Coalition of international legal groups brings Australia inaction on climate change before the UN Human Rights Council

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A coalition of international legal organisations has brought Australia’s inaction on climate change before the United Nations Human Rights Council, claiming they risk violating the rights of people in Australia and around the globe if they don’t do more to reduce emissions. 

Yesterday, in Geneva [1], the lawyers made a final plea in the Human Rights Council in the last stages of the Universal Periodic Review process, after Australia failed to take up recommendations by a number of countries to significantly reduce emissions and address the impacts of climate change. 

The lawyers have also written to Australia’s Attorney-General calling on her to adopt the recommendations made during the UPR process to take swift and effective action on climate change to prevent the violation of international human rights obligations. 

According to the legal experts from Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) and Earthjustice, the Australian government’s inaction on climate change is significantly contributing to the likelihood of more than a 1.5°C global temperature rise, at which a range of human rights will be grossly impacted, including the rights to life, water and sanitation, food, health, housing, self-determination, culture and development. 

Fleur Ramsay, Senior Special Counsel from Environment Defenders Office said: 

“While the Australian government has engaged with the UPR recommendations on its climate policy,  Australia’s national climate policy is still wildly out of step with the Paris goal of limiting global temperature rise to no more than 1.5° C, which requires an urgent transition away from fossil fuels. This is a commitment Australia made when it ratified the Paris Agreement. 

“Australians are already suffering the impacts of climate change on their human rights – increased drought, heatwaves, bushfires and other extreme weather are already impacting the rights to life, health, and housing. We saw this most clearly during the devastating bushfires of 2019/2020. This suffering, while affecting all people, is and will acutely and disproportionately affect the human rights of First Nations people, young people, and people with disabilities.   

“Australia also has obligations to the human rights of Torres Strait Islander peoples and to Pacific neighbours not to cause transboundary harm, which requires keeping warming at no more than 1.5° C.” 

“The recommendations made to Australia in this critical UN process demonstrate the international community’s clear recognition that climate change poses an immediate and foreseeable threat to human rights, both within Australia and around the world.” 

Hollie Kerwin, Senior Climate Specialist Lawyer at Environmental Justice Australia said: 

“In the last month, the Australian government has invested public funds in coal and sought to direct the Australian renewable energy fund towards non-renewable energy technologies. Not stopping at 1.5° C and going beyond means triggering significant, known, human rights violations.” 

“In June, Australia’s Federal Court accepted evidence that by 2 degrees of warming people in Australia will be exposed to extreme heat with ‘severe impacts on human health and wellbeing, longer fire seasons; and an increase in the number of dangerous fire weather days.” [2] 

“The Court highlighted that with a plausible climate future at 2 degrees and beyond in Australia the capacity to grow and prosper will be greatly diminished. Lives will be cut short. Trauma will be far more common and good health harder to hold and maintain. First Nations people, young people and people with disability will experience the human rights impacts of climate harms acutely.” 

“We owe each other a different, just, future. We urge Australia to comply with its obligations and commitments and to do everything possible to achieve its fair share of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. This is essential to ensure the fundamental rights of all people, both in Australia and beyond its borders.” 

EDO and EJA, together with US-based environmental law organisation, Earthjustice, submitted recommendations to Australia’s Universal Periodic Review by the United Nations Human Rights Council in July 2020 to address Australia’s failure to satisfy its international human rights obligations. In January 2021, more than 120 countries met during the UPR to examine Australia’s human rights record and made recommendations to Australia on how to improve its record. 

A number of countries including Vanuatu and the Marshall Islands, recommended Australia take significant action to reduce emissions and cut fossil fuel reliance, in line with its commitments to the Paris Agreement and its international human rights obligations. 

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a process which involves a review of the human rights records of all UN Member States. The UPR is a State-driven process, under the auspices of the Human Rights Council, which provides the opportunity for each State to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfil their human rights obligations. 

Australia’s inaction on climate change also raised concerns with other United Nations human rights bodies. The Committee on the Rights of the Child is concerned that Australia had made insufficient progress on the goals and targets set out in the Paris Agreement and about its continuing investment in extractive industries. Likewise, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was concerned about the increase of carbon dioxide emissions and the country’s support for new coal mines and coal-fired power stations. 

[1] 27/28/29th Meetings, 47th Regular Session Human Rights Council. Earthjustice, EJA and EDO submission at 04:27:35

[2] Sharma by her litigation representative Sister Marie Brigid Arthur v Minister for the Environment [2021] FCA 560 (Sharma)

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