As WA’s carbon emissions soar the State’s environmental watchdog will today relaunch an effort to develop greenhouse gas guidelines that will to need use legislation unsuited to a global threat to the environment, according to an experienced environment lawyer

Carbon emissions from WA have increased more than 23 per cent since 2005 while they have declined in every other State and Territory, according to a Federal Government report released last week.

The Department of Environment and Energy’s greenhouse gas inventory report showed total Australian emissions decreased 12.7 per cent from 2005 to 2017.

In March Environmental Protection Authority chairman Dr Tom Hatton issued a guideline that recommended all new large projects offset all their carbon emissions.

A week later after pressure from the State Government and the LNG industry Dr Hatton withdrew the guideline to arrange further consultation with industry on technical and practical aspects of the guideline. That consultation starts today and will run for 12 weeks.

At the time Dr Hatton said the EPA did not resile from the need to reduce WA’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Lantegy Legal director Katie Winterbourne said that WA greenhouse gases affecting the rest of the world, and vice versa, would not have been considered when the Environmental Protection Act was passed in 1986 to “protect the environment of the State”.

“Trying to fit greenhouse gas emissions into the definition of pollution and trying to fit climate change into the definition of environment are quite difficult to do under the Act,” she said.

Environmental protections have been designed to counter the local effect of damaging emissions as they would naturally occur at a lower concentration further away that could be deemed safe.

However, there is no local effect of greenhouse gases; they contribute to climate change across the globe. A tonne of carbon dioxide emitted in Belfast or Bunbury has the same effect on rainfall in the South West of WA.

Ms Winterbourne, who has practised environmental and natural resources law for more than 20 years, said the EPA needed to justify its guideline using science and the effect on WA rather than invoke international agreements entered into by the Federal Government.

“They could do better in linking the policy back to the objects of the Act and their powers and functions rather than focusing on the Paris Agreement,” she said.

Ms Winterbourne said while it was insufficient under its act for the EPA to show that increasing greenhouse gas emissions impacted the world’s climate, it also needed to demonstrate that if WA continued to increase its greenhouse gas emissions it would likely affect the State. “I think it is a difficult argument, but I really think it is one that they need to make otherwise I think they do open themselves up to challenge,” she said.

If the EPA does produce another guideline with tough emission requirements, it does not automatically follow that it would be enforced. The environment minister is required to only consider recommendations from the EPA and is free to decide against them for social or economic reasons.

Ms Winterbourne said the rescinded guidelines required significant additional work for proponents to complete an environmental assessment. They were to apply to any project that emitted more than 100,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases a year — about the level the Kemerton silicon smelter and Northern Star’s Jundee gold mine emit.

She said it also could have been applied to existing projects if an environment minister referred them back to the EPA for reconsideration of existing conditions.

 

 

Image: Environmental lawyer Katie Winterbourne, The West Australian.