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Climate change and the complexities of valuing water

22 March 2021
Dr Kate Owens on World Water Day
On World Water Day, Dr Kate Owens speaks about her research into climate change, water scarcity and coal seam gas mining.

Dr Kate Owens, Sydney Law School

Today is World Water Day and the 2021 theme is “Valuing water”.

We had a chat to Sydney Law School's Dr Kate Owens, Deputy Director of the Australian Centre for Climate and Environmental Law and author of Environmental Water Markets and Regulation: A Comparative Legal Approach.

Dr Owens talks about her journey to becoming an environmental law academic and her research into climate change, water scarcity and coal seam gas mining.

Your book on Environmental Water Markets and Regulation looked at the Murray-Darling Basin as well as water management in parts of Canada and the United States. How does Australia fare in its legal framework for valuing water?

Water has a range of environmental, social, cultural and economic benefits that often compete with each other. In Australia, we’ve attempted to resolve these competing uses and recognise the value of water through a combination of planning, regulation and market mechanisms that move water to ‘higher value’ productive uses, often at the expense of environmental, cultural and community needs.

A more sustainable approach is needed that sets sustainable levels of use and recognises the full spectrum of water values and demands, including the water values of Aboriginal peoples.

You worked in state government and leading commercial law firms before becoming an environmental law lecturer and researcher. What inspired you to work in environmental law and then become an academic?

I was drawn to environmental law as the problems it deals with are really compelling. Climate change, air pollution, land use conflict and unsustainable natural resource management are inherently complex and raise a variety of legal, social, political and economic issues.

After a number of years working for proponents I wanted to focus on how the law can be used to protect the environment, and I wanted to engage in a longer-term inquiry into how we can develop effective and legitimate governance frameworks for addressing our most challenging environmental problems.

As an academic, I have the freedom to consider the nature of the law that is needed for a wide variety of environmental problems, at a range of scales and in a variety of jurisdictions.

You and others from the Australian Centre for Climate and Environmental Law have contributed to the latest edition of Environmental and Planning Law in New South Wales. What's your chapter about?

My chapter in Environmental and Planning Law in New South Wales focuses on the regulatory relationship between mining activities and the environment in New South Wales, and the extent to which mining activities have been privileged under legal frameworks in relation to both the environment and other land uses.

Coal seam gas and coal mining activities have faced substantial community opposition in New South Wales, given the projected impacts of these activities on the environment, and law-makers are grappling with how to transition mining and petroleum legislation, which has traditionally focused on the efficient extraction of resources, to a more sustainable framework with more robust environmental protections.

Your research collaboration with Utrecht University in The Netherlands looks at climate change adaptation and mitigation. Can you give us an example of where water law and policy is not keeping pace with the needs of society in managing climate change risks?

My research focuses on water governance in the Murray-Darling Basin, where there are very real risks that ongoing climate change will significantly reduce water availability and jeopardise the entire ecosystem.

Over the past 30 years, we have seen increased salinity and outbreaks of toxic blue-green algae, mass fish kills and devasting droughts. All of these events have underlined the need to leave enough water for river ecosystems. But actual limits on water take that have been set under the Basin Plan are a political compromise that does not reflect best available science, or modelling in relation to projected climate change impacts.

Direct and transparent discussions are needed about the possible futures that we are prepared to face within the Basin in the unfolding context of climate change.

Dr Kate Owens is a Senior Lecturer in Environmental Law at the University of Sydney Law School, Associate Dean of Professional Law Programs, Program Director of the Juris Doctor degree and Deputy Director of the Australian Centre for Climate and Environmental Law.

Her research combines both social and legal methods to address significant issues of environmental law and governance, including how law and governance should manage climate change, energy transitions, water scarcity, environmental finance and the risks of coal seam gas mining.


Banner image: Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

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