Melbourne’s real-world impact on climate change

A new initiative bringing together multi-disciplinary climate change experts is focused on finding effective global solutions in Australia and beyond

Sarah Marinos, University of Melbourne

Published 18 March 2021

In late 2015, 196 countries signed the Paris Agreement, making a commitment to tackle climate change and global warming. The landmark, legally binding international treaty united countries behind one goal - to combat the impacts of climate change.

Later this year, the parties to the Paris Agreement will meet again at the COP26 UN climate change conference in Glasgow.

Signatories to the Paris Agreement will meet again at the COP26 UN climate change conference in Glasgow. Picture: Getty Images

The University of Melbourne is part of this worldwide effort to confront climate change and is launching a multi-disciplinary initiative - Melbourne Climate Futures (MCF) – bringing together experts from diverse areas, including science, engineering, the humanities and medicine, to develop practical solutions for global climate change.

In the court of climate change

Professor Jacqueline Peel, from Melbourne Law School, is an internationally-recognised expert in environmental and climate change law and the director of MCF. She believes litigation is an effective way to prompt climate action.

“Climate change activists have increasingly used the courts during the past five years and that is pressuring governments and businesses to do more,” says Professor Peel.

“Our expertise is often sought by groups who want advice on the best way to use litigation. They want to know what kinds of court cases have had impact to shape their own litigation strategy.”

Action taken by Mark McVeigh against Retail Employees Superannuation Pty Ltd (REST) showcases the power of court action.

The 22-year-old ecology student from Brisbane took REST to the Federal Court alleging the superannuation fund had breached fiduciary duties owed to him by failing to adequately consider climate change risks.

In November 2020, REST settled and stated its investment managers would now take “active steps to consider, measure and manage financial risks posed by climate change”.

Litigation is an effective way to prompt climate action. Picture: Getty Images

Among other measures, REST committed to achieving a net zero carbon footprint by 2050.

“That kind of action hasn’t been brought anywhere else in the world and it shows how businesses need to change their practices to take account of climate change,” says Professor Peel.

The REST case highlights that indirect impacts can also be meaningful. It provoked widespread discussion in the superannuation industry about the need to take climate change into account.

“More funds are making climate change a mainstream financial issue that has to be factored into their processes. Without litigation, we may not have seen that level of pace and change,” says Professor Peel.

Increasing climate change ambition

During COP26, Professor Don Henry will be monitoring how countries actually plan to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. Professor Henry is Melbourne Enterprise Professor of Environmentalism and an International Board Member of the Climate Reality Project, chaired by the former American Vice President, Al Gore.

Professor Henry’s current focus is how to increase ambition and commitment as nations implement significant policy changes in order to meet their climate change goals.

Nations must implement significant policy changes in order to meet their climate change goals. Picture: Getty Images

“The Paris Agreement was historic because every government, bar a few, agreed that we need to follow science-based targets to reduce greenhouse pollution and to look for new opportunities to build low-carbon economies. But there is a huge amount of work to be done,” says Professor Henry.

“There is a big gap between what countries say they want to do and what they are doing. Building ambition is about building the knowledge and the will to close that gap.”

Pivotal to increasing ambition is generating new knowledge to underpin tangible solutions – universities and initiatives like MCF are a key part of this puzzle.

“Governments need new knowledge about how they can be more successful with climate change solutions. Communities have to be aware of the need and opportunity to support solutions. Business needs to take up the challenge to transition to low-carbon economies, but that requires good knowledge about climate solutions and how to put them in place,” he says.

This kind of collaboration will deepen and quicken knowledge gathering and dissemination.

“It would be good to see universities putting their shoulder to the wheel and committing to do more to generate knowledge for climate solutions – because this is the decade when putting solutions in place is crucial,” says Professor Henry.

The Birrarung/Yarra River became the first river in Australia to be legally recognised as a living entity. Picture: Getty Images

Upholding the rights of rivers

In 2017, the Birrarung/Yarra River became the first river in Australia to be legally recognised as a living entity. Two years later, all rivers in Bangladesh became legal persons, while New Zealand, India, Colombia, the US and Canada have also recognised rivers as living entities with legal rights.

Dr Erin O’Donnell from the Centre for Resources, Energy and Environment Law says recognising rivers as legal people with rights is one effective way of tackling declining water availability, a key impact of climate change in many parts of the world, including on the arid Australian continent.

“What we’re starting to do now is to give rivers rights of their own, so that the river can enforce its own rights and protect itself. Potentially a river with legal rights could actually go to court and sue somebody who polluted it,” says Dr O’Donnell.

One key element of recognising rivers as living entities with legal rights is acknowledging the leadership role of Indigenous peoples as environmental advocates.

Dr O’Donnell points to the New Zealand government’s recognition of the Whanganui River as a legal person which acknowledges the relationship between the river catchment and Maori.

Dr O’Donnell is currently focusing on a Cultural Water for Cultural Economies project – a partnership between the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations, the University of Melbourne and representatives from 20 Traditional Owner organisations and First Nations people across Victoria.

The project has implications not only for Australia but worldwide.

New Zealand’s recognition of the Whanganui River acknowledges the relationship between the river catchment and Maori. Picture: Getty Images

“First Nations and Traditional Owners have long been sustainably managing rivers and ecosystems in ways that have generated economic return and supported healthy populations of people, but without the damage to ecosystems we see now,” says Dr O’Donnell.

“Recognising rivers as living beings and elevating and amplifying the voices and rights of Traditional Owners, offer new ways to manage our waterways and rivers in an uncertain climate future.”

Innovating for cities

Equipping cities with the knowledge, tools and funding they need to meet climate action ambitions is yet another key piece of the cleaner, greener future puzzle.

Dr Cathy Oke, Enterprise Senior Fellow in Informed Cities in the Connected Cities Lab, is identifying gaps in city climate change science as a critical path to meeting national and global climate targets.

As a special advisor to the Innovate4Cities initiative of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy (GCoM), Dr Oke is working with city networks and city researchers to enable cities to take even more effective climate action in areas such as planning, buildings, transport, energy supply and finance.

Identifying gaps in city climate change science is a critical path to meeting climate targets. Picture: Getty Images

“Urban centres have a huge impact on emissions, so it goes without saying that making better decisions locally can have huge positive potential on a global scale ,” says Dr Oke.

She pinpoints innovation, working across the nexus of research policy and practice, and translating city climate change science so it speaks the language of city decision-makers, as important steps.

“Cities need the greatest science and evidence to make bold policy decisions, universities need to do better in providing that material in way that is useful. We have to get better at understanding what cities want in the first place.”

Banner: Getty Images

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