change Act 2022 sets out Australia’s emissions reduction targets of reducing “Australia’s net greenhouse gas emissions to 43% below 2005 levels by 2030,” with an overall goal of reducing “net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.” To promote accountability, section 12 requires that the minister for climate change and energy prepare annual climate change statements that assess the effectiveness of Australia’s climate change policies and highlight risks to Australia in the areas of biodiversity, infrastructure, the environment, investment, national security, and the economy. The existing Climate Change Authority is tasked with providing independent advice on preparing the statements and advising on any changes in the country’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The act also includes provisions that allow for Australia’s progress, and the act itself, to be reviewed. (Climate Change Act 2022, s 3.)
To ensure a cohesive approach across existing legislation, the Climate Change (Consequential Amendments) Act 2022 amended 14 acts “to incorporate Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets under the Paris Agreement into legislation for relevant Commonwealth entities and schemes.”
Context for the Legislation
Emissions and Impact of Climate Change in Australia
In a 2022 report, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), an Australian government agency, noted that Australia “is the world’s 14th highest emitter” of greenhouse gases. According to the US Energy Information Administration, much of Australia’s emissions stem from Australia being “a large producer of both coal and liquified natural gas.” In 2020, Australia’s total energy consumption consisted of 10% renewable sources and 90% fossil fuels. While Australia’s reliance on renewable sources such as wind, solar, and hydroelectricity increased to 29% in 2021, Australia has remained, for the most part, reliant on nonrenewable sources of energy.
In the last few years, Australia has seen an increase in natural disasters, including droughts, floods, and fires. The BBC reported that the average cost of natural disasters to Australian households was more than AU$1,485 (about US$1,000) from 2021 to 2022.
On June 16, 2022, the Australian government updated its NDCs under the Paris Agreement, committing to reducing its “greenhouse gas emissions by 43% below 2005 levels by 2030” in order to “achieve net zero emissions by 2050.”
UN Committee Decision on Australia’s Climate Change Policies
On May 19, 2019, a group of six Australian Torres Straight Islanders filed a case against the Australian government at the United Nations Human Rights Committee. The authors, who “belong to the indigenous minority group of the Torres Strait Islands,” claimed that Australia’s failure to adopt infrastructure adaptation measures and mitigation measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions resulted in sea level rises, high temperatures, and ocean acidification, all of which will render the island uninhabitable. (Views Adopted by the Committee para. 3.1.) It was alleged that Australia had failed to address the real and foreseeable threat posed by climate change (para. 3.1), thereby violating articles 6, 17, 24, and 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (para. 5.7).
The committee published its decision on September 23, 2022, finding that the climate impacts were foreseen, particularly as the Australian government was notified of these issues in the 1990s, and that Australia had failed to “adopt timely adequate adaptation measures.” (Para. 8.14.) Accordingly, Australia had violated the claimants’ rights to family, home and “culture, free from ‘arbitrary interference’.” The committee ordered the Australian government to provide compensation for harm suffered, to implement measures to secure the group’s existence on the island, and to “monitor and review the effectiveness of the measures implemented.” (Para. 11.)
With respect to arguments made by the Australian government on the difficulty of quantifying responsibility in climate change litigation, committee member Gentian Zyberi, in a concurring opinion, considered that states with “significant total emissions or very high per capital emissions … , given the greater burden that their emissions place on the global climate systems,” should take responsibility and address issues, whether in mitigation or adaptation. (Annex II, paras. 4 & 5.)
The decision considered Australia’s acts and policies before the enactment of the Climate Change Act 2022 (Cth). Australia’s current attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, stated that “the case predated the current administration,” that Australia’s new prime minister and climate change minister had visited the Torres Strait Islands to discuss climate change, and that Australia’s government would engage “in good faith with the human rights committee.”
Prepared by Nabila Buhary, Legal Research Fellow, under the supervision of Kelly Buchanan, Chief, Foreign, Comparative, and International Law Division II
Law Library of Congress, November 18, 2022
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