A s climate law, litigation and class actions become more prevalent within the legal profession, it will also, moving forward, have a greater impact on government decision making than ever before.
After passing through the House of Representatives in August, the Labor government’s Climate Change Bill passed the Senate with 37 votes to 30 in September 2022, making it Australia’s first climate change legislation in over a decade to pass the Federal Parliament.
This came after the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) held a landmark vote to recognise the right to a healthy environment as an essential human right in August this year, which had 161 votes in favour, no votes against, and eight abstentions.
The broad reach of climate law, generally, covers international commitments under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Paris Agreement, as well as climate change-specific legislation at the federal and state levels of government, plus renewable energy legislation and traditional environmental legislation.
And this type of law will play out in a number of different ways, impacting a number of different legal sectors, specialist environmental and planning partner at King & Wood Mallesons Mark Beaufoy explained.
“Climate law, in its broad scope, will play a significant role in Australia’s journey to meet its net zero commitments and slow the impacts of climate change. Meeting these targets has ramifications for every sector of the Australian economy. This means that in addition to the work of environmental lawyers, lawyers in a range of disciplines must have a good understanding of the trends in policy and law relating to climate,” he said.
“Following the change of government, one of the first positive steps made by Labor was to confirm Australia’s commitments under the Paris Agreement and to implement those commitments in the legislation. By doing so, the federal government showed leadership on climate change, which to date had primarily been provided by the states.”
The new bill commits Australia to reducing net greenhouse gas emissions to 43 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 and reducing them to zero by 2050. It also requires an annual climate change statement to be tabled in Parliament that sets out the progress towards achieving the reduction targets, with other laws and policies likely to be brought out moving forward.
And this legislation is only the beginning in terms of Australia reaching these goals. “Clearly, the impacts of climate change are starting to be felt across the globe and in Australia, especially with the increase in extreme weather events,” Mr Beaufoy quipped.
“The recent IPCC report and ongoing scientific understanding of climate change are predicting that the impacts of climate change may well be greater than first predicted and will require significant emission reductions, mitigation efforts and resilience over the next couple of decades. This will require significant changes to laws, decision making, and investments on the path to net zero.”
This sentiment was echoed by the Governance Institute of Australia, which welcomed the introduction of the bill.
“Climate change — and the laws, regulations and expectations around this issue — are set to increase in intensity as the urgent, and very real, nature of this risk becomes more apparent,” a spokesperson said.
“Climate change must play a significant role in regulation and governance, and for organisations, engaging the board is the first step in setting up effective climate governance.”
This legislation comes with a range of potential impacts for different legal sectors, including within the energy, environment and corporate advisory spaces.