Climate Justice and Litigation

Equity in the protection from climate change between individuals, communities and states; Equity in the distribution of responsibilities for the climate emergency between states taking into account their historical contribution to GHG emissions; eradication of the causes of the ongoing climate emergency : these are the demands carried forward by citizens, groups and organisations for climate justice.

Climate change is not only an environmental problem, but also a political, social and ethical matter, as it threatens the enjoyment of a series of rights, first of all the right to life and health. It concerns all of us, although not everybody in the same way. 

Global warming and its consequences will generate and are already generating disastrous impacts for the whole planet, yet some countries are hit the most. And often these countries are those less industrialised, those who have contributed the least in terms of GHG emissions and are the least prepared to face negative climate impacts.

During the last decade, we have witnessed a progressively more significant and effective use of legal strategies to establish States’ climate responsibility. Climate cases have been brought by citizens to address States’ failures and inaction in tackling climate change and protecting fundamental rights. By relying on legal actions, the climate justice movement has managed to revolutionise the legal regulatory framework and democratised public decisional processes on the matter of global warming.  Giudizio Universale – the Last Judgement – is part of more than 1500 climate cases initiated all over the world. Here are listed some of the most significant ones:

THE NETHERLANDSURGENDA

The lawsuit filed by the Urgenda foundation against the Dutch government is the first in the world in which citizens were able to successfully establish, through the judiciary, the existence of a legal obligation requiring the State to prevent dangerous climate changes. On the 24th of June 2015, the District Court of The Hague determined that the Dutch Government has to effectively exercise a duty of care towards its residents, reducing the level of national greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% before the end of 2020 (compared to 1990 levels). In accordance with the international scientific consensus, the Court has considered this measure of reduction as the minimum necessary for the Government to contribute to mitigate climate change – and therefore protect the fundamental rights of citizens. The decision was confirmed in appeal in 2018. The Supreme Court of the Netherlands, in its final ruling on the 20th December 2019, has again determined the inaction of the State, establishing the climate responsibility of the Dutch government. The highest Court of the country has stated that global warming and its disastrous climate consequences are already contributing to a systemic violation of fundamental human rights. In light of the duties that State is required to fulfil under the Dutch constitutional system, it was required to drastically act to prevent severe and irreversible repercussions on people’s welfare: the delay in adopting significant solutions for the reduction of emissions must be considered unlawful, in violation of the duty to protect human rights.

The Court decision has compelled the government to immediately undertake a more efficient action to tackle climate change. Among the many measures adopted to comply with the decision, the Dutch Government has chosen to reduce the capacity of coal power plants, one of the main national sources of emissions, and to invest in renewable energy, including citizen programs aimed at increasing national energy efficiency. Find out more here.

FRANCE – L’AFFAIRE DU SIÈCLE

In 2019, the plaintiff organisations of L’Affaire du Siècle (Notre Affaire à Tous, Oxfam France, Fondation pour la Nature et l’Homme and Greenpeace France) brought the first collective lawsuit that established the French State’s insufficient climate action. This climate litigation addressed the State’s inaction on the matter of both mitigation and adaptation to climate change. With more than 2,3 million signatures, the online petition supporting the legal action has rapidly become the most signed in the country, strengthening the proactive role of citizens in the climate fight. On the 3rd of February 2021, the Administrative Court of Paris recognized the responsibility of the French State for contributing to the ongoing climate emergency, asserting the failure of public authorities and the unlawfulness of the delay in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In its decision, the Court particularly focused on climate science, noting that the emissions generated in violation of the State’s commitments will continue to perturb the atmospheric concentration of GHG for hundreds of years, thus worsening the adverse consequences of climate change. Furthermore, the Administrative Court decided that failure to achieve the State’s climate goals interferes with the defence of the rights and collective interests promoted by the plaintiff organisations, engaged in the protection of human and environmental rights. Therefore, the Court has also granted a symbolic compensation.

In the event that the State will not be able to justify in the next months the inconsistencies of its national strategy on emission reductions, the Court will directly order the Government to put an end to its failures. Find out more here.

GERMANY – LUISA NEUBAUER AND OTHERS

In 2019, nine activists aged between 15 and 32 years old challenged the federal climate law in front of the German Constitutional Federal Court. They argued that the 2019 law (that established a goal of emission reduction of 55% by 2030) is inefficient to tackle the climate emergency and protect their right to a sustainable future. Because of their young age, the life expectancy of the plaintiffs extends to the second half of the 21st century, a period in which the effects of global warming are predicted to reach a much higher intensity compared to what is happening today. With an unprecedented decision published on the 29th April 2021, the Court has accepted the requests of the young plaintiffs and established the unconstitutionality of the current climate law. Specifically, the Court found the federal law to be incompatible with the protection of their fundamental right to freedom. The Court has unanimously established that the protection of the climate system represents a constitutional duty that the State is legally required to fulfil. The Court has expressed that, in the future, the gravity of the climate emergency will significantly worsen: in order to reduce emissions and stem the severe consequences of climate change, the necessity to legitimize significant sacrifices and restrictions on personal freedom is likely to increase. For the highest Constitutional authority of the country, the challenged climate law is therefore unfair, as it postpones the majority of the efforts to reduce GHG emissions after 2030. Consequently, the burden of climate transition would be unreasonably delayed to the future and transferred to younger generations – who will therefore be more exposed to restrictions of their right to freedom.

In order to comply with the constitutional Court decision, the German government has quickly revised the national mitigation strategy by proposing a new goal to reduce emissions by 65% by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels) and anticipating the goal of climate neutrality by 2045, five years before what they established in the previous mitigation plan. Find out more here.

IRELAND FRIENDS OF THE IRISH ENVIRONMENT

In 2017, Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) filed an unprecedented climate lawsuit against the Irish Government, claiming the unlawfulness of the Irish National Mitigation Plan set to plan the country’s ecological transition. In particular, FIE has brought attention to the climate commitments and engagements made by the Government (including the adhesion to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s scientific reports) to expose the inconsistency of the National Mitigation Plan, deemed particularly inadequate to achieve the goal of a fast GHG emissions reduction.

On the 31st July 2020, the Irish Supreme Court quashed the National Plan for Mitigation, finding that the Government didn’t sufficiently specify how it had intended to concretely implement a transition towards a decarbonized, climate resilient and sustainable economy before the end of 2050. The Supreme Court has in fact detected the inadequacy of the government’s line of action by adopting a plan that was too vague, abstract and incomplete, in violation of what is required by the existing legislation. Furthermore, the decision emphasises the lack of transparency and the impossibility for the citizens to inform themselves on the strategies adopted by public authorities. After such a groundbreaking ruling, the Government has been held accountable to review its strategy and to work on a new plan that complies with the national and international climate obligations for Ireland. Find out more here.

COLOMBIADE JUSTICIA

In 2018, 25 young activists filed a lawsuit against national public authorities, including the Colombian Government itself and several local entities. The claimants alleged the Government’s inability to significantly reduce deforestation activities in the Amazon before 2020, thus exacerbating climate change and threatening their fundamental rights to a healthy environment, to life, to health, to food and to water. In April 2018, the Colombian Supreme Court found for the claimants, recognizing the link between climate change and the violation of fundamental rights and recognising that the actual protection of life, health, freedom and human dignity is substantially determined by the protection of the environment and the ecosystems. The highest judicial authority of the country has also recognized the Colombian Amazon as a “subject of rights”, reinforcing the duty of the State to preserve and contain the natural integrity of the Amazonian ecosystem.

The Court has thus ordered the government to formulate and implement concrete plans to stop the deforestation in the Amazon and mitigate climate change. Find out more here.