Rising to the occasion: Can the Albanese government deliver a landmark climate law?

The challenge to deliver a new federal climate law now confronts the Albanese government.

The challenge to deliver a new federal climate law now confronts the Albanese government.

Governments often earn their place in the history books with visionary laws that reshape society.

In Australia, Labor governments have consistently championed ground-breaking environmental law reforms.

The Whitlam government established legal architecture to empower national environmental protection and prevent oil drilling on the Great Barrier Reef.

The Hawke government cemented Commonwealth powers to safeguard the Franklin River in Tasmania from being dammed.

The Rudd-Gillard government built institutions to drive clean energy and establish a carbon pricing mechanism, only to see the latter abolished a few years later by the Abbott government.

Now, the Albanese government has a once-in-a generation opportunity to leave its mark in the legislative history books by tackling the greatest threat facing the country, and the planet – climate change.

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek is overseeing the task of rewriting Australia’s federal environmental law, which is widely recognised to be outdated and ineffective.

A recent legal review by Professor Jaqueline Peel of Melbourne Law School, a leading figure in climate law, highlights these shortcomings.

Along with other legal experts, I back her findings that our current law overlooks greenhouse gas emissions and the climate change they fuel, and is disconnected from other federal laws dealing with climate.

So will the Albanese government rise to the occasion? Putting climate at the heart of our national environment law could see them write the next important chapter in Labor’s legacy of environmental protection.

This opportunity is staring the government in the face.

Ground-breaking law reform is often borne out of relentless community campaigns, building momentum politicians can’t ignore.

Polls consistently show that a majority of Australians now view climate change as a serious threat. For example, the 2023 Lowy poll found that “a majority of Australians (56 per cent) continue to say ‘global warming is a serious and pressing problem’ about which ‘we should begin taking steps now, even if this involves significant costs’.

Yet, the political response to recent climate protests has been to increase penalties for protesters. This move to stifle widespread alarm about climate change reflects how out of touch politicians are with genuine community concerns.

The current review of federal environmental law provides an opportunity for the Albanese government to do something substantial and lasting to tackle climate change.

It’s imperative the government fix gaps in the existing law by requiring a thorough assessment of greenhouse gas emissions including their full, lifecycle impacts on our precious natural environment.

Continuing to ignore climate in this law would be a serious failure in national leadership, and undermine all other actions the Albanese government is taking to reduce our national emissions.

Several years ago, I convened a group of environmental law experts to craft a Blueprint for the Next Generation of Environmental Law in Australia.

It began with: “The next generation of environmental laws will need to recognise explicitly the role of humanity as a trustee of the environment and its common resources, requiring both care and engagement on behalf of future generations.”

The challenge to deliver a new federal environmental law that meets this standard, including on the subject of climate change, now confronts the Albanese government.

It should do the right thing and rise to the occasion, because our environment depends on it.

Rob Fowler is an Adjunct Professor of Law at the University of Adelaide who has specialised in environmental law for almost 50 years

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