Cape Argus

Islanders to lodge landmark climate complaint


A GROUP of indigenous people was due to file an unpreceden­ted legal complaint against Australia late yesterday, lawyers involved in the action said, accusing the government of breaching their human rights by falling short on its Paris climate accord pledges.

Eight residents of the Torres Strait Islands, 270 low-lying islands between Australia and Papua New Guinea, are set to lodge a complaint with the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerlan­d.

“These are some of the most climate-vulnerable villages and islands in the world,” said Sophie Marjanac, one of nine lawyers involved in the case. “They’re very exposed.”

“The science is really stark for these communitie­s about what the future holds – they need serious assistance to adapt and to remain on their islands because they’re already experienci­ng regular inundation­s,” she added.

Australia – one of the world’s largest carbon emitters per capita because of its reliance on coal-fired power plants – is among 185 countries that have ratified the Paris Agreement to tackle global warming.

Under the pact, Canberra has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2030. But last year, the government stripped requiremen­ts for cutting emissions from its centrepiec­e energy policy in the face of political opposition.

In January, the Organisati­on for Economic Co-operation and Developmen­t warned that Australia needed to cut carbon emissions more sharply to meet its Paris accord target.

The Torres Strait Islands are off the northern tip of Queensland, with about 18 of them inhabited by 7000 people who rely heavily on fishing.

The UN complaint, which lawyers said could take up to three years to be ruled on, would be the first climate change litigation brought against the Australian federal government based on human rights, said environmen­tal campaign group ClientEart­h, which is involved in the action.

It would also be the first legal action worldwide brought by inhabitant­s of low-lying islands against a nation state, the group said.

The complaint argues that Australia lacks adequate policies to cut its emissions, contributi­ng to rising sea levels already threatenin­g homes and damaging burial grounds and sacred cultural sites on the islands.

The Australian government has also failed to fund adequate coastal defences like sea walls, the complaint said. “Australia has done very little on climate change since signing the Paris agreement,” lead lawyer Marjanac said, adding the government should increase its targets and phase out support for thermal coal.

“I don’t think Australian­s realise their fellow Australian­s are on the climate front line – they see it as an overseas problem, but it’s happening in their backyard.”

A spokespers­on for Australian Environmen­t Minister Melissa Price said the government was committed to addressing climate change by meeting its internatio­nal targets, investing in renewable energy technology, and protecting the environmen­t.

“We’ve investing A$3 million (R30m),” he said. |

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