Australia, a global climate outlier?

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Key points:

  • Australia’s environmental laws currently fall short in addressing climate change. The country does not have a climate trigger mechanism, despite having one of the highest rates of biodiversity loss in the world.
  • There is a growing number of countries, including the US, UK and New Zealand, that include climate change and emissions considerations in their environmental frameworks.
  • The Australian government’s stance on fossil fuels stands in contrast to warnings from international scientific bodies regarding the urgency of addressing climate change.
  • Australia could be responsible for up to 17% of global carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 if planned expansion of fossil fuels goes ahead.
  • The introduction of a climate trigger presents a chance for the country to align itself with global efforts in tackling GHG emissions from fossil fuel projects and reverse alarming environmental trends.

What is a climate trigger?

A climate trigger means governments have to consider the emissions and climate change impact of a project when assessing whether it should go ahead. Several countries and economies, including the US, UK, European Union, New Zealand and Canada, include assessments of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and other climate change considerations in their environmental regulatory frameworks. However, Australia currently has no explicit mechanism to account for climate change and the impacts of fossil fuel projects in its national environmental laws.

Australia’s environmental backbone

Australia has a dual approach to environmental governance, with individual states and territories having their own environmental laws and regulation, alongside national law governed primarily by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act). While state and territory laws address environmental concerns within their jurisdictions, the EPBC Act serves as a comprehensive framework that complements and coordinates these efforts. 

The EPBC Act designates nine key areas as matters of national environmental significance, or triggers, including specific regions, species and ecosystems that hold ecological value and require protection at the national level. If a project is deemed likely to have a significant impact on one of these areas, then a thorough impact assessment and environmental approval process is “triggered.”

The nine triggers identified under the EPBC Act are:

  1. World Heritage properties: These include the Great Barrier Reef and the Tasmanian Wilderness.
  2. National Heritage places: Sites recognised for their outstanding heritage value to the nation, such as iconic landmarks or culturally significant areas.
  3. Wetlands of international importance: Designated under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty aimed at conserving key wetland ecosystems and their biodiversity.
  4. Listed threatened species and ecological communities: Endangered species and ecosystems that are at risk of extinction or significant decline.
  5. Listed migratory species: Migratory birds and marine species that require protection during seasonal movements across national and international borders.
  6. Commonwealth marine areas: The marine environment within Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone, such as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
  7. Nuclear actions: Activities related to uranium mining, nuclear power plants, and other nuclear-related actions.
  8. Water resources: The impacts of coal seam gas and large-scale coal mining on water quality and availability.
  9. The Great Barrier Reef: Activities that may impact water quality, coastal development and shipping activities

Criticism of current laws

The lack of a climate trigger has prompted concerns in Australia over the effectiveness of the EPBC Act, in which “climate change” appears just once, as well as the country’s commitment to the 2015 Paris Agreement. Advocates of a climate trigger argue that its omission results in insufficient scrutiny of activities. Projects with substantial climate impacts are allowed to proceed without undergoing the same rigorous assessments as those falling under other triggers, leading to potential habitat degradation and exposing ecosystems to climate-related risks.

Importance of climate trigger for Australia

Increasingly high temperatures, wildfires and other climate impacts have significantly disrupted numerous ecosystems and species in Australia. The country has one of the highest extinction rates of plant and animal species in the world. Since 1999, 84% of threatened species have experienced habitat loss. In the last seven years, Australia witnessed a series of marine heatwaves that lead to four mass coral bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef, causing a 50% decline in the coral population. Climate change has the potential to exacerbate these losses by fivefold.

Climate triggers globally

Globally, there is a growing trend of countries incorporating climate change considerations into their national environmental frameworks, and the assessment of projects with large amounts of GHG by independent bodies has become standard practice. Examples include the EU, the UK, the US, Canada and New Zealand.

While the environmental frameworks of these countries differ in scope, enforceability and effectiveness, they all prioritise human well-being. The frameworks of the UK, US, and Canada do not explicitly mandate GHG assessments, but GHG considerations are indirectly addressed through other legal mechanisms. Climate change considerations, while not always explicitly mentioned, are increasingly woven into these frameworks, reflecting a global imperative to address climate-related challenges.

Table 1: Comparative analysis of environmental legislation

The countries chosen for analysis — the UK, EU, US, Canada and New Zealand — were selected based on several criteria to enable meaningful comparisons. New Zealand’s proximity to Australia provides regional relevance. The EU and UK dominate global climate discussions, while similarities in political systems led to the inclusion of Canada and the US.

Australia’s climate trigger proposal

The debate over whether to adopt a climate trigger mechanism in Australia has been ongoing for decades, and several proposals, including a bill submitted by then Shadow Minister for Environment and Heritage Anthony Albanese, failed to win enough support. This was due to concerns that such a trigger would harm jobs, economic development and investment, or clash with existing environmental legislation.

In 2020, a review of the EPBC Act found that it had failed to adequately protect Australia’s vulnerable flora, fauna and ecological communities. The Australian government has committed to revising the Act, and in December 2022 a series of reforms were proposed by the government to be adopted in late 2023. However, climate change considerations were still not addressed. 

The Australian Greens plan to submit a proposal for a climate trigger, in order to position the country on par with international trends. Building on an unsuccessful 2020 proposal, the new bill is expected to cover the following:

  • Ministerial authority on carbon dioxide emissions: the bill would grant the climate minister the authority to factor in GHG emissions when making project-related decisions. These powers are categorised into two thresholds:
  • Significant Impact on Emissions: Projects emitting 25,000 to 100,000 tonnes of GHG emissions annually must be evaluated by the ministry, ensuring alignment with the national carbon budget and emission reduction targets.
  • Prohibited Impact on Emissions: Projects emitting over 100,000 tonnes will automatically be denied approval.
  • Introduction of national carbon budget and enhanced roles for the Climate Change Authority (CCA): The CCA is an Australian government agency responsible for providing independent advice on climate change policy. If passed, the bill will mandate the CCA to develop a national carbon budget spanning from 2023 to 2049 in terms of total carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. The CCA must conduct annual evaluations of the remaining budget, while the minister is responsible for evaluating projects, considering the ongoing assessments of the budget.

How does Australia’s climate trigger compare globally?

While most laws discussed in Table 1 are undergoing revisions to better address the challenges posed by climate change, parallels can be drawn between some of them and Australia’s Climate Trigger proposal. Under the Climate Change Act 2008, the UK became the world’s first country to establish legally binding carbon budgets. The measure closely resembles what the Climate Trigger bill aims to introduce in Australia — a national carbon budget, accompanied by annual evaluation of new projects. In Canada, the environment minister was also given authority to require assessments for certain projects if they could have adverse climate impacts. These parallels underscore how Australia’s bill aligns with international efforts to address climate change and responsibly manage emissions, something that is argued to be lacking in the current EPBC Act.

However, what sets the Australian Greens’ bill apart from other laws is its commitment to explicit emissions thresholds. Among the countries examined, none of them automatically ban projects that exceed specific emissions limits. While this doesn’t prevent new fossil fuel projects being approved that emit more than initially estimated, it does pave the way for regulating these emissions.

Next steps for Australia’s climate trigger mechanism

The bill is currently under consideration by an environmental committee in the Australian Senate and a final ruling is expected in December 2023. A majority of lawmakers in parliament now recognize the need for government intervention in addressing climate change, and the crossbench offers strong support for a climate trigger.[1]The crossbench is where independent and minor party members sit in Australia’s parliament. 

However, there has been a significant shift in the stance of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and the Labor party since 2005. The current Labor government has ruled out a ban on new fossil fuel developments as long as investors perceive demand for coal and gas. It argues that introducing flexible measures, such as carbon offsets, would allow fossil fuel projects to proceed while still enabling the country to achieve its 43% emissions reduction target for 2030. The government’s position diverges from the warnings of organisations such as the United Nations, and leading climate science bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency.

Australia is the world’s third-largest exporter of fossil fuels behind Russia and Saudi Arabia, accounting for about 7%. In 2022, Australia had twice the electricity use per capita of China, and 47% of its electricity was generated by coal-fired power plants — more than four times the global average. Since 2014, the expansion of LNG production in Australia has grown by 360%, leading to a significant increase in national emissions levels. By 2030, Australia could potentially be responsible for up to 17% of global emissions, up from about 5% currently, if government and industry projections for fossil fuel expansion go ahead.

The Climate Trigger bill offers Australia the opportunity to take accountability for its emissions and the global harm caused by fossil fuels extracted within the country. If passed, it may help to reverse concerning environmental and biodiversity trends.[2]Assumes that the rest of the world adopts policies in line with the Paris Agreement.


1 The crossbench is where independent and minor party members sit in Australia’s parliament.
2 Assumes that the rest of the world adopts policies in line with the Paris Agreement.
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