Climate laws are key to protecting nation’s environment

We need a law that makes clear what’s required of responsible clean energy and industry projects.

We need a law that makes clear what’s required of responsible clean energy and industry projects. Photo: Getty

Clean energy projects need to be delivered in a way that works for communities, the environment, and our climate. This is the clear north star that should guide us all as Australia builds out a fully renewable energy system and powers past using coal and gas.

The Federal Government’s recent decision to refuse environmental approval for infrastructure works at the Port of Hastings – proposed to support Victoria’s burgeoning offshore wind industry – has sparked a debate about whether we can balance protecting the environment with the urgent need to address the climate crisis. Of course we can, and we must. In fact, our national environment law could be our best weapon in addressing climate change and environmental harm. But at the moment, it’s not doing either.

The biggest threat our environment faces is runaway global heating. Climate change – caused by the burning of coal, oil and gas – is an out-of-control bulldozer that’s tearing through the ecosystems that we and all other species depend on for our health, wellbeing and safety. Many of the rare and precious environments we seek to protect with environmental laws simply won’t survive if we don’t cut carbon pollution steeply this decade. Yet our main environment law ignores it!

Approval system is a mess

At the same time, our approval system is a mess. Too many projects that will damage our environment end up getting waved through. This includes 740 fossil fuel projects that have been given the green light since the law was first introduced. On the flipside, approvals for important clean energy and industry projects take too long and there’s too much uncertainty about outcomes for those willing to invest.

We need a law that makes clear what’s required of responsible clean energy and industry projects, and then says a quick yes to those which meet these standards. A law that looks at the full environmental impact of projects – including how much harmful carbon pollution they’ll produce – and says a clear no to those that will do too much damage.

More certainty about what’s required to protect special environments together with quicker, clearer decisions on which projects can go ahead will let everyone get on with delivering the energy transformation we need now.

The best way to do this is to put climate at the heart of the new national environment law the Albanese Government will deliver this year. At the moment, our national environmental assessment process does not deal with carbon pollution – the main cause of dangerous global warming.

It’s a glaring gap: The law that is meant to protect our environment offers no protection whatsoever against the biggest threat it faces now.

Embed climate into laws

Embedding climate into our national environment law would give us new ways to look at the merits of different projects. Those that help drive down carbon pollution by providing new clean energy or low emissions industries would fare better than those that produce more coal, oil and gas pollution. Every project would be fairly assessed and need to show how it can be responsibly delivered in a way that also protects our local environment.

A single knock-back of a project in Victoria isn’t going to halt the renewal of our energy system that’s well underway. But in building the renewable energy that will deliver clean, affordable power for generations to come, and help protect our natural places, we need to learn from, and avoid, mistakes of the past. A better national environment law with climate at its heart can accelerate this vital work, so we look after our precious places today and ensure they are still around for future generations to enjoy.

Dr Jennifer Rayner is head of advocacy at the Climate Council

Topics: Environment
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