Coal Scores a Win as Wider Climate Reckoning Rocks Fossil Fuels
Australia’s pro-fossil fuels government and one of the country’s top coal producers won a climate change court battle against an elderly nun and a group of Greta Thunberg-inspired teenagers.
The decision clears the way for Whitehaven Coal Ltd. to seek final go-ahead for a mine expansion aimed at producing as much as 10 million tons a year of mostly metallurgical coal, used in steel-making.
Even in dismissing an injunction seeking to halt the project, Judge Mordy Bromberg acknowledged the expansion would have a “tiny but measurable” impact on climate change, and ruled that Australia’s Environment Minister Sussan Ley must consider the future impacts on young people from a warmer planet when granting approvals.
It’s a decision that contrasts with a wave of clear-cut climate victories this week as investors revamped board rooms and judges forced operators to accelerate emissions cuts. An activist shareholder on Wednesday ousted two Exxon Mobil Corp. directors seen as insufficiently attuned to the threat of a warmer planet, while Royal Dutch Shell Plc was ordered to slash emissions faster than planned.
The Australia case was mounted by a group of eight teenagers who are involved in the School Strike 4 Climate Australia protest group and Sister Brigid Arthur, who acted as a so-called litigation guardian.
“Internationally, we’re seeing the transition to net zero accelerating across all sectors,” said Zoe Whitton, a Sydney-based executive director at Pollination, a climate change advisory and investment firm. “We see investors in both debt and equities moving rapidly towards transition aligned assets, and asking companies with concentrations in fossil fuels to find ways to pursue new opportunities.”
Lawsuits from the U.S. to the Philippines are seeking to press governments and companies to make faster efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, highlighting wildfires to floods and droughts that scientists argue are being exacerbated by climate change.
Germany’s highest court last month forced lawmakers to bring forward its net zero emissions goal by five years after ruling existing law put young people’s futures at risk by leaving most emissions cuts until after 2030. Whitehaven’s win comes a day after a Dutch court ordered Shell to accelerate its work to cut emissions, a ruling seen as likely to have repercussions across the global fossil fuels industry.
Campaigners had been correct to argue Environment Minister Sussan Ley has a duty of care to protect Australia’s youth from the future impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, though those issues would likely be considered under an existing process of granting approvals to mine projects, Judge Bromberg said at the Federal Court of Australia in Melbourne.
The campaigners viewed the judgement as a win as it established the government has a duty of care to protect young people from the ravages of climate change, said 17-year-old Ava Princi, one of the teenagers behind the case. The teenagers will now make submissions to the court on how Ley should exercise that duty, she said in an emailed statement.
“My future -- and the future of all young people -- depends on Australia stepping away from fossil fuel projects and joining the world in taking decisive climate action,” she said.
Sydney-based Whitehaven said the legal case was without merit and will aim to proceed with the expansion.
“The company sees a continuing role for high quality coal in contributing to global CO2 emissions reduction efforts while simultaneously supporting economic development in our near region,” the producer said in a statement.
Whitehaven shares rose 2.3% in Sydney trading, trimming their decline this year to 6.7% as investors weigh longer-term prospects for the sector. Benchmark coal prices at Newcastle, one of the world’s biggest export terminals, have risen by almost a third.
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who once brandished a lump of coal in parliament in support of the fuel, has declined to set a hard target date to reach net-zero emissions, drawing criticism from investors and allies, including the U.S.
The Whitehaven ruling will be a boost for fossil-fuel exporters as Australian lawmakers increasingly tie an economic recovery from the country’s first recession in three decades to the energy sector. Australia is among the world’s biggest exporters of liquefied natural gas and coal.
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