The case concerns the applications by Waratah Coal Pty Ltd. (WC) for a ‘mining license’ and an ‘environmental authority’ under the Australian mining regulation and environmental protection legislation. These would allow it to mine coal in areas of the Galilee Basin, including parts of a protected area under the nature conservation law.
The case reached the Land Court of Queensland on account of objections by environmental groups to WC’s applications. The Land Court of Queensland’s role was to provide a recommendation to the governmental authorities responsible for deciding on the applications after reviewing their merits (considering the compatibility of the proposed project with the environmental laws in Australia). However, the Court also found that the human rights implications of the coal mining project were relevant. The justification for this was that the court was directly bound by the Human Rights Act 2019 to not make a decision that is incompatible with human rights.
In its lengthy judgment, Court concluded on the basis of the evidence available to it and the interests at stake that it could not recommend the approval of WC’s applications.
The objectors to WC’s applications raised several contentions in regards to the local and global environmental impacts of allowing coal mining in the Galilee Basin (including its contribution to climate change), as well as interference with private property rights. WC refuted these contentions and found that several issues raised by the objectors were irrelevant to the decision of their applications.
In regards to climate change, WC disagreed that the emissions produced by foreign consumers of the mined coal are a relevant consideration. It argued that approving the mining of coal does not entail approving its combustion, and that the responsibility for the emissions from the latter falls on importing countries which decide to do so. WC also argued that the mine will make no difference to total emissions because it would displace lower quality coal with higher greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The Court framed its recommendation as pertaining to the specific coal mining project in question rather than coal mining in general. It was not convinced by the evidence put forth by WC with respect to the adequacy of its plans of offsetting the environmental impacts which would follow from the coal mining project.
In relation to climate change, the Court found that the mitigation of climate change was amongst the public interests which needed to be considered in the balance against the public interest considerations in support of the project (such as economic development). While the Court acknowledged that the project itself would not necessarily put Australia over its greenhouse gas emissions budget or lead to an exceedence of the temperature limits set by the Paris Agreement, Australia’s limited carbon budget and the risks of exceeding the 1.5° and 2°degree C temperature limits, and Queensland’s intention to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, were strong factors which supported the refusal of the project.
The Court rejected WC’s contentions in regards to foreign emissions from the combustion of the coal mined by WC, finding that not considering them would be inconsistent with the public interest criterion in the environmental protection legislation.
The Court found that the human rights to life, protection of children, culture of First Nations People, privacy and home, property, and the enjoyment by certain groups of rights without discrimination were engaged by the coal mining project. In its assessment, the project constituted a ‘limit’ to these rights owing to its causal link with climate change which, in turn, affects the enjoyment of these rights. The Court concluded that the economic and other public interest benefits of the project were not sufficient to justify the limitation of human rights which would result from the project.
Summary: This petition against Australia was brought to the UN Human Rights Committee by a group of eight indigenous Torres Straits Islanders in 2019, in their own names and on behalf of their children. In their petition, they argued that the Australian government had violated their rights, as inhabitants of low-lying islands, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) because of its inaction in addressing climate change (failure to mitigate emissions and to take adaptation measures).
Rights at stake: The applicants in this case invoked a series of rights in the ICCPR, on behalf of themselves and their children, contesting the respondent State’s failure to adopt mitigation measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cease the promotion of fossil fuels. To support this, they drew on Article 27 (the right to culture), Article 17 (the right to be free from arbitrary interference with privacy, family and home), and Article 6 (the right to life) ICCPR. They argued that the indigenous peoples of the Torres Strait Islands, especially those who reside on low-lying islands, are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. They considered that the Australian government must ensure both mitigation and adaptation measures in order to adequately protect their rights. Previously, the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA), a government body, had stated that “the effects of climate change threaten the islands themselves as well as marine and coastal ecosystems and resources, and therefore the life, livelihoods and unique culture of Torres Strait Islanders.”
On 21 July 2022, the Human Rights Committee adopted its Views in this case.
Observations of the State:
The Australian Government argued that the case was inadmissible, contesting the relevance of climate-related international agreements and its own ability to be held (legally or practically) responsible for climate-related harms. It also submitted that it was not possible to attribute climate change to the State party under international human rights law.
The HRC’s considerations on the admissibility:
On the issue of the exhaustion of domestic remedies, the Government’s position was that it did not owe a duty of care for failing to regulate environmental harm, and that it was not required to provide a remedy where (including in the present case) it understood there to be no breach of ICCPR rights. This question was accordingly reserved to the examination of the merits.
Concerning mitigation measures, the HRC noted that Australia is and has been a major greenhouse gas emitter, and ranks high on economic and development indices. As a result, it found that the alleged (in)actions fell under its jurisdiction under articles 1 or 2 of the Optional Protocol.
Concerning the imminence of the risk concerned, and accordingly the issue of victim status / standing, the Committee found that the authors of this Communication, “as members of peoples who are the longstanding inhabitants of traditional lands consisting of small, low-lying islands that presumably offer scant opportunities for safe internal relocation – are highly exposed to adverse climate change impacts”. Given the uncontested dependence of their lives and cultures on natural resources and phenomena, and their inability to finance adaptation measures on their own, the authors were considered to be “extremely vulnerable to intensely experiencing severely disruptive climate change impacts”. Given the authors’ allegations of serious ongoing adverse impacts, the HRC declared their claims under articles 6, 17, 24 (1) and 27 of the ICCPR admissible.
The Committee recalled that the right to life cannot be interpreted restrictively, and that it requires States to adopt protective measures (i.e. that it entails positive obligations). It recalled its own General Comment No. 36, issued in 2018, in establishing that the right to life also extends to reasonably foreseeable threats to life, including adverse climate change impacts and environmental degradation.
The Committee rejected Australia’s allegation that the interpretation of the ICCPR contained in this General Comment was not compatible with the rules of treaty interpretation under general international law. It then went on to recall its own earlier Teitiota v. New Zealand case (on climate-induced displacement), ultimately finding that the authors were not currently facing health impacts or real and reasonably foreseeable risks of being exposed harms to their right to life. The Committee also noted that the right-to-life claim being made largely related to the authors’ ability to maintain their culture, which falls under article 27 ICCPR.
Regarding the authors’ submission that, absent urgent action, their islands will become uninhabitable within 10 to 15 years, the Committee noted the adaptation and mitigation measures currently planned or being taken, and found that the time frame of 10 to 15 years could allow for additional protective measures or relocation programmes. As a result, it found that there had been no violation of the right to life in this case.
The authors claimed that climate change already affects their private, family and home life, given that they may be forced to abandon their homes. The Committee considered that the authors’ dependence on marine and terrestrial resources and ecosystems is a component of their traditional indigenous way of life, falling under the scope of Article 17 ICCPR.
Considering the adaptation measures and related plans in place, the Committee noted the existence of unexplained delays in seawall construction and the lack of explanation concerning the loss of marine resources, crops and fruit trees. It noted the ongoing inundation of villages and ancestral burial lands; the withering of traditional gardens through salinification; the decline of nutritionally and culturally important marine species; coral bleaching and ocean acidification; and the authors’ anxiety and distress. The Committee also noted the importance of community lands for the authors’ most important cultural ceremonies. It accordingly found that:
“that when climate change impacts – including environmental degradation on traditional [indigenous] lands (…) – have direct repercussions on the right to one’s home, and the adverse consequences of those impacts are serious because of their intensity or duration and the physical or mental harm that they cause, then the degradation of the environment may adversely affect the well-being of individuals and constitute foreseeable and serious violations of private and family life and the home.”
Finding that Australia had failed to discharge its positive obligation to implement adequate adaptation measures to protect the authors’ home, private life and family, the HRC found a violation of the authors’ rights under article 17 ICCPR.
Article 27 ICCPR recognizes the right of members of minority indigenous groups to the enjoyment of culture, and protects the survival and continued development of their cultural identity. Interpreted in the light of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, this right enshrines the inalienable right of indigenous peoples to enjoy their traditional territories and natural resources. Here, the authors argued that their ability to maintain their culture has already been impaired due to climate change impacts, which have eroded their traditional lands and natural resources, for which there is no substitute on mainland Australia. The Committee found that these climate impacts represent a threat that was reasonably foreseeable by the State party, as the authors’ community had been raising the issue since the 1990s. While noting existing seawall construction projects, it considered that the delay in initiating these projects indicated an inadequate response by the State party to the threat in question. It found that the failure to adopt timely and adequate adaptation measures “to protect the authors’ collective ability to maintain their traditional way of life, to transmit to their children and future generations their culture and traditions and use of land and sea resources discloses a violation of the State party’s positive obligation to protect the authors’ right to enjoy their minority culture.” Accordingly, it found a violation of Article 27 ICCPR.
As a result of its findings concerning Articles 17 and 27 ICCPR, the HRC considered it not necessary to examine the authors’ remaining claims under article 24 (1) ICCPR.
Under Article 2 (3) (a) ICCPR, the HRC noted that the State was required to make full reparation to the authors, which meant providing adequate compensation; engaging in meaningful consultations with their communities to conduct needs assessments; continuing its adaptation measures and monitoring and reviewing the effectiveness of existing measures; and taking steps to prevent similar violations in the future. The Committee requested the State to provide it with information about the measures taken in this regard within 180 days.
Several HRC members appended individual opinions to the Views. These include:
The individual opinion by Committee Member Duncan Laki Muhumuza, arguing that there had been a violation of Article 6ICCPR (the right to life);
The individual opinion by Committee Member Gentian Zyberi, concurring but arguing that the Committee had focused too heavily on adaptation measures, and should instead have more clearly linked the right under Article 27 ICCPR to mitigation measures;
The joint opinion by Committee Members Arif Bulkan, Marcia V. J. Kran and Vasilka Sancin (partially dissenting), who argued that there had been a violation of Article 6 ICCPR (the right to life). They argued in particular that the “real and foreseeable risk” standard employed by the majority interpreted Article 6 too restrictively, and was inappropriate here as it had been borrowed from the dissimilar context of its refugee cases (Teitiota v. New Zealand, the HRC’s first climate-induced displacement case).
Maria Antonia Tigre, ‘U.N. Human Rights Committee finds that Australia is violating human rights obligations towards Torres Strait Islanders for climate inaction’, available here.
Verena Kahl, ‘Rising Before Sinking: The UN Human Rights Committee’s landmark decision in Daniel Billy et al. v. Australia,’ Verfassungsblog, 3 October 2022, available here.
Nicole Barrett and Aishani Gupta, ‘Why Did the UN Human Rights Committee Refuse Broader Protections for Climate Change Victims?’, Opinio Juris blog, 5 October 2022, available here.
Christina Voigt, ‘UNHRC is Turning up the Heat: Human Rights Violations Due to Inadequate Adaptation Action to Climate Change’, EJIL:Talk! Blog, 26 September 2022, available here.
Monica Feria-Tinta, ‘Torres Strait Islanders: United Nations Human Rights Committee Delivers Ground-Breaking Decision on Climate Change Impacts on Human Rights’, EJIL:Talk! Blog, 27 September 2022, available here.
UN Human Rights Committee, Daniel Billy et al. v. Australia, Communication No. 3624/2019, 22 September 2022, UN Doc. CCPR/C/135/D/3624/2019.
Summary: In a case modelled on the Dutch Urgenda case, a group of indigenous Torres Strait Islanders living on islands off Australia’s coast initiated domestic class action proceedings before the Federal court of Australia to claim that the Australian government has failed to protect them from climate change, leading to the progressive destruction of their ancestral islands.
This case was brought by two Torres Straits Islanders on behalf of the residents of Torres Strait Islands who have suffered loss and damage due to Australia’s conduct from about 1985. The claim categorically frames the harms allegedly suffered by the group and the risks they face as being caused by Australia’s failure to exercise due care in protecting them from climate-related harms. Apart from sea level rise, extreme weather events, harm to marine ecosystems and increased disease risks, the plaintiffs allege that Australia’s conduct threatens the loss of their distinctive customary culture- Ailan Kastom, which entails a spiritual connection with their land and the practice of marine hunting and fishing.
Context: In another, separate climate claim, a group of eight Torres Strait islanders took a Communication to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in 2019, alleging that Australia had violated the human rights of low-lying islanders because of its failure to take climate action. On 21 July 2022, the Human Rights Committee adopted its Views in this case, known as the Billy and Others v. Australia case.
Petitioners: This case was brought by two First Nations leaders on behalf of the remote Torres Strait islands of Boigu and Saibai. They brought the case on their own behalf and “on behalf of all persons who at any time during the period from about 1985 and continuing, are of Torres Strait Islander descent and suffered loss and damage as a result of the conduct of the Respondent”.
Arguments made: While their claim is essentially based on the Torres Strait Islanders native title rights under the Native Title Act 1993, the plaintiffs also draw upon a wider body of norms regarding the Torres Strait Islanders as well as the environment in and around the Torres Strait Islands, emanating from international law, domestic law and policy commitments.
Based on scientific evidence, the plaintiffs argue that climate change is already threatening their native title rights and distinctive customary culture. They allege that, due to the progression of climate change and the increasing storms and rising sea levels that result from this, they face an increasing threat of floods and of rising salt concentrations in their soil. Some islands, they argue, could become uninhabitable if the global temperature rises to levels more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. One of the plaintiffs noted that that his people have lived on the islands in question for over 65,000 years.
The plaintiffs allege that the Australian government owes a duty of care to Torres Strait Islanders. It must, in other words, take reasonable measures to protect them, their environment, their culture and their traditional way of life from the harms caused by climate change. Because current climate action and targets are not consistent with the best available climate science, they argue, this duty of care has been breached. They invoke the Torres Strait Treaty, which requires the Australian government to protect and preserve the marine environment in the region.
Relief sought: The plaintiffs seek declarations that Australia owes a duty of care to the Torres Strait Islanders which requires reasonable protective measures aimed at the Islanders, their traditional way of life and the marine environment; and that Australia has breached this duty. They further request the court to order an injunction requiring Australia to implement both climate adaptation and mitigation measures that are consistent with best available science and the payment of compensation for loss and damage.
The plaintiffs seek both mitigation and adaptation measures and rely on the duty of care recognized in the Sharma case.
Fact-finding: In 2023, representatives of the Federal Court traveled to the Torres Strait to collect evidence from members of the community.
A hearing of expert evidence is set to be held in this case on the premises of the Federal Court in Melbourne starting in late October 2023.
Full text of the petition: The case is pending before the Federal Court of Australia and all documents related to the proceedings can be found on the court’s website (click here).
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 future 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.
On 15 March 2022, the Government won its appeal against the judgment in this case. While the Full Federal Court upheld the primary judge’s factual findings, it unanimously (although based on several different strands of reasoning) overturned the ruling on the Ministry’s duty of care when exercising her statutory functions under the EPBC Act.
27 May 2021 (appeal judgment: 15 March 2022)
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.
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 conclude 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.
The appeal by the Ministry of Environment challenged the primary judge’s finding of a duty of care as well as specific factual findings regarding global warming and the approved project’s contribution to that.
The Full Court upheld in full the factual basis of the case as established by the primary judge. With regards to the legal grounds, it concluded however that no duty of care for human safety should be imposed upon the Minister when exercising her power under the EPBC Act.
While each of the three judges emphasized different legal aspects, their reasoning essentially centered around the following arguments: Determining the point of breach of such a duty of care would prompt core policy questions unsuited to being answered by the judiciary. A common law duty of care would be inconsistent with the Minister’s statutory powers under the EPBC Act. There is no sufficient link between the Minister’s exercise of power and the potential harm inflicted on the children. Finally, the lack of control over the risk of harm, the absence of foreseeability of a causal injury, and indeterminacy were cited to argue against the imposition of the duty.
Measures taken as a result of the judgment:
On 15 September 2021, the Minister granted approval for the proposed mine expansion.
Status of case:
Overturned on appeal (special leave application possible until 12 April 2022)
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.
Federal Court of Australia, Minister for the Environment v Sharma  FCAFC 35, 15 March 2022, Allsop CJ, Beach and Wheelahan JJ