Yesterday it was reported that the proposed Rocky Hill coal mine in New South Wales had been stopped, after the NSW Land and Environment Court, following much activism from the local community, ruled that the NSW government was right to reject the mine because of its impact on climate change and its impact on the community.
A consent authority cannot rationally approve a development that is likely to have some identified environmental impact on the theoretical possibility that the environmental impact will be mitigated or offset by some unspecified and uncertain action at some unspecified and uncertain time in the future.
This sets an exciting precedent in NSW for the future rejection of new coal mines. We know that we’ve got just 12 years to act on climate change, and that if Australia wants to fulfil its obligations to keep warming below 2°C, let alone the crucial 1.5°C limit, Australia has to keep 90% of its coal reserves in the ground, unburned
But this same kind of decision is impossible in Aotearoa New Zealand, with the Resource Management Act explicitly prohibiting consent authorities and regional councils from considering the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on climate breakdown when considering an application for a discharge permit or when making rules to control GHG discharges respectively.
These rules were introduced in 2004 by the Labour government, with the idea to require negative impacts from GHG emissions to be dealt with at the national level, not at the local level, whilst allowing positive effects of renewable energy to be still judged locally. The Associate Minister of Energy argued that by restricting Regional Councils from applying controls, the bill restricted the potential for duplication of regulation and restricted the potential for restrictions placed at the local level to conflict with ‘national objectives. Except, there still hasn’t been any kind of national standard introduced or implemented, leaving Regional Councils unable to control GHG emissions through their regional plans and resource consents so that they do not duplicate or conflict with non-existent national controls
Central government has failed to take action, and central government has barred local government from taking action in its absence.
From a reformist angle, Aotearoa New Zealand needs significant reform to the Resource Management Act to combat the large carve-outs that have allowed significant degradation to our climate and our waterways- even just the act of farming, an activity responsible for extreme pollution of our climate and waterways, is exempt from needing a resource consent.
Our consenting regime can learn a thing or two from New South Wales.