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Will the law courts ultimately end the fossil fuel industry? Part 1 of a 4-part series.

Updated: Jan 5


Student activism for the environment and their future.
Young people taking action against then Environment Minister Susan Ley in 2021 challenging an expansion of the Vickery coal mine in Northern NSW which will be responsible for 100 million additional tonnes of carbon emissions. Susan appealed and won!

The Everlution Blog is devoted to discussing issues related to the ever increasing ecological footprint of human beings. If we have the determination, we can reduce that footprint, even with more population and more affluence. We have the technology to overcome human-induced climate change - the biggest issue we have ever faced. But we have to get going as our species is irreversibly altering the climate that has been stable for the last 800,000 years.


 

There has become a tsunami of climate litigation in recent years, much of which has been successful in

claims made against corporates and government agencies. In fact, there are 2,500 cases on foot

at this moment. These lawsuits are helping rewrite the public narrative on climate change and, in

some cases, are resulting in a real shift in government and corporate policy – whether they win

or lose.


This four part blog series titled Will the law courts ultimately end the fossil fuel industry? discusses the

impacts of current and potential litigation against the fossil fuel industry and governments which

support it.


Part 1:


An extract from Everlution’s last blog titled Labor would you please explain your climate

actions states: "The Australian Federal government’s approach to reducing Australia’s

greenhouse gas emissions is baffling. Whilst they say they want to significantly reduce

Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, they are busy approving new fossil fuel projects.”


The Federal Government has approved more than 8 fossil fuel projects this year and faces

decisions on whether to greenlight 30 current fossil fuel developments, mostly to export coal or

gas, that together could result in more than 20 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide being released

into the atmosphere. Meanwhile another 70 projects sit in the pipeline for approval.


Because the CO 2  would be released overseas if the developments go ahead, most of the

emissions would not count against Australia under international climate accounting rules.

However, as the third largest exporter of fossil fuels, it shows the impact of Australia’s exports is

likely to dwarf the emissions reductions being embarked on at home, and the government cannot

claim to be addressing the climate crisis without addressing both.


The previous Liberal Federal Government wasn’t any better, approving numerous projects. A real

doozy was when the then federal resources minister, Keith Pitt, blocked public funding for a new

wind farm and battery green energy hub in Queensland. Then, later that year, he approved a

US$130 million loan of public money to finance a new coal mine in the state that will extract 15

million tons of coal a year.


And let’s not forget the subsidies and tax relief fossil fuel companies receive in Australia. They

barely pay any income tax and last financial year the industry received AUD$11.1 billion with no

sign of any let up in the federal government munificence. This comes at a time of undeniable

evidence of human-induced climate change, largely due to the extensive use of fossil fuels.


So are there any legal implications for the behaviour of governments and fossil fuel

industry participants?

Celebration of a win for the Planet.
Supporters of a climate case in the Netherlands celebrated the Dutch Supreme Court's ruling to mandate climate action.

In 2015, a lawsuit of a kind that hadn't been seen before landed on the desk of Dutch

government lawyers. The state was being sued for not doing enough to protect its citizens from climate change.


The claim, brought by the Dutch environmental advocacy non-profit Urgenda, was one of the first ripples in what has become the flood of climate litigation in recent years.


Since Urgenda started winning its case on successive rungs of the Dutch legal system, the surge

in lawsuits around the world has covered broad ground; from inadequate state carbon reduction

targets and strategies, to corporate inaction and misinformation, and claims for climate-related

damages.


Now there are more than 2,500 lawsuits recorded globally, according to databases run by

Columbia University's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. And the climate change litigation

phenomenon shows no sign of stopping any time soon.


These lawsuits are helping rewrite the public narrative on climate change and, in some cases,

are resulting in a real shift in government and corporate policy – whether they win or lose.

This wave of litigation is setting precedents for climate action all over the world, according to

a report by the Sabin Center and UN Environment Programme (UNEP). In 2022, the

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) described litigation as one of several

important new ways climate policy is being shaped.


Climate litigation has become a truly global movement, says Joana Setzer, assistant professorial

research fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at

the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Setzer is confident that litigation is

having a positive impact. "It has grown to have a life of its own."


Globally, 55% of cases have had a climate-positive ruling, according to the LSE's latest annual

report which studied 549 lawsuits outside the US where courts had so far made a decision. Of

these climate-positive rulings, the finding was usually in favour of the claimant against a

company or public authority. Some of these cases had a clear impact on public policy.


In Part 2 of this series we explore specific cases related to fossil fuel litigation and the realised or potential outcomes.



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