Clive Palmer’s Queensland coalmine will harm future generations, court finds in landmark climate ruling

<span>Photograph: Darren England/AAP</span>
Photograph: Darren England/AAP

A Queensland court has found the plans of a company owned by Clive Palmer to dig Australia’s largest thermal coalmine in central Queensland infringe upon the human rights of future generations, in landmark climate case.

The Queensland land court’s president, Fleur Kingham, said the case was not about whether any new coalmine should be approved, but “whether this coalmine should be approved on its merits”.

“This coal is a public resource owned by the state to be exploited, or not, for the public good,” she said on Friday morning.

“Climate change was a key issue in this hearing.”

Kingham said the 1.58 gigatonnes of carbon emissions that would be produced would pose an “unacceptable” risk of climate crisis for Queensland people and property that “had not been fully accounted for”.

The mine would make a significant dent in Australia’s carbon budget under the Paris agreement, Kingham found, and it would infringe upon the human rights of First Nations Queenslanders as well as the owners of a private nature reserve, the Bimblebox, whose ecological value would be “seriously and possibly irreversibly damaged by the mine.

Related: First Nations challenge over approval of Clive Palmer’s coalmine begins in Queensland

“In relation to climate change, I have found that the following rights of certain groups of people in Queensland would be limited: the right to life, the cultural rights of First Nations peoples, the rights of children, the right to property and to privacy and home, and the right to enjoy human rights equally,” she said.

The verdict was met with cheers from a large crowd – including people who had travelled from the Torres Strait and Cape York – who filled the court and spilled into two overflow rooms.

Kapua Gutchen, who gave evidence in the case when it travelled to his home in the Torres Straits, said he was “very excited” but that the verdict was only a “good start”.

The Darnley Island man said his people were already seeing the impacts of the climate crisis, in declining sea turtle populations, bleached coral and coastal erosion.

“If we don’t get this right now, none of these islands, our low islands, will be left in 50 years time,” Gutchen said.

“That’s our land, and our burial sites.”

Bulgun Warra man Harold Ludwick said it was a “win for the nation”.

“[But] this fight wasn’t just for us, it’s for the children of tomorrow. This is not about black and white, it’s about tomorrow,” he said.

Kingham said her decision was a recommendation, but that the mine’s approval was ultimately a matter for the Queensland resources minister and the environment department.

She described the potential $2.5bn economic benefits of the mine as “considerable”.

But she also said they were “uncertain in a market with declining demand for thermal coal”.

“There is a real prospect the mine will not be viable throughout its projected life and that not all the economic benefits will be realised,” she said.

“Further, the costs of climate change to people in Queensland, to which combustion of coal from the project will contribute, have not been fully accounted for. Nor have the environmental costs of the act of mining on Bimblebox.”

She rejected Waratah’s argument that its mine would make no difference to total emissions, because it would “displace other lower quality coal”.

The case, which began in April, was brought by a group of young people, Youth Verdict, and is led by its First Nations members.

Youth Verdict co-founder and Wirdi woman Murrawah Johnson said the decision meant human rights and First Nations cultural rights would now have to be considered in the approval process for new coal mines in Queensland.

“Coalmines can no longer be put above the human rights of everybody and especially First Nations cultures,” she said.

“Its been a long time coming, frankly it’s overdue, but we are very happy.”

Environmental Defenders Office senior solicitor Alison Rose described the verdict as a “historic win” that would set an “important precedent”.

“Most importantly, the court agreed with our clients that we can’t have a safe climate with this coalmine but we can have one without it,” she said.

“The other thing that is extremely important about this case is that it rightfully centred First Nations lore and took on-country evidence, and that is a historic first.”

As part of the case, the court travelled to the Torres Strait to consider the first-hand impacts of climate change. It is the first time the Queensland Human Rights Act, adopted in 2019, has been considered in relation to the impact of a resources project.

The group argues that the Galilee coal project proposed by Palmer’s company, Waratah Coal, would cause environmental harm by contributing to global climate change, and in the process limit the cultural rights of First Nations Queenslanders to maintain their distinctive relationships with the land, the court heard.

Related: ‘Completely laughable’: claims that a mine will create ‘more jobs per hectare’ than the Great Barrier Reef derided

Peter Ambrose QC, acting for Waratah Coal, had said “climate change is real” but argued the coal at the site was “high-energy producing” and would ultimately result in fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

The Galilee Coal project – formerly called China First – has not progressed since it gained federal environmental approval in late 2013. The proposed mine is about 100km from Adani’s Carmichael project and would require much of its own supporting infrastructure.

Sheen Gillman of the Bimblebox Alliance, said Friday’s verdict was a “wonderful win” for “all of nature”.