Sunday, June 18, 2006

Should government project approvals consider greenhouse emissions?

I’m interested in getting readers’ thoughts on the following scenario:

Two coal mines are proposed in Northern Queensland, near a World Heritage area containing rainforests and coral reefs. The coal mined from these new mines is mostly intended to be exported and its burning will create annual greenhouse emissions equivalent to one-quarter of Australia’s current annual emissions. Emissions lead to climate change which are predicted to have a devastating impact on tropical rainforests and coral reefs in Australia.

The federal government is empowered to consider the environmental effect of proposed developments. Specifically, it is required to consider whether a proposed development is likely to have a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significance (which includes world heritage areas among others – see my EPBC Act primer).

Should the government consider the possible environmental impact of emissions from the burning of coal mined from these projects? More generally, should governments be approving or not approving very large coal mines and similar projects based on their greenhouse emissions (or emissions from use of the products they produce)?

The Australian Federal Court on Thursday handed down its decision on this in Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland v Minister for the Environment. ABC online and Sydney Morning Herald have reports on the decision. The decision itself isn’t very illuminating but I think the issues behind it are fascinating and important.

I’ll give you some of my thoughts in the next couple of days, but I’d really appreciate any of your thoughts in the meantime.


Grant said...

Hi David.

I do believe that emissions should be taken into consideration. Global warming is one of, if not the biggest threats to the environment and biodiversity in particular.

The GBR is a prime case of a world heritage listed site that is directly and demonstrably threatened by global warming.

However, the argument for approving a mine on such a basis is a slippery slope. If the Government, or the law, was to start approving mines on the basis of the emissions of derivative products (or use), would mines that produce the raw products for steel, which could in turn be used to produce cars and trucks etc. which also, obviously, produce emissions also be banned? It's obviously easier to track coal, which has limited alternative uses, but the principle is the same, and ultimately unworkable IMO.

My (albeit rudimentary) thinking is that the activities that require the coal are the direct contributers to global warming - and this is where emissions can be more directly managed and regulated. Ditto for cars. By properly regulating emissions, the market will swing towards cleaner energy and additional coal mines would not be required.

The law suit was an interesting approach, and worth a try, but I don't see how it would ever get support...

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