Why are we doing this research?

The Australian Climate Accountability Project is undertaking critical new research into the harms from climate change to people and communities in Australia, from within a human rights framework.  

Our focus is Australia’s massive – and growing – exports of coal and gas.  

Our aims are: 

  • to call Australia to account for this very large contribution to global warming – the emissions from the burning overseas of its coal and gas exports (its ‘exported emissions’) – and;  
  • to demand full protection of the human rights of affected people and communities in Australia and a rapid, just phase-out of these exports. 

Why is it important to call Australia to account for its ‘exported emissions’? 

‘Emissions anywhere affect people everywhere’. 
UNDP, SDG 13: Climate. 

Despite our small population, Australia is a major contributor to global warming.  

Australia is: 

  1. The world’s third largest fossil fuel exporter (behind Russia and Saudi Arabia) 

  1. The world’s largest exporter of LNG (gas), and

  1. The world’s largest exporter of coal (by energy content). 

It is clear from the scientific and the human rights studies that ongoing global warming driven by carbon emissions presents a range of potentially devastating climate impacts for human communities and human rights. 

It is also clear that every fraction of a degree of extra warming will worsen those impacts exponentially. And Australia’s exported emissions from fossil fuels are large enough to raise global temperatures measurably and to worsen climate change everywhere – including in Australia.  

Our country is particularly exposed to the physical impacts of climate trends and extremes, due to our largely arid or semi-arid land area and largely coastal population. The states where most people in Australia live (Victoria, NSW and Queensland) are in the top 4% of the world’s territories most exposed to the physical ravages of climate change.  

In total, combustion of Australian-produced fossil fuels generates at least 5% of global emissions from all world sources. The carbon emissions from our exports are almost triple the emissions from our domestic use of fossil fuels. Climate Analytics has calculated that, based on 2019 government and industry projections and as other countries reduce their emissions by 2030 between 11.9-17.4% of Paris Agreement-compatible emissions would be attributable to the combustion of Australian fossil fuels. 

With even fractional temperature rises, ‘you are promoting moderate extreme weather events to the premier league of extreme events.’ 
Richard Allan (Lead Author, IPCC 6th Summary Report).

Despite knowing about our high climate exposure and that our vast exported emissions will bring on ourselves even worse climate damage, Australia is continuing to sell coal and LNG overseas. In fact, our federal government: 

  • has no national plan for phasing out these exports; 

  • has no transparency on the climate harms from our exported emissions on people, communities or human rights in Australia; 

  • has no established dialogues with our biggest buyer countries or other major fossil fuel exporting countries to discuss an internationally coordinated phase out of the trade; and 

  • is continuing to expand our coal and LNG exports, with new coal mines and gas projects still being approved, almost all for export.  

Australia’s thermal coal exports are projected to be 78.6% higher in 2026 than they were in 2006 (although 2026 may now be their peak). 

The science is absolutely clear that, if the world is to have a reasonable chance of keeping global warming to 1.5°C, it needs to phase out extraction of fossil fuels at the rate of at least six percent annually - and even more quickly for coal - between 2020 and 2030. This means that Australia must phase out all of its coal production and most of its LNG production over the coming decade, with no new projects begun.  

Why is 1.5°C important? 

The world will see serious climate impacts at 1.5°C, but after that it gets much worse. The difference between 2°C and 1.5°C is:

  • the difference between 99% and 70% of coral reefs dying;

  • double the likelihood that insects, vital pollinators, lose half their habitat;

  • ice-less summers in the Arctic Ocean once per decade instead of once per century;

  • 1 meter added in sea-level rise; and

  • 16 million instead of 6 million affected by sea-level rise in coastal areas by 2100. 

Source: UNEP (citing IPCC).

About the Australian Climate Accountability Project 

The Australian Climate Accountability Project is undertaking new climate attribution and human impacts research within a human rights law framework. The project aims to call Australia to account for its greatest contribution to global warming – the emissions from the burning overseas of its coal and LNG exports – and to demand a rapid, just and human rights-based phase-out of these exports.  

It will drive this through working with renowned climate science analysts at Climate Analytics to deliver missing attribution evidence and human impacts analysis, revealing the major role of Australia’s exported emissions in global warming and identifying consequential harms to population groups and human rights in Australia.  

The new evidence and analysis the project provides will empower communities at the frontline of climate impacts, change-makers and the broader Australian public to demand that the exports be rapidly phased out, in a just manner, for the protection of our human rights. 

Pressure is growing on Australia to phase out the exports.

Australia has been slow to respond to the need to phase out this export sector, due to economic incentives and other barriers, but there are some powerful tailwinds to support the demand to begin now, including:  

  • major industrial opportunities in our coal and gas regions from expanding investment in renewable energy and alternative export industries;  

  • escalating alarm by business and investment about missed opportunities, asset stranding, and climate-related financial risk; 

  • expected falling demand following net-zero and interim commitments by our five top LNG and coal buyers; and 

  • a new policy willingness in Australia to support a transition to a clean energy-based domestic economy (e.g. the National Net Zero Authority). 

A further important tailwind is growing public awareness of the very high confidence now among climate scientists that man-made climate change is happening already and that we are currently on a trajectory towards a climate which could threaten the very survival of human and other life on earth – and that we have only a short period left to avert this risk. 

International developments also provide tailwinds for phase-out action now. In 2021 in Glasgow, 39 countries (including some fossil fuel producers) committed to ‘end new direct public support for the international unabated fossil fuel energy sector’, acknowledging too ‘that global production and use of unabated fossil fuels must decrease significantly by 2030’.

For the first time, reducing fossil fuel production has emerged as a specific concern in Paris Agreement climate talks which, until recently, have focused on reducing consumption of fossil fuels. This critical new trend is set to strengthen, given the reality that global fossil fuel production is still growing despite States’ commitments to reduce their consumption. 

Our project aims also for Australia to initiate an international process of ‘cooperative decarbonisation’, engaging with our major coal and LNG buyers (and with other coal and gas exporting countries) as we cooperatively phase out our exports and transition our domestic economies.  

Australia is one of only a small handful of countries that could lead this international cooperative decarbonisation process, being a major fossil fuel exporter with enviable renewable energy sources and outsized global soft power (Beyond Net Zero). 

“If one of the world’s largest fossil fuel exporters began to phase out its exports and bed down a just transition for those affected, it would have a huge impact on fossil fuel finance and signal time really is up for an industry long thought untouchable.”    
UNSW Professor Jeremy Moss, ‘The Conversation’

Why human rights are important 

“We cannot ignore the emissions from the huge coal and gas exports we send offshore. They are a danger to people everywhere but they are also doubling back on us to make climate extremes in Australia significantly worse and rendering climate change the single greatest threat to human rights in Australia.” 
Professor Justine Nolan, Director, Australian Human Rights Institute, UNSW 

Human rights law frames many adverse climate impacts as impairments of people’s rights and as failures by States and some non-State actors (businesses) to respect and protect those rights. Human rights give powers to ordinary people in the face of official inaction. 

In its 2022 chapter on Australasia, the IPCC stated that ‘increasing climate risks are projected to exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and social inequalities and inequities’. In fact, there is an almost complete overlap between the human communities and population groups identified in the scientific literature as most at risk of harm from climate change, and the groups and individuals long identified under human rights law as requiring rights protection. They are: 

  • Older people 

  • Children (including unborn children) 

  • Future generations 

  • People living with disability 

  • People living with ill health 

  • People living with lower socioeconomic status 

  • Otherwise marginalised or vulnerable people (minorities, migrants) 

  • People in regional/remote areas 

  • Indigenous people/s, and 

  • Women 

For these population groups and communities, the IPCC has identified that climate impacts will threaten their lives, livelihoods, health and wellbeing, economic, social and cultural assets and investments, as well as the infrastructure and services on which they rely.  

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has described the same threats in terms of human rights:  

‘Climate change has profound impacts on a wide variety of human rights, including the rights to life, self-determination, development, food, health, water and sanitation and housing. While there is no international human right specifically to be free from the harmful effects of climate change, pretty much all human rights are and will be affected.’ 

The problem of increasing heat in Australia reveals some ways in which human rights can be impaired by escalating climate change. Australia is particularly vulnerable to increasing periods of extreme heat as global temperatures rise. Extreme heat is the leading cause of weather-related deaths in highly urbanised countries such as Australia. While the impact of heat can be extreme – with increased mortality the most severe risk and widely recognised in the medical literature – the impacts of heat on health occur on a spectrum. In addition to mortality, hot weather and heat extremes are associated with: 

  • increased visits to the emergency room as well as hospital admissions; 

  • adverse pregnancy and birth outcomes; 

  • increased risk from cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses; 

  • an increase in mental health issues; and, 

  • reduced occupational health and reduced productivity, including in the workplace. 

While people in the above list of 10 most vulnerable groups are particularly exposed, through their socioeconomic or other status, to these heat-related risks to life and health, climate change in Australia threatens us all. In various ways and at different – and multiple - times it will damage our lives and the lives of our children, our families, our friends, our neighbours, our work colleagues and our communities.

Human rights law obliges States (and businesses, to an extent) to respect the rights and take action to protect them, including in the face of the entirely foreseeable harms brought by climate change in Australia.  

Who we are

  • Gillian Moon - Australian Climate Accountability Project Coordinator

Reports and papers