In Sharma and Others v. Minister for the Environment, issued on 27 May 2021 by the Federal Court of Australia, a group of children and their litigation representative, Sister Marie Brigid Arthur, argued that the Australian Minister for the Environment owes them and other Australian children a duty of care in approving coal mining projects because of the risk of climate change related harms, and sought an injunction against the project. Given the evidence of climate harms, the judge concluded that the Minister does have a duty of care towards children, but rejected the application for an injunction.
27 May 2021
The case concerned a decision by the Minister to approve the extraction of coal from a coal mine. The judge considered the available evidence about the degree of risk and the magnitude of the risk of harm alleged by the applicants, as well as the foreseeability and likelihood of that harm arising and being caused or contributed to by coal-related CO2 emissions. The judge concluded that the Minister does have a duty of care towards children, but rejected the application for an injunction.
The judgment recognizes that “the risk of harm to the Children from climatic hazards brought about by increased global average surface temperatures, is on a continuum in which both the degree of risk and the magnitude of the potential harm will increase exponentially if the Earth moves beyond a global average surface temperature of 2°C, towards 3°C and then to 4°C above the pre-industrial level.”
At issue was the question of whether the emissions from the mine would be within the remaining carbon budget to be respected in order to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius. On this, and putting the onus of compliance with this budget on the respondent Minister, the Judge held that he did not have sufficient evidence to concluded that this would not be the case. He noted that:
“The Minister called no evidence. The Minister essentially contended that the Court should infer that the 100 Mt of CO2 would likely be emitted in accordance with the Paris Agreement. There is no sufficient basis for that inference. The Minister relied upon little else than speculation, in circumstances where the evidence showed that at least one of the potential consumers of the coal is not a signatory to the Paris Agreement.”
The Judge rejected the applicant’s request for an injunction, considering that the duty of care had not yet been breached, and that it was appropriate to await the outcome of the Minister’s decision-making process.
In a follow-up judgment, issued on 8 July 2021, the Judge ordered the Minister to pay the claimants’ costs, and held that the Minister has a duty to take reasonable care, in the exercise of her powers, to avoid causing personal injury or death to Australian children arising from carbon dioxide emissions.
Measures taken as a result of the judgment:
Status of case:
Suggested case citation:
Federal Court of Australia, Sharma by her litigation representative Sister Marie Brigid Arthur v. Minister for the Environment  FCA 560, 27 May 2021, Bromberg J.
For the full judgment, see here.
For the follow-up judgment of 8 July 2021, see here.