Dutch court confirms state has human rights duty to meet climate target

Power-generating windmill turbines at the Eneco Luchterduinen offshore wind farm near Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Power-generating windmill turbines at the Eneco Luchterduinen offshore wind farm near Amsterdam, Netherlands. Reuters/Yves Herman

Dutch judges upheld a landmark ruling on Tuesday that says the government has the legal obligation to speed up its cutting of greenhouse gas emissions. Based on human rights laws, the case is serving as a model for others around the world.


Tuesday’s decision in the Hague Court of Appeal upholds a 2015 ruling that says the Dutch government to ensure carbon emissions are down by at least 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.

Environmental group the Urgenda Foundation, acting on behalf of 886 Dutch citizens, successfully sued the government for not aiming for more than 14 to 17 percent.

The government launched an appeal, arguing that the lower court had overreached its powers, but judges ruled on Tuesday that the Netherlands’ signing of international treaties gives its courts jurisdiction to rule on relevant matters.

“The court has ruled that this delay of action is actually a violation of human rights protected under the European treaty on human rights,” says Urgenda legal counsel Dennis van Berkel.

“Citizens now have the means to say there is a way to protect their future and their children’s future.”

The 25 percent target is based on limiting the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.

Since the lawsuit was launched, the Paris deal of 2015 set a new objective of 1.5 degrees, whose importance was confirmed in major United Nations report released Monday.

“The court in its ruling said that 25 was actually probably too low, because it was only related to 2 degrees, and that in the meantime, science and politics have recognised that we should go to 1.5 degrees,” van Berkel says.

“But the most important thing right now is that the Dutch government, and governments in other countries, realise that there is a legal duty on them to reduce emissions as fast as possible.”

A model for lawsuits on five continents

Since the 2015 ruling, the Dutch case has served as a model for similar lawsuits around Europe and in Colombia, India, New Zealand, Uganda and the United States.

“This is one of the most important climate change cases going on anywhere in the world, where citizens are turning to courts when governments aren’t doing enough,” says James Thornton, head of environmental law group ClientEarth.

The Dutch court’s ruling was based on obligations the government has as a member of the Council of Europe rights body, meaning courts in other member states can do the same.

“The court is saying essentially that the European Convention on Human Rights creates an obligation to protect the right to home and private life of citizens, and that this requires strong action on climate change,” Thornton says.

“There are cases being developed in other European countries, and this gives a big push to those cases as well.”

But the arguments are not limited to Europe, as other jurisdictions have their own rights obligations.

“Those obligations have been applied in lots of different factual contexts by courts in countries all over the world,” says Tessa Khan of the Climate Litigation Network, which Urgenda helped establish to support these cases.

“The fact that the court has applied existing legal principles to the context of climate change, and found that they create a duty on the part of the government to take action so as not to put their citizens directly in harm’s way, is a very important precedent that can be drawn upon in different countries and courts around the world.”

The Dutch appeal court’s upholding of the ruling can only encourage other courts to follow suit, and James Thornton believes more lawsuits will come.

“What we’ll now see is more cases brought by citizens around the world against governments using the provisions in their domestic law about protecting life and family, because that is what climate change threatens.”


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