Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Residents look on as flames burn through bush on January 4, 2020 in Lake Tabourie, Australia. (Photo: Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

In First for Australia, Court Orders Government Agency to Take Climate Action

One nonprofit said the decision in a case brought by bushfire survivors "should send a chill through the state's most polluting industries, including the electricity and commercial transport sectors."

Jessica Corbett

In a case brought by bushfire survivors against an Australian state's environmental regulator, a court found Thursday that the government agency must take action to address the climate emergency—a first-of-its kind and potentially precedent-setting ruling for the fire-ravaged nation.

"This is a great day for environmental justice."
—Chris Gambian, Nature Conservation Council

"It's a really big win," said Elaine Johnson, director of legal strategy at the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), which represented Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action (BSCA). "It means [the New South Wales agency] has to do something to ensure there is protection against climate change."

"The next 10 years are really critical," Johnson told The Sydney Morning Herald, which noted that the ruling comes in the wake of a major United Nations climate report about what the future could hold without a global course correction. "We need rapid and deep emissions cuts."

Though the government of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has long faced pressure to take bolder climate action and a federal court in the country found in May that Environment Minister Sussan Ley has a duty to protect children and the environment from the climate emergency, Johnson said Thursday's decision was the first in Australia to find that a government agency is required to address the global crisis.

"It's breaking new ground," she told the newspaper, adding that other Australian states could soon face similar legal challenges.

The landmark ruling in favor of survivors of the 2019-20 bushfires and earlier seasons came from Brian Preston, chief judge of the Land and Environment Court of New South Wales (NSW).

Preston ordered the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) "to develop environmental quality objectives, guidelines, and policies to ensure environment protection from climate change" in the Australian state.

Though Preston found that the EPA has not fulfilled its legal duty to ensure such protection, he said the agency "has a discretion as to the specific content of the instruments it develops" and his order "does not demand that such instruments contain the level of specificity contended for by BSCA, such as regulating sources of greenhouse gas emissions in a way consistent with limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels."

The EPA had argued that it has already "developed numerous instruments to ensure environment protection in many ways, some of which incidentally regulate greenhouse gas emissions, such as methane from landfill," according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

In a statement, the agency—which has 28 days to appeal—said it was reviewing the decision.

"The EPA is an active government partner on climate change policy, regulation, and innovation," the agency statement said. "It is a part of the whole-of-government approach to climate change embodied by the NSW Climate Change Policy Framework and Net Zero Plan."

The statement also highlighted the EPA's involvement in "work that assists with and also directly contributes to" adaptation and mitigation measures, its support for industry "to make better choices," and its recently released "Strategic Plan and Regulatory Strategy."

Despite the judge's decision to limit the specificity of his order for the agency to act, his ruling was still welcomed by survivors, their legal representation, and climate campaigners around the world.

"This is a significant win for everyone who has been affected by bushfires," said BSCA president Jo Dodds, explaining that survivors have worked to rebuild their lives, homes, and communities that were devastated in recent years.

"This ruling means they can do so with confidence that the EPA must now also work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the state," she continued. "Global warming is creating the conditions that can lead to hotter and fiercer fires, and all of us need to work to make sure we're doing everything we can to prevent a disaster like we saw during 2019 and 2020."

As Johnson put it: "The EPA has discretion as to what they do but they have to do something and it has to be meaningful."

"Greenhouse gases are the most dangerous form of pollution," she told The Guardian. "An obvious response to this order would be to control greenhouse gases in the same way they do other pollutants in the environment."

The nonprofit Nature Conservation Council said the court's decision "should send a chill through the state's most polluting industries, including the electricity and commercial transport sectors."

"Most people will be astonished to learn the EPA has until now not regulated greenhouse gases," said the council's chief executive, Chris Gambian. "But that will now have to change."

"This is a great day for environmental justice," he declared, crediting BSCA "for having the courage to launch this case" and EDO for their convincing arguments.

Calling human-caused climate change "the most significant challenge our society has ever faced," Gambian asserted that "allowing politicians to set greenhouse gas emission targets and controls rather than scientific experts has led us to the precipice."

"These decisions are far too important to left to the politicians. These are issues of science and should not be hijacked by the political process," he added. "We hope that today's decision results in the effective regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and gets the state on track to net zero well before 2050."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Biden Decries 'Outrageous' Treatment of Haitians at Border—But Keeps Deporting Them

"I'm glad to see President Biden speak out about the mistreatment of Haitian asylum-seekers. But his administration's use of Title 42 to deny them the right to make an asylum claim is a much bigger issue."

Jessica Corbett ·


Global Peace Activists Warn of Dangers of US-Led Anti-China Pacts

"No to military alliances and preparation for catastrophic wars," anti-war campaigners from over a dozen nations write in a letter decrying the new AUKUS agreement. "Yes to peace, disarmament, justice, and the climate."

Brett Wilkins ·


PG&E Charged With 11 Felony Counts—Including Manslaughter—Over 2020 Zogg Fire

"PG&E has a history with a repeated pattern of causing wildfires that is not getting better," said Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett. "It's only getting worse."

Brett Wilkins ·


'Hold My Pearls': Debbie Dingell Lets Marjorie Taylor Green Have It Over Abortion Rights

The Michigan Democrat engaged in a verbal altercation with the far-right Republican lawmaker from Georgia on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building.

Jon Queally ·


Dems Who Opposed Pentagon Cuts Received Nearly 4x More Donations From Weapons Makers

The latest passage of the NDAA "is particularly strong evidence that Pentagon contractors' interests easily take precedence over national security and the public interest for too many members of Congress," said one critic.

Kenny Stancil ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo