AUSTRALIAN COMPANIES might soon be subject to ‘climate change claims’ if an environmental action filed in the US is any indication.
Peter Briggs, litigation partner and environmental law specialist at national law firm Clayton Utz, said a public nuisance claim filed for the population of California against six major car manufacturers has sought to hold the companies liable for their contribution to global warming. The case is the latest example of ‘climate litigation’ that, according to Briggs, aims to make big business shoulder the financial burden for large-scale, long-term damage to the environment and public health.
The complaint, filed by California’s Attorney-General, alleged car manufacturers have breached federal and state law by producing millions of vehicles that collectively emit massive quantities of carbon dioxide, Briggs said. The state is seeking damages for current and future expenses incurred in responding to the effects of global warming.
Briggs said that while there are substantial legal hurdles to overcome for a similar action to be successful in Australia, it was far from impossible.
“The US action probably has a political motivation, but this does not mean that the action is ill-conceived or has no relevance here,” Briggs said.
“An action in public nuisance could potentially be mounted in Australia, against a broad range of defendants who are major contributors to the production of greenhouse gases,” he said. “An action for damages or abatement of a public nuisance can be brought by an Attorney-General, or by individuals or interest groups (such as some environmental action groups) who suffer special damage or have a ‘special interest’.”
Clayton Utz property, planning and environment partner Brendan Bateman said that concerned citizens or interested parties could possibly use Australia’s state or commonwealth environment statutes to try and prevent major polluters from emitting greenhouse gases. Currently laws do not regulate the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide in Australia, although there are moves in progress to introduce mandatory reporting of greenhouse gas emissions, Bateman said.
Briggs said it remains to be seen whether Australia follows the US lead in environmental litigation, as is happening in the area of class actions. “Climate change litigation will gain momentum globally, however. It’s just a matter of time.”