For Australia to address the climate crisis by using land and seascapes to generate renewable energy or for carbon sequestration, it must be done in partnership with First Nations landowners who own or manage much of those resources.
In September this year, in its Climate Change Act 2022 Australia’s new Federal Government legislated commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 43 per cent by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050.
With the government’s push towards Green Energy, in the clean energy transition the International Energy Agency has predicted that about 25 per cent of Australia’s land mass would need to be blanketed in solar panels and wind turbines to deliver global demand for green hydrogen by 2050 – of which will be on lands held under native title and land rights, that legally covers around 40% of Australia.
“As the world’s economy responds to climate change and the move towards net zero emissions, First Nations communities are calling for a ‘just transition’ in which they will play a lead role,” says Gundjitmara Djabwurrung man and NNTC CEO, Jamie Lowe. “This economic transition offers an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the resource extraction industry and re-conceptualise the role for First Nations in development, one that is premised on the right to self-determination and ownership of projects on their lands and waters.”
As Australia’s economy transitions away from fossil fuels, ensuring First Nations communities share in the benefits of the clean energy boom is critical. These projects have the potential to not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also lead to energy security, controlled or co-ownership, shares in equity, revenue streams, community training and job creation, local services improvement and more.
In the lead up to COP27, the NNTC has focused on amplifying the needs and aspirations of First Nations rights by urging the Australian Government to ensure working with First Nation rights holders is guided by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) – the key international instrument defining First Nations rights under international law – and for it to play a stronger role in clarifying the framework around benefit sharing with Traditional Owners, particularly in context of transmission lines and the offshore renewables sector.
As it stands, Australian law does not provide a level playing field for First Nations people in negotiating agreements.
“The Australian law entrenches power imbalances and undermines the capacity of Traditional Owner groups to protect what is theirs and to make decisions about matters that affect their lives and communities,” states Mr Lowe. “The destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters in the WA Pilbara region by Rio Tinto in May 2020 is a prime example of this.”
Currently, under the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth), while mining (and often exploration) is generally captured by the right to negotiate under the future acts regime, it is unclear where renewable energy developments sit, providing an opportunity that such projects will only attract lesser procedural rights.
“The law needs reform and must include the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) to meet a global standard. Enshrined within the UNDRIP, FPIC is a process to be defined by First Nations peoples and respected by states and project proponents throughout the project cycle. This includes the right to veto, or to say no to development” Mr Lowe continues. “Therefore, we urge the government to take prompt action on the application of UNDRIP and to amend the Native Title Act and related legislation to include Free, Prior and Informed Consent.
With legislative change and fair agreement making that creates real economic opportunities for First Nations rights holders, an inclusive government and industry climate plan – partnering with Indigenous knowledge on Indigenous land – will ensure Australia is globally counted in reaching net zero emissions.
JAMIE LOWE, CEO NATIONAL NATIVE TITLE COUNCIL IS ATTENDING THIS YEARS UNITED NATIONS CLIMATE CHANGE CONFERENCE IN SHARM EL-SHEIKH, EGYPT.
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